EW's Best of 2015: The Americans bosses discuss Paige's realization
For fans of The Americans, 2015 will be remembered as the year that Paige finally learned the truth about her parents. Back in April, EW spoke with The Americans executive producers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg to discuss the big reveal. As part of our year-end coverage, revisit that conversation below.
Well, there you have it — the cat is out of the bag in the Jennings family, and neither Philip nor Elizabeth could have anticipated that this is how Paige would finally find out that her parents are Russian spies.
After Pastor Tim encouraged Paige to confront her parents about their secrets, the invigorated teen finally cornered Philip and Elizabeth and demanded the answers she’s been desperately seeking. Paige ended her parents’ “Who’s going to tell her first?” tennis match by throwing a curve ball into the court that caught them both off guard, causing Philip and Elizabeth to finally reveal their true nature to their daughter… although just barely, as they could scarcely even manage to get words out.
How did Paige handle it? Well, the jury is still out, which is why EW quickly called up The Americans executive producers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg to ask them all of our burning questions about what could possibly be the series’ defining moment…so far.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, Paige knows. I couldn’t breathe for the last 20 minutes of this episode. For you guys personally, how long have you been waiting for this moment?
JOE WEISBERG: We’ve been waiting since the beginning of the show. But at the same time, we never bound ourselves to a particular moment when it would happen. It’s a safe bet to say we knew it wouldn’t happen in season 1, but would it happen season 2? Season 3? Season 4? For us, we were always going to let the moment find itself when the story dictated.
JOEL FIELDS: And it was in different places at different times. There was a time we thought it would be at the end of season 2, a time we thought at the very end of season 3. The placement of it slid around as much of our storytelling does, because we don’t try to hit particular markers, even inside particular episodes. Since season 2, when we started to tell these stories in a longer way, we knew the moment was coming, but even our writers were very surprised when we handed them this outline, actually. Because the writers on staff, even though they knew it was happening this season, they weren’t expecting it where we dropped it.
WEISBERG: The fact that Paige asked for it instead of them sitting down to tell her was something we didn’t really know until I’d say probably two months or less before the writing of that episode. I think we’d always assumed that the moment would be Philip, or Elizabeth, or Philip AND Elizabeth sitting Paige down and saying, “We have to tell you something, honey.”
Well, viewers have been wondering all season, who’s going to tell her? Who’s going to beat the other to the punch? And lo and behold, it’s Paige who does.
FIELDS: She has always been, for them and for us, a wildcard. As we explored the question of “What is it like to navigate different values of parenting in your marriage?” the thing that is always easy to forget is that the child themselves is their own individual person with their own individual agenda and perspective. So, you can debate all you want how you’re going to manage your teenage child, but it may well be that the teenage child is more in control of their identity and their world than either parent is.
Tell me about the word choice for this pivotal conversation. “We… we were born in a different country.” You guys wrote this episode — what was the toil in choosing the right dialogue?
WEISBERG: We went through a lot of drafts for this. It felt different from rewriting most things that we rewrite. Often you rewrite just trying to find what sounds best or feels most real, but in this case, the stakes were just higher. It felt like everyone’s life was on the line. For Philip and Elizabeth to succeed in finding the right words — and the true words — was going to determine whether or not, in a way, their daughter survived, and their family survived. I can’t even imagine how many times we rewrote that scene with every word examined.
FIELDS: And, as with Philip and Elizabeth themselves, the truth is: There’s no good version of that scene for those characters. I’m sure if they were real, they would have rewritten the scene. And one of the things we talked about, and keep talking about as the story goes forward, is much of what happens here and much of what will happen in the fallout will represent things that they’ve tried to play out in their head. They’ve played out in their head the most tragic fantasy and the most positive fantasy, and the one thing you know is nothing ever goes per fantasy either way.
How steady was your plan for Paige’s reaction to this news? Has that changed, particularly as this season progressed?
FIELDS: There’s a lot of stuff that we talked about early on, and yet it was evolving the more we found the truth of her relationship with church and faith, and the truth of her relationship with Elizabeth this season, which became more connected than we had even hoped for, in a lot of good ways… I think it’s something that has been evolving and will continue to evolve.
WEISBERG: One thing we remind ourselves a lot is that Philip and Elizabeth understand that Paige’s reaction to this is not supposed to be any kind of good or positive reaction. They handle people all the time who deal with complicated things. They’re not expecting to get out of the conversation with her in any kind of good faith.
Fill me in on the set vibe that day with Keri, Matthew, and Holly.
WEISBERG: We did something we don’t usually do, which is, we rehearsed it. Normally you have a very, very quick rehearsal, but this time, we set aside a couple hours.
FIELDS: We assembled Matthew and Keri and Holly and Larysa [Kondracki], the director, almost a week before we shot the scene, on a day they weren’t working, and we spent a lot of time rehearsing and talking about it. It gave us a chance to really dig in. A lot of what you see in those performances came out of the luxury of taking the time.
WEISBERG: If you think about it, there are so many alternatives, in particular for how Paige would react — not in her words but with her expressions. Would she appear to be in shock? Would she cry? Would she be angry? All of those lines could have been delivered with any of those responses, so we had to really work on getting the kind of emotional response that felt most real and sent us forward going into the rest of the season.
