Spy vs. Spy: A Q&A with The Americans Creator Joe Weisberg

CIA agent-turned-TV show creator Joe Weisberg talks about espionage, Cold War tensions, and the slippery nature of truth

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Craig Blankenhorn/FX

The Americans (Wednesdays, FX) blends gripping spycraft with a complicated love story as it follows two KGB agents, Elizabeth and Philip (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), posing as married D.C.-area suburbanites in 1981. In its first handful of episodes, the show has set a high bar for drama, mixing in dead drops, invisible ink and some pretty ruthless martial arts. TIME caught up with the show’s creator, former CIA agent Joe Weisberg, to talk marriage, truth and where The Americans’ story might be headed.

TIME: Why do you think spy stories are having such a moment?
Joe Weisberg: It’s hard to know—it could be that the war on terror has inspired television and film, or it could be that shows like Homeland have just been so good that they’ve reignited the genre.

The Americans often depicts mundane moments in the lives of these spies—there’s something great about seeing this badass guy finish a mission and then bicker with his kid about a lost Thermos. Was that balance important to you?

The most interesting thing I observed during my time at the CIA was the family life of agents who served abroad with kids and spouses. The reality is that mostly they’re just people going about their lives. The job is one element, and trying to depict the issues they face just seemed like something that, if we could bring it to television in a realistic way, would be new.

You’ve said the show is as much about marriage as espionage.

Espionage adds drama and raises the stakes, but the thing people are going to care about is this couple and whether or not they make it. We already know how the Cold War ends. Nobody knows how this marriage will end. Plus, deep down I’m more interested in marriage than espionage. Though maybe I shouldn’t admit that.

There’s a moment in episode 4 when Philip accuses Elizabeth of lying to him, and she answers, “Lying? What does that even mean to us?” Is emotional honesty possible for these characters?

In the CIA I lied all the time, and everybody I worked with lied all the time, and we were the biggest, fattest liars in the world, and it was definitely possible for us to be honest and heartfelt. These characters don’t think of themselves as liars. We didn’t think of ourselves as liars. Spies think of themselves as good people who, as part of their profession, have to lie.

The lies are in service to a larger truth.

See, now I wish I had said that.

Feel free to use it. The show’s title sequence contrasts the iconography of the U.S. and the USSR—the Jazzercise video next to footage of Cossack dancing is especially funny, by the way.

That’s my favorite part! I’ve been waiting for somebody to say that.  It’s so great.

As is Karl Marx’s face superimposed on Santa Claus’ head! Is the message of that sequence that we were never so different after all?

The question at the heart of the show is whether you can relate to the enemy. That’s a heady intellectual idea—but honestly, the title credits are kind of just a cool concept.

There’s been heated debate among fans about episode 3 [SPOILER ALERT!], when the wife of the couple’s partner, Robert, is found dead after she was promised safe harbor—no one is sure whether or not Elizabeth and Philip really believed she’d be okay. It seemed to me like they were sincere in their desire to help her, but it’s not entirely clear.

I think I shouldn’t answer that, because the truth is, we had endless discussions and debates about it. If you talked to the writers and the different people involved, you would get a lot of different answers—about what they both thought, about what each of them thought individually.

What do Phillip and Elizabeth imagine for their future? Someday returning to the Motherland with their deeply Americanized children?

There were some deep-cover agents that did go back. Others defected. I think Philip and Elizabeth assume they’re going to stay. Though that doesn’t preclude retirement. Even spies retire.

How far ahead have you planned the series?

We’re just breaking the last two episodes now. We have ideas about how the series will end, but they’ll probably change. It’s a constant adjustment. But that flexibility means a lot of exciting things can happen.

1 comments
SageJerryLevine
SageJerryLevine

The Americans,shown on FX,  is a great show. Viewers of a certain age who still remember the Cold War will appreciate the attention to detail and historical accuracy the writers have succeeded in telling the story of two Russian operatives posing as a suburban couple who are actually ferreting out secrets to their Soviet handlers while still car pooling their kids to soccer practice. The writers have made each episode suspenseful and I never know where the story is going until it gets there. I highly recommend it!