Fans of FX's newest must-see drama, "The Americans," prepare for a twist in tonight's new episode, "Gregory." No spoilers, but suffice it to say that we learn something very surprising about how one-half of undercover KGB spy couple Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings has coped with the complicated double life the couple has been leading while posing as American suburbanites.
Watch a preview of "Gregory":
And for viewers who haven't yet jumped into the emotional, action-packed drama, a two-episode marathon is all you need to catch up and delve into tonight's third installment, which is the best example yet of the show's ability to blend tense, spy-thriller plots with the evolving relationship of Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip (Matthew Rhys), whose KGB-arranged marriage (with kids) has, after 15 years, started to become a real romance.
That "real" concept is one that pervades every aspect of the show, from the couple's relationship and the historical figures and events that pop up throughout the first season to the fact that series creator Joe Weisberg is a former CIA agent. Weisberg's experiences lend authenticity to Jennings's spy work, like surveillances and secret exchanges.
"That's one of the great things about what Joe created … it is dense in a rich way, not in a boring way, we hope, because it's just an exciting show," says Weisberg's co-showrunner, writer and producer Joel Fields. "There are just so many levels to it. Personally and then the espionage stuff. Action-wise and then the international relations stuff, and the values stuff. It's just really rich material."
Fields isn't kidding about the density of the episodes, including a pilot episode that necessarily included a lot of storyline setup, but rewarded viewers with a second episode that quickly moved into more action and development of the characters and the central relationships in the series. Ratings for the second installment, which dropped off by 39 percent from the series premiere in live viewership, increased a record 58 percent in time-shifted viewings, suggesting that fans appreciate the assumption that they'll keep coming back for well-written, well-acted, tightly plotted dense episodes.
Watch a recap of Episode 1:
With tonight's terrific installment and a Feb. 20 episode that will revolve around the 1981 assassination attempt of Ronald Reagan on the way, Weisberg and Fields talked to Yahoo! TV about how the Jennings's marriage and careers will develop as the season moves forward, how they approach the challenge of making a pair of Cold War-era Russian spies relatable, and how they're giving us stealth history lessons in episodes like next week's "In Control."
Without spoiling anything about "Gregory," we find out Elizabeth has had a surprising way of dealing with her undercover life all these years. Will we find out Phillip has also had secret coping methods?
Joe Weisberg: I think with him it's more things that you already know about ... some of his ways of coming to terms with thinking about America and coming to have fond feelings about this country and enjoying some of the fruits of this country. Those have been ways that he's adapted.
[But] there's also stuff that he left behind, that's the difference. He left stuff behind and has been trying to create this new life. I think he has been in this marriage. In a lot of ways he's been in this marriage a lot more than Elizabeth has, up until the pilot.
We're still learning how little they really know each other. I love the moment in episode two where they're sharing the caviar, and she's surprised that he's never tasted it before, and he tells her that his family, like hers, could never have afforded it in Russia.
Weisberg: I thought that was an interesting moment, too, because in the pilot, the flashbacks are there as a way to get people into their past, that moment where she tells him what her real name was. (The caviar moment) was just an everyday moment of their lives where they could learn something about their pasts. Yeah, everybody, in a way, was poor, relatively speaking, but it was something for them to be able to connect on. They live this sort of comfortable suburban existence in America, and for people from the Soviet Union, that would be an incredibly wealthy life they're living, but they each have very different reactions to it.
Elizabeth is still a tried-and-true Soviet soldier, really, and has not been as affected by this materialistic American lifestyle, whereas for Phillip, he's come to really quite love it.
Watch a recap of Episode 2:
Will we see her embrace that a little bit more as the season goes on?
Weisberg: No, not particularly. (Laughs) I think she's a true believer, and she's not a ... she's somebody who really believes in the cause, the socialist cause, and I think it's easy to forget now, in 2013, that the clash wasn't just between two random superpowers, but it was between two different ways of life, and two different beliefs about how society should be structured. We know now that one collapsed under its own weight and the other is still marching forward, but back then there was a real question about which society was going to dominate. She believed that, as many people did around the world, (the Soviet way) was the way to go.
The possibility of defecting is a topic Phillip and Elizabeth have opposing opinions on, too, though she seemed to soften just a bit at the end of the second episode, especially as she began to worry about what would happen to their kids if she and Phillip were ever caught.
