Spoiler warning: The following conversation covers the entirety of The Americans’ second season. If you haven’t seen Wednesday’s finale, bookmark this for later.
Tonight's season finale of The Americans revealed that KGB spies Emmett and Leanne as well as their daughter had been murdered by their son Jared. With his last breath, Jared explained that he had been recruited by Kate to be a second-generation illegal capable of, as Claudia later explained, deeper infiltration than his parents. But things didn't work out with Jared, and Claudia dropped an even bigger bomb on Philip and Elizabeth: Mother Russia now wants to take Paige under her wing, and to Philip's horror, Elizabeth thinks it's not such a bad idea. Vulture spoke to executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields about putting season two together, from keeping the killer in the dark to wrestling (or not) over Stan's difficult decision. They also discussed the big thing you should have noticed in the finale's dream sequence and the surprising popularity of the CIA's mail robot.
How long have you had this idea of second-generation KGB spies in your back pocket? Have you always known you were going to make it a part of the story?
Weisberg: There were a couple different pieces to it. When we broke the story of that other [spy] family getting killed, we very quickly and immediately knew we wanted it to be their own son who did it. Thematically in so many ways it fit with the rest of our story. That came very early in the season, the idea that we wanted Jared’s motivation to be that he was being developed as a second-generation illegal [against his parents’ wishes]. It was a little bit later that we linked it to The Center wanting to recruit Paige, but all of this was brewed out of an actual history of the KGB being interested in having their kids be second-generation illegals. There are a couple of actual historical precedents of that that we worked from.
Fields: We’re lucky, in that we have child actors who can handle anything.
Did Owen Campbell, the actor who played Jared, know the truth about what had happened to Jared’s parents from the beginning?
Fields: He was in the dark. We decided that because the character would be so great at hiding what he had to hide that we wanted to leave it that way, and Owen had been doing such a great job. For example, if you look at the season premiere, you never see Jared in the hotel room screaming in horror at discovering those bodies. You just see him in the hallway where he would have put on a show for people. There was a great moment where we decided it was time for Owen to know the truth. We called him into the office and sat him down and said we had some things to tell him about his character, and he said, “I know! I’m gathering that there’s ... something. What is it?” His mind was pretty blown.
Weisberg: Joel, I don’t know if you felt as bad as I did about that. Maybe it’s my whole twisted CIA past but I actually felt guilty and weird about it. It was almost like a mirror of the CIA. At the CIA you lied to everyone outside of the CIA but you always told the truth within the agency.
Fields: I don’t feel that way at all. Joe and I agree on so much, but I felt that this was more like lying to someone about their surprise party. You knew when you told Owen the truth he was only going to be happy about the meaty stuff that was coming his way. We told him the truth before he shot the final third of the season, before that final arc that commenced with him meeting with Kate.
Weisberg: He had to know what to play in the meeting with Stan Beeman. We told him a piece of information before that, and I think we told him the rest after.
At the beginning of this season, you said the central question was “Can the center hold in this family?” What can you say thematically about next year? Obviously, there’s now a huge divide between Philip and Elizabeth where Paige is concerned.
Fields: Part of the theme we want to explore significantly next season is suggested in the last scene from this season: Now that they’re genuinely married and truly committed to trying to hold this family together, what happens in a real marriage with real kids whom you love when your worldviews diverge? What do you do when your fundamental values about what you do with your children are different? How do marriage and family sustain those conflicts?
Are they also split politically, in terms of how devoted they still are to Russia? A lot has been written about how loyal or not loyal Philip still is, and the take I agree with most is that he’s not less loyal than Elizabeth, but that his main motivation is to keep his kids safe.
Weisberg: I read that too, and I was very glad when I did. I do think they are different in that Elizabeth has this extreme complete devotion to the cause that is more total and full and in her heart. She believes it in the depths of her soul in a way that is just different from Philip. I think often a lot of people think that Philip has left that all behind in a way that I don’t think he has. The reason Philip is able to continue doing his job is that the cause remains in his fibers. Even though he’s become Americanized in a lot of ways, I think it’s correct to say that a lot of his motivation is about keeping his family safe. That’s where the locus of his heart and soul have moved over the years. I don’t think being a soldier for the Soviet cause is the hardest thing in the world for him; that’s still a part of his makeup, but it’s in transition.
Some viewers were confused about what characters like Larrick and Kate had been up to over the course of the season, which was obviously very deliberate in the case of Kate. Do you wrestle with how vague you can be with the storytelling without feeling like the audience might get lost or frustrated?
[Weisberg and Fields laugh.]
Weisberg: We’re laughing because the non-joke answer is that we try very hard to not be expositional. We do break every detail of the story so that it makes sense to us, and then we try to just tell the story as it wants to be told and hope the audience will catch up and follow it. The joke version of that answer is we sometimes just assume we’re incomprehensible. The half-joke, half-serious answer is we asked that question you just asked of one of our executives, who then said to us, “Well, I don’t know what’s going on 30 percent of the time on Game of Thrones, and that’s fine with me.” So, I’ve set that as my personal goal. Thirty percent.
At what point did Stan make up his mind about what to do with Nina? He buys the sturdier, more expensive car for her, and in his nightmare, he dreams about the awful costs of his job — losing his wife, killing Vlad — which didn’t include Nina.
