FX’s The Americans, whose fourth season premieres on March 16, is a spy drama tinged with romance and black comedy. In its narrative construction, it exudes the precision of a seismograph, and the latest season promises to spring countless surprises on audiences. It picks up where last season left off, with D.C.-based KGB agents Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) struggling to balance the unconventional and sometimes grisly requirements of their job and the burgeoning independent-mindedness of their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor). In one particularly juicy storyline, featuring Dylan Baker as a laconic KGB scientist, the secret development of chemical weapons by the Russians places even more life-and-death pressure on Philip and Elizabeth, now tasked with a branch of spycraft that, if mishandled, could result in thousands of deaths. I chatted with creator Joe Weisberg and executive producer Joel Fields about approaching The Americans as one continuous story, designing episodes for digital-savvy TV audiences, and crafting an accidental tribute to the late David Bowie for an upcoming episode.
How do you approach telling a story that often seems to be headed further and further toward despair for these characters?
Joe Weisberg: We don’t honestly even see it that way anymore. When we’re writing stories and thinking about the characters in the show, we don’t really think about it as particularly dark. In season one, that was probably in our minds a little bit. But it doesn’t even cross our minds so much anymore. We’re really in bed with these characters at this point. Obviously they do some terrible things, and they have a lot of things that are horribly, horribly frightening to them. But they also have people they love, people they worry about, futures that they look forward to, that they’re desperately trying to do better. There’s not one of them that’s locked in despair or locked in depression.
Joel Fields: In a way, those difficult circumstances that make it appear dark on one level are the very things that give the show and the characters and their journey their hope. The more challenging the world, the more triumphant the survival. There’s something truly uplifting there to us. I think that, in terms of uplifting shows on television, there’s Modern Family and us.
JW: I was going to say 7th Heaven.
You often seem to place major plot developments or twists at unexpected points during an episode so as to surprise audiences. How do you decide on this placement?
JF: I think one of the reasons things happen on the offbeat on this show is that we just let them happen where they happen. We don’t go out of our way to make them happen in surprising places. We just tell the character story in the way that feels the most right or the most interesting to us. Because of that, you get things like Philip and Elizabeth coming home in the middle of the night in episode 10 of season three and being confronted by their daughter a third of the way into an episode about something else. It’s not a conscious decision to look for those surprises. It’s following the story.
Has there been a situation where you’ve had a plot development on your mind and you’ve thought, “Let’s save that for later?”
JF: I remember we had some very fixed ideas about how season two was going to unfold. There were certainly some surprises along the way. When we got to the end of season two, I remember sitting in our writers’ room with the entire staff, and we were trying very hard to get to a certain moment in Stan’s story that we had pegged for the end of season two. At one point, we all looked at each other and said, “Well, who cares?” We’ll just tell the best story we can. Whatever spills into season three will spill into season three. To me, that was a real pivotal moment for us in the show.
Do you look at seasons and predetermine plot points or themes, or is it more often driven by what the characters are doing?
JW: We do start out with certain stories that we want to tell, and certain things we want the characters to experience and go through in that season. But it’s wide open. If we don’t get to the end of the story we wanted to tell, that’s generally okay. We can carry over to the next season. Even if it was something that we think of as a one-season story, we’re still willing to carry that over into the next season. Usually if it’s a one-season story, we get to the end of it, but sometimes we don’t.
To what extent, are you taking into account people who might be coming to this show later and binging six episodes at a time?
JF: We do find ourselves talking about it, because it’s the way people watch TV.
JW: The real difference isn’t in how we plan, but in what we don’t have to plan. We don’t have to worry about super close-ended episodes, as one used to. That’s something that’s kind of liberating as well. The pressure of figuring out the plot concept two minutes in is less important now than the character journey.
How did you decide to introduce the chemical-warfare element this season? Had there been any talk of doing that earlier?
JF: That’s a story we love. It’s a very long-running issue between the Soviets and the Americans. We’re really looking for espionage stories that we can tell differently. That’s a story that usually gets told as, “Oh my God, the biological weapons could be released and everyone on the Eastern seaboard is going to die!” We had a different way to tell it.
How did you settle on Dylan Baker for the central role in that story? He brings a distinctive comedic tone to the series.
JF: Both Joe and I are huge Dylan Baker fans. One thing we talked about to him early on was that the character could capture a different tone, and that part of that tone could be that distinctive Russian wit that lives in the soul of somebody who’s been here for many, many years, who’s been here alone, and who’s able to be wry in the trenches, as opposed to carrying everything only heavily. We think it’s been great to have that color on the show this season.