FX's critically acclaimed The Americans is back tonight, and before we get into another season of Cold War intrigue, BFTV had the chance to chat with star Matthew Rhys - who plays the Russian spy we know as Philip Jennings - to ask him about sophomore spoilers and the one thing about the show that still makes him nervous. SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains discussion of themes in the second season of The Americans. If you don't want to know anything going into tonight's premiere, don't read this interview until after you've seen the episode.
"This season, as opposed to last season where we saw Philip and Elizabeth struggle with each other in the relationship, they’re a much stronger front as a unit," explained Matthew. "And we see them as a family, as a unit in that respect, face a lot more sort of prevailing and present danger that’s encroaching on the Jennings household."
How will that affect their burgeoning personal relationship? The real love that seems to be blossoming between the two spies is definitely a topic on the table in season two. "All of a sudden, these two people that have fulfilled a very specific mandate all these years about sleeping with people for information, suddenly their feelings become real, and the green-eyed monster [jealousy] makes a very rude appearance in their lives, and it’s incredibly difficult for them to deal with," said the actor.
"It continues and they struggle, in that way that relationships, I think, struggle with partners who flirt or there’s insecurity in a relationship. It’s magnified by a million because of what they have to do. So there’s no resolve; it’s certainly an ongoing problem for them, but it’s certainly a very present theme for them this season."
The Americans was hugely acclaimed when it premiered last year, so we asked Matthew if he felt any nervousness about coming back and trying to make the second season just as successful as the first. "To be perfectly honest, and I know this is a monumental buck pass, but I think it’s the writers that feel that a lot more in a second season," he told us. "They feel the pressure to deliver sort of more muscular, punchier scripts that have more bang for their buck and more pizzazz, power, and punch. And really, I hate to say it, but it’s their storytelling that will be the compelling magnet to draw an audience back.
"I think they certainly have achieved that. I think the writing is more muscular in the second season; the sort of onset of imminent danger is greater, the sort of tempo and beat, the drum to which they walk, is sort of louder and faster, so I think they’re ticking all the boxes."
There's one thing that does make him nervous. "What I find difficult, and still do and was nervous about, is the balance of the two [aspects of the show] and making the leaps credible," he said. "That in one second you can be assassinating or honey trapping or whatever and the next you’re making PB&Js for the kids, and both lives have to be credible and there has to be a credible link between the two that affects the two. It’s that fine balance that made me nervous, and still does."
"I think espionage as a whole has always been incredibly mysterious and intriguing to the public, and continues to be so," he said. "I think people in this day and age are far more aware of that sort of enemy within, and the world of espionage and how personable it is, and how on your doorstep it’s now become. I think people are aware of that and have a great intrigue as to how that reveals itself."
The thing that makes The Americans unique, as opposed to the majority of spy dramas, is that we're essentially rooting for the enemy. Philip is a Russian spy working against the United States. So why does Matthew think his character is someone we should embrace and care about?
"It’s the sort of everyman," he reflected. "He does have romantic ideals, as well as materialistic ideals, because he came from very harsh, fiscally challenged place. But I think he longs for the sort of a wife to love and to have those things reciprocated. His main priority is his children, their future and their safety. And I think he wants, unashamedly, to sign up for the sort of white picket fence life and have those nice things and live out a nice life.
"I think those are sort of very real, palpable, and obtainable dreams and aspirations of so many people that we’re sort of raised to think that in a way, and Philip has come from an extremity of that, a very harsh place, very difficult place, and there’s a real opportunity to live out a real dream. It’s in front of him, it’s obtainable; he just has to balance it with an incredibly difficult lifestyle."
But will he ever honestly get that? Considering that Philip and Elizabeth are committing crimes against a nation, does Matthew foresee any way that they can realistically get a happy ever after whenever The Americans comes to its conclusion? "I think they can," he told us. "I think that was laid down by Philip in the first episode the first season, where he presented the defection packages basically saying they could go into witness protection, they could work for the U.S. government, they could be put into hiding, make a lot of money, and live out their days.
"And I think there’s an element of Philip that still hangs onto that dream, because I think the realization of how sustainable their lives are and how unsafe it’s becoming for the children sort of grows day-by-day. So I think that, in the back of his mind, the happy ever after for Philip is louder than ever."
The Americans returns tonight at 10 PM ET/PT on FX. For more on The Americans, be sure to check out our interviews with executive producer Graham Yost, and with creator/writer Joe Weisberg and writer Joel Fields.