So, how should we read Paige’s reaction to this news?
WEISBERG: We talked a lot about her being in a kind of shock mixed with a kind of trauma and fragility.
FIELDS: And yet at the same time, if you think about the confrontation that precedes it, she knows that something’s wrong in this family and she’s been thinking about it for a long time. Suddenly a lot has happened in the prior episodes, and that episode in particular starts to make sense. The pastor coming to the travel agency, her coming to the travel agency, her looks at her parents — she’s been afraid of and desperate for this confrontation, and she probably didn’t quite expect the truth and she certainly couldn’t have anticipated this. You look at the list of things she gives Philip and Elizabeth, and it ends with, “Are we aliens?” It doesn’t include, “Are you guys deep cover operatives for the USSR?” That’s not even in the sphere of possible comprehension for her.
I loved the direction in the scene. Particularly, I loved Philip’s tiny nod—
WEISBERG: Isn’t that the best tiny nod ever? There should be an Emmy for tiny nods!
FIELDS: All of this between them is in that look — the marriage story that exists in that fractional moment of Elizabeth’s look to Philip and his tiny nod to her that, after all of this conflict, they are in this together.
WEISBERG: Then you get the B-side of that, when she starts to answer the question and can’t continue. So, after all of his resistance to this, he’s the one who finally gives Paige the answer.
FIELDS: And after all of her agitation to tell Paige, when it comes time to do it, she really can’t quite. And it’s Philip who helps her over the finish line. We just thought it was beautiful what they did.
I also loved that shot, after Paige leaves, where the camera swings around and you’ve just got Philip and Elizabeth standing there speechless, listening to the dial tone.
FIELDS: Larysa’s direction was not only pitch perfect, but it captured something that’s fundamental to the tone of our show, which is simple honesty. We had never worked with her before. She had come with good references, but we had not worked with her, and we sat down at our first meeting and we said, “Well, welcome to the most important episode of The Americans ever.” No pressure. Boy, did she deliver. She did a beautiful job.
WEISBERG: You mention that dial tone, by the way, which is a great little moment because it reminds you, in this sonic way, that you’re in the past. That’s just not a dial tone you hear anymore. I don’t think I’ve heard one in the wild for 20 years, and it just sort of brings you back.
This was such a huge moment, and it seems unmatched on the show so far. You guys don’t seem to really rely on big moments. What’s the balance you try to strike between taking big narrative chances versus staying the course for a slow-burn?
WEISBERG: It’s funny. There’s no question, we’re a slow-burn show. I’m not sure we’re even burning. By the time we started season 2, I don’t think we were really in much of a philosophic or dramatic discussion anymore about the payoff of all of this. We’re just telling the story at the pace the story goes. This Paige moment came at the time when we wanted it to organically pop up, and we’re going to continue to follow it. We’re not in a hurry one way or another to take the next beat in that story.
FIELDS: We don’t think or discuss much the idea of that kind of structure or those kinds of choices, slow-burn versus propulsion. We do follow the story. I think when good drama is really working, it takes on an inevitable quality, not a predictable quality, where you’re just following where the characters are going.
Does that explain why this Paige reveal happens several episodes ahead of the season finale?
WEISBERG: I think you’re exactly right. It’s just not the style of the show to drop this at the season finale and therefore urge everybody to come back. That would be something that people who wanted big ratings would do. [Laughs]
FIELDS: I’ll tell you another benefit of it. To pitch to a small choir, the benefit of doing it this way is that if you’re trying to get to something, you’d be more likely to end up with Philip and Elizabeth sitting her down to tell her, whereas if you’re leaving it open to when it’s going to come up organically, you’re more likely to surprise yourself with Paige waiting for them and asking them. You don’t have an idea fixed in your head.
How will Paige have progressed by the season finale? Will she have at least figured out how she feels about it all?
WEISBERG: First of all, redacted redacted redacted. It’d be hard to tell you without spoiling! But it’s a slow-burn!
FIELDS: But I think it’s fair to say, if you think realistically about what her feelings would be…think about what all this represents to her as a real person, if she were a real person. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a whole book about the stages of grieving, and in some senses, there’s a level of grief for a whole life that’s been in some senses a lie. There’s a lot to process and that’s interesting and exciting stuff to mine and explore for this character.
When does the conversation turn to Henry? He’s getting up there! Also, with all the video games, he’d make a great KGB computer operative.
WEISBERG: You may be able to guess from this conversation with us, that we don’t know! But we ask ourselves that same question, and we’ve actually sort of toyed with that same thing you’re mentioning about the computers. That seems like an interesting and, generationally, an aptitude-wise appropriate thing to think about.
FIELDS: It’d be nice for Philip and Elizabeth and now even Paige to imagine that Henry can be protected from all of this forever, and yet of course, we see how that went with Paige. There’s an inevitable something coming.
You were just renewed for season 4, and FX has mentioned at least five seasons. Does your endgame take you beyond season 5?
FIELDS: [FX President] John Landgraf, at the last TCA, was asked about the future of the show, and I believe the quote was, he said he sees this as at least a five-season show. And right now, Joe and I talk about an end a lot because it helps guide us towards what the current seasons are, but I don’t think we’re in any sort of endgame at this point. There’s a really long and interesting story to explore here. We hope we’ll be able to keep telling it.