The Americans bosses on writing the series finale, and the scene that took them 'months'
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WARNING: The following contains spoilers for the series finale of The Americans. Read at your own risk!
“They’ll be okay. They’ll remember us.”
In the final scene of FX’s The Americans, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) pull over during their drive home to look out over Russia. They’ve been traveling for hours, and both seem dazed as they acknowledge a strange new world, speak of the children they left behind, and drink in a skyline they haven’t seen in decades — one that must look foreign to their eyes.
Then … fade to black.
It’s a heartbreaking, bittersweet moment. After years of spying, conning, and killing for their motherland, they’ve returned home not to a ticker-tape parade (or whatever the Russian equivalent is), but to an uncertain future, for themselves and their country. Everyone knows what happens to the latter — the Soviet Union eventually collapses, changing global politics forever — but no one can tell whether this couple will ever adapt to their new circumstances. Will they ever see their children again? Will they ever return to the States, years down the line, when the dust has settled? Will they start a new family, return to their old identities, and forget the American one they abandoned?
Whatever the case may be, they had a job to do — as Philip says apologetically to Stan (Noah Emmerich) — and they did it. They just lost almost everything because of it. Having children may have helped them look like an all-American family, but Philip and Elizabeth loved Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati). And, at the very last second, they couldn’t keep them. (Cue U2’s “With or Without You” and all the tears.)
Below, showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg reflect on writing the finale’s tragic turns, the kills they wish they didn’t have to make, and the scene that took them months not to write, but to rewrite.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with the ending. Elizabeth and Philip say their children will be okay without them, and that they’ll get used to their new lives. But in your opinion, is that them expressing acceptance or just wishful thinking? How do you interpret it?
JOE WEISBERG: Oh no, normally it gets to, like, the 10th question before we say we don’t want to answer one! [Laughs] But we don’t want to answer that. I mean, you phrased it really beautifully by coming up with a couple of good possibilities for interpreting it, but I want to leave that to the viewer instead of putting our imprint on how the scene should be taken. As you said, there are a number of ways you could interpret it, all of which are hard.
Related to that, then, what went into the decision to end with a shot of Philip and Elizabeth looking over Russia? It’s rather … peaceful.
JOEL FIELDS: Oh wow, “peaceful” is not the word that comes to mind, although you’re right, it is! I think “heartbreaking” would be more the word that comes to mind. They’re home, but they’re there without their children. It’s a lot for them to take in, and it’s a very different place from the one they left so many years ago.
WEISBERG: We also saw that final shot as a complicated urban and industrial tableau, and even at night you can tell that it doesn’t really look like an American city. They’re looking at their home, but it looks very different from any time they would have seen it so many years ago. So it’s got a prettiness to it, but it’s also got a roughness to it.
Speaking of heartbreaking shots, why did you choose to show Paige drinking vodka back at Claudia’s? Why not end with her on the platform?
WEISBERG: There wasn’t a particularly conscious construction there as much as we were looking for one more emotional moment. We felt like it was one thing to leave her in that moment, in the decision, and yet another to see her sometime later living with it, as she’s going to have to for the rest of her life.
So in your research, would she be guilty of espionage, or would she be left off the hook because of her circumstances and her age? Could it be a Jack Barsky-type situation where she ends up helping the FBI?
WEISBERG: I don’t think we can say for sure, but our instinct is, she probably hasn’t gone too far down a road that she can get caught for. We don’t see the FBI necessarily having any kind of conclusive evidence of her having committed any crimes, but we weren’t trying to predict the future too much there. When you see her sitting there, she’s sitting there with a heavy heart. You could certainly see that in Holly’s performance. But, you know, I don’t think we imagined her walking off to jail.
It’s also striking to me how she chooses to leave her parents. She’s not dragged off of the train by border control; she simply steps onto the platform and looks at her parents one last time. Why was it important, for both of you, to have Paige make that decision on her own?
FIELDS: We always had a bunch of different technical ways to do it, but it was always a decision she was making on her own. We never wrote up or played out any sort of final conversation, did we, Joe?
FIELDS: So I don’t think we can answer why, except that it felt right in the moment.
The scene in the garage, with Stan confronting the Jennings, felt like a one-act play to Noah. Was it — especially in the way Stan lets them go — the way you had envisioned this scene since the beginning? We had been waiting for this for years.
WEISBERG: The final end to the show, with them going back and leaving their kids, was pretty much the ending we had all along, but we did not know how the final confrontation with Stan would play out. That was not something we had until the final season. And even then, that was very much something that hadn’t developed until we started writing it. We went through a lot of drafts of that, and it took us a very long time to get that to where we wanted it to go, so that was a process of evolution and improvisation to get to the right point. I think there were even times when we weren’t sure it was going to work, but finally, much to our relief, we got there.
What was the biggest challenge in figuring it out? Was it modulating the levels of emotion in it, the dialogue, or something else?
WEISBERG: I think it was two things: One, that there was so much to say. There was so much between them to come out and so much to say, and that can be hard to accomplish when you only have one scene to do it in. The other challenge was the emotional one. Will Stan let them go, and how? And will that be real? And what will get him there? We felt it was emotionally true, so we knew we believed it, but then it was a question of making that work, going back to the issues of all the things these people had to work out and say to each other, and putting those things in the right order so they got to the right emotional place.
With so little time, do you feel like there was anything left unsaid that you wish you could’ve included in that scene?
