"The Americans'" creators discuss the season finale

"We wanted to do something that, as crazy as this world is, felt grounded for the characters"

Published May 2, 2013 3:00AM (EDT)

Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in "The Americans"                   (FX/Craig Blankenhorn)
Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings in "The Americans" (FX/Craig Blankenhorn)

"The Americans," FX's excellent and exciting spy series about two married, deep-cover KGB agents, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, living in 1980s America, finished its first season in fitting fashion: with a finale full of, but never overrun by, action. The season ender contained not one but two covert missions, a sting, a high-speed car chase, and a shooting, but ended quietly, with the CIA momentarily foiled and Philip and Elizabeth, a bullet wound in her side, finally reconciled. Next season has near endless juicy material to explore: Nina, now a USSR double agent, is out to flip Stan; Elizabeth may want Philip to come home, but one of his alter-egos is still married to Martha; the Jennings' daughter is getting suspicious of her mother; and the Cold War is only escalating. "The Americans''' two showrunners, Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, also the series creator and a former CIA agent himself, spoke with me about the finale, season 2, the intentional lack of cliffhanger and those super wigs.

How much of what happened this season did you know was going to happen when you began?

Joe Weisberg: We had a lot of ideas and plans about where it would end. I would say we had two or three thoughts that we really thought would stick, probably one or two that did stick, and one or two that totally changed.

What changed?

Weisberg: A lot of things about where Phil and Elizabeth’s story ended changed, whereas Stan and Nina ended up in a place very close to where we thought they would. Does that sound right, Joel?

Joel Fields: If around episodes 1 or 2 you had asked about Martha and Stan and Nina, particularly Nina’s turn and Martha’s turns, we could have answered and those answers would have stayed constant through the finale. And if you had asked us about Phil and Elizabeth’s character journey, we would have given you very confident answers that transformed over the course of the storytelling

Like Phil and Elizabeth would not have ended up reconciling?

Fields: Quite the opposite. I think we thought that they would make up sooner. And what we found is that their separation was kind of this jolt. We feared that in breaking them up we were breaking the story. It would separate them and they wouldn’t be together and it would make the drama of the show less interesting. And instead what we found is they were suddenly free to explore their real feelings out of the pressure of this fake marriage. And once they were able to do so, there was a lot for them to explore.

The separation felt like it gave Elizabeth, in particular, time to sort out her real feelings.

Fields: We’re always interested in these moments where Elizabeth has these emotional cracks in the ice around her, and some of those were more likely to happen as she found herself alone. One of my favorite scenes of the season is that hotel room scene where she thinks that Philip is going to come home and it turns out he’s going to find an apartment. And you can see her heart broken in that moment, in a way that I don’t think you’ve seen her before. I found it very moving to see. And I think for her it was also very profound to be feeling that way.

In the finale there was a moment when Paige comes downstairs in the middle of the night, when I just wished that Elizabeth would hug her.

Weisberg: You know, I don’t find her to be as cold as a mother as some people do. I do see that a lot of people respond that way. To me there have been moments of warmth, when she took Paige on. I don’t find her to be entirely cold and unaffectionate.

Fields: We had that scene where Paige was upset about her unrequited crush on her neighbor, and Elizabeth gave what, to her, was the best, most supportive mother advices she could. [Laughing] But yes, she punched a needle through her ear. And there are rules in the house. Like once you’re in bed you are never allowed to go into your parents' room.

Weisberg: [Laughing] You didn’t have rules like that?

Yeah, and also the one, if you have a nightmare, wake your brother. Has it surprised you that some people have found her to be so cold?

Weisberg: People have such wide reactions to her. We like to watch the Twitter feed during an episode, and you’ll literally see one tweet from someone who is like, “She’s the iciest bitch of all time!” And then the next person is like, "I just love her, she’s the greatest ever.” And she’s our character, we feel defensive of her, but at the same time we obviously write to her having a very serious coldness, there’s no question that’s there. We just also feel connected to the warmth that’s beneath that coldness, that one day we’re very interested in having come out. I don’t know if it’s anything surprising. We get the best kick out of it when people love her as she is. It’s just like anybody else, you want the characters to be loved the way they are.

The finale leaves so much material to explore going forward, but there was no real cliffhanger. When you were writing it, what were you going for?

Weisberg: We were going for what you just said, not a huge cliffhanger, but a lot of stuff to go forward with. We wanted that.

And you were not interested in doing a cliffhanger because …

Fields: I’ll fill in the end of that sentence. From the moment Joe and I first met and started talking about this— about what is the general tone and feeling and what is it that we want to achieve and what is important to the show— we always kept returning to the characters and themes we wanted to explore. And we felt like we didn’t want to be drawn into a series of breathless cliffhanger escalation, episode after episode, that we had to keep topping. We wanted to do something that, as crazy as this world is, felt grounded for the characters. And particularly in the finale we wanted to do that.

