Yesterday we brought you part one of a recent conversation with The Americans showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields. Here we present part two, which focuses on what some key issues raised by the fifth season premiere, “Amber Waves,” including what’s going on with Paige and Matthew, and how that big Fort Detrick sequence came together. Spoilers ahead for the season-five premiere.
Listen to audio of the full interview below, via a supplemental edition of the Vulture TV Podcast.
The first episode opens with this wonderful reveal that Philip and Elizabeth are posing as the Eckerts, the parents of Tuan, who has befriended this student who has come to America from the Soviet Union. I think this is the first time we’ve seen Elizabeth and Philip going undercover together, as parents of another child. Is that something you always had in mind to do at some point? Why did you guys choose to do that now?
Joe Weisberg: I don’t think we ever thought, We want to do that, and came up with a story. It was really the other way around, that we came up with this story and then that appeared. When that appeared, it became the real engine of the whole story. We had this whole food plot that you see happening with that family, and Philip and Elizabeth having to infiltrate that family, and that family having a teenage son. And then eventually: How do you get to the family? Why don’t you get to him through the teenage son? What’s the best way to do that? Have your own teenage son. Once we got that, we knew that was going to become the heart and soul of it. Because the heart and soul is always in the characters here, not as much in the story or in the plot.
Let’s talk about Paige and Matthew, a relationship that began in last season’s finale. At one time, I believe you talked about the two of them becoming an item, and then you abandoned the idea, and then you obviously came back to it and made it happen.
Joel Fields: I wouldn’t say we really gave up on it. I would say it just didn’t work for them at that time. She was too young, he wasn’t interested, and it didn’t go anywhere. Then as we worked our way through last season, we found she was older, his parents had gone through a divorce, and suddenly they were drawn together.
JW: I don’t think we would have been surprised if it had never happened. Like, when it didn’t happen in that early season, it’s not like we then every season were looking, Can we do it now? It did sort of reappear. And we’re like, oh great, now it works.
Talk a little about the psychology on Paige’s part in terms of why she’s interested in Matthew. Knowing what her parents do for a living, dating the FBI agent’s son who lives across the street is the riskiest thing she could possibly do.
JW: That’s true, but you know, it’s complicated. She had a crush on him before she knew what her parents did, so that’s an attraction that goes back a very long way for her. Then I think the danger aspect — the fact that it’s exactly the wrong thing — that’s complicated, too. That often acts as an attractant as well as a repellent.
JF: Also we’re really interested in stories that can be seen from many points of view and that can have multiple truths. And we’re interested in characters that aren’t fully self-aware, and so they’re being driven by a lot of different subconscious motivations. The fact that you can tell that story in a lot of different ways for Paige: You can tell one story where it’s just the boy she’s always had a crush on, and so of course she’d want to be with, and you can tell one story that this is her deepest, most brutal rebellion against her parents, and there’s a dozen or a hundred stories in between. That’s interesting and fun for us.
What you said earlier about the danger aspect — that occurred to me, the fact that the danger is attractive in a way. I was also wondering: Is part of her thinking that if her parents get caught, going across the street could be a safe harbor for her?
JW: That’s interesting. We’ve thought about that a lot. We thought about it particularly in terms of Henry. But I don’t think we ever thought about it in terms of her thinking that. But certainly, unconsciously, she might be thinking that.
After she found out her parents were spies, she was understandably angry and had a lot of resentment toward them. It seems like that has gone away, at least from the episodes I’ve seen in the beginning of this season. Has that morphed into something else, that resentment?
JW: Part of what’s happening very slowly, and in a complex, up and down way that may or may not happen, is a process of her being more integrated into the family, at least the parental part of the family that, if she’s in, then it’s really the whole family plus Henry. I think there’s a great allure to that. What would feel better than that? If the resentment can die down and that side can win out, then she’s really got a family again. I’m not sure — I don’t think the resentment is gone. I think those two sides are in a struggle.
It’s interesting and refreshing to see a teenager playing it that way. I remember myself at that age, and I was resentful toward my parents for just no good reason. They weren’t spies. I think a lot of teenage girls are like that. The fact that Paige is able to wrestle with that feeling and overcome it, at least somewhat, speaks to her character.
JF: One of the places the show really works for us also is when we can take those universal experiences, whether they’re being a teenager or being married or being a parent, and then put them in this crazy-specific, intense and high-stakes world of deep cover agents, and make it all the more difficult for the characters.
1984 was a big year for teen movies; a lot of teen-focused pop culture was surging around that time. Is that something you were thinking about as you were writing this season? You bring in pop culture in brilliant ways that are subtle, but also pointed in terms of what you’re dealing with within the narrative.
JF: First of all, thank you. Secondly, we — I’m trying to think, do we have big …? We have one movie reference that creeps in this season that’s fun. We have some other pop-culture references. But one thing we try to do is not hit the pop-culture references too hard or too intensely, but to let them simply be in the show and let the characters move through the time that they’re in. Last season we had a couple big ones, because they really were part of the storytelling: David Copperfield, The Day After. But this year, I think they’re happening a bit more in the background as the characters are going through some other, more urgent things in their lives.
I want to talk about the Fort Detrick scene, where they go back to dig up William. It is a long sequence and it goes on for a while before you get to the really important thing that happens with Hans slipping and falling into the grave, cutting himself, and, ultimately, dying. Talk about why you felt it was important to show all of the arduous work that went into what they were doing before the key moment happens.
