…or is it the Russians? The popular FX series premieres episode one of season four on Wednesday.
In case you’re not already read in on the cold-war drama, prepare to be taken back to 1980s Virginia and into the household of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, a seemingly normal American couple who are actually Russian spies.
The first three seasons of the show were filled with murder, intrigue, and deception, as any good spy thriller should be. That might be because one half of the two-person show runner team (the other half is Joel Fields) once took a stab at being a real life spy. Joe Weisberg trained as a CIA Officer on the operations side and spent about three and half years at the Agency before getting out and entering the far-less dangerous world of television. But it may very well have been his time at the CIA that led to some of the creative success he’s enjoying now.
“I was taking the polygraph at the Agency, and I was asked on the polygraph, ‘Are you joining the Agency to get information about espionage so you can write about it later?’ And I sorta froze because I wasn’t at all. I was totally joining the Agency because I wanted to be a spy. It never even occurred to me, but once they said that on the polygraph, I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s a good idea’,” Weisberg says, laughing. “They sorta got it into my head, and then I was afraid I was gonna fail the polygraph.”
But it’s no lie that the show is based on real life spy rings.
“The Russians actually did set up ‘illegal’ rezedencies (like our overseas ‘Stations’) shortly after 1917,” says Cipher Brief expert and former CIA Senior Service member John Sipher. “Since so few countries recognized the Soviet Union, they had to set up spy operations that did not rely on formal embassies. But even after they established formal embassies and KGB rezedencies, they continued to also support these illegal, off-the-grid teams.”
That definitely explains the roots of the real-life Russian spy ring the FBI busted up in 2010, one of the headline events that inspired Weisberg to launch the series. That ring was filled with spies who posed as normal, ordinary, even boring Americans, before their cover was blown, and they were ‘swapped’ back to mother Russia. But if you think that writing timely television is as easy as ripping from the headlines, Weisberg says, think again. He freely admits that The Americans is a ‘made for cable’ show, which (ahem) means he has a lower budget to work with. Their writing team consists of seven writers, and the production team of course, is bigger, but there are still financial restrictions that limit just how ‘real’ he can keep the scenes.
“I wanted from the start to make the tradecraft in the show extremely realistic, or as realistic as possible, and it raised a number of issues. First of all, there was the fact that tradecraft that was done in movies or television shows generally was not realistic or well done ,so I had that in my favor. I had in my favor that I was trained at the CIA, I knew a lot about real tradecraft, and I knew that it hadn’t been done right, so that was a big opportunity.”
But then he had to find out whether the CIA was willing to play ball. Not because the Agency had a say in the script writing process, but because Weisberg once worked for them and had a clearance, so he had agreed to something all spies must agree to, the (sometimes) dreaded, pre-publication review process.
“I started sending scripts to CIA, and I really didn’t know what to expect, but I was very pleased to discover that on a lot of tradecraft issues, they were pretty open, so I could show quite a bit of tradecraft, which was great,” said Weisberg.
What was not anticipated, however, was just how much the financial strains would impact the ability to show real tradecraft, like surveillance and counter surveillance operations, a common tactic in cold-war era spying.
“I really know how counter surveillance works, and I know enough to put these things together and do a very realistic depiction, but if you wanna really, really show this stuff the way it’s really done, you can imagine the number of cars you would need, and the number of streets that you would have to film to do a realistic depiction of an actual counter surveillance team following somebody.”
So he had to figure out how to keep to the spirit of a true counter surveillance operation, while making sure he didn’t blow his budget. So he shot it all on fewer streets and with fewer cars. The true spirit of the tradecraft, he says, still came through.
When we talked, I asked Weisberg for one little nugget about the first episode that only an insider would know. He kinda laughed and thought for a second before giving up the goods.
“You’ll see a scene in the first episode of the new season that takes place in an outdoor market in Russia, in the Soviet Union in the early 1940s, and it’s kind of a short scene. We went to considerable trouble and expense to build that set that may not look fancy, but its hard to find a location that looked at all like 1940s Russia. It was supposed to be a daytime scene, and it was starting to get dark. After all this trouble, we didn’t think we were going to be able to shoot the scene, because there wasn’t enough light. It was such a disappointment because we weren’t going to be back at that location.” But they were able to shoot the scene in the very last seconds of daylight. So now you know.
So back to that idea of getting ideas anywhere.
“I think that a lot of people are creative people and I think that a lot of people have a similar experience like I do, which is that you walk around the streets daydreaming and those daydreams consist of a lot of stories but you tend to sort of dismiss them or throw them out and think that they’re not valuable, but they are valuable. The crazy daydreams you’re having, the ones that you don’t want to tell people about that are embarrassing, those are stories,” said Weisberg.