‘The Americans’ Creators Explain (And Don’t Explain) The Show’s Emotional Finale

Senior Television Writer
05.30.18 28 Comments

FX

The Americans has ended. I reviewed the series finale here, and I had a long discussion with showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields about the choices they made in the finale, coming up just as soon as I go home from college for a stomachache…

You’ve told the story before about how you came up with the ending to the show on one of your walks together, but when was this and what do you remember about that conversation that made you realize, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do’?

Weisberg: Joel and I are in a furious dispute about it, because Joel thinks it was the end of season one, I think it was the beginning of season two. But we do agree that we were out on a walk, dreaming up ends to the series. And we came up with pretty much this ending, but we didn’t really know which kid it was going to be (who stayed behind). And we also didn’t really in our heart of hearts necessarily even think this ending would stick. Because we had so much that was going to happen between then and now. And the way we work, everything changes all the time. So it was a pretty big surprise to us when we got to the final season and realized this was still the way we wanted to end the story. And we did our due diligence and we ran every single possible other ending of the show through our brains to see if there was a better one, but this was still the one that we loved the best and seemed to be the most natural and true ending of this story. And then ultimately, what we discovered also was that it really only worked if it was both kids who stayed behind. That was, I think, the final surprise for us.

Well, can you tell me what some of those other scenarios were that you mulled and then dismissed?

Fields: I think we both feel like we don’t want to. That those either are obviously or are best left unsaid. But you can probably imagine them. We wanted to make sure that we explored, pitched out, sort of in our heads anyway, and on our walks, tried to write all the other versions of it. And this is the one that kept pulling us back. And asking us to refine it and explore it.

The show doesn’t end with Philip and Elizabeth dead or arrested, and they get to go home, albeit without the kids. What was it about this particular set of circumstances that felt right to you as the way to end the show?

Weisberg: There’s a true story about a couple of illegals, I think from the ’50s or ’60s, who at the end of their assignment came home with their 10-year-old boy, who they had raised in France. And when they landed at the airport in Moscow was the first time they told their son who they really were. He didn’t speak a word of Russian. As far as he knew, he was French. And he was 10 years old and his world fell apart at that moment. And so did the parents’. Their whole family was destroyed. And it was interesting when we heard that true story, because you realized the way that family was ruined without anybody being killed or anybody being arrested. It was very much emotionally true to our series. We didn’t think that we’d model our ending after that. But we understood an ending like that was kind of close in spirit to what our show was about. An ending that really had things landing in the emotional realm of the family’s story could be as devastating as any kind of story where somebody got killed or arrested. And in a certain way, more devastating. Because everybody’s living on to kind of meet their fate.

Was it important that the story end with Philip and Elizabeth together wherever they were?

Fields: Well it must’ve been important in the that that’s how it ended, but certainly fate could have dealt them a different hand. But it seemed like this was the right brew of romantic tragedy for these characters.

I assumed Stan was dead as soon as he walked into that garage without calling it in first. He doesn’t die, but what happens to him in those ten minutes is arguably worse than if they had just shot him somehow. How did you come up with that particular end for Stan and the fact that Stan would let them go?

Fields: We talked a lot about whether he would wind up getting shot or they would wind up getting shot. There were a lot of different versions of how that played out. Ultimately, it was pretty clear to us that Stan Beeman is a good enough FBI agent that, even as good as Philip and Elizabeth are, they’re not going to get the drop on him if he walks in behind them. So to us, there really wasn’t a danger of his being killed there. It was more a question of how it was going to play out emotionally and what was going to happen to Philip and Elizabeth once he walked in behind them.

Weisberg: The other question you’re asking, why would he let them go? I think that’s the question that interested us. So that scene was a way to explore that, and in a way there’ve been six seasons of this show that are all leading up to that question. And if six seasons of this show lead up to who’s going to shoot who, that’s a lot less interesting to us than six seasons of the show leading up to them pleading with him that their relationship matters more, how they can save their country matters more. After their horrible betrayal, can he reach into a deeper well, and then him having to make that choice. That’s what makes us feel the most.