JW: We thought to ourselves, this is something — they’re digging a hole. That’s what’s going on. How can we show this in a way that feels original, that feels fresh, that feels like it hasn’t been done before and conveys what the experience was really like? And we felt that part of that would be to have it be long, not to try to do it in quick cuts and then suddenly, there’s a hole. But actually do it in a slower way that lets the audience feel some of what went into it for the characters. You know, we did a little research and found out that if you do have to dig a hole like that, one of the things you have to do is dig it in shifts because you get worn out from that kind of intense activity. So we built the scene a little bit around that because that felt so real and true.
Once we had that piece of it, we just had little bit of action. Chris Long, who directed the episode and is such a great director, said to us early on, there’s the potential that this could be boring. And we said, “Yes, well. Good luck. Make sure it’s not boring.” And then he just shot it in this incredible, beautiful, compelling way where at least we think it’s really interesting to watch. You’re sort of in it with them. It’s this very low-grade tension, and you know they’ve got a lot of time and you know they’ve got a long thing they’re going to do. But you also feel something is going to happen. We’re not so sick that we would put you through ten minutes of that and have nothing happen at the end.
Were you on set when that was being shot?
JF: We were not, although we visited the set and saw them building the hole itself. Because the hole itself was actually shot in two parts. One was where they actually went out on location, dug a hole, and filmed that portion of it. The other was on our standing sets where they re-created a whole lot of fiberglass and were able to shoot the up angles.
One of the fun things about editing that sequence is, even sitting in the editing room, we couldn’t keep track of what was shot on our stages and what was shot out in the middle of the night.
Wow. On the location part of it, where was that shot?
JF: I believe they were on Staten Island. Is that right, Joe?
JW: I think so, yeah.
Obviously it’s the job of you guys and the director to make the effort that they’re undertaking look arduous. Was it actually arduous for them and the actors to shoot it? You feel the sense of fatigue just watching it.
JF: I don’t think we had a sense of how arduous it would be until after we had written it and they started to prep it, let alone how expensive it would be. We thought, well, look, it’s a hole in the ground. That’s easy for production. It’s not like we’re crashing a 747. It turns out you can’t just dig a hole in the ground and put actors in it because a dirt hole could collapse. And you know, (a) we like Matthew and Kerri, and (b) we have another two seasons to do with them.
So you know, we couldn’t do that. They had to build the sides of the hole, which were then dropped in on location, they had to be done chunk by chunk as they were digging down. They had to take other sides that were re-created on the stages. So it was quite a process and really says something about the production design team and our crew and our lighting crew and our director and the actors that it all looks and feels so real. I think sometimes production design is celebrated when it really stands out and it’s grand in scope and exciting to look at and there are incredible cathedrals and bright costumes. But to us, part of what’s so exciting about working on this show is we have all these artists and they’re creating these sequences that just feel real and true. It seems like they’re happening right there, in the early ’80s, as they would have happened.
This is a nitpicky question — when they finally find William and open the case, the corpse in that case looks like Dylan Baker. Did you guys take a mold of his face last season, anticipating that this was going to happen?
JF: Although we knew we were going to do this at the end of that season, and we had written the first draft of this sequence, we didn’t think to take the mold of his face until this season. Fortunately, Dylan’s a really nice guy so he was willing to lay there and take the mold of his face. We ran into him at the Writers Guild Awards and he asked us where the mold was.
JW: We thought maybe he wanted it.
JF: I don’t know if he wanted it or if he wanted to break it. Maybe he wanted it or he just didn’t want us to have it.
JW: You’ve got to wonder what the resale value of the mold is now. What do you do with that? We have an extra Dylan Baker if anybody needs one.
JF: He should get it and put it in the window of his apartment. He would never be burgled.
That scene feels like a classic Americans scene, like the pulling of the tooth or the folding of the body into the suitcase. I don’t feel like those scenes are in the show to be gratuitous; they illustrate how gruesome Philip and Elizabeth’s work can be. Do you feel an obligation to work one or two of those into every season to drive home that point, that this is a dirty job?
JW: I think we really used to. We used to even sit down a couple of times during the season and ask ourselves if we had enough of them and if there were places where we could find them where we hadn’t found them. But we have not done that the last few seasons. The last few seasons we feel comfortable just letting the story be what the story is and let the characters go where they want to go. And if things like that happen, they happen, and if they don’t, they don’t.
I think that’s one of the reasons that the show has gotten, in a way — we hope it’s gotten better and it feels like it’s gotten more real. Because we don’t push that unless it’s there for the taking.
As you mentioned earlier, you guys have this season and one more, and then that’s the end of The Americans. Do you have the narrative arcs laid out? Do you know what end point you’re driving toward?
JW: We do.
JF: I’m looking at it right now. Literally holding pieces of paper in my hand that contain it. We’ve had them for a while, and really over the last month or six weeks, we’ve been walking and making more notes on how those ideas and arcs are going to take shape as specific scenes.
There’s nothing that could happen that could make you reconsider what that end point is?
JW: That’s a funny question that you ask, because we’ve really had this ending since season two. And if you had asked us then, will you reconsider this and come up with something different, we would have said almost definitely. Because generally, as stories move forward, things happen and they change what comes after. We’re always changing our stories. We’re not just open to that — we think the only way we can get a good story is by staying open and staying flexible and letting the story change as events happen.
In this case, variations of this story have stuck now since season two. But also, we’re not there yet. We still have one season left to break, so it is possible it could change. I think we both have a feeling it’s going to stick.
JF: If it sticks, we hope it won’t be because we’re being intransigent, but because it’s right. If something more right comes along, we’ll do that.