Headed into season five, it seems like the political climate has been tailor-made for FX’s critically beloved spy drama, The Americans. Russians trying to infiltrate American politics? Check. Nefarious schemes boiling under the surface? Check. Republican president leading a Cold War against the Soviet Union? Not exactly, but there does seem to be something going on between President Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
When The Americans’ Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields first created the show, the Cold War was long over, and Russia seemed like a subdued nation. No one foresaw the strange state of affairs in which we find ourselves living today.
Intentional or no, The Americans’ timing is incredible. FX Marketing Chief Stephanie Gibbons talked to Daily Brief Senior Producer LaFern Cusack about the political kismet surrounding the show’s fifth season.
DAILY BRIEF: Television has long imitated politics and influenced change. How do you feel about The Americans storyline colliding with our current political structure?
GIBBONS: We didn’t take into consideration recent events when developing the campaign. Simply because we are entering the fifth season and we’ve been on this trajectory for quite a while, so this actually was put into motion long before the confluence of Trump, politics, and [whatever] potential nefarious activity involving Russia.
This has been a series that has been in production for a long time. I think the creators have spoken recently that they’re not taking it into consideration either. They have a world they have created and a trajectory for the characters and the themes proceeding separately.
DAILY BRIEF: People reacted to the ad in the New York Times that ran last weekend around the article on Jeff Sessions talking to Russians. Was that a last-minute ad buy or a lucky coincidence?
GIBBONS: No, I wish we could take credit for that. This is the third year that we’ve done the integration with the New York Times. We’ve really loved that tactic. It’s very, very effective. It’s the right audience for The Americans: a cerebral, intrigue-oriented series that has a lot of complex machinations between the characters, the political environment, the historical context and all of the above.
What has happened in our culture and in our political environment right now is interestingly moving on a parallel track, but [these] two roads began a long time ago—separately and parallel—and managed to intersect at this moment in time. It may have been in fact kismet but it was not a Machiavellian move.
DAILY BRIEF: Driving up Highland in Hollywood and seeing the billboards and key art, I got so excited to see what was going to come out next. Can you talk about the cross-platform marketing strategy in creating the assets?
GiBBONS: The campaign this year does have some interesting connections. We did create it after Trump had been elected but in similar fashion to the way the world has been experiencing the possibility of the Trump campaign and administration having a potential connection with the Russian government.
For us, one of the basic premises that we worked with all along on the show is the notion of a very average, ordinary, benign existence in which a family is in suburbia and all appears very normal and yet what lies beneath is extremely dangerous talk about the deep state [to which they are connected]. It’s very much a show about lifting the log and seeing what lies beneath. For us our marketing has always followed suit.
Our campaign this year is based on iniquitous scenarios that are the norm for your average family going about their daily lives and then there’s the shocking entrance of fighter jets or a missile. The family continues very much in their mundane dialogue, ie: “What are we going to have for dinner?” They are walking along a cliff taking in a family weekend day, discussing dinner and this huge missile emerges from the ocean. They are leaving the house in the morning discussing how the yard needs work and you have the normal banter between husband and wife about who’s avoiding work and then fighter jets are flying overhead. You have Paige (Holly Taylor) that has been drawn into this circle of spies with her parents and she’s leaving school and the jet flies over the school.
In each of these, you notice—for example with Paige—everyone else ducks and she is unmoved. She continues on her merry way. It is very much about the fact that they are leading these double lives.
We also feel the human condition is such that as a species we rarely lift our eyebrow and take action unless our own front door is on fire and everyone is screaming “why wasn’t something done before now?” Until we are under direct threat, we have a tendency to care very little beyond our individual worlds.
The planes are the metaphors, the symbols, for the dangers that are present and of how much of a tightrope we all are walking. We are simply too narcissistic or, in many cases, too ignorant to take the time to delve deeper. When one does, as many people are in America right now, it’s an intense education about government and power.
They count on our ignorance. They count on our being too busy to take a deep, profound interest in what they are doing. They are doing many, many things that would concern us deeply if we stopped, listened and looked.
DAILY BRIEF: You talk about “connecting characters to moments in culture.” Do you see The Americans campaign fitting into future case studies of politics and television?
GIBBONS: I am uncertain. I think this is a quality series with themes that are extremely universal. Power corrupts. We know that is within our nature.
If you think about power being concentrated in government, it’s a crucible of all the things that are good about homo sapiens and all the things that are horrific about our species. We are capable of great charity, great compassion, great altruism but also capable of doing ourselves and others great harm. We are very selfish and we can also be very focused in the now.
When you have groups of people together making decisions for the world, it’s very difficult to separate their own egos and personal biases from that process. You have two cultures—the United States and Russia—that have long had a tenuous relationship fraught with friction because our ideologies are not consistent. Many times, we hum along and those differences don’t collide, but when they do, it reinforces that each nation has an extremely different viewpoint of how to handle problems.
It becomes difficult to see them as evil or bad or the enemy because you know them as human beings. Ideology can bring comfort in uncertain times and it can also break apart under the pressures of reality.
These characters are living in an America that they don’t see as evil, necessarily, and you’re dealing with the question of “does the end justify the means.” You have to ask yourself: “Are you supposed to do evil in the pursuit of good? Where does that line cross?”
We began working on a series that had these universal themes. We are seeing an interesting confluence of a fictional world, based on the real world, that is now actually colliding with the real world. We were the beneficiaries of that confluence but we were not the architects of it. I wish we were prescient in that way but I have to plead “nope, we weren’t.” We have the same IQs as the rest of the world.
DAILY BRIEF: Going back to the billboards and the key art, what was the thought process behind the color palette that you selected?
GIBBONS: We have for many seasons played in the Constructivists’ world where we were very influenced by political propaganda and how artists have worked since the beginning of time with very primal symbols and things that touch our brain stems. We used the palette of Rosy the Riveter.
If you look at that propaganda poster from the 1940s, we have long worked in that Constructivists’ world. We wanted bold palettes, and we have taken the palettes [that represent] patriotism on US soil and patriotism on Russian soil. These are the colors of our flags, the colors of our propaganda.
This year we have a conflict between the two characters. One wants to lay their guns down and doesn’t want to be a spy anymore and one is tied to the ideology and the goals they came with. This is the tension between the two characters.
If you see his wedding ring, you see he is pulling the gun down while she is holding it up and their hands are joined. There is a push-pull between the characters. It shows them as a united front because they are. The conceit of two agents being married to one another while existing in deep cover with a family life has become real. They love each other, they do have a real family, and they are a co-career couple and heads of the family business. The ring is there symbolizing the promise to be together through good times and bad, no matter what. It would be interesting to see in those two hands joined and the weapon they hold and the wedding ring as the counter point to where they will end up. We took a Constructivists’ view of their stances and the flat dimension and flat colors represent a very propagandistic style.
The Americans’ fifth season launched Tuesday, March 7, on FX at 10 p.m.