L-R: Frank Langella as Gabriel, Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings.
Spoilers ahead for the season-four finale of The Americans.
The tense wrap-up of the fourth season of The Americans resolved a lot of ongoing story lines and set new wheels in motion. There’s a teenage love affair going on between Paige and her neighbor, Matthew, who happens to be the son of an FBI agent, Stan Beeman; the show killed off Dylan Baker’s character, William, the infectious-disease specialist, just as he veered dangerously close to outing Philip and Elizabeth; and to top it all off, Philip’s son, an Afghanistan veteran, is coming to the United States.
The Americans’ showrunners, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, talked to Vulture about the logistical and emotional complexities of writing this season, the motivation behind some of the twists, and much more.
What an eventful season!
Joe Weisberg: Yeah, we wanted to make up for how little stuff happened during the first four seasons. [Laughs.]
When did you make the decision to have Philip’s son become, I assume, a regular character?
Joel Fields: It’s The Americans, so don’t assume anything!
Well, I’m figuring you wouldn’t send him to the United States and then have him just, like, settle in Montana and raise sheep or something.
JW: But that’s the kind of story we love! That’s a great idea!
JF: That was a late-breaking story for us, the possibility that there might or might not be a son that came up back in season one. We liked the fact that it was an ambiguous question hanging over the characters over the course of the next couple of seasons, but it was really much later that all that started to unfold for us.
JW: There’s something affecting when you look into those radio broadcasts about the son in Afghanistan. Even though, in our minds, we didn’t know for sure that the son was real, and you could tell that he didn’t know either, you could also tell he was leaning towards believing it. And there’s something very affecting about that. And maybe that — well, not necessarily consciously, but sort of unconsciously — placed that into our heads as a story line going forward.
I wanted to ask you about Paige and Matthew’s relationship as it relates to the writing of all of the characters. Paige and Matthew are both teenagers living in the same neighborhood, so there naturally might be an attraction there. But she knows that he’s the son of an FBI agent, and she also knows that her parents are Soviets. So how much intentionality is there in her actions with Matthew? Watching it, you could say, “Oh, like mother, like daughter — she’s instinctively getting herself into a situation where she can get inside information on Stan through his son.” But at the same time, it seems to me that her attraction to Matthew is sincere.
There have been many other situations in this season, and in other seasons, where people are doing or saying things for what might be practical reasons, but the emotions they express when they’re carrying out a deception seem real.
JF: One of the things that excites us most is exploring that duality in the characters’ lives and having it be simultaneous rather than binary. Both Joe and I feel that, in most of life, simultaneous emotional truths are at work for all of us. It’s very easy in drama to pick one and say, “This is the clear, singular motivation.” But we’re a complex people, and things happen sometimes for contradictory reasons for us at the same time. And that is always very interesting and emotional to explore.
JW: Yeah, I agree, all our stories are like that. And I wonder … it’s possible we would not have told this story if it weren’t for the fact that Paige had a crush on Matthew going back to the very first season. I think that’s what allowed us to know it was this kind of story — that she had clear, unpolluted feelings of attraction for him before she knew what her parents did. That meant that she had something pure to rely on for herself, in knowing that she could start a relationship with him. She could have her own feelings that this was okay, and that then the complications [of knowing her parents are spies] got layered on top of that, which made it something very interesting.
Whereas if we didn’t have that prior knowledge that she was attracted to Matthew before she knew what her parents really did, it would feel to both her and the audience like it was just a fucked-up thing, or just another Pastor Tim–type situation.
It seems to me that almost every important scene in every episode of this season is like a little self-contained scene, like you’d see in a play. You don’t sprint through important moments like some other shows do, and just give us one or two lines that are important for advancing the plot. And because the characters play roles as part of their assignments, it feels like they’re truly playing different characters just for that scene. I’m thinking in particular of the scene where Elizabeth goes over to, basically, say “I’m pregnant” to her Korean contact’s husband, who she entrapped. For a second I completely forgot that she was Elizabeth and I bought into the truth of that scene: Pregnant woman confronts her married lover.
