The Americans Showrunners on Season 4’s Biggest Episode Yet

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Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Spoilers ahead for Wednesday night's episode of The Americans.

Despite a few moments of panic, like the mishandling of a deadly biological agent, the fourth season of The Americans has been a slow burn of developing situations for Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) Jennings, the KGB agents hiding out as suburbanites in ’80s D.C. The initiative to make Paige (Holly Taylor), their eldest daughter, aware of their secret has been jeopardized by her decision to consult with her pastor and his wife. Philip’s relationship with Martha (Alison Wright), the secretary he’d married under a false name and deployed as an unknowing FBI informant, has reached its endgame. And the sense of mission drift that’s been affecting the Jennings family, particularly Philip, has become particularly acute.

All those tensions came to a boil in the season’s gripping eighth episode, “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears,” which aired Wednesday night. Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields talked to Vulture about Martha’s departure, Elizabeth’s blow-up, and the wonders of David Copperfield, onscreen and off-.

Let’s jump right into Elizabeth’s big scene with Paige. This explosion seemed a long time coming, but her anger is not necessarily limited to Paige. What has brought us to this point, and what’s going through Elizabeth’s head at this moment?

Joel Fields: It may be what Paige needed most, but what strikes me is that Elizabeth, on the one hand, can be a very tough parent and she’s very thoughtful about everything she does. On the other, this is a rare moment in which she loses control a little bit. The pressure really shows. But ultimately, in [losing control], she’s finally able to say what needed to be said.

Joe Weisberg: Every time I saw that scene, it brought me back to that scene in season two [episode nine, “Martial Eagle"] when Elizabeth gave that speech about mopping the floor. [Ed. note: Angry with Paige over a $600 donation to the church, Elizabeth wakes her up in the middle of the night and forces her to clean the fridge and mop the floor.] It was an early example of Elizabeth having this tough Soviet upbringing and a totally different conception of what it was like to grow up, how kids should be treated, and how they should be raised. Not soft like an American. It can be easy to forget sometimes where Elizabeth comes from and the different perspective she has on the world.

In this scene, it’s much easier to relate to her. Easy to relate to how she feels betrayed and how Paige needs to hear the truth. But there’s still something about the deepest place it’s coming from, of not being a kid who maybe to her seems coddled. Elizabeth is the person who loves her most in the world, and she wants to help her and get her back on her side, get her back to a place where she’s going to grow up to be a successful person.

JF: Keri’s performance is so brilliant and real and relatable in that scene. Part of what makes it so rich is that you have all that specificity to Elizabeth’s character that Joe was talking about. But at the same time, it has universal truths about parenting. Eventually, everybody loses it with their kid at some point. Elizabeth has shown that ability to really explode when the occasion calls for it. I’m thinking of her contentious relationship with Claudia (Margo Martindale), their handler, in some of those earlier seasons.

You talked about her losing control. But is there also some calculation to it? Is there a deeper strategy behind what she’s doing here?

JW: I think she knows what she’s doing. The word “strategy” is such an interesting one to use, because, as Joel was saying, this was parenting. It’s also Elizabeth’s whole character. Elizabeth is somebody who’s trained in the arts of long-term strategy, and how each of these elements figures into this [confrontation] is probably hard to tease out. I don’t know if they can be teased out.

JF: There’s a complex mix of emotions that go into parenting, and none of that means she has to be exactly 100 percent in control in that moment. More specifically, none of it means those emotions aren’t real. A “strategy” implies that she’s putting this on to achieve an end. But I don't think that’s the way things work with people, in general, and certainly not the way things work with parenting. She can be feeling all that she’s feeling and now’s the time she’s letting loose. She can not think it’s a mistake, even make herself believe that it’s the right strategic choice, and it may or may not be. Because parenting isn’t about one incident. It’s about the aggregate of how we relate to one another over a long period of time.