Joel Fields: I don't think that Elizabeth, at least at this point in her development, would ever consider that. I think that she would be open to seeing that the KGB, her bosses who she has always trusted and believed in with her whole heart and her whole soul and every fiber of her being, may not be 100 percent perfect. They may be fallible. They may be human. They may make mistakes. I think that was what she was opening up to there a little bit in the end of that second episode. I think that's a great opening up for her. We talk about her as someone who has little cracks appearing in her. And now, if we're lucky enough to have a nice, long run to develop her character, these little cracks over time can develop into big cracks, and then we'll see where she goes.
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Do you think viewers empathize with her, even if they don't agree with her or her viewpoints, because she is so committed to what she believes?
Fields: That certainly depends on where you sit. If you're sitting in the Oval Office in 1981, she's part of the evil empire. Sitting in the Kremlin, she's at the dagger's edge of the struggle for the people. The fact is, she's a human being. She's a mother. She's a wife, albeit in an arranged marriage, now struggling with feelings for the man with whom she was set up. And she's a soldier. All those things are true.
We also know just by looking back through history that repressive socialism, repressive communism, totalitarian communism was a total failure. We know that system didn't work. After all, here we are living under unbridled capitalism, and we just saw a massive economic collapse. There are a lot of things in our world that are still imperfect and could use refinement. It's a complicated world she's living in.
Weisberg: I also would add that I think the heart of this show is the idea that we have this concept of our enemy, and is it possible to take the enemy not as a concept of just some evil person, but someone you can empathize with, and take the stigma of the enemy off of them and see them as a person? I think that's, hopefully, what we can do with Phillip and Elizabeth, not just see them as KGB or evil empire, but as people with kids, people with ideals, and people we can understand.
One of the big questions when the show began was whether we could find these characters likable or relate to them. We clearly do like them, but how much do you worry about keeping them likable? Is there any place you won't go, storyline-wise, out of that concern?
Weisberg:It's an ongoing discussion for us. We've taken them to some pretty dark places, and had them do some pretty bad things, and we think about it and talk about it all the time. I think the answer for us tends to always be, "Who are these people, what would they really do, and how would they really feel about it?" As long as it feels true, like actual people doing real things and having it affect them, then it feels like we're in pretty safe territory. We ask ourselves the question, a lot of times, "If these were CIA officers behind enemy lines in the Soviet Union, what would they do, and how would they feel about it, and how would we feel about them?" If we can apply that test, and come up with an answer that feels real, I think we'll be OK.
We finally meet Margo Martindale's character, Claudia, in "Gregory," but we don't learn a lot about her yet. Will she factor in a lot more the rest of the season?
Fields: Oh, she sure will, and you will learn a lot about her in the coming episodes, a lot that's surprising about her. You'll find she has a lot in common with (Phillip and Elizabeth), and she's somebody on whom they hope they can rely, and they can never be quite sure.
That's kind of their situation with everyone, right, at this point?
Fields: (Laughs) It's their situation with everybody, and then in a larger sense, and again, it's part of what's so cool about the show -- isn't it all of our situations in life? What Phillip and Elizabeth go through, really, is just a very magnified, hyperrealized version of what we all experience. None of us can really know anybody else. We're all spies in our own lives to the extent that we're in marriages and relationships. We hope that we can trust the other people. We ultimately have to have faith, or not have faith, in those relationships, but all we know is what we experience day to day, and what we can find out. The show's called "The Americans." It could equally be called "Trust."
Weisberg: I secretly record all my conversations with Joel.
Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was a figure in Episode 2. And you're dealing with the Reagan assassination attempt in next week's episode, "In Control"?
Weisberg: We really love it when we can use actual historical events. We also love it when we can twist them a little bit. We love it when we can use the sort of covert history of things that happened that people don't know about. That covert history is also a place where you can have a little bit of fun by twisting it a little bit. ["In Control"] is a prime example of us doing all of that at once. Obviously, Caspar Weinberger was an important historical figure. He would have been a prime target for the KGB. The KGB did not, as far as we know, bug his actual house, but the KGB did, for a moment, actually bug the U.S. Congress, which is a bit of the inspiration for bugging his house. We found out that the tapes that we play from that bugging were actual tapes that came from the situation room, not from Caspar Weinberger's house. We moved them over to the house [in "In Control"].
That's a taste of the next episode, that comes from that house bugging. That was a case of shifting the history over a little bit. But my favorite piece of all would be ... all of us who grew up with it know about Al Haig's famous press conference where he talked about being in charge when he wasn't supposed to be after Reagan got shot. We learned that he also got a copy of the nuclear football for himself. That's something that we had never heard and probably most people don't know, but we started thinking about what that would mean to two KGB operatives, to find out that somebody that wasn't supposed to be in charge had the nuclear launch codes. And then we were off and running for ["In Control"].
"The Americans" airs Wednesdays at 10 PM on FX.