FIELDS: It’s funny, we weren’t looking to check boxes in that scene, but no, there’s nothing we wish happened. We wrote that scene as we felt it would have played. It took a lot of effort and time — not to write it, writing it actually took pretty quickly — but the rewriting of it took months. And once we were through that, we felt we got it to a place where it was what we imagined that scene would have been, and then the actors and our director, Chris Long, brought it to life with such honesty. It’s really a testament to Chris’ direction that the scene is staged in a way that feels really true. We didn’t have to rely on any camera movements or blocking tricks to create extraneous taste in the scene. He just let it be what it wanted to be, and we feel really good about where it landed.
Again, based on your research, is it possible for Stan to keep his job after this? I mentioned the same thing to Noah, but is his next stop therapy?
FIELDS: [Laughs] Well, he’s not really the kind of guy who would jump into therapy. Remember, he’s a guy who didn’t want to be working in counterintelligence for quite some time, and he hasn’t been working in counterintelligence for quite some time. We’ll let the viewers imagine what his fate might be after this.
I do have to ask about Renee (Laurie Holden), of course. I know you won’t say if she’s a spy, but can you say if the two of you had a definitive answer to that question when you were writing those scenes? What was it?
WEISBERG: We’re definitely going to keep that a secret. [Laughs]
But at the very least, did you have an idea when you were writing either way?
WEISBERG: Well, I don’t want to answer that, because then someone’s going to kidnap us and torture us!
Oh man, I thought this would be a way in! What about Laurie? Has she asked you guys?
FIELDS: You know, only once or a hundred thousand times.
WEISBERG: And if she couldn’t get it out of us, probably no one else will.
Fine! Moving on: After such a bloody season, in which Elizabeth has killed at least one person per episode, no one dies in this finale. Was anybody ever going to be killed that you changed your mind on?
WEISBERG: I actually thought you were going to say, “Is there anybody you wanted to kill?”
FIELDS: [Laughs] That would be pretty funny.
WEISBERG: But no, I don’t think there were any deaths that we pulled back on.
Well then … was there anybody you wanted to kill?
WEISBERG: No, we’re really peaceful people. All the people that got killed in the season, we didn’t even want to kill them. Just, certain things had to happen. We probably wanted to kill fewer people! Oh my gosh, the poor guy that Elizabeth killed because he happened to work at that warehouse and his girlfriend worked in security — we really wanted to not kill him.
FIELDS: But his girlfriend worked in security, so we had to! The good news for him is that he [as in actor Greg Hildreth] gets to be on Broadway in Frozen.
We also caught a surprise glimpse of Gregory (Derek Luke) in the finale, which brings me to a similar question: Was anybody else going to return this season that you changed your mind on?
WEISBERG: I don’t think so. With people who come back, it’s never a feeling of, “We want to bring somebody back,” it’s just if the story presents it. So in that case, we had this dream sequence — and dream sequences are really tough, because it’s easy for them to be really cliché and you can fail easily — and the idea of having him in there just popped up very naturally. It seemed like what she would be dreaming about. So Gregory came back, but it wasn’t because we thought, “We gotta bring Gregory back!” It sounds funny, but he came back on his own.
Did you ever consider giving Philip a similar dream sequence or anything, just to get into hishead as well?
FIELDS: I don’t think we had one for him in the finale ever, though we had some important flashback stuff for him this season, as we had for Elizabeth. We felt like maybe in a way, because he’s so much more, relatively in touch — really underscore “relatively”— than Elizabeth is, it felt like she’s the one who needs a dream more in that moment than he does.
The episode title, “START,” refers to the 1991 arms-reduction treaty. Did you at any point have plans to show more of the eventual future of the Soviet Union, perhaps time jumping to show bigger historical beats?
WEISBERG: At the very beginning of the series, we wondered how far we would get, and we were sort of intellectually interested in the idea of, “Hey, maybe we’ll get to the collapse of the Soviet Union, or maybe we’ll get to the fall of the Berlin Wall,” but we quickly realized those things weren’t going to happen for two reasons. One, it didn’t take us long to realize our storytelling proceeded at a glacial pace, and so we just weren’t going to move that fast. We would have to take a series of gigantic time jumps [to get anywhere], and even then, our ability to take time jumps was limited by having kids in the show. The kids wouldn’t grow fast enough to make [longer time jumps] plausible, so we understood early on we wouldn’t get to those seminal events in history.
At least you got U2’s “With or Without You.” Was it tough to get those song rights? Did you have a backup ready to go?
FIELDS: We didn’t have a backup by that point. We really wanted it to be that, and it had to be that, and we just were really fortunate and grateful that they approved the use of that song, you know? It couldn’t be more iconic and specific to that period, and, boy, it couldn’t be more right for that moment.
Looking back, what do you hope people take away from this series finale?
WEISBERG: I think that’s another tough one to answer. I think we’ve always been after the same thing, which is we want people to feel something. But also, at the end of the day, it’s always been a show about a marriage and a family, and if people leave this finale and this final season feeling they’ve watched a show that told a true and powerful story about a marriage — and maybe even on some level were able to relate to it and connect to it even though the married couple were Soviet spies from the 1980s — that would be a very good legacy for the show.
Very last, most important burning question, then: Now that Philip and Elizabeth are in Russia, are they going to hang out with poor Martha (Alison Wright)?
FIELDS: [Laughs] That would be an awkward dinner party, wouldn’t it?
Oh it would, and I had to ask. On a more serious note, is there anything else you want to add?
FIELDS: I will just say that we’re feeling emotional as this show wraps up, and we’re very excited to share these final episodes with the audience. We feel really grateful for this creative experience, and we feel incredibly grateful to the team that made the show, and to the audience and the critics who have been a part of this ride with us. It’s hard to get any better than that.
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