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The Americans’ showrunners explain their intimate, sometimes polarizing season 5

"Spying's not pointless, but it can be drudgery," says creator Joe Weisberg on our podcast.

The Americans
Philip and Elizabeth had a tough, tough year.
FX

The fifth season of The Americans has proved equal parts fascinating and frustrating to many viewers and critics, alternating between gruesome scenes of violence both physical and emotional and long stretches where the story seemed to be setting up payoffs that didn’t arrive. Yes, this has always been a show known for anticlimax, but season five sometimes seemed to take that to extremes.

The natural thought is that perhaps this was all part of a plan — setup for the show’s sixth and final season, arriving in 2018. That wasn’t so much the case, say showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields.

“I hear some people saying, for example, ‘Well, it seems like a very slow season but maybe that's because they're setting up stuff for next season.’ I'm afraid, for those who find it slow, no such excuse,” Weisberg told me at the end of the most recent episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting.

Weisberg and Fields joined me to talk more generally about the process of making The Americans over its first five seasons, including the very early days of their partnership (itself an arranged marriage of sorts) and the casting process that led to Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys crafting one of TV’s most believable marriages. But at the very end, we talked about season five in more detail. That discussion follows below. If you haven’t watched season five, nearly a full hour of spoiler-free chatter with Weisberg and Fields precedes our spoiler-filled discussion.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

FX Networks TCA 2016 Summer Press Tour
Joel Fields (left) and Joe Weisberg
Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Todd VanDerWerff

This season has had a lot of what’s felt to me like Philip and Elizabeth being asked to do pointless busywork and tying off of loose ends, like tracking down the Nazi collaborator in episode 11 and a few other stories, and it felt to me like that was a meta-commentary on how the Soviet Union is starting to crumble at this point in time. Would you say that’s a fair read?

Joel Fields

I don't think we had a sense that anyone inside the USSR at that point was sending them around to do pointless things because they thought things were falling apart. It's a little early for anybody to be thinking that.

In our minds, Philip and Elizabeth are still very important assets for them. After all, the wheat story was an extremely important story, and even after it turned out [the Americans] weren’t making that wheat to try to destroy the Soviet Union, then [the Soviets] wanted to get their hands on that wheat.

The episode that you’re talking about where they went after this collaborator, I think that was something that was very important to them. Think about what the Israelis did to go after [Nazi SS Colonel Adolf] Eichmann, this is a similarly important thing.

Joe Weisberg

We have mostly and maybe more this season than before not run away from showing the side of espionage that is dull and that does involve busywork. In our minds, it’s not pointless, but it can be drudgery. It can be drudgery, and maybe the point’s only going to be revealed later. We talked about how the spy stories are so complex, maybe the point is a little bit obscure and is sometimes getting lost. But, at least to us, it is never pointless, but it is sometimes busywork.

Todd VanDerWerff

This season has been read by both fans and critics in terms of the penultimate season. How much did you think of this as setup for the final season, and how much of it did you want to set aside as its own story?

Joe Weisberg

It's a complicated mix, and I think we’ll give you a much better answer for that after you’ve seen next season. It’s hard to discuss that fully without too many spoilers for next season. But it is probably, in our heads, more of an independent season than people think. I hear some people saying, for example, “Well, it seems like a very slow season but maybe that’s because they’re setting up stuff for next season.” I'm afraid, for those who find it slow, no such excuse.

Todd VanDerWerff

That criticism of “this has been a really slow season,” I thought that for a while, and then I looked back at, for instance, season three, and it’s not appreciably slower than that season. I’m just thinking, “Oh, Stan should be catching on to them” because I know the last season is coming. How have you balanced out that sense of wanting to tell this season’s story separately but also acknowledging the end is coming, and viewers know it’s coming?

Joel Fields

It’s an interesting question. It hadn’t occurred to me that maybe people were finding this [season] slow because the end is coming rather than because it was somehow different than prior seasons. It hasn’t felt, to us, to be different. We were just trying to tell the story that we wanted to tell this season.

We were thinking more about emotional things for Philip and Elizabeth over the course of this season. I mean, obviously leading up to the marriage was a big thing, and then some big decisions for them toward the end of the season, with Paige.

But I don't think we were thinking about pace when we broke this season so much as we were just thinking about telling the story.

The Americans
We miss you, Martha!
FX

Todd VanDerWerff

You depleted the cast a lot in season four...

Joel Fields

That’s a really good point. In season four, there was a lot that we had to cash in on, that we did cash in on in season four, and that worked really well. So there was a very propulsive Martha story that people were invested in, and there was the very propulsive Nina story that people were invested in, and I think that created a sense of pace through the season.

Nina got whacked in episode four, and then Martha disappeared in episode eight, and in a 13-episode run, those are some pretty big moments. This season built in a different way. But we've always tried to start each season with a pact between us to do something different.

Todd VanDerWerff

Speaking of Martha, she pops up a few times this season. Now, she’s adopting the most adorable child in the world.

Joel Fields

Isn’t she cute?

Todd VanDerWerff

How do you see that character fitting into the story of both this season and — I know you’ve not going to tell me if she’s in season six, but do you feel as if you’d like to see more of her?

Joel Fields

Well, I think you've answered that question yourself, because you know we won't answer it.

Joe Weisberg

We were very happy with how that story played out this season. Each of those scenes came to us not all three at once but sort of one after another after another. Each of these scenes we thought would be the one scene [for Martha], and then another came, and then another came. We feel very attached to that story and felt that each time she came up it would be a surprise and then give a more emotional ending to the story.

