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Being stuck in the ’80s has rarely been more entertaining than in FX’s The Americans. And over the course of the spy drama’s second season, everything from stealth plane technology to the early threads of the Iran-Contra affair have wormed their way into the lives of the Jennings family.
At the heart of the series, actor Matthew Rhys’ Philip Jennings has spent the year juggling the murder of his spy friends, tensions over wife Elizabeth’s (Keri Russel) honey-trapping ways and the teenage rebellion of his daughter. In advance of tonight’s season finale, Spinoff Online spoke with the actor as part of a press call to discover how the episode will divide Philip and Elizabeth, what personal dangers lie in a spy’s double life and how the seduction game isn’t for everyone.
“There is an enormous about-turn in the last episode that I think keys up the third season beautifully in a way that’ll bring in a greater conflict of Philip and Elizabeth,” the actor explained. “Having seen them separated for the majority of the first season because of what they were going through and then reunited for the second season, what happens at the end of the finale is, I think, going to bring such division to the two of them and will be very interesting to see how they play out.
“I think what’s so great about this season is the sort of continuity of a storyline within every episode, and the great danger off of a rogue force that they find uncontrollable,” he added of the mystery of who killed a pair of Russian agents that’s plagued the Jennings as well as a rogue CIA agent hell-bent on revenge. “I think it plays beautifully to their paranoia as a lifestyle that they can’t sustain, because they realize how dangerous their lives are becoming. Their shooting at the end of Season 1 gave way to this –– the killing of the family, beginning of the second season; they realize that they’re very fallible, they’re not untouchable and that’s going to be a great set to them.”
Of course, despite their united front this season, there is still a multitude of problems in the Jennings marriage. A huge part of the conflict stems from Elizabeth’s devotion to the Communist cause, but there are more traditional problems too, including Philip’s tension over his wife’s adept ability at “honey trapping” – sleeping with contacts to gain an intelligence edge.
“I think it shows quite clearly that he doesn’t fit well with the honey trapping now,” Rhys said of his attempt this year to manipulate his own contact in the bedroom. “Season 1 was seeing how the two of them developing these real feelings changed the game for them in Season 2. These real emotions have developed for the pair of them, and now certainly, the conflicts between that and their mission statement, their mandate, it makes for very difficult. Although it’s interesting dramaturgically – the difficult situations whereby the thought of Elizabeth honey trapping – it preys on him enormously, and that’s why he chose to use Annalise because his feelings have evolved and grown so much, and are now very real.”
On the other hand, Philip continues his long-term use of FBI secretary Martha, for whom he’s been playing the role of mysterious husband all year. “It’s bizarre because obviously there’s an ulterior motive. The other thing I struggle with is, I find myself in these situations doing these scenes with Martha, and you kind of think, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is so bizarre!’ But the bizarre element is that this was an incredibly successful operation for the KGB and something they advocated enormously, which was the partnerships with managers of low-level security cleared staff that they could infiltrate. This is something very real and very true.
“But the motivation is different, it’s twofold in a way, I think,” the actor continued. “One is obviously to gain intelligence, but also if this relationship goes awry then his whole identity is compromised as is his family. Therefore the stakes are incredibly high. It’s a real tightrope walk for him in that he either has to be real, because it inevitably will and has turned into a real relationship, but he also has to remember what he needs to succeed in doing is: A) getting information; and B) not blowing his cover. It’s a knife’s edge for him, something I’d imagine causes a number of ulcers.”
The other major storyline for the actor this season has involved Philip dealing with his teenage daughter Paige’s turn toward Christianity – an anathema to the Communist way of thinking – as well as her suspicions about her parents. “I think it’s another fantastic element that they brought to the show, and not just one that’s been added for good measure, but with real reason that you have two young children who’ve been lied to their entire lives, and all of a sudden they’re coming of age and the parents’ suspicious behavior and the long absences [like] the phenomenal amount of laundry that they have to do,” Rhys laughed. “Questions are going to be raised. It seems to be a very natural progression, and it raises questions in Philip – and certainly with Paige – where I think he’s desperate for her not to take over a life that he didn’t have his entire life, which is the life of just duplicity, deceit and lies. He’s desperate for her to avoid that. It pulls on him emotionally in an enormous way. That just makes it that much more interesting. It’s another great conflict within the family that lends itself.”
By the end of this season, Philip’s position as an American – real of fake – will be more clearly defined to the detriment of the Jennings’ marriage. “His assimilation to the United States has been easier than Elizabeth’s because – and this was my own personal backstory that I gave to him – growing up in post-World War II Soviet Union would have been incredibly difficult and full of great hardships and poverty. Though they were indoctrinated at a very earlier age, he’s come of age, Philip, and he’s realized he has a family that he loves and wants to secure their future. And that’s threatened. However, he’s accepted the United States as a newfound freedom. There’s a number of ex-trappings that he enjoys enormously.
“I think he’s easier on his children because I’m sure there’s guilt about the lives they’re leading, the deceit they’re feeding them, and also in a way where he wasn’t allowed to be the person that he wanted to be. They were, to a degree, sort of brainwashed. I think he wants his child, even if they are in opposition to him, he wants his child to have those choices to form who she is independently, to be whoever she wants to be and to live the life she wants to live, which is something he certainly wasn’t allowed. So I think he allows them a greater freedom, and is that little bit more forgiving.”
As for Season 3, Rhys said that the show’s continued production wasn’t under way, but the planning is right around the corner. “We just set [the dates for] October,” he said. “I know the writers soon will probably be locked away in a dark room in Brooklyn hashing out what the third season will be about.”
Catch the season finale of The Americans tonight at 10 ET/PT on FX.