Major spoiler ahead for Wednesday night’s episode of The Americans.
Episode four of The Americans latest season, "Chloramphenicol," ended with a gut-punch: Nina Sergeevna Krilova was executed, in a move that was both unbelievable, and one we should have been able to see coming a mile away. The Americans showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields recently stopped by the Vulture TV Podcast, and we asked them to explain why they killed Nina off the way they did, which, as they put it, was actually the kindest possible way for her to go.
Matt Zoller Seitz: Holy shit. I can't believe you killed her.
Joe: It happened. For four years people having been saying, "When's she gonna die?"
Joel: It was funny. The first season, we just kept watching the tweets and the blogs and everybody kept saying, "This is it. Next week, Nina's done." And we would look at each other and say, "We have so much story to tell." We finally got there.
Gazelle Emami: You really twisted the knife, too, with the dream sequence right before. That was beautifully done though. How did you decide to frame it that way?
Joel: We knew we wanted to do a series of dreams and we had a rough idea of what they might be, and then they expanded to a ludicrous degree, and then were completely reconceived.
Joe: It got simpler and simpler. Dreams are tough. It's hard to do convincing and interesting dreams. They can easily be so cliché and false, so we tried to keep them very simple.
MZS: You do the kind of dreams on the show where you maybe don't immediately know they're dreams.
Joe: We read a book about a Russian spy and we got to the part where they talked about how he was executed, and this was all information that came out after the fall of the Soviet Union, so nobody knew about it for years. And it was really one of the most interesting things we've read in the whole history of this show, because the Soviets — incredibly enough — had come up with this method of execution that was very carefully designed to spare the victim any suffering. As angry as they might have been at these traitors, they didn't want them to suffer. They felt it was more humane if the person was surprised. So we tried to shoot this sequence detail for detail exactly how it was described in this book, which was written by a consultant of ours. And so all those things you see and how Nina was killed are very realistic.
GE: And just the language in that scene. The final line is brutal: “Your sentence will be carried out shortly.”
Joel: It's described so beautifully in the book, Farewell, by Serguei Kostin, which is the story of a Russian spy who was recruited by the French and gave them a tremendous amount of information about KGB efforts to steal technology in the West, all of which was given by the French government to Ronald Reagan, who was very, very interested in it. So he's a very significant Cold War spy. He writes about how the reports came in, that it would always be the same. It would be two guys on either side, and as soon as they said it, the person would slump. They would stand on either side 'cause they knew the person ...
Joe: Their knees would buckle.
Joel: Sergei's our consultant now and he's provided invaluable insight into the scripts and the stories and the characters and the reality of how things would be on the Russian side. We spent a lot of time going back and forth for details on this execution. What would the room look like? It would be tiled so that they would be able to clean it up. There might be a mop in evidence that the victim might not notice until it was too late. And I don't remember how it came up, but towards the end we said, "Oh, by the way, what'd they do afterwards? Would they bring in a stretcher?" And he said, "No, no. They'd just wrap the body in cloth and there would be a coroner to confirm the death. We said, "What kind of cloth?" And he said, "Burlap, of course." Like we should have known that.
MZS: Why burlap?
Joel: Easy to bury. Pick it up, clean it, carry it out, put it in the unmarked grave.
GE: Would the person know that this is a type of execution and that's how it would have happened?
Joe: It was kept secret. That's how they kept the element of surprise.
Joel: That's right. And in fact, you were often moved between cells. So none of this would be surprising until the moment it happened. That was the idea. There was one other beautiful detail. There were just a few of these elite execution squads there, and at one point they found out one of the squads was making the victims kneel before they were executed, and everybody on that squad was fired. They felt that was dehumanizing. That was not the way it was intended to be done.
Joe: Compare this to our system, which is not so humane.
Joel: On the other hand, they weren't really very humane with the families. No information would go out. So let's say you visited your loved one in prison once every two weeks. You'd show up and they would say, "You need to go to the sixth floor." Then you'd go to the sixth floor and they'd say, "Actually you need to go across the street to the basement file department." Then you'd go and you'd stand on line for the file department and they'd hand you the death certificate.
Joe: And you weren't allowed to know where they were buried either.
GE: Can you talk a little bit about the technical process of filming this scene?
Joel: So the execution itself, the gun is unloaded. There's no muzzle flash. There's no bullet. There's just a director saying "Pop" or whatever he said at that moment, and then the action. The muzzle flash, the blood, the brain splatter, is all added after the fact. One of the great things about digital effects now is it's made stunt work much safer. There are still certain stunts that are done with people and are high-risk affairs, but they can become much safer. For example, because you can have safety wires that can be digitally removed. But they can also become safer because you can have gunshots without gunshots.
Joe: One of the things you still need a gunshot for is to get the reactions from the actors.
Joel: That's exactly right! This year, we had a scene where we were firing off some gunshots really to get reactions from extras. The scene was fully permitted and we had police there and we had extra ADs on in the area. Pretty much every time you fire a gun, there are going to be sirens, neighbors are going to be calling the police saying they heard gunshots. It doesn't matter how many signs you put up that there's going to be a movie with gunshots, that there's going to be a TV show and shots will be fired. That's like clockwork.
MZS: The structure of this episode is really fascinating to me because you've got several subplots moving along parallel tracks, and one of them is charged with the possibility of murder, which is Pastor Tim. But some entirely other character gets killed.
Joel: The idea of Epcot has never been so ominous.
MZS: This is like the anti-Disney World. Were you just trying to be cruel with the way you structured this? It's Breaking Bad-level knife-twisting.
Joe: I think we stumbled into that a little bit. Sometimes you sort of structurally stumble into a good thing like that.
Joel: That may be the nicest compliment we've ever gotten, though. Breaking Bad-level knife-twisting. I might have that embossed on something.
GE: I know you can't give away too much, but will Nina’s death have a wide ripple effect?
Joe: It's safe to say it's going to radiate out, probably not in the ways one would expect. Meaning typical Americans style, subtler, more inscrutable ways. [Laughs.]
MZS: You guys always have these things. I call them "plausible deniability metaphors." It's like, I'm pretty sure that's a metaphor or a symbol, but the show has plausible deniability. It wasn't until episode four that I started thinking about this idea of biological agents, contaminants, pathogens, all this kind of stuff. It's like, What is Paige but a biological agent conceivably in the future? And this whole idea of the contamination, it's like a disease, this sort of moral contaminant that's being spread. And they're trying to contain it, and there's an accident and it hurts their own people. But then it's the kind of things where it's like, if I mentioned this to these guys, they're gonna go, "Get out of here."
Joe: I don't think we thought of that one, but it's great. The the reason we have plausible deniability is, we don't come up with the thing for a metaphor, we come up with, We're going to do a biological weapon story. And then after we come up with it and work on it for a while, we do think of all the great things it's a metaphor for, although we missed that one, which I think is a great one, so we'll happily add that to our list. And then once we have the things that's a metaphor for, it does help us, sometimes. We sometimes do things with story to play into the metaphor, but we never start there.
Joel: And we always try to avoid playing too heavily into the metaphor. But Joe and I also bonded early on over Carl Jung and his writings. And we both have a real belief in the power of the subconscious and the impact it has over artistic expression. A lot of those metaphors can bubble out of that area, too, without knowing it.
MZS: Sometimes life is on the nose.
Joel: And I'll tell ya, sometimes characters in real life are so much broader than anything you'd have the balls to write.