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The Americans series finale’s greatest secrets, explained by its showrunners

“We weren’t interested in the answer. We didn’t want to know. What interested us was the question.”

The Americans FX

The Americans has ended. After six seasons of betrayals and double-crosses and moving conversations about marriage, the FX drama — one of the very best TV shows of the decade (and, okay, sure all time) — concluded with a deeply moving series finale that made Vox’s Americans fans applaud.

But what was making that finale, and the show’s amazing final season, like? To answer that question, I corralled some of the most important voices behind the series for the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting. First, Matthew Rhys (who plays Philip) talks about his work on the final season and behind the scenes as a director of episodes in the show’s final three seasons. And then co-showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg talk with me about the process of constructing that final season.

I especially wanted to ask Fields and Weisberg some questions about some of the finale’s biggest reveals — and in particular one very lengthy scene that is destined to go down as a TV classic. A lightly edited version of our conversation follows, but beware that full spoilers for the series and its finale follow.


Emily VanDerWerff

The confrontation scene between Stan and the Jenningses in the garage — you said there were versions where it wasn’t in the script, but it’s over 10 minutes, so you obviously committed to it and committed to it early on. Tell me about the process of writing it. It seems like something that took a lot to get right.

Joe Weisberg

Boy, that was a journey, that scene! It’s hard to even think of a scene that we worked as hard on and rewrote as many times as that. Furthermore, I don’t want to make us sound bad, but we have a lot of confidence in our writing, and I would say that on that scene, we left it and let it sit there for a long time, knowing we would come back to it. And I think there were times when we were worried if we were going to get there. After multiple drafts of it, we still had it sitting in a place where it wasn’t working.

You’re asking a lot of that scene. You’re asking Stan to make this major move of letting these people go. There’s a huge amount that has to get accomplished, just that you have to get out. The emotional dynamics of everything that’s happening between people are huge. It’s a very long scene. The movement that takes place for all the characters involved is titanic. It just felt like we were inching along and sometimes frozen, no matter how much work we put into it.

We are always ahead on scripts, so we weren’t in a lot of time danger. But it just felt like finally after working and working on it, we had a couple breakthroughs pretty late in the game where it came together.

Joel Fields

This is a scene that we had trouble starting to write, I think because we knew a lot of it was on our shoulders. You talk about the finale weighing on us; I think there was an emotional element of not wanting to write this scene, because of what it represented. When we were shooting it, Noah [Emmerich, who plays Stan] said it was just strange there to stand with a gun pointed at Philip and Elizabeth and say, “It’s over,” as someone who had been working on the show for six seasons.

I think we had the same feeling to start writing the scene. I remember we just couldn’t do it. We wrote the other parts of the script and hadn’t written that scene. We were talking about what to do, and I remember saying to Joe — because we had a very thorough outline, in which the scene was written without dialogue but with all of its emotional movements — “Why don’t we just sit down and write the version of the scene that’s in the outline? Why don’t we create the dialogue that feels right and true based on that?” Some of that actually did stay, but it went through a zillion iterations.

The other thing I think about with that scene is that we didn’t stop rewriting that scene even after we shot it. In fact, there’s a chunk of that scene that in editing we took and moved because as beautiful as the scene was on set, when we saw it in the cut, there was something about it that didn’t feel like it had quite the right dynamic, emotional flow to it. And by moving a section of the scene, suddenly it all gained this clarity.

Emily VanDerWerff

What section was that?

Joe Weisberg

It was when [Stan] was saying, “It was you who killed [Gennadi and Sofia].” It had initially come a little bit earlier.

The Americans
From left: Matthew Rhys, Joel Fields, Keri Russell, and Joe Weisberg on the set of the final season’s seventh episode.
FX

Emily VanDerWerff

Philip doesn’t lie there, because he didn’t kill Gennadi and Sofia. But he has a reasonable expectation that Elizabeth did, but he does say no and doesn’t follow up on that. Do you think Stan believes they had nothing to do with it? And why is that the one thing they hold back?

Joe Weisberg

When we were writing that, I have some vague memories of writing that and us saying, “Here’s the last lie,” because [Philip] had tried to be so honest in that conversation. But in trying to make it plausible that Stan could still let them go, how could he admit to that? It would just make it impossible.

Joel Fields

Also, Paige is there. There are two big reasons they simply have to lie. One is it sounds crazy you need to preserve your relationship with Stan Beeman, but if you know anything about Stan Beeman, you can be honest with him about anything — but if you said, “By the way, I’m just gonna come out and say I’m a murderer,” you’re not walking out of there.