Do you think it’s also informed a bit by her frustrations toward Philip, that it’s not entirely Paige she’s talking to in that scene?

JF: I don’t think that had really occurred to us, no. More to the point in this specific episode is all the pressure that she’s been under, and the stress that’s been building up. Not really with regard to Philip, but just with regard to the pressure of having to manage the Flanders situation, having the manage the Pastor [Tim] situation, and having to manage the Martha situation to the extent that they did. It speaks to how difficult it’s been over the past years, months, weeks, and days leading up to that moment.

I mention Philip because it seems like Elizabeth feels the need to get control over a situation where her husband and her daughter are weak. She needs to enforce a discipline that’s been lacking.

JF: I think Philip would be on the same page with her on this, honestly.

JW: He might be happy to let her be the tougher parent. That’s how marriages work sometimes.

There’s a sense of mission drift that’s been affecting the Jenningses, and perhaps that’s just the arc of the show in general. Where are they at? How much is ideology figuring into their thinking at this point in the show?

JF: We’ve been tracking that question the whole series. There’s been a lot of drift for Philip. He’s been exploring that question for himself, in many ways unconsciously and perhaps a little consciously. I don’t think he uses that word. The word “ideology” is not a meaningful word to Philip. But I think questions of why he does what he does and what matters to him, are examined subconsciously and to some degree consciously.

For Elizabeth, I also don't know that the word “ideology” is resonant to her, either, but her whole motivation for what she does are these principles that she believes in. Unlike Philip, she’s stayed true to those.

Elizabeth really underestimates Martha’s significance to Philip, or maybe she doesn’t understand. She also ridicules his involvement in EST. Are those two gestures connected in your mind?

JF: I don’t know if I would exactly use the words “underestimates” or “ridicules,” but I do know what you’re saying. In both cases, I would say she has some doubts and insecurities about them, and maybe those come out as making fun of him or belittling him. In both cases she knows that there’s something formidable there.

JW: It’s also challenging in both cases because, as with any marriage or relationship, they don’t always see eye to eye. She doesn’t see the world the same way that Philip does, even though he’s her husband and they’ve been together all this time. Try as she might, she can only see those things through her own eyes.

Martha’s departure at the beginning of the episode is so touching because she’s considerate of “Clark,” despite the fact that he’s ruined her life. What does that say about Martha and what does that say about their relationship?

JF: I was going to say “tragically beautiful,” but maybe it’s just simultaneously tragic and beautiful and maybe those are related but not exactly connected. But there’s something about her choice in this awful moment, to look for the best thing she can find in him. It might offer a sliver of hope. A little bit of light in the darkness, maybe.

JW: What’s the feeling equivalent to counterintuitive? It’s counter-emotional almost. But what Martha chose to do, or did do, was ultimately going to be about her, and what she was going to do and feel going forward. Because he basically said good-bye. This is it. And she could have said, “Fuck you,” and screamed and yelled and pulled his hair out and given him everything he probably earned. But what did it matter? How was that going to help her? If she could summon a certain type of grace, or certain dignity, inside of her, maybe that would put her in better stead as she heads off on this treacherous journey ahead. And the fact that that’s what she summoned said something sort of amazing about her.

The EST seminars emphasize the importance of freeing oneself from one’s past. But the meaning for Philip in the present is a little more ambiguous. Is there a degree to which this kind of compartmentalizing helps him do his job? Or does it just distance him from it?

JF: It may be both. That’s the problem with self-knowledge: You get the power of self-possession and ability to handle more of what’s going on, but unfortunately along with that comes the impetus to change what it is you want to handle. That’s going to be part of his struggle.

The David Copperfield special is so perfect that if you staged it yourself, you’d be accused of taking wild creative liberties. How did that come to figure into the episode? How long have you really been anticipating working that in as a crucial component of the show?

JW: Since Joel was 15. (Laughs.)