Fields: And after that, in the midst of all it, that although Stan can’t know that Philip’s being honest about almost everything in that scene, Philip chooses to drop the final honesty bomb at the end. Because the friendship really does matter to him.

So he is doing that purely out of kindness, and not as one last thing to throw Stan off balance so they can leave?

Weisberg: Oh, that never even occurred to us, Alan, that that’s an interpretation. In our minds, they feel that they’re probably going to get leave at that point, though they don’t know for sure. We thought of that as totally an act of friendship.

That leads to the bigger question. Which I know you’re not going to answer, but I have to ask it anyway. Is Renee a spy?

(Fields and Weisberg laugh evilly, but do not answer.)

Okay, let me put it another way: Did you tell Laurie (Holden) what to play, either over the course of her time in the role, or just in that last scene where she’s watching the FBI across the street?

Weisberg: We did not.

Fields: Well, actually we did. Over the course of her seasons with the show, she must’ve asked us, I’m going to be conservative, 600,000 times whether or not Renee was a spy. To which we’d always said the same thing, which was not to answer the question. But in this final episode, I think she, being the good actress that she is, had so many questions about that final look. We suggested she play it every which way. We had a long talk with her. I don’t rightly remember what we said, but I remember there was a moment in the conversation when she suddenly said, “Got it. I know what to play.” And you could just see it in the dailies, we had exactly what we needed.

So do the two of you know to your satisfaction what Renee is?

Fields: I think we’re not going to answer.

Was there a version where you were going to answer that question? Or you introduced her always knowing that you were going to leave it ambiguous?

Weisberg: Our original idea was it would always be left ambiguous. And then we did toy with other versions. But we ended up landing on our original version.

Fields: Yeah, that was an original idea that stuck and always felt right. There were a couple versions that went longer in terms of the end, where we showed more of the fallout with Stan. But those fell by the wayside too, as the end came together.

Speaking of more fallout, how much did you think through past the events of the finale? Do you know what happens to Stan’s career, what happens to Paige, what happens to Henry, what happens to Mischa and Martha and everybody else who is still in play after this story is over?

Weisberg: What I would say is that we have a sense of possible feelings and directions that all those people might be headed. Which I don’t think we want to talk about, because it’s very important to us that every person watching this be able to let their own imagination go where it will on that. But I don’t think we could even tell you, “This is going to happen to this person and this is going to happen to that person.” But we could tell you what we think are roads they might be headed down.

Joe, you have professional experience in this. Could an FBI counter-intelligence agent whose best friend was a Soviet deep cover spy keep his job after that came out?

Weisberg: It could’ve probably never actually happened. I don’t know that there’s a way to actually literally answer that question. But I think we are showing in the episode what happens between him and Aderholt when it comes out. And Aderholt’s not freaking out or saying “you’re finished.”

Fields: Also, he quit counter-intelligence a couple years ago, anyway. That’s what he gets for going back.

Weisberg: That’s right. He doesn’t want to be in counter-intelligence. He really just came back to wrap this one up.

Fields: And boy, did he wrap it up.

You said before that there was a version where one kid went with them and one kid didn’t. And one of the more shocking moments of the finale is Paige is suddenly there on the train platform and not on the train with them. How did you come to that decision?

Fields: We just ran a bunch of different alternatives. I remember we just ran the alternative with them taking Henry and not taking Paige. With taking Paige but not taking Henry. This was the one that we cooked up early on, but we really tried to run through all the iterations to see what would be emotionally impactful. And from a technical standpoint, the train was a late-breaking development, because we were just figuring out how they would best exit the country. For a while, they were going to leave through the Mexican border in a car and one of them on foot. Then we had an airplane at one point. So we played with it at a story level; it was a bunch of options.