Similarly, Paige has had enough revelations over the course of the last few episodes, certainly in the [penultimate] one, that you know that relationship wouldn’t survive that either.

Joe Weisberg

I don’t think Stan believes them, but I don’t think he’s sure they’re not telling the truth. I look at Noah’s performance there, and I see sort of what we would have dreamed of, which is the question of whether or not they’re telling the truth there ... I don’t want to say it’s irrelevant, but it’s not possible to process that in that moment.

Emily VanDerWerff

Stan doesn’t get proof Philip and Elizabeth are spies until the finale. A lot of shows would have had that revelation in, like, episode two, and then he’s chasing them all season long. Why did you play it out that it’s much more of a slow burn, other than the fact that that’s just how your show works?

Joel Fields

We wanted to play it in the way that felt most true, and while it might have been possible to create some sort of sudden reveal where everything got exposed to him, it would be hard to construct that without a level of coincidence that would lead to that. What interested us here is the chance to allow him to know on a subconscious level before he knew on a conscious level. To wonder about it. To question it. To question himself. And then to do what he would do, which is investigate, look into it, see if he could prove it, finally admit to his friend and boss that he had this crazy idea. And yet not let go of it, because he’s a professional that also operates off his instincts.

Emily VanDerWerff

I do have to ask about Renee. Was there a version of that story that ended in a more conclusive place?

[Weisberg and Fields both shake their heads.]

Never?

Joel Fields

Never.

Emily VanDerWerff

Interesting. I do love that the last thing Philip tells Stan is, “I think your wife might be a spy,” on his way out the door.

[All laugh.]

Joel Fields

And then he says, “Uhhh ... I’m not sure!”

Emily VanDerWerff

Yeah! But look into that!

What made that a compelling story to not just develop but then leave in a place where this is still going on in whatever universe The Americans takes place in?

Joe Weisberg

That’s a good example of what do you and don’t you owe [to the audience], because it would seem that you owe that. But when we thought about it, we didn’t think we did. In a funny way, we weren’t interested in the answer. We didn’t want to know. What interested us was the question.

When you see Stan have his final goodbye with her, where she hugs him and he takes her elbow a little bit, but gives her this not very happy look that she doesn’t notice, because she doesn’t know what’s going on. And if you think it through, you realize he’s going to have to deal with this later. And that means life goes on, and you don’t know exactly how he’s going to deal with it, and it’s going to be hard.

That’s just powerful, and it’s emotional. That seemed like the right story.

The Americans
Philip and Elizabeth make it out alive.
FX

Emily VanDerWerff

[With Philip and Elizabeth,] the idea that both their kids stay in America, and they are headed to the Soviet Union, how did you come to that decision? You said you had versions where both kids went with them, where just Paige went with them. What was that decision-making process? And what was that conversation like with Holly Taylor? Paige doesn’t explain herself later.

Joel Fields

I don’t think we ever had a version where both kids went with them. It was always both kids stay or one or the other kids stays behind. There was always going to be a big price to be paid by them.

I’m trying to think when this exact version presented itself. I think it was very much at the beginning of this season, but we spent a lot of time figuring out the technicalities. The train was a big thing for us to figure out. It certainly wasn’t a train at the beginning. We had a plane. We had a customs line in an airport. We played with driving across the border in different cars. We played with one of them driving and one of them walking. It took a while to get to this final version.

Joe Weisberg

In large part, when it was just one kid, it just wasn’t hard enough. It just wasn’t tragic enough. The price they were paying wasn’t high enough — not that losing one kid isn’t a very high price, but we wrote that. We ran that in our heads, and it wasn’t hitting us hard enough. It needed to hit with full force that you just couldn’t get up afterward. We tried [one kid], and we didn’t have it. And then it was both kids, and we had it.

Emily VanDerWerff

Do you feel like they do need to be punished, or pay a price in some karmic sense?

Joe Weisberg

I don’t know if it’s about karma, or if it’s about them, back in the Soviet Union, being emotionally devastated. Maybe it’s a little bit about karma, but I think it’s more about the feeling that they are so sad and so lost, and so hurt. Again, you would feel that a lot, but if Henry was back there, and Stan was gonna raise him, of course you would feel horrible, but you can’t even describe how horrible that is. But if somehow both kids are gone, there’s a crazy way in which all those years have disappeared or been for nothing.

Joel Fields

It’s story karma.


For more with Fields and Weisberg, including their thoughts on constructing the final season as a whole (and more spoilers for the finale writing process), check out the full episode, which also contains a discussion with Matthew Rhys on saying goodbye to Philip Jennings.

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.