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One of the geniuses behind The Americans explains the finale’s biggest moments

Philip (Matthew Rhys) embraces his daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) before she and her mother go on a trip.
Philip (Matthew Rhys) embraces his daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) before she and her mother go on a trip.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Spoilers for the complete third season of The Americans follow.

The Americans, FX's terrific series about Soviet spies working in early 1980s Washington, DC, concluded its third season (its best yet) with a string of crushing revelations.

In the season's penultimate episode, Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) allowed Martha (Alison Wright), the woman he'd manipulated into a fake marriage to see him sans disguise for the first time.

And in the finale, Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) took the couple's daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) to West Germany, where she met Elizabeth's Russian mother for the first time. Paige, who had learned the truth about her parents in a tremendous episode, found herself weighed down by the knowledge and finally spilled the beans to her pastor in the episode's concluding scene. Philip and Elizabeth's secret is out, and nothing can be the same.

Intrigued by these developments and the season as a whole, I hopped on the phone with the series' co-showrunner Joel Fields to talk about the development of the Paige and Martha arcs, whether the show has too many plots, and what one word he might use to describe the writers' early discussions about season four.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Todd VanDerWerff: Paige is not known for being dishonest. But in your mind, isn't there a part of Pastor Tim that has to be saying, "C'mon, Paige. You're making up some crazy shit!"?

Joel Fields: [Laughs.] I don't think we're gonna be able to get out of this that easily.

TV: What was it like constructing Paige's arc for the season? How did you decide to end it in that place?

JF: The Paige arc was one where we knew we were writing toward the moment when Philip and Elizabeth would tell her the truth. It was very early in the season when we realized that though they would debate telling her the truth, they were going to be blindsided by her demanding it.

Joel Fields

Joel Fields (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

The exact where of how that would take place shifted along the way, too, so much so that Joe [Weisberg, creator and fellow showrunner] and I went and wrote that story in private, just the two of us, then quietly handed it to our writing staff to let them be the canaries in the coal mine reading it for the first time and finding out when and how it would happen.

In terms of the very end, we had that piece of Elizabeth going to see her mother one last time from before we started breaking the season. We had the idea that she would bring Paige, and the idea that they would go to West Germany, and the surprise of how the mother would be smuggled in from Russia instead of them having to go to Russia. But Paige's phone call to Pastor Tim was something that came late to us.

In a way, it came out of how we found her reaction to all of this playing. We made a conscious choice not to have telling Paige be a singular episode, because we felt it wasn't the beginning, middle, and end in one episode sort of story, but rather a transformation of the dynamics of the show that would play out going forward. That proved to be the case, and as we saw her try to hold that secret, and we saw the amount of pain she was in, this started to take on an inevitability.

The Americans

Holly Taylor plays Paige Jennings on The Americans. (FX)

TV: How much were you collaborating with Holly Taylor on this?

JF: The collaboration goes back way before me, to Gavin O'Connor, who directed the pilot and was a key part of selecting this actress, and the other people who were involved in that process — Leslee Feldman [head of casting] at Dreamworks and everybody who found Holly and identified her for this part.

And working with Holly over the years, we found we were blessed with a human being who is very open and an actress who is intuitive. One of the great things about Holly is she's able to take these emotional pieces and deliver them in a human way without worrying about acting them too much, just making them real.

We did some things we've never done on this show before. We made time on that big scene to rehearse well before the day we shot it. Although we do rehearsals the day before we shoot, it's very rare on a TV show to meet a week beforehand and spend a few hours working a scene, but that paid enormous dividends.

Another thing we did is although we have tone meetings with every director and we talk about every scene in detail with every director, we actually created a document starting in episode 10, going through the finale, tracking Paige's emotional arc in every episode and in every scene of every episode and sometimes down to dialogue within scenes, as to what we felt she was experiencing and going through. We talked to Holly about it. We talked to Dan Sackheim, our producing director, about it. We talked to each visiting director about it.

TV: The other big reveal of the season is that Martha now knows her husband is not at all what he said he was. What brought that into this season, and how did you find that informing the Paige story and vice versa?

JF: That's one that we really knew where we were headed. We, for a long time, thought he was going to take off that wig and expose himself for who he was in the finale. But as we broke the finale, there was so much story there, we decided we wanted to let it breathe and have its own powerful moment at the end of episode 12 and let his action for her in the murder of Gene [a computer technician who works with Martha] and the framing of Gene [for Martha bugging the FBI office where she works] speak for itself in the finale.

It's an interesting question how it frames the relationship with Paige. I'm almost hesitant to speak to it because you want to let all of that play both in our conscious and subconscious intention. But one thing that comes to mind is that although these spies are master manipulators, ultimately they're dealing with human beings, and all of us, in life, are engaged in relationships with other people. We can try to manipulate, and we can try to outgame, but ultimately people are going to have their human responses, and there will be human consequences.

Whether that's Martha, the woman you would do anything to manipulate so long as she would deliver the intel you wanted, including fake marry, if that's what you had to do — well, now she's grown through that marriage, and she's going to walk out and fall apart. You can kill her, or you can double down on your trust. And unfortunately, you've had your transference and are dealing with your own feelings.

