‘The Americans’ sees a perfect moment to humanize Russian espionage

March 7, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
As investigations examine Russia’s role in last year’s election, the highly acclaimed television series “The Americans” has been delivering an intimate, fictional look at the old Cold War and the lives of two Russian spies working undercover in the U.S. William Brangham reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a look at the intersection between fiction and reality.

As investigations continue into Russia’s role in last year’s election, the highly acclaimed TV series “The Americans” has been giving an intimate fictional look at the old Cold War and the lives of two Russian spies working undercover in the U.S.

The show’s fifth season gets under way tonight on the FX Channel.

William Brangham recently went visited the set.

KERI RUSSELL, Actress: We’re going to watch the Olympics. Want to watch with us?

ACTRESS: No thanks.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: On the surface, they appear to be a typical American family from the 1980s, mom and dad raising two kids in a house in the suburbs.

But Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are anything but typical. They’re undercover KGB agents, living in secret in America, gathering intelligence for the Soviet Union. They’re the central characters in the FX series “The Americans.”

Set at the tail end of the Cold War, Ronald Reagan is president, the Soviet Union is still intact, and nuclear tensions are at a peak.

KERI RUSSELL: How does it feel to be alive, but know that you’re going to die?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As Soviet spies, the Jennings do whatever it takes, lie.

MATTHEW RHYS, Actor: I can’t see a thing without them, and I need to see you.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Seduce, or dispatch anyone that stands in their way.

JOE WEISBERG, Creator, “The Americans”: They’re working to undermine America, to fight against Ronald Reagan, to promote the Soviet cause and defend the motherland.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: “The Americans” is the brainchild of former CIA officer Joe Weisberg, who spent years working as a Russia expert. He teamed up with longtime TV producer Joel Fields to create the series, which is loosely based around the true story of a set of Russian spies caught operating in the U.S. in 2010, and deported.

JOE WEISBERG: It’s about trying to live and work and prosper while working deep undercover, while lying to your family, and what that’s like, the strains that that puts on a marriage. It’s very much a show about a marriage. The strains it puts on a family, because it’s very much about lying to your kids, and what that does to you as spies.

KERI RUSSELL: Most of what you have heard about the Soviet Union isn’t true.

JOE WEISBERG: It tries to say to the audience, look at these people who we think of as the enemy, right? They’re KGB spies. There was nobody we hated worse than the KGB. Those were the worst of the worst, the most evil people you could find. And we’re trying to take those people and say, well, is that all they were? Or can we actually relate to them?

KERI RUSSELL: Well, what we do isn’t so different from what you do.

JOEL FIELDS, Executive Producer, “The Americans”: It’s also a show about how we’re all spies in our own lives, how we all can’t really know the other people in our lives, and have to trust what we see and what we experience with other people.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The struggle of living dual lives is a recurrent theme in the series, one beautifully portrayed by actors Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys.

MATTHEW RHYS: Don’t you enjoy any of this sometimes? This house? The clothes? All these beautiful shoes?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Like here, when the comforts of capitalism test their communist beliefs.

MATTHEW RHYS: It doesn’t make you bad at what you do. It just makes you a human being.

KERI RUSSELL: We have to live this way for our job, for our cover.

JOE WEISBERG: Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have both been in America for almost 20 years. And Philip, over that time, had become somewhat Americanized and gone — although he’s still faithful to the Soviet Union and faithful to the motherland, he had become very attracted to America.

He had gone a little bit soft in that regard. His wife wasn’t like that at all. She was 100 percent completely committed to communism and to the way things were, and to fighting for that cause, no matter what. And she was really more political than he was.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: One of the things that’s obviously the key for both of you is to create characters that we want to keep coming back to and see every day. But you also have them do awful, awful things, oftentimes to innocent people, kill them, treat them terribly.

Have you ever felt a tension, thinking, we can’t have them go this far because it will turn the audience off?

JOEL FIELDS: Well, first season, we asked that question really overtly to ourselves as writers. And we can take all of those moral hypotheticals and just create the dramas for the characters.

Would you poison a child in order to save your country, if you felt that you could and that tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people could live in peace if you paid this — if somebody made that sacrifice?

JOE WEISBERG: Well, a lot of the drama of this show has been about watching Philip’s answers to those questions change, while Elizabeth’s have remained the same.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Since the show began filming, Rhys and Russell have become a couple in real life as well. Russell’s worked in both films and TV, first achieving fame as the lead in the TV series “Felicity” in the late ’90s. Rhys is a Welsh actor, having also spent a career in TV and movies.

We talked at the premiere for the new season of “The Americans,” and I asked how they humanize characters who are forced to do such terrible things.

You want us to love you. You want us to come back and see you every week and to portray yourselves as decent people, and yet we also have to see you do these awful things. Is it difficult to manage that balance?

MATTHEW RHYS: Yes, I think landing the — the show in a place that’s credible has always been the challenge of it, for the exact reasons you say. And that’s what I have always slightly struggled with, is that, you know, we kill people and then we make, you know, the school lunch and the school run.

KERI RUSSELL: I think, at its core, it really is a relationship and family drama, and the spy stuff makes it a television show.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: With new tensions between Russia and the U.S. triggering what many are calling a second Cold War, the creators defend their nuanced portrayal of Russian espionage.

What has it been like to watch tensions between the U.S. and Russia suddenly surge back to the fore, when you have got this show under way?

JOE WEISBERG: It’s been disheartening, upsetting, shocking.

I don’t have any good words to describe it. I can’t think of one good thing about it. You know, as we talked about endlessly at the beginning, telling a show where you try to humanize the enemy and say they’re just like us in so many ways is easy to do at a time when the enemy is no longer considered the enemy. That’s a very fruitful environment to do that in.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The Soviet Union is this distant thing that we know of, the Reagan era.

JOE WEISBERG: Yes. That’s — that’s all over.

JOEL FIELDS: I actually think — I can’t believe I’m going to say this — what better time to humanize Russian espionage than the time that we’re the victims of it? You know, that’s the time when you’re most inclined to dehumanize.

And also, for me, one of the most dangerous things we can do when under attack is to dehumanize the enemy.

JOE WEISBERG: Because, as Joel said, they’re soldiers. Soldiers do horrible things. They kill people. They blow people up. How they deal with it and what happens in their own conscience is what was interesting to us. And that’s what we have really continued to explore throughout the whole series.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And that series continues. Season five of “The Americans” begins tonight on the FX Channel.

For the PBS NewsHour,  I’m William Brangham in New York.