Weisberg: The original one we cooked up was one kid leaving. And then I think what happened was it just wasn’t tragic enough. I mean, an ending has to be tragic. Losing one kid is obviously deeply tragic. But there’s no way to explain this really in terms of logic. We just went through the story because we were very far along at that point and literally working on the final episode. And we just didn’t feel what we wanted to feel until we had Paige get off that train. Because Paige was on the train, then she got off the train, then we felt what we wanted to feel. That’s when I’m happy.

Fields: In our process, we’re simultaneously very effective planners. And at the same time, we love being open to reconceiving the plan as we go.

Weisberg: But what Joel is most surprised by is that the ending stuck. The way we work, that’s the big surprise.

You didn’t change history over the course of this show, which means the Wall is coming down soon, Glasnost, etc. There’s going to come a time not too far past the events of this finale, where a Henry or a Paige could come to Moscow to at least see them. It’s not like they will never ever see their children again, maybe. How much did you think about that in terms of your wanting this to feel like a tragic ending?

Weisberg: I want to say two things about that. One, strange though it may sound, we don’t know that. And I think that’s really important to the way that we tell stories. We do not know that. And then the second thing is, if you look at how those kids are going to feel, maybe they’ll see them, maybe they won’t. Or what will it be like if they do see them? We don’t want to get into that kind of speculation, but our fundamental feeling is that story takes place in real time when that is unimaginable. So, for those characters living that, that’s not really a reality.

Why “With or Without You” for that last montage?

Fields: That came late to the process. We didn’t know we were going to use that song. When we shot that scene, we had no idea what song we’d use. And we listened to dozens and dozens and dozens of songs for that sequence. Most of which didn’t work at all, and some of which really worked quite well and were close. But when we heard that one, it was extraordinary. We were a little nervous that the lyric would be too pointed. We tend to not like having too fine a point on things lyrically. But it was just sensational. And we were really lucky to get that song. It couldn’t have been more perfect for us. We feel really grateful that they allowed us to use it.

Was “Brothers In Arms” something you’d been thinking about for a while? Or did that also come up pretty late?

Fields: Same story. We tried so many songs there and that sequence also was very challenging to find the right song for. That was actually a sequence where almost nothing worked, but the moment we heard “Brothers in Arms” played against it, we knew we had to have it. There was just going to be nothing else. And we got really lucky in that they reached out. We heard that not only did Mark Knopfler personally approve of our using the song in the show, but he and Gy Fletcher allowed us to access some of their original tracks that we didn’t have access to so that it could be folded into the sequence just right.

Weisberg: You know how much we obsess over everything in terms of the music and everything anyway. So you can imagine how much more we did for the finale. I mean we really went a little bit out of our minds trying to make sure everything was perfect on this episode. So, those were both difficult because those cues had to work over a lot of different scenes. And that final one had to stretch over, not only a lot of scenes, but a very long stretch. So it also had to be a particularly lengthy piece of music. It was very difficult, in both those places, to find the right things.

Fields: And the audio on the U2 song had to go out and come back after the border patrol is done checking papers, which was an extreme challenge. So we were really at our most obsessive also, which didn’t make it easier. You know us. We’re pretty obsessive types when it comes to the show at all, but this final episode and really those final sequences and then ultimately that final scene, we spent more time on than anything we’ve ever spent time on for the show.

Is there a particular song you always had on the want list that either the band never agreed to it, or you just could never find a good place to use it, that you really wish could’ve been in the show somehow?

Fields: For this season, I would have said that we always wanted Talking Heads in the show, but could never find the right sequence, but we did. Twice. So, we got to tick that off The Americans bucket list.

Weisberg: Well, what’s the woman who wouldn’t let us put the song in because the show was too violent?

Fields: I don’t even want to talk about that.

You bring back Gregory for the dream sequence. Why was it important to bring him back, and particularly for this moment of Elizabeth reckoning with a lot of the choices that she’s made?

