'The Americans' showrunners explain that shocking death
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The Americans delivered perhaps the most shocking moment in the acclaimed FX's drama's history Wednesday night.
Four seasons into the espionage drama's run…
And this is your big spoiler warning: Do not continue reading if you haven't seen the episode…
The Americans killed off one of its main characters—easily the most significant to die on the series yet—and the moment occurred in an extraordinarily unexpected way. At the conclusion of the fourth season's fourth episode, former spy Nina Sergeevna (Annet Mahendru) was abruptly executed by her Soviet captors after her former lover Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) tried to convince his high-ranking Russian official father Igor Burov to improve her predicament.
Below, creators and showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields spoke to EW about the tragic twist:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you come to this decision to kill off poor Nina?
JOE WEISBERG: Oh, I thought you were going to ask: "How did Elizabeth learn to bowl?" It's funny to hear you use the phrase "poor Nina," because for four seasons we've been hearing, "poor Martha." It's great to hear.
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Seeing her miserable in her cell for so long brought out my empathy.
JOEL FIELDS: She was a character with one could emphasize, as we hope all our characters are, and she got even more emphatic as the story progressed. But it wasn't like we made a sudden decision to kill her. This was something we were working toward over many seasons. For us, this was something we had been plotting since season 2. The question was how long would it take to play out. It hewed pretty closely to our plan but we expected to play out sooner.
So when Nina went to Russia, you always new she was never going to come back?
WEISBERG: That's a complicated question. We did know when she went to the Soviet Union, she would not make it back to the United States. There's no reasonable storyline in which a KGB spy would go back to the Soviet Union under those circumstances and would then be returned—that didn't make any sense. You'd have to come up with a very fanciful and outlandish story like the type we don't really do to bring her back to the United States. But we did not know she would necessarily die. We were willing to follow her story in the Soviet Union in whatever direction it happened to go. It happened to go in this direction. But there were a lot of other directions it might have gone, and we saw a lot of potentially interesting things that could and did happen to her there.
FIELDS: But by the beginning of season 3, we had [planned] her death. Because we came upon [The Americans consultant Sergie Kostin's book Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century], which gave the details of how these prisoners were executed. We expected it to happen by the end of season 3.
WEISBERG: Right, although it wasn't reading about the deaths in the book that motivated us to have her die, but it gave us how she'd die once we knew she was. Sergie's book gives all these details that came out after the fall of the Soviet Union about all these people who had committed espionage who were executed, and the exact details of how that was done. We follow that to the letter in the show when Nina was executed. It was planned in a very specific way so the person who was going to be killed doesn't know they were going to be killed, and it was done that way for humanitarian reasons—they didn't want the person to suffer, to be spending all this time in a cell pondering their own pending execution. They wanted it to be as much of a surprise as possible.
Which also happens to make for great television, as well…
WEISBERG: Coincidentally, it makes for great television!
And we'll get back to the staging of the scene, but I just want to go back to her story real quick: Was there any concern that Nina's storyline might now feel like a bit of a dead end, so to speak, because she went on this long journey apart from the other characters and never intersected with them again? One might ask: What was the point of her incarceration, this seeming detour, that as it turned out, wasn't a detour at all?
FIELDS: I don't think we struggled with that question, because it didn't feel like a detour to us, for two primary reasons: One, she's a very important character, so it never felt like we were going away to explore some ancillary drama that didn't have to do with anything. And two, in those final arcs of her story, she's undergoing real character exploration and transformation that reflects emotionally and thematically on all the characters on the show. So it felt to us very much a part of the rest of the drama, even though it wasn't being played out directly with the other characters.
When did you tell Annet, and how did she take it?
WEISBERG: Even though we have a show about spies, we don't like keeping secrets. On the other hand, we wanted her to play the character as Nina herself would—without knowing this thing was coming. The primary thing happening in Nina's life was being in these dire circumstances, wondering if she was or wasn't going to be able to get out of trouble, and then taking this incredible risk. We really thought it was better for her not to know until it was pretty late in the game. In terms of how she took it, in general it's not a great or easy day for an actor when they learn their character is going to die. Actors understandably get incredibly attached to a character. Writers do too, but in a way it's more personal for an actor. It's always a tough day.
You mentioned the staging of the scene. It was terrific, completely shocking. I literally got up to get a drink in my kitchen and was just half-watching—because I did not think anything significant was about to go down—and then I yelped, and had to rewind and watch again.
WEISBERG: For us, there is no bigger compliment than you went to get a drink. We wanted you to not know it was coming!
FIELDS: The staging of that scene was discussed ad nauseam, right down to the finest point. Stephen Schwartz, the director did a brilliant job with it, Alex Nepomniaschy, who is our cinematographer this season, lit it brilliantly. It has a quality that's beautiful and real at the same time. And that dream sequence I think is just extraordinary. The production design even made sure that material that her body was carried out was in burlap—which is what they used. Go back and look at that scene, and you'll notice there's a mop in a bucket leaning against the wall. Afterwards you know why—the floor hadn't just been cleaned; they knew it was going to need to be cleaned.
As he's speaking, even though she's having this strong emotional reaction—she knows what's up—you're thinking, "Okay now she's going to be put on some variation of death row, and there will be some attempt to rescue her, or something." And before you've even fully formed that thought, the idea is cut off right in your mind as she gets shot.
