This interview contains spoilers for the season-three finale of The Americans.
Are you done catching your breath from last night’s season finale of The Americans? No? It’s okay. Take all the time you need. Whenever you’re ready, we asked co-showrunner Joel Fields all our pressing questions about season three. Are our favorite Russian spies cracking under the weight of an ever-increasing body count? Are Martha and Kimmy both doomed? Can murder ever be a romantic gesture? (Spoiler: Yes, but don’t try it at home.)
I heard a rumor that you’d written two versions of that Paige phone call: one in which she tells Pastor Tim the truth, and one in which she doesn’t. Is that true?
I think that’s more of a rumor. What’s true is we wrote longer versions of that phone call so we could kind of decide exactly how much dialogue to show onscreen in that phone call. But we always knew she was calling Pastor Tim and spilling some beans.
How did you come to the conclusion that Paige would tell?
It’s a funny thing. There’s so much we know about this story before we start the season, even, and there’s much that we discover along the way. We knew Philip and Elizabeth were going to tell Paige in season three about their true identities. We surprised ourselves by when and how that happened. And the idea that she was going to be compelled to tell Pastor Tim was something that came fairly late and really grew out of us writing those scenes after she found out the truth, and experiencing the scene work in the extent of her pain and loss. It became clear that this was something she just couldn’t do.
I love how it happens just as Elizabeth is telling Philip that her read on the trip is that it went really well.
It’s one of my favorite moments, too! Look, Elizabeth is a smart woman, and she’s particularly smart at reading character. She knows there’s a long process of adjustment here. But for me, this is a good, moving step. And they had a good moment on the curb there where Paige got to be honest with her about her pain at lying, and she got to really have a great, maternal moment of telling her daughter the truth: that everyone lies.
It’s funny that Elizabeth is sort of blinded by her feelings when it comes to Paige, and yet she told Philip that maybe his feelings for Martha are clouding his judgment. And what is next for Martha? I’m very worried about her!
Everybody is always very worried about Martha, rightfully! But on the other hand, that marriage keeps getting better and better. You think it can’t get any better, and it does. In a lot of ways, this season, it would have been easier for him to shut down this operation. He could have killed her or sent her away. And instead, he decides to double down on their intimacy and their trust. And that incredible moment so beautifully played by both of them at the end of episode 12, in an act that was not easy for Philip, to kill Gene and set him up for the crime that Martha was committing, to take the heat off her. It’s the ultimate romantic gesture. Who wouldn’t want to be married to someone who would kill for you?
Is it spy suicide for Philip to reveal to Martha what he looks like without any disguise on?
It’s spy suicide — unless he trusts her. But on some human level, there’s an exact proportion between intimacy and risk. Right? Between how much you’re opening yourself up as a human being and how much you’re risking pain as a human. In this case, it’s literally life and death.
It seems like the brutality of this job is really taking a toll on Philip. Even though he’s always been the one closer to defecting, it looks like the actual body count is just weighing on him more than ever before. What’s his state of mind right now?
In the same scene in which he says, “We stopped the missiles and we’ve saved a lot of lives,” he says, “I feel like shit all the time.” And you’re right: it’s becoming harder and harder for him to hold that pain. And so he finds himself, I think, to his surprise, he finds himself at est, which is one lurching step towards trying to figure out what to do with that. And another one is trying to share that with Elizabeth, but he doesn’t quite know how, and then they’re distracted by their greatest enemy on the planet escalating this war.
Tell me about that Reagan speech. What’s the thinking behind which historical events are integrated into the show and how these characters interact with them?
Joe and I always remain open to things changing as seasons unfold, and they often do. We had, from the beginning, that we would end with the “Evil Empire” speech. It just seemed like such a powerful, pivotal part of the Cold War drama in which these characters are swept up. And here’s Philip, struggling with the pain of being a soldier, and Elizabeth, having had a brutal season herself, having to help put Annelise into a suitcase, having to watch Lois Smith [the actress who played Betty] be forced to commit suicide in front of her, and be brought face-to-face with somebody telling her that she’s evil — and Ronald Reagan essentially tells her she’s evil right there and then — but in a way, it’s a call to arms. And in a way, that’s a kind of ugly validation for her of everything she has to do, And that’s part of the horrible cycle of these conflicts: Every horror becomes a validation of the next horror.
I don’t know if you saw this, but we did a ranking of all the most horrifying moments from this season.
I did see it! I don’t know that anyone has ever done a breakdown of my most horrifying moments.
Did you realize as you were writing this season that things were getting particularly gruesome? Like, are you ever stepping back and going, “Wow, we did the suitcase scene and the tooth extraction and the necklacing …”?
We don’t really calculate that! Although it’s funny, our script coordinator keeps a running tally for us, which we don’t really look at until the end of the season, of murders and honey traps. And we asked at the end of the season how it was going, and someone in the office is a former economist and created a bar graph of it. And Joe and I nearly leapt out of our seats: “Holy mackerel, we’ve killed a lot of people!”
Do people tell you that the scenes between Kimmy and Philip are even more disturbing than the bloodier, violent scenes? And is he still seeing her, or will she not be coming back next season?
In our heads, there’s a lot of story that’s taking place that we don’t see. And part of that is, he’s got to continue to manage her, and he’s seeing her less often than Gabriel would like, but it’s often enough to switch out those tapes. There may be more uncomfortable scenes with her going forward.
What went into the casting process for that character? Julia Garner is so good, and acts as this mirror for Paige. How did you determine how close in age they would be so the parallel would be there, but it wouldn’t be too on-the-nose?
During our casting process, we wrote a scene we never intended to shoot between Kimmy and Paige for the audition, because we wanted to see the characters together. We wanted to make sure there was just the right symmetry and just the right asymmetry. It was on our minds a lot.
What happened in the scene? I wonder what those two could even talk about. Listening to Yaz, I guess?
The scene was really something we never intended to use. It was a scene of them being forced to do a chemistry project together, and Kimmie was asking about her boyfriend and about religion, and it was a pretty good scene! We should publish it on the DVD extras or something. There’s no way it would ever be a part of the show, but we got to see them together.
Can you talk about the mechanics of Elizabeth and Paige’s trip, both the research aspect of how someone in Elizabeth’s position would be able to travel, and how you were able to shoot it?
They only make it as far as West Germany, which was our plan from the beginning. Getting them into Russia would’ve been really bananas, and the KGB realizes that. And filming it was a challenge. Figuring out how we were going to shoot West Germany in New York was tough. We built that hotel room on our stages, and the street scene was this incredible neighborhood, I think in Queens, that stunningly not only had this great West German architecture, but also when we pulled stock footage from the period, early ‘80s West Germany, there was literally architecture in the background that perfectly matched where that scene took place.
What about the blocking of the actors in that room and deciding what these three people would say to each other?
We spent a long time writing that and a long time talking it through, and Dan Sackheim did such a beautiful job directing it and filming it, I don’t know whether I’m more moved by the images of them from a distance holding hands, or of just the power of what was going on in their eyes when her mother raised her hand and waved Paige over and they sort of all wound up looking at each other. The levels of meaning and personal experience were so rich there.
I only have time for one more question, so I have to ask you the most important thing: What is happening with the mail robot?
We are deeply committed to the mail robot story. No spoilers, but there could be an affair with the pen in the future.