Spies Like Us? Q&A With Joe Weisberg, of FX’s ‘The Americans’

From sympathetic serial killers to vainglorious mobsters and vulnerable vampires, the anti-hero is no stranger to today’s television audiences. This season, the frontrunners in the hate-to-love category are likely to be Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), a married pair of deep-cover KGB spies at the center of FX’s new dark drama “The Americans.”

The show is set in 1981 Falls Church, Virginia, a backdrop that moves from mundane to eerie as viewers discover the depths of the criminal deceit that belies the Jennings’ suburban existence. Their double lives — as entrenched Soviet spies on one hand and cheerful neighbors and parents (to two very American children) on the other — are meant to run in parallel, but of course the show’s suspense peaks when they careen uncomfortably close to one another, such as when a neighbor who happens to be an FBI agent (played by Noah Emmerich), comes to borrow jumper cables, unaware that a kidnapped KGB agent lies gagged in the trunk of their sedan a few steps away.

The story is the creation of Joe Weisberg, who worked in the CIA’s directorate of operations in the early ‘90s before writing for shows like ”Falling Skies” and “Damages.” The Connectivist spoke with Weisberg about the origins of the show’s narrative, why cable television is his choice medium, and the unfortunate lack of waffles in the writers’ room.

Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings

Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings

You’ve written on the topic of espionage before — both fictionally and non — but when was the seed of this specific story planted?

In 2010, there were a bunch of Russian deep-cover spies that were arrested in the United States. Everyone thought that the Russians were done using these “illegals,” as they’re called. So I had a call with DreamWorks Television asking if I’d be interested in developing a show based on what was going on. I began thinking about it and thought that if we could go back to the Cold War when we were still really enemies with Russia, that it would make for a good TV show.

Why television, and cable television specifically? Why not another spy film?

The great thing about television is that you can tell a much longer story. I think what interests me most about espionage is what you don’t actually see much of — how much of it revolves around running agents, how intelligence officers recruit people to spy for them.

Specifically, the KGB had a long history of running colloquial ‘honeytrap’ operations, using both their male and female officers to seduce targets, often even going so far as having their officers marry their targets. These relationships are so dynamic and interesting and since they tend to be very long, multi-year relationships, it’s kind of tailor-made for television. And I’m just one of many people who want to explore the dramatic possibilities of this, in a way that happens to be very well suited to cable.

Espionage aside, Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage really seems to be what’s at the core of the story. What are your reference points for writing a story like theirs? 

Yes, we think of the marriage as the most important part. Emotionally, it’s at the heart of everything. We think about where they are now, and where they were last episode, and where we want to take them. Each episode we ask, “what are they going through in their marriage?” and “how does what they’re going through in the espionage story affect them, and the emotional journeys they’ll go through together?” Sometimes the spy story has a major effect on how they get along with each other, and sometimes how they get along with each other has a major effect on the spy story.

Is it common for spies for to work in pairs? Is this plot scenario more common than we might think?

KGB “illegals” were sometimes married, sometimes not. I don’t know that they were frequently married as full equal partners; I believe more often that there was one illegal who acted more as a primary officer, and the other was more supportive.

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings

How far along are you in the writing? Do you have an endgame?

I have some ideas that I’ll share in the writer’s room but I try to keep focused on the season — we don’t even know if we’ll be renewed for a second season. So with those pie-in-the-sky ideas, you’ll never know if they’ll come to fruition. And if we did become a show that runs for many years, of all the turns the story could take, I have no idea if those ideas that I cooked up would be the ones we actually used.

Does that put a certain pressure on you to leave it all on the table?

You try to make your season work and be great, but you don’t necessarily want to compromise what we’ll be a long-term story.

Asking an American audience to relate to KGB spies might be perceived as a risk. How did you know the audience was ready and how did you approach it? 

We all had a couple thoughts on it, one being that the Cold War was a long time ago. But mostly, we thought we’d just take the risk, and the further into we got, we felt it was working. And then also when we saw Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys working together, we stopped worrying about it too much. They brought an inherent sensitivity to the part that made us think, whose not going to sympathize with these guys?

This (rooting for the “bad guys”) must disorient the audience to a certain degree. 

One paradigm that I have for the show is that people might watch it and think, Oh I like her, I hope she’ll be okay, I hope she’ll succeed in what she’s doing—Oh my god! What did they just do?! How could I have been brought into this? —Oh how nice, they’re back home withal their nice kids. I really like these guys. Wait—what just happened? It’s an unusual paradigm, though hopefully unusual but positive.

[Breaking Bad writer] Vince Gilligan told GQ that writing is like “getting hit in the head repeatedly with a mallet.” What would you liken your process to? Is it relatively painless or is it more a labor of love — emphasis on the labor? 

When I was writing novels, I would go sit in a coffee shop, and first I’d take about fifteen minutes to decide if I wanted a waffle or avocado on toast. That was the labored decision I faced when starting off my writing day. After that, I would write for an hour two, take a stroll for an hour or two, and if I felt like it, I would go back to writing. TV is different — you write collectively, which I really like — but you write under a lot of deadline pressure. I don’t know if that’s the part Vince Gilligan is referring to as the mallet. But it’s tough. You don’t get to sit around leisurely, you don’t get to take many strolls, and there are no waffles!

But as someone who wrote alone for many years, working with a group of people is a great joy. I love sitting around the room and tossing ideas back and forth, getting to tap into other peoples’ creative forces. My ideas will be built upon by their ideas, and then someone else will build upon those, and then we have built something together that no one person could have done alone. I find that very exciting, it’s really being on a team. I love that.