Weisberg: I don’t think we thought of it in those terms. We never thought, “Hey, we gotta bring Gregory back at the end.” What we did think was that we were trying to figure out how we were going to move them across space and across time emotionally and psychologically. And we came up with this idea for the dream sequence, and dream sequences are hard. It’s hard to make them feel real, it’s hard to make them emotional, it’s hard not to drop into a hundred pits of cliché when you do them. So, we were trying to just come up with a different onus for it, and it was one of those moments of inspiration where we felt that she would be dreaming of him there. And as soon as we thought of that, it felt like we hit pay dirt. Because we believed it. And we liked the truth of it, of her thinking of him. This man who she was really in love with for first part of her marriage to Philip as she left America for good. It just felt right.

It’s interesting to me, though, because the series ends with Philip and Elizabeth together. They start the show out, it’s a fake marriage, they are not emotionally connected in any way. Eventually, they do come together, they get married for real. And in the last scene, they’re all that each other has. And yet, this last glimpse of her inner life before that is her thinking on the one who got away.

Fields: Remember it’s a dream. So it’s not a daydream, it’s not what her conscious mind isn’t doing, so I think for us, it’s more her unconscious is pulling up the past and pulling up the last vestiges of a former love as she leaves.

Weisberg: And also, what she’s dreaming up there is the moment when she decided to keep Paige. And that was the moment of her pregnancy when, if you remember way back to the first season, the story gets told of her showing up that night and telling Gregory that she doesn’t want to go through with it. She doesn’t want to have a kid. She doesn’t know what to do. And it may be more what she’s dealing with unconsciously is all that’s come in between that moment of not wanting that family and this moment of having to leave it behind.

Fields: It’s very tragic when you say it that way. Which is what we like.

We saw Harvest take a cyanide pill, so it’s not like you completely violated Chekhov’s gun by introducing the pills and not having Elizabeth or someone else take hers. Was there ever a version of the story where her pill got used?

Fields: We explore as many options as we can think of as we break stories and it was no different here. We kicked around lots of ideas on that pill. In one incarnation she gave it to Erica, and there were other possibilities as well. Ultimately it was obvious to us that Elizabeth would keep the pill with her as long as she was on that mission, and it seemed just right for her to drop it into the hole with their old identities as they were setting out to escape the country.

Were you on set the day the garage scene was shot? What was the atmosphere like?

Fields: I remember Noah Emmerich turning to us on set after the first rehearsal and saying, “It’s so weird to stand here with a gun pointed at them and say the words ‘It’s over.'”

Weisberg: That scene, we had as much of a journey or more with that scene than any scene we ever wrote. It went through more drafts and took longer for us to finish writing that scene than, I’m sure, any scene. And I think there were even moments when I don’t think I felt sure we were going to get it. Because we were going to live and die in whether or not that scene worked. And we had to repeatedly leave it before it had gotten to where it needed to go, and take a break from it, really even for a week at a time sometimes, to let our minds rest and come back. And then we finally got it. And felt confident we’d gotten it.

We’ve told you this many times, Alan, that whatever we write, we know that from experience that the actors elevate it and make it better and richer and do surprising things with it. So being there that first day and watching them start to breathe life into it and make it more real and more convincing than what we’d written, you just don’t get a better feeling than that.

Was there ever a version of the series, as you ran through the different scenarios, where Stan does not find out, and/or Stan does not get to confront them?

Weisberg: I don’t think so, no. I think that confrontation, to us, just felt that it had to come. And that was just a question of how we were going to design it. But that was inevitable to us. That’s the inevitable plot line, but it felt inevitable emotionally.

And finally, this is a thread that I’ve been hearing from viewers of the show going back practically to season one and certainly as we’ve been in this final season: “Oh, Elizabeth’s got to face justice. Elizabeth and Philip have to face justice. They have to be punished. They’ve done so many horrible, terrible things.” And looked at a certain way, they get away with it. They leave their children behind, but they’re not arrested, they get to go back to Russia, they don’t do prison time or anything else. What would you say to the viewers of the show who felt as if the end game had to involve some degree of justice or comeuppance for all the things that we’ve seen the Jennings’ do?

Weisberg: I think that losing their kids is as much of a tragic comeuppance or as karmic of a payment as you can get. It’s not the criminal justice payment, but it’s the emotionally shattering tragedy.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.

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