Do you ever think about your show in those terms: Here is our chance to write a little one-scene show about a specific situation? Like a separate but related play that exists within the larger play?
JW: We certainly think about it in terms of the part you said, about how these main characters often have to become actors playing certain parts in scenes. Philip and Elizabeth have to play these parts in a lot of the scenes. We feel that not in all of the scenes, but in many of them, that’s a big part of the complexity of their lives. And it’s sort of fascinating, heartrending, interesting.
JF: It’s interesting that you describe those moments in terms of individual, singular scenes that live on their own; in fact, weirdly, we try to think of the show as a full world where we’re picking scenes that we’re going to show in order to tell the story. The way we break the stories is, we’ll walk and we’ll talk about, “What’s the story we want to tell?” Once we’ve figured that out, we’ll ask this question: “What are the scenes we want to see?” In a way that is answering your question. The writing of the show often comes back to what, in the big story — in the 24-hour day, 365-day-a-year experience for these characters; for all these different characters — are the scenes that we want to see? What are the most interesting lines in there?
The most surprising development in the entire season for me was the relationship between the family and Pastor Tim. I’m surprised that he made it out of the season alive. But I’m even more surprised that he seems to actually be their friend now!
JF: I don’t think we ever considered killing him off. As much as everybody was speculating that he was about to go, we were really exploring the question of how these characters would deal with being in this box, and how would that [situation] unfold?
Also, Tim is a character with whom we had a lot of sympathy. He really does, on some level, want to do the right thing — that’s been his whole problem all along. And the Pastor Tim thing also was an opportunity to explore a lot in terms of these character dynamics.
JW: It was pretty apparent to us early on that [the Soviets] couldn’t kill Tim because of the effect it would have on Paige. It would destroy her parents’ relationship with her. And that was it. The question then became, with that constraint of not being able to kill him off, what else could we do? The fact that he ends up being actual friends with them did take us a little bit by surprise, but [once we figured that out], that changed our sense of who this guy was, and how we would always see him from the moment we got to know him. And so we followed that through the season, and throughout the story, he just could not open his heart up to them.
JF: But it also led to one of my favorite lines in the season, which was in episode ten, when Paige was convinced that her parents had something to do with his disappearance, and Elizabeth says, “God, why would we do something as stupid as leave Allison, and, God, she thinks we would do that? If she only knew everything we did to not kill him!”
Are we ever going to see Martha again?
JW: We’re not going to answer that!
JF: What kind of a spoiler-y question is that, Matt?
I’m sorry I disappointed you with that question, guys! I have no idea why I asked that.
JW: Come on! Why don’t you just go ahead and ask us what the last scene of the show is going to be? [Laughs.]
Okay: So you have two more seasons to go after this one. Is two a number that FX gave you, a number that you asked for? And are you happy with it?
JF: We’re thrilled with it. They came to us some time ago and said, “As you start thinking about the end of season four, we’re all thinking about how the show’s going to wrap up. What do you need? How do you want to tell the story?” That was something they really put on our end, which was generous and allowed us creatively to figure out what we thought would be best.
Do you feel that the public has finally discovered the show in a big way? I’ve seen so much commentary online, not just from critics, to the effect that this is the best season.
JW: In the responses that we’re getting, there does seem to be some sense of build, of momentum and passion. The thing that is most meaningful to us that we hear from the audience is that they’re getting it. They’re plugged into our creative intent and to the things we’re excited about. We’re up very late at night trying to get it just right, and then months and months later an episode will finally air, and people will follow up the episode on Twitter, or in blog posts or recaps, and just really plug into the show. That’s really meaningful to us.
In the scene where Paige and her mother are watching a soap opera and Paige tells her it’s all about the emotions, not the logic: Is that a not-too-thinly veiled commentary on how we should be watching The Americans?
JW: Well — we think the show is logical!
Okay — maybe the word plausibility would be better than logic, then?
JW: Well, you know, so much of life is implausible. Did you see the piece in The Guardian called “The Day We Discovered Our Parents Were Russian Spies”?
JW: Well, you should read this article, because ever since I read that article, from now on whenever somebody asks me that question, I’m going with: “This show is completely plausible.”