Since 2013, FX has spent the beginning of each year launching a new season of its drama The Americans, which stars Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as Russian spies masquerading as a suburban D.C. family in the 1980s. But tonight’s Season 5 premiere of TV’s best series comes as the topic of U.S.-Russian relations and espionage has become astonishingly relevant again.
However, FX’s marketing team didn’t consider leaning into current events with this season’s Americans campaign. “It didn’t influence us, because it was more like two things set out on a road, and you had no idea that those roads would cross years in the future,” said Stephanie Gibbons, president, marketing, digital media marketing and on-air promotions for FX Networks. “They did, but it was more a happenstance of the landscape versus an engineering feat. It felt random, and we decided we were just going to stick with the plan and let the series be our guide.”
That’s the same approach showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields took in crafting the new season of their suddenly prescient series. “We’ve been practicing this for years in all areas. Anytime anything felt too self-conscious that the writer from the future was coming back into the ’80s, we became excellent at blocking that out. In a way, that was like training for this because this was the ultimate temptation, and we had become black belts in stopping that,” said Weisberg of the incessant U.S.-Russia headlines. “So it was just reflexive—keep it out, 100 percent.”
Gibbons’ Season 5 marketing campaign for The Americans is a continuation of what she started four years ago—which is shaped and inspired by the drama’s Russian roots—and one that has evolved with each season of show. “Like most things in life, you can start out with a very black-and-white notion of right and wrong. But once you begin living, then experience and reality play an equal, if not larger, role in the decisions you make and your life starts forming itself and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she said. “So we wanted to start out earlier with that black-and-white literalism, but after they began actually doing what they were supposed to do, the rules get a little grayer and the lines get a little more blurred.”
When designing the key art, which forms the marketing centerpiece, for each season of The Americans, Gibbons and her team “go through hundreds of iterations,” said Fields. “They work on those creations with the obsession that we work on the show, and that’s really important.”
Gibbons spoke to Adweek about all five seasons of Americans key art and her team’s use of Russian influences in each year’s design:
Season 1 (2013)
To sell the show’s premise in the first season, two spies assigned to live as husband and wife who slowly begin to fall for one another even as Rhys is seduced by U.S. culture, Gibbons was influenced by constructivism, which originated in Russia a century ago.
“We really liked this idea of these two people who have been thrown together at the beginning, where there’s less of an emotional connection and there’s more of the connection of duty and cause,” said Gibbons. “We wanted to use that constructivist approach. It calls you to attention, but it’s also very constrained and rigid. You have the machine aesthetic.”
In the key art, she said, “we liked the idea of these two people being vessels.”
“They were in service to a greater good, and them joining together was a means to a greater end,” she said. “They’re overlapping, but you notice they’re not touching in an emotional way. And the guns are over their heart for a reason, saying that they’re pledging allegiance of every part of them–their minds, their bodies, their souls—to this ideal. It’s very structured, very propagandist, very geometric and very literal.”
Season 2 (2014)
The first season’s art was primarily black and white—“it goes to that notion of black-and-white thinking, of these are the rules,” Gibbons said—but that changed in Season 2.
“When you throw human beings together, although our minds may be in service of a greater ideal, it’s very difficult for us to extract our emotions and our humanity from our deeds,” she said.
The gun (“an extension of Russia’s army,” according to Gibbons) remains between them, however, and the image is bathed in red.
“It’s a double entendre, in that it’s a nod to Russia but also to matters of the heart and the intensity of emotion,” said Gibbons. “Not just love, but rage, anger and uncertainty. If we had put them in a cool blue, you would have had a different feeling. If they had been in black and white, you would have felt a separation. But the red, we wanted it to burn with an intensity.”
Season 3 (2015)
Gibbons put Rhys and Russell in profile for Season 3. “You’ve really started to see the consequences that are starting to pile up from their actions, that what they’re doing has great impact and consequence,” said Gibbons, who covered them both with representations of the U.S. and Russia. “It’s again propagandist, but it overlaps U.S. with Russian culture because they’re becoming hybrids of both cultures at this point. While the impact of what they’re doing has an effect on the world order, the purity of them being simply Russian agents now is overlapping and mixed with them being vessels of both cultures.”
Season 4 (2016)
This season’s key art returns the duo to a three-quarter view but one that is much more intimate and angular than their two-dimensional presence in Season 1’s image. “We’re opening them out a little more to lens, so they have more dimension. They’re more fleshed out, quite literally, they’re more human,” Gibbons said, noting that the image still has complete symmetry in proper constructivist style.
Now, the dominant red from Season 2 has receded. “The red still serves as the entire landscape for their relationship, but it’s a little more in the background,” Gibbons said. “They’re pulled into this blue world, which is more contemplative, where they’re thinking about their lives. But you notice that what they’re looking at is each other, because they have a very real relationship against this red backdrop.”
In Season 4, “we’re keeping the part of their lives that is in service of the state with the guns flat and angular, but we’re moving them into a zone that’s more humanistic. And we’re switching the titration of the color, so that now it’s a pop-art style of the ’80s, which speaks to the influence that America has had upon them,” she said.
Season 5 (2017)
This year’s image hints at a key arc in Season 5 where there is renewed tension between the two characters. “Since they were going to undergo a period of stress and turbulence, we returned to the ideological stances that are what you fall back on: Here are the rules. Here’s what’s solid. Here’s my belief system,” said Gibbons. “They’ve returned to a pose very similar to Season 1, because the ideology is the thing that’s under stress.”
The prominent placement of Rhys’ wedding ring as his hand grips Russell’s wrist and attempts to pull down the gun she’s holding “is done that way for a reason,” said Gibbons. “So you literally see the push and pull of the relationship, of the ideology and how they both play into each other.”
The key art uses the same color palette as the “We Can Do It!” wartime propaganda poster, which was created to boost worker morale in World War II but was rediscovered in the early ’80s and often referred to as “Rosie the Riveter.”
“It has that propagandist palette, but this time, we leaned to a more USA-type approach where you see the background is golden,” Gibbons said. “It represents the possibility of a sunny future versus that ominous bright, intense red. And if Rosie the Riveter was much about this notion that every individual can make a difference through your individual contributions, we have the power to move a nation and ready ourselves for war. Everybody step up, and pitch in.”
She added: “Here you see that same palette. Although they’re in an ideological stance, what will these two individuals decide to do? Will it be making a difference so that their lives as a family can go on or will it be in the larger ideological service to the state? So it’s laden with a lot of layers that almost no one in the world would know but us. But yet I really feel like we store a collective memory as a species. I think there’s a subconscious recognition of certain colors and combinations that bring things to mind that maybe our consciousness doesn’t realize, but it’s still there.”