It’s 1982, and the pair of KGB spies posing as a married couple in the Washington suburbs is about to send a colleague on a mission, one that doesn’t end well.
The Americans, returning for a second season Wednesday (10 p.m. ET/PT) on FX, is filming its finale on a raw, rainy day in Queens, where a pay phone under a bridge provides a handy period prop for Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), sporting one of his signature disguises, a ponytailed wig and mustache.
It’s not the first time the couple has faced danger: Elizabeth (Keri Russell) was shot late last season, and as the new one picks up a few months later, her wounds are finally repaired — and so is her arranged marriage.
But trouble looms, and it’s not just from the FBI, whose so-far-unsuspecting agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is a friendly neighbor trysting with Nina, a Russian double agent. The couple’s own teenage daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) is growing suspicious of her parents.
For Elizabeth, being “more engaged within the marriage and the family makes her much more vulnerable and complicates her work,” says Russell, sitting with Rhys in the back seat of a 1979 Ford Granada used in the scene. “Things get messier. She’s not that efficient of a soldier.”
A catastrophic event in Wednesday’s opener also leads the two Jennings to question the costs of their calling, doubts that Philip expressed in the series opener.
Should viewers really root for Soviet spies whose aim is to bring down America? “You should have to care about Philip and Elizabeth and be rooting for them on some level,” says creator Joe Weisberg.
But “ultimately there’s no question of rooting for totalitarian communism; everyone knows in 2014 that didn’t work,” adds executive producer Joel Fields. Instead, viewers can relate to their relationship struggles.
“In a way that last season was sort of a metaphor for marriage, this season deals much more with family,” Russell says. “And as much as it is a spy show, there are themes of protection and danger, and (raising) children growing up to be adults that you want to be proud of.”
The show weaves its family saga and clandestine missions with real-life political events.
Weisberg says he doesn’t see The Americans “as ultimately a political show,” but a late-season episode that deals with Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal was co-written by Oliver North, who helped formulate the plan while on the staff of the National Security Council. And Philip is conflicted by the plight of a “refusenik” who’s forcibly repatriated.
To Rhys, the biggest acting challenge is simultaneously — and credibly — portraying Philip as ruthless spy and dedicated family man.
“Although so much is based in truth and on real events, you are asking an audience to go on a flight of fantasy,” Rhys says. “The dual aspect of being a spy and a parent seems to me like a fine juggle of doing peanut butter and jelly and then talking about assassinations. Doing both in a real place, that to me is one of the greater struggles (to balance) in a realistic way.”
FX CEO John Landgraf says that’s critical to the show’s unique take on a spy thriller.
“The paradox of being a professional liar of the highest order and then finding yourself in the midst of a family and marriage which, if it is going to be at all successful, has to be about honesty and truth” forms the dramatic tension of this more serialized second season, Landgraf says. “If there was a weakness in the first season, it was that the episodes and plots of the week sometimes overwhelmed the (family) drama.”
But not the disguises. Hair and makeup artists counted dozens among the show’s cast, but Rhys is wearing his favorite on this day, which they nicknamed Fernando Lite, while Russell is sporting a full red wig dubbed Stacy.
“I love Fernando,” says Rhys in his native Welsh brogue. “I gave him a sort of slightly Latin back story.”
“We think he teaches flamenco,” Russell says.
“We don’t think,” Rhys corrects. “I know.”