Weisberg: [Laughs]. I don’t know what it is but every one of your questions makes me laugh a little because it gets to the heart of something. Like, the reason I’m laughing now is that we wrote three or four different scenes that could have been the scene [in which he makes up his mind], and we even cut one or two of them.
Fields: We also wrote many versions of that nightmare.
Weisberg: It’s funny because we generally don’t write different versions of scenes. That dream scene, that took a lot of exploring and a lot of variations before we landed on what felt right to us.
Was there a version that included Nina? Is that what felt right, not having her in it?
Weisberg: That’s a smart guess.
Fields: I think we should leave the different variations up to people’s imaginations. We ran through a lot of them, and we feel really good with every detail of what wound up in that dream. Dreams are very tricky things. They could so easily lapse into cliche.
Having said that, we very clearly see Martha taking files. Does that mean that somewhere in Stan’s subconscious he senses something going on with Martha?
Weisberg: His subconscious knows! His subconscious knows! Everybody’s keeps saying, he’s such a good detective, and now that he’s in love he’s being a lousy detective. But that side of him doesn’t totally get turned off just because he’s in love.
Fields: We’re glad you noticed.
Related: The mail robot was this season’s breakout character. Does it work?
Fields: It does. After it first appeared, a few people we saw uploaded images of mail robots that are still functioning in some offices. Several people piled on that they remembered from their parents' offices in the mid-'80s the mail robot tooling around.
Weisberg: We think there could be a mail robot renaissance.
Noah Emmerich has been adamant that Stan could never betray his country. Of course, he doesn’t write the show, but was Stan’s decision that clear cut for you?
Fields: The truth is we knew where that story was going and it did not occur to us that he would betray his country. That’s not what we were going to do. In the process of trying to tell the emotional story with Nina, the idea was that we’d get far enough so that we thought the audience would think it was a possibility, and I think we were surprised at how convinced we became that he might actually do it. If we had to work on anything, I think it was finding that dream and those other elements to walk it back and explain why he ultimately had to make the very, very hard choice that he did.
Weisberg: Also, that’s the last time Noah talks to the press.
Nina has been our main link to the Rezidentura, and presumably she is on her way to stand trial. Do we continue to follow her even if her story takes her to Russia? The story of Anton and Vasili took place there, so I’m assuming it’s not out of the question.
Weisberg: We are deeply invested in her story, and very interested in that character and what her future holds. Most of what you just said about her future does — that car seems to be heading to the airport!
Fields: That car is headed to the airport and we’re not done with her story.
Susan Misner, who plays Stan’s wife Sandra, was made a series regular this season, and she was significant to that love triangle even though we didn’t see a lot of her. Was that always the intention in terms of how much you were going to use her? Or was making her a regular more about long-term planning for the future?
Weisberg: We were talking about this earlier, the fact that from the very inception of the show the idea was to have these two mirrored marriages, the two couples across the street from each other, and she was a key component of that. That was always part of the plan to see how these couples played against each other. One couple in its own twisted way starting to thrive while the other deteriorates has really been the story. It was always imagined that Sandra would be a vital part of the show.
What can you say then about the cast for next season? Who will be coming back as regulars?
Fields: A lot of the writing staff is vying to be Nina’s new love interest. No, we have an awesome cast and we’re hoping to be able to continue on with them.
You brought in Oliver North to help work on “Martial Eagle.” Can you talk about what he contributed to that episode?
Weisberg: He was great. You get us started on Oliver North, we may never shut up because we had such a good time working with him and getting to know him. He really broke that whole initial part of the story for us and helped us figure out how to break into a camp and what would be happening there. How the camp would be set up, what would be going on there, how you could infiltrate it. He gave us ten different options for infiltrating it, and helped us choose which the best one would be. We talked about how Elizabeth’s part of that operation-assassination could work and how they’d set it up and how we could make it believable and real.
Fields: Even the dialogue of those soldiers. Really, he contributed all the details of everything that happened there.
It was great seeing Margo Martindale back for the finale. What kind of arrangement have you worked out with her going forward? Have you locked her down for a specific number of episodes?
Fields: We haven’t been that specific, but [The Millers executive producer] Greg Garcia, CBS, and Leslie Moonves were extremely generous this year. We hope they’ll continue to be. We love that character and we love Margo. We definitely want her back.
FX Networks CEO John Landgraf said last month he expects The Americans to be on the schedule for “quite some time,” even though the ratings are what they are. Does that free you up to not pay attention to numbers? Or do the ratings ever impact creative decisions — i.e. have there ever been discussions about simplifying plots or adding more action?
Fields: Never. And I don’t think it has to do with ratings. I think the mandate from FX has always just been quality. They’ve been unwavering in that. They’ve never asked us to do anything for the purpose of ratings that I can recall.
Weisberg: It’s a very lucky situation we’re in.
Fields: That said, it’s very interesting with the ratings. The ratings are OK but they’re not spectacular massive immediate numbers. On the other hand, the DVR ratings are a whole different story … I can’t imagine trying to impose a different kind of device would fool a different kind of audience into tuning in. The best we can hope for is to be true to what the show is and hope that that DVR audience will stay with us.