anatomy of a scene

How That Grisly Scene on The Americans Was Filmed

Photo: Patrick Harbron/FX/FX Networks.

Spoilers ahead for tonight’s episode of The Americans.

Nothing like a little dismemberment to bring an estranged couple back together. About halfway through last night’s episode of The Americans, Elizabeth and Philip’s efforts to extract their comrade “Harvest” have gone balls-up, and both the accountant — who ultimately takes the same cyanide pill Elizabeth has been supplied with — and Marilyn (Amy Tribbey) are dead. While there’s no need to get rid of the Chicago spy’s body since he’s already been made by the FBI, Marilyn’s corpse has got to go. But wait! Just as Philip is about to load her body into the car in the underground garage they’ve escaped to, he spies an ax in a fire-equipment box. In a wordless, nearly four-minute scene, the couple reconnects over the amputation of Marilyn’s hands and head — which are tidily packed into their duffel bag.

The goal for the quietly horrifying scene, in which Elizabeth assists Philip with only looks passing between them, was something “cold and simple that didn’t shy away from showing a bit of gore, but also didn’t relish in it,” says director Stefan Schwartz, who also oversaw the execution of Nina Sergeevna in season four. “In this moment, we see the brutal truth that Philip is faced with, and the toll it takes on him — and on Elizabeth, too. Because she sees what he’s going through and appreciates what he’s prepared to do for her. They become closer because of it.”

When it came to the actual hacking up of Marilyn, Schwartz says he rejected the original plan calling for head and hand casts of Tribbey because “it always looks fake to me.” So except for the moment when Philip drags her body out of the van (for which a stunt double was used), that’s all Tribbey — eyes open, lips parted — in the scene. “I’ve never witnessed my own body being chopped to pieces,” says the actress, who warned friends and family ahead of the episode airing. Here’s Schwartz and Tribbey’s anatomy of the scene.

Tribbey knew Marilyn’s days were numbered when the showrunners called.
When “the Js” — as everyone calls co-showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields — spoke with the actress, who’s been on the show for three seasons, they said they had good news and bad: Marilyn was going out — but she’d be doing it in style. They asked Tribbey if she was familiar with season two’s suitcase scene, telling her it would be better than that. “I believe I squealed in delight,” she says, laughing. “I thought, if you’re going to have to go, it’s an honor to be taken out in grand fashion.”

Schwartz’s approach was different from that infamous limb-breaking effort.
While the director was certainly aware of that gruesome scene — he’d shot the previous episode — he wanted something starker and simpler. “If Philip had been in full spy mode, it would’ve been faster; he wouldn’t have thought twice about what he was doing,” he said. “Whereas in this version, he does.” But his mind is still sharp enough to “find the efficient and simple solution.”

Tribbey really kept her eyes wide open, but there was some CGI sleight of hand.
Though it wasn’t in the script, the actress says she figured that since the bullet to Marilyn’s cheek didn’t stop her from flooring the van, she died with her eyes open. “They were concerned that I wouldn’t be able to do it without blinking,” she says. But it was just a matter of “being still and figuring out where to focus my eyes to look the most dead.” (The answer was a point right in front of her.) To get the shots of her severed hands, she contorted her elbows in such a way while lying down that they could be removed in postproduction. Tribbey loved the added sound they make when Elizabeth stacks them for packing. “It sounds just like two pieces of flesh hitting each other.”

A real ax was used for the shots of it lodged in Marilyn’s neck.
Though it was supposed to take Philip several swings to decapitate Marilyn, Schwartz had another idea. “If you don’t hit the neck quite hard enough, the ax can get stuck in between the vertebrae, and that appealed to me.” To achieve that scenario, an ax with the blade partially cut out was laid into Tribbey’s neck, “and Matt mimed it being stuck and pulling it out,” Schwartz says. Tribbey confesses now that she felt pressure on her windpipe — though she never told the two stars, who constantly checked on her to make sure she was okay. CGI was used to enhance the point of contact between blade and flesh, and to add blood.

Philip silently packing the empty cyanide necklace speaks volumes.
After Marilyn’s body parts are put in the bag, Philip drops in the dead man’s pill pendant. “The pointed message to Elizabeth is, this could kill you just as easily as it killed ‘Harvest,’” says Schwartz. While the mission hasn’t completely unified the couple, he says they’re in better shape than before. “Rather than in a normal way a couple gets back together, the Js have a lovely, twisted, dark way of doing it.”

How That Grisly Scene on The Americans Was Filmed