When “The Americans” was first being developed as an FX series, there was one potential hitch in telling a story about a suburban couple in the 1980s who actually were embedded KGB agents: Post-Cold War Russians didn’t scare us anymore.
“People were wondering whether Russians were a credible enemy in a work of fiction when we started,” says creator Joe Weisberg, a former CIA agent who has worked side-by-side with executive producer Joel Fields on the show, which wraps up next week after six seasons with a surprising finale.
Oh, how things have changed since 2013, when “Americans” first premiered, turning into a bona-fide critical hit for FX thanks in part to its strong cast (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), 1980s retro looks (and disguises), sophisticated writing and flawed, complex characters — whose main goal was to undermine U.S. interests.
And now it seems that the show may have decided to get out at just the right time: With Russians newly demonized for many Americans, the window in which viewers could be empathetic with KGB spies seems to have closed for the time being.
But calling “Americans” a spy show was to miss its real thrust all along. “Americans” was only ever about spies in the way that “The Sopranos” was about gangsters. Sure, there was a body count and extramarital sex, and the kids got caught up in the whole mess. But at its heart, “Americans” was always about an arranged marriage that turned into an unexpected love story between Philip and Elizabeth Jennings.
“At the heart of it truly is that marriage story,” says Russell. “It was always the push and pull of this love story, this marriage. It wasn’t oversold to you, and it was a really intellectual show, and maybe people were in the mood for that. You’re not always in the mood for warm and fuzzy.”
It was a really intellectual show, and maybe people were in the mood for that. You’re not always in the mood for warm and fuzzy.
Russell, who before “Americans” had largely been known for her winsome, charming turns in “Felicity” and “Waitress,” relished the idea of a bad-ass character. “I loved her steady steeliness and her quiet, panther-like power,” she says. “Generally, people think of me as being ‘nice.’ That helped me play her, because it was so shocking when she was not nice.”
Meanwhile, Rhys’ Philip was the more emotional character who wanted to defect in the first season. “They presented that as a ticking bomb and left it,” he says. “Then we were waiting for Elizabeth to come around; this is not a life that can be sustained. It has to come to a head.”
By the penultimate season, Philip had bowed out of the spy life to run their travel agency, leaving all the spycraft for Elizabeth, a welcome flip in traditional gender roles. But confounding expectations was always part of the DNA of “Americans,” says costar Noah Emmerich (Stan).
“Of course, we have fun and sexy plot, but the heart of the show has always been how characters struggle with life in a big-picture existential way,” he says. “They’ve been pushing those boundaries. This show has never been plot-driven. It’s one of those shows that trusts the audience’s depth and ability to engage with characters in an illuminating way.”
As such, the show always fit perfectly in the network’s wheelhouse of deep dives into the difficult lives of difficult people. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any work in the spy genre that was better than ‘Americans,’” says FX chief John Landgraf. “It was quite unique in that it’s fundamentally all the shows about marriage and family ever made for television. That’s an interesting cross-hybridization.”
As for the series’ ending, let’s say everyone involved was left with jaws hanging — yet also satisfied. “My hope as a viewer is you go, ‘Ah!’” says Rhys. “The moment is incredibly shocking for reasons I absolutely didn’t see coming. Myself and Keri went ‘Holy … fudge, we didn’t expect that, it’s incredible.’”
Of course, that was its creator’s hope all along. “It’s hard to know if people will love it or hate it, will it be divisive or not, but it’s a story ending we’ve been thinking about for a long time,” says Weisberg.
Regardless of the finale’s reception, however, there are still many ripples that continue outward from “Americans.” For one thing, Rhys and Russell now have a 2-year-old son together. And the show has left Rhys with a new loathing for particular kinds of hairy situations.
“I’ll wear wigs,” he allows. “But I’m putting in my contract that I’ll never wear another piece of facial hair in my life. That drove me nuts.”