JF: It’s true. And it’s simultaneously true that we had not been looking to structure an episode around this at all. In fact, we were deep into breaking this episode and we were looking for a way to make that big jump work. It had been up on our red wall, and we also do these calendars that tell us when the show is taking place. We looked at it one night and it became clear it was taking place right around David Copperfield’s special — which, I will confess, I remember every moment of. One night on the drive home, as we were struggling with this story point, I pulled up the special on my iPhone, and just started to ... I just looked at the whole special that night and [to Weisberg], did I call you, email you, or run in the next morning saying, “Oh my God. Oh my God?”

JW: I’m sticking with my initial answer. That since he was 16, Joel has had two goals. One, to put David Copperfield into a show, and two, to make a TV show as a musical. I have so far refused all efforts to turn The Americans into a musical.

JF: Hey, it ain’t over yet, pal. (Laughs.) [Copperfield] really was such a great entertainer and such a prominent part of that period of time. Among the great things in making this episode is, [Copperfield] was incredibly generous making footage accessible, but also getting on the phone with us and talking to us about how that special came to be and how they wrote some of that speech. Which is featured in that footage. He says Frank Capra helped him write it. His great generosity with the material and with his time is something we’ll never forget.

Let’s talk about the time jump. The show is pretty fascinating in the way it deals with time because it can move quite slowly over the course of a season, then it can suddenly spring months ahead, like it did in this episode. What is your general philosophy in dealing with time? And what was behind the jump here?

JW: I think to a certain degree, our philosophy is to be true to our story and what our story dictates. We’ve found that our story itself has more philosophy than we do. Or we should say, our story has its own plan. And our story tends to move slowly through time. It tends to want to be told in almost real time, so that very little time passes between episodes and over the course of the season. Usually we get through a couple of months. Then also, because of the way our seasons end, it becomes very hard to cast any time between seasons.

I remember when we started this show we thought, boy, it would be great to end the series with a collapse of the Soviet Union. Which would’ve meant it would’ve been a ten-year show. And after we passed just two years in three seasons, we were like, “Well, that’s going to be tough.”

JF: We called John Landgraf and said, “Look, we need 16 seasons.” (Laughs.)

It becomes an interesting problem, trying to just pace the show out.

JF: But on the other hand, with regard to episode eight, there were some needs that were also dictated by the story. After that big dramatic moment for Paige and her parents, the idea of being able to leap forward and see what their lives as a family looked like after time had passed was very interesting to us. After all the incredible stress they’ve been under, we get to jump forward and see how things might look after a break. Then we also had another issue, which was that the Young Hee operation that’s been playing so prominently over the course of the season needed a lot of time to set up. The time transition gives us an opportunity for that relationship [between Elizabeth and Young Hee] to develop further offscreen, which will be important as they move forward.

JW: It’s scary as shit because all your pieces have to work. If you [time jump] right in the middle of a season or right in the middle of an episode, you have to be convinced that it’s all going to work, and even then it’s still a leap of faith. But we were quite happy with how it turned out.

This is the first episode directed by Matthew Rhys. How did that come about and why this episode?

JF: What episode a director gets to direct is generally one of happenstance because we set the schedule earlier than you know who’s going to get that script. But we’re glad it happened this way. He did such an amazing job with it. There was so, so much there. Not a moment was missed.

JW: We had enormous confidence in Matthew. He had directed before on Brothers and Sisters and just knowing him is to know what a smart person, insightful artist, and hard worker he is. We didn’t have any doubts about entrusting him with an episode of the show.

As big and important as the episode as this one is, it’s not as if we could look at the beginning of the season and say, “Oh, let's see, that’s going to be an unimportant episode of The Americans. You actually don’t want that one.” (Laughs.) Last season we had a new director for our show, [Larysa Kondracki], come in and she got the episode where Philip and Elizabeth tell Paige who they really are. When she came in, we were like, “Welcome to our show for the first time. You got the most important episode of the entire series.” And now that’s Matthew.