Have you thought a lot about season 2?

Weisberg: Since we wrapped up the final episode, I have made a desperate and wholly unsuccessful effort to turn my brain off, but all my brain really wants to do is generate ideas for season 2. So right now I’m starting to jot down ideas I really wish I could stop

Do you have any broad-stroke sense of what you will want to explore?

Weisberg: For season 1, most of all, we wanted to set up this marriage and have this marriage really resonate for people. If we could get people to connect to this couple, we would have really done our job. We haven’t gotten that far into thinking about the second season yet in a really concrete way, but one thought we have is we want to get a little deeper into the family, and the child relationships.

Which is suggested by the very last beat of the finale. If this season began with the possibility that Philip, especially, might flip, the second season seems now set up to explore the possibility that Stan will.

Weisberg: Well, I think Arkady thinks that, but I don’t think we know if he’s right or not. I think it t remains to be seen if that’s a possibility.

Fields: We know Stan’s a very complicated, damaged guy and we know he has a very strong sense of belief. And people who have extremely powerful and entrenched beliefs, that lack of flexibility can be a lever for the other side, or they can just never change. And the last thing we know is that in Noah Emmerich we have an actor who can deliver anything we choose to write for him, and any direction we wind up going.

I had read that Stan didn’t originally have his back story. When did that get added?

Weisberg: Stan was originally going to be a somewhat differing kind of character, more clearly the upstanding FBI guy tracking them down. A little more, not comic relief exactly, but a little more of a guy who maintained his sense of humor all the time and was there to laugh and see the lighter side of things. We started to explore ways for him to be a more dangerous foil to Philip and Elizabeth and that was the genesis of the back story, that he had an experience that was similar to theirs, that would give him insight into who they were, and that would make him more dangerous to them. And that story itself made him a darker and more complex character

And he has gotten darker. Especially when he killed Vlad.

Fields: We thought about that endlessly. Our sense is that all of the characters on both sides are good and bad simultaneously, so having him do that played into our sense of what the show should be. One of things that’s interesting about that episode is that our good guys, our heroes, Phil and Elizabeth begin that episode by doing something so bad, killing this guy Amador, that we like a lot. And so you start to drift away from them and drift back into the FBI camp, where it seems like as Americans you are supposed to be in the first place. And then Stan does this horrible thing, and you end up all over the place. It felt like that episode was a microcosm for the whole series.

Do you worry about the characters' behavior ever shading too far into the despicable?

Weisberg: One thing that we talk about with this show is that at the end of the day, these guys are leading their double life and doing the things they are doing because they have a value system that supports it. They are not doing it for money or because they are narcissists or for selfish reason. Now, it may be that their value system or political system isn’t one that we agree with, or were brought up in ourselves, but it doesn’t mean we can’t understand the idea of making sacrifices for a value system. In a weird way these guys are relatable.

Fields: They are not, as many cable antiheroes are, sociopaths. They are people with real feelings who understand what the impact of their actions is.

If and when Martha finds out about Philip’s real identity, she is not going to agree with that!

Fields: There’s that moment where Elizabeth kills a security guard in the assassination attempt episode, which from her point of view is just a necessary act of self-defense: As soon as he’s reaching for that radio, that’s life and death for her. With Martha, Philip chooses to pursue what he pursues every step of the way. It’s such a horrible thing to do to another person. On the other hand, in that moment where he says to her, “I’ve been married before and it didn’t go so well,” there’s honesty there. We ask ourselves, what are his real feelings? There’s the moment he says to her, “Martha, you’re a good person.” On some level he believes that.

Weisberg: People in a lot of way have responded, I think very understandably, more strongly to Philip marrying Martha than any of the people they killed, like it’s a much worse crime and more horrible thing to do. And I understand. It feels more personal. It feels like such a crime of the heart to take a person’s sense of reality and toy with that, or destroy that, or do violence to that. I also think that’s why it’s a powerful story and a good story to tell, even if a very cruel thing to do. I don’t know if I could actually argue it’s worse than killing somebody, I don’t believe that. But I do believe it maybe feels that way. But, oh boy, are there rich, powerful places for us to go as we dig deeper on that story. I can’t wait.

Last question: Explain to me about the amazing power of their wigs. Philip can do anything with that wig on.

Weisberg: [Laughing] It’s very strong clips and special KGB  adhesive. At one point when I was in the CIA I had a fake mustache on, and it was some serious-ass adhesive. Like nothing could budge that mustache, nothing. I don’t know that people are satisfied with that answer, but it’s what we got.

By Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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