On a drizzly night in February, Keri Russell and Holly Taylor walked down a hilly block in Upper Manhattan that was doubling for Reagan-era Washington in a scene from the final season of FX’s spy thriller “The Americans.”
Russell, in character as Elizabeth Jennings, a KGB agent living undercover in the United States in the waning days of the Cold War, was dispensing some tough love to her daughter, Paige (Taylor) a college student sympathetic to the Soviet cause.
“You’re going to have to make a decision: to commit to this life or get out, because sometimes this is what we have to do,” said Russell as Elizabeth. “Are you willing to give up friends and relationships — your life, if you have to?“
The tension between the personal and the political is at the heart of “The Americans,” which returnsfor its final 10-episode season March 28 and centers on Elizabeth and her husband, Philip (Matthew Rhys), a pair of seemingly mild-mannered travel agents and suburban parents who carry out deadly covert missions on behalf of the motherland.
The series is both a gripping story of espionage and a portrait of a uniquely complicated marriage. Initially arranged by their KGB handlers, the Jennings’ relationship is loving but also strained by their spy duties, which include extramarital affairs, the assumption of numerous false identities and the occasional disposal of a dead body.
Though never a huge ratings hit, the Emmy-nominated series is an engrossing slow burn that has had critics swooning since its premiere in 2013. As the latest marquee drama of TV’s new Golden Age to come to an end, speculation about what will become of its married antiheroes is running high: Will Philip and Elizabeth get caught? Turn each other in? Or finally return to the Soviet Union?
With newly hostile relations between the U.S. and Russia stoking fears of a revived Cold War — or worse — the period drama has also become surprisingly relevant.
Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have known for some time how the Jennings’ story will end, but that hasn’t exactly made it easy for them to say До свидания! (“Goodbye” in Russian).
At the Brooklyn production offices a week before final wrap, moving boxes were piled up in the lobby and the FBI set was sitting in a dumpster. “Everybody is in a weird mood,” admitted series creator Weisberg, a former CIA agent. “We’re so enmeshed in the world. Everything feels real to us.”
The writers are approaching the conclusion of a journey that began in 2010 when 10 Russian agents were arrested in suburban New Jersey, inspiring Weisberg, then working on TNT’s “Falling Skies,” to develop what would become “The Americans.”
He and Fields, whose credits include “Ugly Betty” and “Rizzoli & Isles,” were set up on a showrunning blind date — “sorta like Philip and Elizabeth,” said Fields. “We have an arranged marriage that's worked out really well. It has had a lot less conflict than Philip and Elizabeth's. And slightly less murder, as far as I know.”
Their creative partnership appears virtually seamless. With a single letter distinguishing their first names, they’re referred to collectively as “the Js” by cast and crew. They are fond of working out creative challenges by taking long walks from their office in Gowanus to Prospect Park.
Said Fields, “I think if Philip and Elizabeth had approached their relationship the way Joe and I approached our relationship, there wouldn’t have been a show.’”
That’s not quite how things have worked for the series protagonists. Elizabeth has always been the true believer, while Philip has occasionally wavered in his commitment to the mission. At the end of last season, Elizabeth sensed her husband was at a breaking point and encouraged him to take a break from the spy game.
The season premiere skips ahead two years to 1987, a turning point for the Soviet Union and the Jennings’ marriage. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost have created divisions within the ranks of the KGB and driven a wedge between Elizabeth, who’s continued her undercover work, and Philip, who has expanded the family travel agency and grown increasingly comfortable with the bourgeois lifestyle.
The time jump was designed to “match up the history with where they are in their marriage,” Weisberg explained. “It’s a show about political people, ideological people, people who the history affects in very powerful ways.”
Rhys sits in a trailer, staring blankly into a mirror, as a pair of determined hair and makeup artists peel off his blond wig, gently remove a goatee from his face and wipe away a dusting of fake freckles. “It’s like an Indy 500-style tire change,” said Rhys, who admits he won’t miss this particular aspect of “The Americans,” even if Philip’s numerous disguises also speak to the complexity of a role that has earned him two Emmy nominations.
“You realize you've had to play so many things. Now you read scripts and you go, ‘Yeah, but what else is happening to the character? Where are the other dimensions?’” said the actor in his melodious Welsh accent when a loud knock comes from the side of the trailer occupied by Russell, who is also Rhys’ offscreen romantic partner. “I’m being interviewed!” he yelled with feigned outrage.
The interruption prompted a conversation about the Jennings’ marriage, which Rhys described as “a real study of a relationship in its extremity. You're not just jealous of your partner flirting with someone, you're jealous of them knowingly going out and [sleeping with] other people.”
He and Russell have a running inside joke in which they play extreme versions of their characters. “Phil’s always crying, and Elizabeth’s always like ‘Phil, shut the … up! Stop being so … sensitive!’” Rhys explained.
Their gag also seriously highlights one of the more provocative aspects of “The Americans” — the way in which the female characters are more hardcore and ideological than their male counterparts. There’s also Claudia (Margo Martindale), Elizabeth and Philip’s merciless KGB handler, and their daughter Paige, an American-born spy in training.
For Russell, twice nominated for an Emmy, the series has been career-defining. Seated on a stone wall inside Fort Tryon Park after filming a scene with Martindale, she recalled being baffled when FX chief executive John Landgraf asked her to play Elizabeth.
“I was just riding my bike around Brooklyn, having babies, and I was like, why does he want Felicity to play this Russian spy?” she said, referring to her role as a wide-eyed NYU student in the late-’90s WB drama ”Felicity.” “Now I totally get it. For a girl, it’s such a cool, interesting, creative, tough part. And they’re rare.”
The series has been similarly transformative for Martindale, a veteran character actress who is now ubiquitous on the small screen. It’s also earned her new fans, including a man who approached her in her Upper West Side neighborhood.
“You’re on ‘The Americans’?” she recalled being asked. “I said ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘I’m ex-KGB. You’re the real deal.’” She paused. “He was kind of cute too.”
When “The Americans” debuted in 2013, the Cold War seemed to be another quaint relic of the 1980s, like Pac-Man or New Coke. But amid headlines about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible Kremlin collusion with the Trump campaign, the period drama is bowing out at a moment of unexpected topicality.
Few people are more surprised by the show’s timeliness than Fields, or especially Weisberg, who admitted to ”a lifelong fascination bordering on obsession with Soviet affairs and Russian politics.”
Though his three years in the CIA taught him “that intelligence officers from one side were not that different from intelligence officers on the other side,” inhabiting the world of “The Americans” for six seasons has pushed his sympathies even further: “I really do see things very, very deeply from the Russian perspective.”
As “The Americans” winds down, there are lessons to be learned from the era it depicts, Weisberg said. “We have once before turned Russians into such venal enemies that we fought a long, hard, very painful war with, creating incredible collateral damage.”