The final adoption scene we had broken, it was basically the same story but a different kind of setup and a different location and a different way it happened. And our Russian consultant, Sergei Kostin, who gives us all kinds of useful stuff about Russian culture and things like that, he had just a sort of little thorn in his foot about it. And he kept coming to us and saying, “I don't know, there's something bugging me about this scene,” but he never really could quite tell us what.

He doesn't usually give us advice or complaints about a particular scene, and finally he just emailed us one day and said, “I don’t think that’s how the KGB would do it, I think they would do it in a park and they would have it set up so that the teacher knew,” and he really re-broke the scene for us. And I remember after we read that email, we were both like, “Oh, let's do that!”

The Americans
Even when he gets to wear a cowboy hat, Philip seems super bummed out.
FX

Todd VanDerWerff

Everybody's exhaustion this season is palpable, and everybody feels like they’re sick of doing this shit, especially certain characters. How do you convey that to the audience without it just being like, “I'm tired”?

Joel Fields

We just think back to how we felt in season one and write that.

Joe Weisberg

So much of that is on the actors and the directors. The story is, of course, one that's happening to these people, but you probably could tell this story with a lot more verve and vigor if you wanted to. But they know what the story is and boy, they accomplish a lot with a look. Philip, in particular, is increasingly beaten down and worn down, and the way Matthew [Rhys] brought that and developed it throughout the season is incredible.

Joel Fields

If you look at one of our scripts, we’ll write things like, “Philip sits there.” Period new paragraph. “Elizabeth looks at him.”

And then we'll sit in this room, and the director will be there and Chris Long, our brilliant producing director, will be there and the assistant director and Mary Thewlis, our line producer, and we’ll have a tone meeting where we go through every scene in the script which is going to be shot the next week.

Sometimes, we’ll spend three hours in a tone meeting. Sometimes, we’ll spend a full day from morning to ordering in dinner going through every scene, and we could spend a half an hour talking about “Philip sits there, Elizabeth looks at him” and talking about multiple layers of interpretations and subtexts. But ultimately, Keri and Matthew have to sit and look, and they have to deliver all of those dimensions, and they do.

Joe Weisberg

After seeing the first three episodes, we never had to say in a tone meeting again, “Philip's beaten down.” He’s got that.

Todd VanDerWerff

If you think back to the pilot, these characters are very different from the way they are at the end of season five. What, to you, has been the most marked shift over the first five seasons for Philip and Elizabeth?

Joel Fields

That marriage and how they relate to each other and the generosity with which they see each other now is such a progression from where they started. They each were individuals with their own feelings, and now they’re fully married.

My dad was a rabbi, and he married me and my wife. Before we got married, he sat down with us, and he said that he always has a meeting with the couple. He said he usually has several meetings with couples before he marries them to see that they’re ready and so forth, but he said, “I know you guys, I don’t need to have the meeting but I wanted to sit down and say some of the things that I say to couples.”

And one of the things he said is, “I always tell people that, before you get married you’re living in the ‘me’ world, but when you get married you’re no longer in the ‘me’ world, you're in the ‘we’ world, and you’re in the ‘we’ world from now on.” If I think about season five, even as they’re in their own turmoil, they’re in it with each other. It’s beautiful to watch Matthew and Keri playing that.

The Americans
Big surprises are in store for Henry.
FX

Todd VanDerWerff

They float the idea of going back to the Soviet Union and say, “Oh, our kids will adjust.” To me, I was like, “That’s crazy!” especially for Henry. But having that on the table, then off the table because of the development with Kimmy, made me feel like it will only hurt more to have that pulled away from them. What was your thought process behind developing that story?

Joe Weisberg

For them, the place they’re at, how exhausted and beaten down they are, this dream that has been playing out over a couple seasons in different ways of home, just the idea of home, it seemed to us, if this were real, they would have to be seriously thinking about going home at this point.

Of course, it came up very concretely with Gabriel. But that’s what real people would be considering and they would consider taking their kids with them. As bad of an idea as it might be for a lot of reasons, they would consider it, and in fact real illegals who served for many, many years abroad, did take their kids home. In many of these cases, the results were not always positive. It was very, very complicated, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. That would’ve been a good TV show, too in a sort of difficult and sad way.

It felt that them going toward that and then, as happens with them so often, having the rug pulled out because of who they were and, again, because of a side of Elizabeth that is fundamentally complex but positive — because of what she believes in, because of her steadfastness, because of her loyalty and then, seeing something so great about Philip and their marriage which is, at the end of the day, he respects that part of her. Even when it’s going to fucking wreck them in so many ways, he’s not going to sit there as you can often see in a marriage and clash and fight. He’s going to love her. So that seemed like a good story to us.

Todd VanDerWerff

I’m fascinated by how you use Renee, because you’ve taught us for so long how to watch and read characters, and you’re almost inviting us to ask ourselves if she’s a spy even before Philip does. Was that the intention?

Joe Weisberg

That’s a good description. That was the plan.

Joel Fields

It's a show about trust and identity. How do you know, at the end of the day?

Todd VanDerWerff

I know you’re not going to tell me plot details, but as you head into season six, what are the conversations you’re having in the writers’ room, or the themes that keep bubbling up as you talk about ending this story?

Joe Weisberg

We’re past that. We’ve got an ending.

Joel Fields

We’ve got 10 outlines written, and we’re deep into refining them now and getting ready to write the scripts. Our theme is trying to do it in a way that makes us proud and isn’t too depressing for us in the process, because it’s going to be hard to say goodbye.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

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