The fifth season of The Americans was less universally beloved than the four before it, at times seeming more concerned with setting up stories for the FX drama’s final year than in telling satisfying stories in this one. I reviewed the finale here, and I interviewed showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields about the different storytelling approach they took this time around, coming up just as soon as I want to be a geisha girl…
When we spoke this time last year about the two-season renewal, Joe said, “We realized we had this very full story we wanted to tell in season 5, which meant that the ending we had, we weren’t ready to start telling it, that’s when we realized it was 6.” Now that we’ve seen it all, what would you say that the story that you wanted to tell in this season was?
Weisberg: We wanted to tell a story about how Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage got closer and closer and more committed than it’s ever been, and as that was happening, how Elizabeth for the first time started yearning to go home, just as Philip, after all the problems he’s been having, started to really hit the breaking point where he couldn’t go on in certain aspects of his job. So those two things came together: these two people who are now involved and getting along better than they’ve ever been, are able to, through those two currents, actually decide to quit and go home together. And then how the rug is pulled out from them, partly from external circumstances and partly by how Elizabeth’s dedication and steadfastness, her patriotism, makes it impossible for her to follow through on that, and see how the marriage copes with that.
Because you knew that you had this other season in pocket, and that it was going to be the last season, did you find yourselves plotting out this year any differently knowing, “Okay, well this is something we can pay off next year?”
Fields: Not really. I think if it only had the one season, we would have had to do an entirely different story. I’m not sure how we would have got it done, but it wasn’t a matter of using this year to set anything up as much as it was having the room to tell this story in this way at this time.
Weisberg: And have them go through the things that we were just talking about, which emotionally puts them in place for what we will see happen next season.
Fields: Emotional setup.
It’s a year with a lot of anti-climaxes. Mischa comes to America, but Gabriel heads him off at the pass before he gets to see his father. Philip and Elizabeth are going to go home, and at the last second they can’t. We don’t know yet what’s going to happen with Oleg. Stan’s girlfriend is maybe a spy, but we have no confirmation yet. It feels like in other seasons you have maybe tried to pay a little more off within the context of that season than you have this year. Would you agree with that or not?
Fields: I don’t know, Alan. I think those two examples, we might see differently. To us, yes, you could say, “Well, Mischa came to see Philip but then he didn’t and he went back,” when really, in so many ways, that was about triggering the Gabriel relationship with Philip, and it ultimately led to Gabriel’s decision that he couldn’t stay in a relationship with Philip and Elizabeth any more because he didn’t want to be a liar. And them maybe going home, really that was about triggering the marriage stuff, which to us led to a scene like we’ve never seen before between Philip and Elizabeth where, as they come to a decision as to how to go home together, Elizabeth realizes she can’t because of who she is as an individual. But she gets that he’s his own person going through his own pain and his own struggles, and she tries to get him a way to continue on in the marriage so his individual needs can be supported as well. So, to us there were just different kinds of climaxes, perhaps more emotional, and because of that maybe they felt a bit more muted in terms of their plot dynamics, but to us they were character climaxes of a sort.
Weisberg: I think that the Mischa story is a very good example. We found that to be immensely satisfying, and that doesn’t mean anybody else should — everybody gets to have their own reaction to the story. But to answer your question about a different approach to the season, I think we felt very free to tell the story exactly how we wanted to and not have to adhere to any traditional storytelling structure. This isn’t how climaxes usually work, and it allowed us to go more in the direction that we veered more toward in every season, which is trying to go one direction of truth and reality and what we think would actually unfold, and worry less about what the more conventional idea of what is going to feel climactic or satisfying. And if one of the results of that is people feel it’s less satisfying, then I think we just have to accept that.
But for us, we found it a very moving story to tell and to watch and to see. The fact that Mischa came here and was frustrated in that way and Philip never knew about it, was very much a true story about the tragedy of espionage, and of course the story we’re telling is a big story about the tragedy of espionage. And then to see him go home and that’s the end of it, instead with him being reunited with this second family he never knew he had, personally it made me cry. I was as moved by that as I’ve been by almost anything on the show.
Fields: Yeah, the thought was that it’s not just any second family, it’s his father’s family, and it was his father he was looking for. So he didn’t find exactly what he was looking for but the KGB found a way to get him as close to his father as they could.