Why “The Americans” Is Taking a Big Leap Forward to 1987

The beginning of the end of the Soviet Union provides great drama for the show’s final season

U.S. President Ronald Reagan
U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev exchange pens during the signing ceremony for the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in the White House East Room on December 8, 1987. AP Photo/Bob Daugherty

Time jumps are becoming more common for television series looking to shake things up — or catch up to the ages of their characters. It’s been done on “Parks and Recreation”, “Alias”, “Fringe” and “Pretty Little Liars.” It happens every week on “Timeless” and “D.C.’s Legends of Tomorrow.”

And now, for the sixth and final season of “The Americans,” it’s happening there as well.

When the acclaimed show returns tonight, time will have jumped ahead three years to late 1987.

By then, Matthew Rhys’ character, Philip Jennings, has put spying behind him concentrating instead on running their travel agency. His wife, Elizabeth (Keri Russell), however, is still working under deep cover for mother Russia, and easing their daughter, Paige, now a local college student, into the business as well — with all the wigs that entails.

Most of all, the final season introduces the final stages of the Soviet Union, characterized by the glasnost policies of Mikhail Gorbachev that led to the end of the Cold War.

Speaking to reporters at the TV Critics Association winter press tour earlier this year, executive producer Joel Fields said that when creator Joe Weisberg, a former CIA agent, came up with the show, he had Ronald Reagan on his mind.

“Joe decided to set the show in the early ’80s because of Reagan, and that’s when the Cold War was at its fiercest,” he said. “The time jump came about because as we looked at what we wanted to do with the end of the show, Gorbachev was such an important figure, and we knew would trigger so much for Philip and Elizabeth and the other characters.”

“It’s funny,” adds Fields, “we were just thinking that in a lot of ways, for a show that’s so focused on marriage, family, and characters, the time setting of the show was dictated by two big political figures.”

The new season begins as an impending summit talk in Washington about strategic arms reduction leaves the Russians bitterly divided.

When the summit was held at the White House on Dec. 8-10, 1987, a range of issues were discussed, including human rights, regional conflicts in Afghanistan, Central America and Africa, and arms control. The historic meeting resulted in the signing of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces or INF Treaty.

But the easing of the Cold War was not simple in the Soviet Union, where different factions battled behind the scenes whether to follow Gorbachev’s path of perestroika.

Gorbachev faced significant criticism from other party leaders, including Boris Yeltsin, who became the first person to ever resign from the Politburo in protest, and would later be elected President of the Russian Federation upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Gorbachev’s 1991 resignation.

A member of Yeltsin’s staff was current president Vladimir Putin, who had risen to lieutenant colonel in the KGB in his 16 years — the same period of time the fictional KGB agents in “The Americans” worked there.

“You’re not going to see Putin as a character,” said Weisberg. “But the actual way that the factions were dividing up in 1987 and later down the road is something we’re exploring — and we’re doing it in a way that is quite true to history.”

The time jump also permitted the show’s creators to give the Jennings family more time to adjust to a new paradigm in their relationship. Last season ended with the couple at a crossroads, Fields reminds us, “with some very big decisions about their marriage and family, and the time jump allowed us to see how incremental changes over time impact a marriage in a big way when we came back.”

A new phase of the ’80s brings a new set of cultural references; in the premiere alone, pointed and extended musical interludes are set to Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and Peter Gabriel’s “We Do What We’re Told.” Nerds II and Wall Street are showing at the nearby multiplex and Philip carries a removable car stereo with him to slide into place when driving, a detail one might forget from the era.

Weisberg said he doesn’t want to get too mired in the details of the era’s history. “We’re trying to just skirt that line, where no one says, ‘Oh, my God, this show has gotten so wonky, we can’t even believe it’s a television drama.’ But we want to get very close to the line.”

Those divisions play out in the relationship of the central couple, he said. “How that would affect Philip and Elizabeth — who, as you can see, very naturally would be probably different in where they might go in the factions — is going to then create some of the drama for the show.”

After all, Weisberg said, “one of the things that was interesting about the show from the beginning was that [for] Philip and Elizabeth, as human beings, there was no fundamental line between their politics and their hearts.

“They were political, emotional human beings,” Weisberg said. “There is a way in which Philip eventually came to make some separation there, but Elizabeth, not so much, really. So how that plays out in 1987 becomes fundamental to everything that’s going to happen.”

“I know we’re set in this 1980s’ spy show,” said Keri Russell, who has been twice nominated for an Emmy for her work as Elizabeth Jennings, “but it’s truly one of my favorite marriage stories, couched in this Cold War spy world.

“For me,” Russell said, “it’s been an incredible feminist role to get to play. It’s so rare to get to be so single-minded, and she is so successful in doing it. And it’s just a rare girl part. So I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’m happy it’s ending when it is, on such a high note, and while I’m still so excited and interested in the storylines of it. But it’s been a great ride.”

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