WEISBERG: One of the most powerful things is that [historically the actual executions] were choreographed and staged by the execution team. Because they did it quite a number of times, they learned once the person heard what was going to happen to them, invariably their knees buckled. And so they learned to place a person on each side of them to catch them by their elbows, because they wanted to shoot the person in the back of the head—so they couldn't have the person fall. That was our staging, but also their staging. Also, the person read the verdict then stepped out of the way at the same time to not get blood on themselves. In was interesting to follow their actual staging, and to think about something like that being choreographed.
That's chilling. It was also interesting to do at the end of episode 4—nobody expects anything of fatal consequence at the end of episode 4!
WEISBERG: That's when you go to your kitchen to get a drink!
Was the placement of this moment part of the discussion?
FIELDS: I wish we could tell you we're that strategic. We don't pay attention to any of that in the show. Rather than say "we need a heightened moment to happen at this point in the season," we just let it happen organically. Like last season, there was no special design to have Paige confront her parents one third of the way through episode 10. It felt interesting when it landed that way, but it's not because we wanted it to happen in an unexpected place—we just let it happen where it wanted to happen. The same with Nina. The death of Nina moved around from the beginning of episode 5, to middle of 4, to the end of 4. Once it landed there, it seemed right to us.
WEISBERG: But it's fair to say we're pleased with ourselves when those things land in an offbeat place—"Ha, nobody's going to expect THAT."
FIELDS: Take that, last year's finale!
My next question is whether Oleg and Stan, but mainly Oleg, find out about this. I could see that potentially changing his feelings about which side he's on…
FIELDS: Oleg's father is very highly placed in the Russian government, and I don't think it's a very big spoiler to say he will be finding out.
The first two seasons of the show I felt a certain amount of frustration because it felt like there was a reluctance to make big storytelling moves that really challenged the relationships and characters—and challenged you guys as writers to get yourselves out of tight corners. That seemed to shift in last year and is now continuing this season. Has there been an evolution in the way you've approached plotting out the show?
WEISBERG: There has been a big evolution, but I don't know that it's in the terms you're speaking of. We plotted the show much more episodically the first season. As we moved into the second season, we really moved away from that into a much more serialized way and also tried to shift to make the show more realistic. That isn't to say the entire show is entirely realistic—that's obviously not the case—but we tried to make it more realistic, and feel as natural and organic and as real as we can make it. That's our feeling about the shift that took place. I don't think we perceived it as not challenging the characters, but it's possible the changes had the effect that you felt.
FIELDS: Also, as the storytelling progressed, the challenges the characters faced felt more organic. They were growing out of the circumstances that they had been placed in. The beginning of this season, for example. In prior seasons there had to be a reboot—here we are, and here's how we're going to get going. This season there was so much momentum we didn't even have to think about it. When storytelling becomes so real, the show becomes emotionally inevitable, and you stop having to think about those things.
Another interesting choice recently has been the move to not kill off Pastor Tim, at least for now. That must have caused at least some debate among you, about how to handle this—or how to maximize the drama of that situation.
FIELDS: I think we can say there's been discussion, and leave it at that.
As a viewer, it's odd because you find yourself sort of rooting, a little bit, for the murderous Soviet spies to kill an innocent pastor just to resolve the tension you feel inside about the existential threat to your main characters.
WEISBERG: Different people probably feel different ways, or even differently inside themselves. A part of me is rooting for that and a part of me isn't. A part of me would be relieved, and a part of me would be devastated. That's a rich experience.
FIELDS: And to the extent the show tries to humanize the experience of warfare, it's hard to know what to root for.
WEISBERG: We were just watching [an upcoming] scene with two different sides arrayed against each other and it was really hard to pick a side. We were like: That's a classic Americans scene, just two human beings struggling.
Have you talked about whether there's something Elizabeth and Philip could do that would turn the audience off to the point where they're just like: "I don't like these characters anymore." I was thinking of the scene of Philip on airport bus, where he kills an innocent man, yet we're still on his side after that and other things they've done. Have you talked about that—how much you think they could get way with?
WEISBERG: We used to talk about that a lot, particularly in season 1. Would we lose the audience? We talked a lot about where those lines were. Who knows, maybe we have crossed those lines, and we could have had five times a bigger audience if we hadn't. Those things become unknowable. We're at a place in our story now where we really don't have those discussions. We follow the story where it wants to go and let the chips fall. Philip is suffering so much himself with what he does. Even if he crossed such a terrible line, he would pay such a consequence in his own psyche that it wouldn't be hard, I don't think, for people to empathize with him.
FIELDS: And one of the reasons we don't think about those lines is because we actually know what lines the characters wouldn't cross. That doesn't mean they don't do horrible things. Elizabeth in the first season she killed that security guard in that fancy neighborhood after Reagan was shot. About three times he said, "I got to radio this in." She said don't do it and go. She was willing to let him drive away, and he could have radioed around the corner. Finally when he picked up that radio, she put a bullet in his head because she had no choice. If you accept that these guys are embedded agents behind enemy lines, they're going to do what they need to do. But they're not sociopaths, so we don't need to worry about an audience member not following them because they've done something horrible—because they understand, either consciously or unconsciously, the consequences of their actions.
Can you tease up the rest of the season?
WEISBERG: This is a good season of chickens coming home to roost. There's a lot of intensity. If you found the first four episodes intense and exciting, it's not going to let up so much.
For more, check out Anthony Breznican's recap of The Americans episode "Chloramphenicol."