The Americans showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields take our questions about the season 5 finale and some high points from the acclaimed FX drama’s penultimate season. (Note: Spoiler alert for anybody who is not yet caught up.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So before we can talk candidly: Is Henry here?
JOEL FIELDS: Not to our knowledge, but we have not swept for bugs today!
Whew, okay. First I want to start with something I loved this season: The darkroom scene a few episodes back was amazing. Just terrific editing, the music choice, performances. You made reading a pastor’s diary riveting.
FIELDS: That’s a scary scene to write. If Chris Long isn’t your producing director, it’s especially scary, but we knew we were in good hands. The entire team delivered sensationally. But when you sit down and decide to hang really the entire landing of the episode, and a key transformational moment in your big season and series-long stories, you’re hanging them on the audience reading photographed pages from a diary, it’s a real challenge. I remember sitting right here in The Vault — this is where we do our writing — and we were talking about how that was going to be filmed, and how close you could get to the photos and what you could expect the audience to read. It’s a real testament to the filmmakers on the show how powerfully that landed. And it really captured what we hoped to capture — Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth’s (Keri Russell) experience of reading that with their daughter and catching the landing of those phrases.
As writers, do you think Pastor Tim’s (Kelly AuCoin) assessment of how much damage Philip and Elizabeth are doing to Paige (Holly Taylor) is correct?
JOE WEISBERG: That’s a foundational question for the whole series. I don’t think we can say whether he’s right or wrong. It’s certainly a valid perspective, and he’s not the only one would think that. I think, in a sense, the jury’s out. We have to find out what becomes of Paige if that way of looking at it proves to be true. I think certainly the choices Philip and Elizabeth have made have run the risk that will prove to be true, but that doesn’t mean it will prove to be true.
Now that Tim’s left the country, is he off the show, or will we see him again next season?
FIELDS: You should know us well enough to know you’re not going to get a straight answer.
Likewise, have we ditched Elizabeth’s tai chi hippie and Philip’s lousy lover in Kansas? Unless I missed something, they vanished midway through the season.
FIELDS: They’ve been ditched for this season. But after that, it’s safe to say you’ll get the same answer out of us as always.
WEISBERG: Philip and Elizabeth are still running them. You know how it is on this show, they’re running all sorts of operations, and we don’t always follow each that closely. I think Philip is still running Charles Duluth.
I also loved the beat in the penultimate episode where I fully believed Paige was going to hang herself from the garage beam when she was setting up her punching bag. Was that a deliberate fake-out?
BOTH: Whoa! Wow!
WEISBERG: You’re the first one to say that.* That is interesting. That had not occurred to us!
FIELDS: That’s great. We really like to believe there’s a lot of subconscious work that goes into the show. We were just looking for the most realistic way for her to be practicing.
WEISBERG: And if that had happened, then Pastor Tim would have been right in that case.
Also: Why did Philip have to kill the nice Nazi lady’s husband? Couldn’t they have just visited her earlier in the day?
FIELDS: One of the ironies is if Elizabeth had her way, they would have put a bullet in her head and gotten out of there, and he wouldn’t have died. But because Philip had to know, things dragged out.
WEISBERG: The plan was to get out of there before he got home. That’s what you get when you hesitate.
Now before the season, I asked you if this would have a ramped-up pace as it’s the last one before your final season, and you guys said something I have never heard from showrunners: That if anything, you were slowing down. And I thought maybe you were kind of being self-deprecating, but you weren’t!
WEISBERG: I know there’s been some criticism, but at least you can credit us to sticking to our word.
There has been some. You had a major story line about illegal groceries. Do you feel like you perhaps hit the brakes too hard this year?
FIELDS: There’s certainly been some criticism. At some level, you just have to take your lumps. I don’t think we were expecting quite this much of a backlash, so it’s been a little upsetting. Here’s what we’re telling ourselves: Let’s wait until it’s all over. Let’s wait for everybody to have seen it in context. And we’re hoping with that perspective, the response to that will be a little more muted. But we don’t know, maybe not.
Let’s talk more about the finale. Couldn’t they ask the Center to let them deactivate until Henry graduates high school, and then they come back? Or is that just not an option in their world?
WEISBERG: They don’t have that in their plan.
Our suspicion of Stan’s (Noah Emmerich) jazzercise girlfriend (Laurie Holden) went through the roof in the finale when she encouraged him to stay in his job. But what isn’t clear is whether that triggered any suspicion in Stan. It kind of looked like a lightbulb went off in his eyes there, maybe?
WEISBERG: Why would it? There’s no reason Stan would suspect her. Philip’s got a lot of reasons to suspect her, but there’s no reason to occur to Stan. He may suspect her of wanting him to spend more time at home.
One thing that occurred to me in that final scene with them. Does Elizabeth actually love Philip? Has she ever said “I love you” on the show?
FIELDS: I can’t remember if she’s never said it or she’s said it once.
WEISBERG: She said it once, last season.
FIELDS: There’s no question in our minds she does love him. There’s a definite love that’s grown over time, and we think this season has been one in which their marriage is stronger than it’s ever been, and they love each other deeply.
WEISBERG: We’ve always thought she didn’t love him at all in the 15 or 20 years they were married since the show started, and then change happened that started turning that course… In the final scene, this extraordinary thing happens when Elizabeth says she can’t go back. They both wanted to go back. She can’t go back fundamentally because of who she is. It’s about her being patriotic and true and faithful to her cause. And instead of being angry at her or blame her, Philip accepts her and even loves her for it. You see the way that’s performed, the disappointment going along with acceptance. I think it’s a very special and moving marriage moment where one partner accepts the other at a very difficult and heartbreaking time.
Some of the edits in the finale seemed to suggest Philip was reluctant to transplant his children to another country, while Elizabeth was more like, “Damn I’m going to miss having all these shoes and kitchen appliances.”
FIELDS: Our read was not that she was going to miss them, but that there was something about them that weighed on her. That they were not her values. That represents America to her. That those are not the things you should hope for. I think both of them were realistically concerned about how their children would adapt. That conversation with Pastor Tim was interesting to us because he’s the only one they would talk to about it. But you’re right that they would see it differently.
I can imagine a final season where Stan never finds out about the Jennings, that you just never drop that other shoe, simply because it’s something the audience so expects.
FIELDS: Yeah, we’ve always tried to stay away from story conventions, not just for the sake of staying away from them, but because we’ve been more interested in figuring out what would really happen — which is often not the same as what the story conventions are.
Finally, this question is stupid, but I’ve always wanted to ask: Wouldn’t their wigs come off during sex? Was hair-pulling not discovered until 1990?
FIELDS: We actually tried to answer that question in season 3 or 4, when he takes his wig off with Martha, and we made that point about how hard it was to pull off.
WEISBERG: There’s glue and lots of clips; those things are on.
FIELDS: They’re sex-proof.
WEISBERG: The KGB has a whole facility where they test wigs for sex resiliency.
*This interview was conducted before the penultimate episode aired.