Jewish Journal

‘The Americans’ - Straighten up and spy write

by Naomi Pfefferman

February 20, 2013 | 10:59 am

Keidrich Sellati, Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell and Holly Taylor star in “The Americans.” Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/FX.

Joe Weisberg is an ex-CIA agent and creator of FX’s new spy thriller “The Americans,” which spotlights KGB agents deep undercover in the United States. But back in 1989, he was a Yale University graduate flying to the Soviet Union on his own clandestine Jewish mission. His goal was to set up secret meetings with refuseniks, Jewish dissidents who had been fired from their jobs and otherwise persecuted by the KGB. Meeting with them in their modest apartments, he handed over the Levis jeans and Seiko watches he had smuggled into the country so they could sell the goods on the black market to augment their incomes. 

All the while, Weisberg wondered whether KGB agents were spying on him. “It was intimidating,” said Weisberg, who nevertheless went on to join the CIA in 1990 “to become a ‘cold warrior’ and to do my part to bring down the evil empire.”  

During his four years at the agency, Weisberg learned learning everything from how to recruit spies to light paramilitary combat — yet he quit before his first assignment abroad in 1994. “I realized I didn’t want to recruit other human beings and put them at risk to gather information that seemed dubious in terms of whether it was actually worth anything,” he said.

And so Weisberg turned to writing spy novels, such as “10th Grade” (2002) and “An Ordinary Spy” (2008). He was working as a staff writer on TNT’s sci-fi series “Falling Skies” when DreamWorks television executives phoned him about “The Americans” in 2010.

The FBI had just arrested 10 Russian sleeper agents who allegedly had been operating in the United States using techniques that seemed right out of a John le Carre novel: exchanging bags as they brushed past one another on the street, sending messages in invisible ink and burying stashes of cash underground, according to The New York Times.

The DreamWorks executives wanted Weisberg to concoct a series revolving around fictional KGB operatives, but the former CIA agent, for a time, was stumped.  It wasn’t that he was reluctant to make television heroes out of his old nemeses; the fall of the Soviet Union meant that these kinds of agents were no longer a true threat, and even the 10 arrested KGB officers had never managed to extract information of any import to send back home.

From left: Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, producers of “The Americans.” Photos courtesy of FX

“My response to these spies was, ‘Really? They’re still doing this even though the Cold War is over?’ It didn’t seem that the stakes were high enough to make for a compelling TV show. But then I realized that if we moved the action back to the Cold War, when we were really at each other’s throats, that could make for good drama.”

Along with his fellow “Americans” executive producers, Joel Fields and Graham Yost, Weisberg set the thriller in 1981, the year after Ronald Reagan was elected president and fanned the flames of the decades-old Cold War.

The show revolves around Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), two KGB agents who were set up in an arranged marriage in the 1960s and sent off to northern Virginia to establish a travel agency and have children as part of their cover. The husband and wife have been forbidden to speak Russian, and even to talk to one another about their pre-KGB pasts or tell their children about their true identities. As the new Reagan administration adds tension to their job, as well as to their marriage, Elizabeth and Philip manage to assassinate a turncoat KGB officer, plant a bug in the home of then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and to elude the suspicious FBI counterintelligence agent (played by Noah Emmerich), who has moved in across the street.

Weisberg said he drew on his recollections of operatives sent abroad to create the fictional Jenningses.  “I had been very struck by the fact that these parents can’t tell their kids what they do when the children are young, because they’ll just go to school and tell all their friends and blow the parents’ cover,” he said. “It’s when they’re mature enough to keep a secret that their parents have what’s called ‘The Talk,’ and for some children this can be very traumatic. Spying isn’t just about the gadgets; it’s about the lies that come into the family and the damage that can do, and I felt that was a very powerful dynamic to bring to the show.”

Not that “The Americans” asks audiences to cheer for the enemy. “It’s not about wanting people to root for totalitarian socialism, because we know that the U.S.S.R. collapsed and that oppressive communism didn’t work,” Fields (“Rizzoli & Isles”), 48, said. “The show is asking you, rather, to root for this couple and this marriage, and that the Jenningses can find their humanity in this horrible situation.”

Like Weisberg, Fields, the son of Rabbi Emeritus Harvey Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, first learned about the “evil empire” while learning about refuseniks at religious school in the 1970s. During a joint conversation from their New York offices, both men said they were also inspired as children by stories of Jewish agents and covert operatives: for example, Eli Cohen, the Israeli who was caught and publicly hanged in Damascus in 1965, and Yoni Netanyahu, the Israeli assault commander killed in the 1976 top-secret raid on Entebbe. “I got a book of his letters for my bar mitzvah, and his story just bored into me and made me feel like he was the kind of man you’re supposed to be — an intellectual and a hero,” Weisberg said.

It was Weisberg, the former CIA agent, who vetted the circa-1980s spy craft depicted on “The Americans”: “At the time, there was a lot more Morse code and dead drops, where you leave a coded message for somebody in a concealed way,” Weisberg said.

The fictional Elizabeth makes use of the notorious KGB poisoned umbrella, created with a spiked tip to inoculate targets, and both of the Jenningses employ the so-called “honey trap” technique, drawing on their sexuality to recruit other spies. “The KGB had very liberal attitudes about sex for both their male and female officers,” said Weisberg, who also read former KGB agents’ memoirs as research for the show. “For example, they had something called the Secretary’s Defensive, when they noticed that many of their officers were having luck seducing secretaries of powerful officials and thus gaining access to their secrets.”

Per documents he signed upon leaving the CIA, Weisberg must submit all his scripts to the agency for approval: “They just check them to make sure there’s no classified information, and so far they’ve approved everything,” he said.

Will the show draw on Fields’ and Weisberg’s interest in Jewish spies? “We wrote a great story with a Mossad and a refusenik twist, but ultimately it didn’t pan out for this season,” Fields said. “Yet it’s stuff that’s very much on our minds, given both of our backgrounds, and in future seasons, it’s fare I’m sure we’ll explore.”

“The Americans” airs on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX. 

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Naomi Pfefferman Magid is the arts & entertainment editor of the Jewish Journal, where she’s spent the last quarter century interviewing everyone from Seth Rogen, Natalie...

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