Or your own daughter! You may have way back when had a child on orders because that's what it was going to take to fit in and thought nothing of it, because that's what you do. And now you've been debating how or if you should tell her the truth. And the one thing you hadn't counted on is you'd come home one night in the middle of the night, and she'd be waiting for you, demanding answers.

The Americans

Martha (Alison Wright) learns the truth about her husband on this season of The Americans. (FX)

TV: Last season, when I talked to you, you mentioned how the characters on this show are very psychologically unaware. This season, that breaks open a little bit, especially in the finale where Philip seems on the edge of a revelation he can't put into words. That's very similar to the self-discovery and self-help movement that was prominent in the country in the '80s. How much do you talk about these characters and their world becoming aware of themselves?

JF: We talk about it a lot. There's the whole est story for you. It was part of the national consciousness, and it was expressed in a lot of these movements, but est was a big one. So we knew we wanted that to be part of the season. In fact, we saw Philip struggling with the human consequences of his work in season two, and the first place you see him this season is at est. Yes, he's there for his friend, but by the end of the season he's there for himself.

As Sandra says, he doesn't even know why. Sometimes you come for someone else, and you wind up there for yourself. There's growth there, but for him that growth is dangerous.

TV: If there's been a criticism of this season, it's been that there's so much plot that it can be hard to follow. To what degree do you understand where that's coming from, and to what degree do you use plot as a distraction from what you're really doing, which is setting up the emotional and character arcs?

JF: I've worked on shows where plot is the primary driver. But this is one where it's really all about character. What interests me and Joe are the character journeys, and the plot is only interesting to the extent that it's a trigger for those emotional stories.

I think the thing we struggle with is because we're not particularly interested in the plot, we really try not to exposit it. We try not to go to it unless it's provoking something emotional for the characters. When we do, we try to never explain things that they wouldn't need [to be] explained, so that may lead to some confusion. That may be a fair criticism. That may make it hard to follow. Our feeling is that if the characters can follow it, the audience will go along. We may be right or wrong, but that's been our guide.

There have been times when we've looked at scenes, and we've said, "God, we've gotta put in a little exposition so that someone will understand what's going on here." Maybe we should have done more of that, but that's the struggle for us is to have it be true and most provocative for the character's journey.

TV: You've traditionally skipped a few months of show time between seasons, but this season left so much dangling from several episodes up to and including the finale. Are you going to pick up immediately or are you comfortable leaving things dangling?

JF: It's as if you were in our writers' room today. There has been much, much debate on exactly this point, on exactly this day. We have very strong instincts about the story we want to tell, and I think it's becoming very clear today where we want to pick up, although there may be some dissent in the ranks of the writers' room. We will see as that shakes out over the next couple of weeks. It's been a lively discussion on exactly that point.

What I will say is whether they're cliffhangers or they're character crises, whatever you want to call them, those are the exciting drivers to us.

TV: The same-day ratings sometimes are not what you'd like them to be, but the ratings for the overall DVR viewers jump spectacularly. To what degree do you worry about numbers like that?

JF: I rented a car this weekend, and the guy behind the counter was so nice. He saw my jacket, which said The Americans, season three, and he said, "The Americans! You work on The Americans! I love that show! My wife and I watched the whole first season, and we loved it. And then we watched the first episode of the second season, and it was so good we decided to wait until you've finished the entire series, and then we're going to binge the whole thing!" [Laughs.] I just plastered a smile on my face and said, "Thank you."

We're in a new age, and the show is what it is and has the audience it has. We could make ourselves crazy thinking about it. It does seem to have an extremely loyal time-shifted following. But ultimately, we have no control over how many people watch the show. All it can do to think about that is make me crazy, so I try not to and focus on what we do have a little control over, which is trying to keep our oars in the water and at best, row forward, and at worst, use them as a rudder to follow the story.

The Americans FX

Claudia (Margo Martindale) and Gabriel (Frank Langella) have a meeting at a diner. (FX)

TV: Has there been talk about having more Claudia in season four, now that actress Margo Martindale is more open?

JF: We'll see. We had a wonderful breakfast with her recently. We love her as a human being. We love her as an actress and love her as a character. Boy, that was a fun scene [in episode 12] with her and Frank [Langella]!

TV: As you're headed into season four, what are some themes or questions or things you're talking about that will inform your approach?

JF: Although we've been talking a lot about theme, we're still circling around and we're still in somewhat of the discovery phase. I think we know what it is that we are exploring, but we're using a lot of different words to talk about it.

I'll give you one word that pops to my mind: home.

TV: What pop culture impressions can we look forward to from Henry [the younger Jennings child] next season?

JF: There have been some pretty good pitches on that. "Land Shark" has been pitched. Joking aside, there was a lively debate recently among some of the writers as to whether he would be into the same Monty Python albums we were into in high school or whether that's just because we want to have an excuse to listen to them again.

All three seasons of The Americans are available on Amazon Prime. Season four will air in 2016.

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