How many times can I say, "The Americans is the best show on television"? One more? Okay. It's the best show on television, and even given the mighty standards it's set for itself, it just finished what may have been its best run of episodes yet.
Season four combined the clockwork storytelling of The Americans' third season with the more character-focused emphasis of its second to tell a story about love, loss, and biological weapons. It's as close to a perfect season of television as I've seen since Mad Men's fifth.
And it doesn't have to be the last! Despite The Americans' perpetual low ratings, FX recently renewed it for two final seasons. Season five will run for 13 episodes and air in 2017, while season six will last 10 episodes and air in 2018. You still have time to catch up for the inevitable end.
For now, though, I wanted to take a few moments to talk with series creator and showrunner Joe Weisberg and his co-showrunner Joel Fields about how they constructed season four, where all the characters are at, and what their watchword is for season five.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Spoilers for the season four finale, obviously, follow.
Todd VanDerWerff: This finale leaves quite a few balls in the air. What were you hoping to set up — or make us existentially dread — about what's to come?
Joe Weisberg: We want you to both look forward to and existentially dread season five.
Joel Fields: We were choosing between the two titles for the finale, "Persona Non Grata" or "Existential Dread."
TV: Philip's Russian son, Mischa, has been off camera for so long now, and you've finally brought him in. How did you come to that decision, and how did you cast for someone who instantly becomes one of the most important characters on the show?
JF: Our casting director, Rori Bergman, is a real artist. We throw the most insane things at her, season after season. "We need someone who can play a recent Asian immigrant. She has to be fluent in Korean, and she also has to be able to act enough to do a long arc on the show." And Rory will say, "Hang on a minute. I'll get right back to you."
This was one that we threw at her with some warning, but it was a tough one. It's obviously a really important part.
JW: We also liked the idea that if you think about it, you didn't really know for sure if this character existed. There was always the possibility that Irina [Philip's girlfriend from his Russian days] had made up this character to manipulate Philip. So bringing in his existence and settling that question once and for all was really fun.
TV: Obviously you won't spoil season five for me, but how are you using Mischa to set up things to come? Or how do you view that as an event within the story?
JF: It's another event to explore. I'm not sure how to answer that question without getting even more spoilery.
TV: All season long, it felt like the noose was really tightening around Philip and Elizabeth, but you always figured out how to pull back at the last moment. How did you find ways to get them out of danger and still leave room for the two seasons to come?
JW: I think this season, if anything, has been about the question of how to live in that space. This season has broken down the boundaries of what is it to be almost burned in the moment, and what is it to live in the state of being in that kind of perpetual danger. They have explored that question directly onscreen with each other.
In a sense, when you have them facing another example of it at the end of the season, it's not necessarily what it was when they faced it in the past. Now it's something different. Now they can say to each other, "Hey, look, we live with this all the time. Is this the time when we fold and go back? Or are we just going to live with 10 more of these every year for the rest of our life?" It becomes a part of the viewer's life, that emotional landscape.
TV: At the start of the series, Stan was very suspicious of the Jenningses, and now he perhaps has enough information to be suspicious of them again, though he probably wouldn't be, because of their friendship. To what extent does that friendship protect Philip and Elizabeth?
JF: I'm not really sure what he has to be suspicious of them, per se. In terms of what he knows, it's that he's got some neighbors that he likes. There's really been nothing that he's learned over the course of the series that would point him across the street, necessarily.
It's not that the friendship protects them in some plot way, but there's a relationship there. At some point, the question is what are the feelings between these people, and how might that impact their behavior toward one another, knowing what they know at any given moment?
JW: For them, the idea that the friendship could protect them in the future in a moment of actual crisis is a motivating factor for them to be in that friendship. And how does that complicate the friendship? Is it not a real friendship? Does it not affect that very much at all? How does that affect the question of sincerity and feeling?
TV: I want to pivot off of that topic, because especially in Paige and Matthew's relationship, you're really playing all these angles of what is real, what's a put-on, what's being done just to get information. Do you think a relationship is still a relationship if it's essentially carried out for fake reasons?
JF: Let me step back and say that one of the things I love about that question is if you really step back, ask that very question about the central relationship of the show. The whole premise of the show is here's this marriage that was created for fake reasons and was, on some level, not real. And now think about how real that relationship is.
That's part of what's so fun to write here and so interesting to explore. How can you have a fake relationship? Relationships are. There can be lies at the center of them, and there are portions of ourselves that we share or do not share. And they can be better or worse. They can provoke us into new views of ourselves, or other people, or the world.
But to ask whether [these relationships are] fake is to imagine that there's something binary there that really [doesn't exist] in human relationships.
JW: What if you take that relationship and you take out wanting to manipulate them so they'll [do what you want], and you put into the relationship being attracted to somebody because of how they look?
When you fall in love with somebody, what percentage of that is based on finding somebody really attractive, and what happens if you fall in love with somebody and maybe [physical appearance] is too much of it?And later that goes away, so you fall in love with somebody for other reasons.
It all depends on the actual relationship, and who you are and how you grow and how you change. And all those stories end in different ways, for each person.
TV: With William, you've introduced somebody who has no connections. How did you see him in the story, and what made him a good fit for this season about complicated webs of relationships?
JW: We liked the idea of a guy who'd been there even longer than them and had had an unsuccessful career, sending back little things, but none of them really meant much. So that was his professional story.
At the same time, his personal story was that he had come over with a woman, but she'd been sent back because unlike [Philip and Elizabeth], they hadn't been able to make it through the rough times and the relationship had never flowered. That seemed like a great character to put Philip and Elizabeth with and see what happened.
TV: What themes and ideas are you talking about in the writers' room as you prepare for the next couple of seasons?
JF: We've made an enormous amount of progress on season five and really on the big moves of season six, because they're all so interrelated.
We've written the first two scripts for season five. We have another five stories fully broken into outline for season five. A rough shape of episode eight, and a really good sense of all the moving pieces of the story for the rest of season five, and a good sense of the big pieces for the final season. We're fairly far along in terms of story and theme for that. That's how we're going to be able to enjoy our summer.
TV: Do you have a watchword you can reveal that's not too spoilery but is something we can keep in mind?
JF: In the early seasons, we really focused a lot on theme and watchword and guiding principle.
In terms of five and six, it seems like ... the storytelling is coming to this inevitable, propulsive place, where we sort of know what we want to look forward to with the characters.
Their story is unfolding for us, and there seems to have been less of a need for us to think too consciously about a guiding word or a guiding theme. Maybe it's because ultimately in coming to the ending, we return to the central ones of the show: trust, identity, family, marriage.