'The Americans' returns for Season 5 with a new backdrop: real-life Russia-U.S. drama

'The Americans' returns for Season 5 with a new backdrop: real-life Russia-U.S. drama
Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings, Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in "The Americans," which returns to FX on Tuesday. (Patrick Harbron / FX)

When "The Americans" premiered on FX way back in 2013, the drama felt like a period piece, a Reagan-era Cold War throwback that, like "Mad Men" or "Downton Abbey," was infused with nostalgia for a bygone era.

In 2017? Not so much. Amid headlines about Russian interference in the presidential election and accusations of ties between the Putin regime and the Trump campaign, the series starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as a pair of Soviet spies living undercover in the suburbs of Northern Virginia in the 1980s feels surprisingly current.


"Just like nobody predicted the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, I don't think any reasonable person could have predicted this turnaround," series creator and former CIA officer Joe Weisberg said in a phone interview with co-showrunner Joel Fields last week as news of Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions' meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak consumed the media.

The fifth season of "The Americans" premieres Tuesday and finds Elizabeth (Russell) and Philip Jennings (Rhys) investigating an American plot to create famine in the Soviet Union. The couple struggles with how much to reveal to their teenage daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), who recently learned her parents aren't the mild-mannered travel agents they pretend to be.

In a turn for American pop culture, which for decades portrayed anyone with a Russian accent as a cartoonish bad guy, "The Americans" empathizes with the Jenningses, KGB agents who regularly kill innocents in the name of the Motherland but also struggle with the same banal issues as other married couples. Boris and Natasha they are not.

Inspired by the arrest of Russian spies in New Jersey in 2010, Weisberg and Fields had hoped "The Americans" would encourage viewers to rethink "these people we once thought of as bitter enemies," Weisberg says. "Much to our chagrin, they seem to have been turned right back into enemies again."

The revived tensions with Russia have "certainly affected the way we think about the world," Fields says, "but it hasn't affected the way we write or create the show. That said, we also know that world events might impact the way the show is experienced by our audience."

The unexpected timeliness has made for some awkward coincidences. Last week, ads for "The Americans" — complete with Russian script — dominated the online home page of the New York Times, where multiple stories centered on the Sessions drama. (The ad buy was in placed before the news broke, according to an FX spokesperson.)

But even without the real-life parallels, "The Americans" is having a moment. For years, "The Americans" failed to receive any major Emmy nominations despite extravagant praise from critics. The perennially snubbed drama finally broke through with five nominations in 2016, including nods for drama series and for leads Russell and Rhys.

The show has also won fans in high places, including former President Obama and the former ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, who revealed to Russell at a state dinner last year that she enjoyed debating the show with her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin. (Power's successor, Nikki Haley, recently tweeted that she was "loving" the series.)

"I certainly can't keep up with TV, so I don't know how anyone else does," says Russell, whose performance as the steely Elizabeth has done much to shed her image as the curly-haired sweetheart of "Felicity." "Our show is sort of a slow burn. It doesn't have a gazillion dollars behind it. None of us are hugely famous. I think it took a while to catch on."

The appeal of "The Americans" also extends to civilians without security clearance partly because of the intriguing relationship between Philip, who has questioned his commitment to the cause, and Elizabeth, the more ruthless, steadfast of the two.

"It's about families trying to survive, it's about a marriage trying to survive. And I think that's why we've lasted," Rhys says. "Although the themes are more extreme or more magnified. I think they are universal."

Indeed, it's possible to view the Jenningses' occupation, which requires them to keep secrets from each other and assume different identities (all while donning a stunning array of wigs) as a kind of metaphor for marriage itself, Russell says. "We're all different people outside of our relationships. You're funnier with your girlfriends, you're more brash or more opinionated. ... This show pushes those elements of a relationship that we all feel, and makes them bigger.

"The spy stuff," she adds, "is just a conceit."

The marriage of Elizabeth and Philip, arranged by KGB handlers, has since blossomed into a loving and passionate partnership. But what most of us would view as a good thing is a liability for covert agents expected to put country above all else.


The tension between familial duty and patriotism and the personal cost of political zealotry are "borderline obsessions of ours," Weisberg says.

Like "Breaking Bad" before it, "The Americans" derives its suspense from an awareness that the jig will someday be up, by the sense that Philip and Elizabeth can't possibly sustain their double lives without endangering their children, their mission — or both.

"There's this very loud, strong ticking clock. There's this pendulous metronome behind the entire show," Rhys says.

In Season 5, which opens in February 1984, this creeping dread is heightened by Paige's budding romance with neighbor Matthew (Daniel Flaherty), whose father, Stan (Noah Emmerich), is an FBI agent. Then there's the specter of history: Unbeknownst to Philip and Elizabeth, glasnost and the fall of communism are around the corner.

Also looming? The end of the series which, as announced last year, will conclude after Season 6.

The show runners, who like to work out story lines on long walks around New York City — "I'm shocked that the show has not been sponsored by Fitbit," jokes Fields — have already mapped out the remainder of the series. But so far they've shared little of this information with Rhys and Russell, who insist they know virtually nothing of their characters' fates.

Perhaps a leap forward to 2016 will find Elizabeth and Philip — or even a grown-up Paige — hacking away at Putin's behest? Stranger things have happened.

'The Americans'

Where: FX

When: 10 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-MA-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language and violence)

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