Tonight’s The Americans was a particularly momentous installment of the series (here’s my review), and one that prompted me to get on the phone with showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields to talk about what happened, and why, and also where their heads are at as the series gets ever closer to its conclusion(*).
(*) Though there’s been no renewal yet (FX almost always waits until very late in a show’s current season to do it), the default assumption from everyone on the show and at the network seems to be that there will definitely be a fifth season, and possibly a sixth if Fields and Weisberg decide the story needs two years rather than one for a proper ending.
Very big spoilers are coming up just as soon as I tell you about the married man I’m dating…
So, as everyone who watched knows, Nina (Annet Mahendru) was executed by her KGB keepers as punishment not only for her original treason, but for trying to smuggle a note to Anton Baklanov’s son in America. In addition, a near-death experience convinces Elizabeth and Philip to call off the plan to murder Pastor Tim and his wife, and instead try to turn them into assets, and Elizabeth even offers to let Philip turn American for real if she dies. Oh, and (not that we got into it in this interview), Stan is now actively investigating Martha. Lots of dark stuff there, but nothing darker than the abrupt shot to Nina’s head at episode’s end, which is where I began my accusation interview with Weisberg and Fields.
You monsters. Why would you kill Nina?
Joe Weisberg: (laughs) It wasn’t us! Why are you blaming us? Call the KGB!
Joel Fields: What do you want us to do: not write the scene and just have it happen off-camera? We can’t change the reality of things.
How long ago did you know that this was where Nina’s story was going to end.
Joe Weisberg: We think it was two years ago.
Joel Fields: At the beginning of season 1, we knew that there was a storyline that would carry us through season 1, and halfway through season 1 we realized it was going to be longer than that. And then as we broke season 2, we spent a long time really plotting out this whole storyline. We’ve hewed pretty much to the story we broke, although it took longer to unfold than we expected. Really, she survived longer than she might have – not in real time, but episodic time.
Joe Weisberg: We read a book called Farewell, about a Russian spy who was read by the French. Two things came from that book. One, we hired the guy who wrote the book, Sergei Kostin, to be a consultant for last season, and hopefully all seasons going forward. The book told, in exquisite and very precise detail, how the Soviets executed traitors. Nina’s execution is lifted, literally beat by beat, out of that book.
When you talk about Nina surviving a bit longer than originally planned, was any of that simply you watching Annet’s performance and wanting to keep her around as long as possible?
Joel Fields: Not really. Much as we love her, and felt that way, it was just a matter of how much time it took to tell that story. I think we’ve discovered it always takes us longer than we expect to burn through story.
Joe Weisberg: We would have been happy for that to happen at the end of last season. That would have been a perfectly good plan. We just didn’t get there.
Joel Fields: Look, Paige was also supposed to find out about her parents, first at the end of season 2, then at the beginning of season 3. We didn’t get there, and we didn’t get there, and we didn’t get there. That’s our thing.
I’ve had a series of interesting conversations with other critics and even my wife after they’ve seen the episode. We all start out being very upset about it, and as the conversation continues, we realize that the show had to do this.
Joe Weisberg: We appreciate that, because (fellow executive producer) Graham Yost is in a rage.
Joel Fields: It’s amazing. He’s sending us notes on episode 11 that say, “It’s a very good episode, but you killed Nina!” Seriously.
Joe Weisberg: We could forward you the emails.
She’s a Soviet agent, and a traitor, and at a certain point it becomes bullshit if your show kept her alive if you liked the character and the actress.
Joe Weisberg: That’s right. She was really out of choice. How many more chances could you give her? They’d been reasonable, been fair, they’d given her extra chances even more than a person could hope for. It’s exactly what you say: It would start to seem like bullshit if they forgave again.
Joel Fields: Look, they could have given her a bullet in the head long ago, before she had a chance to grow as a human being.
Let’s talk about the growth as a human being. How would you describe her feelings towards Baklanov by the end? Was it a romantic thing? Was it just her admiring being around someone who didn’t want to use her for her body?
Joe Weisberg: It seemed to exist in this beautiful, ethereal space where you can’t give a precise answer to that question. It started out that, “Here’s a man who’s not trying to exploit me,” and that was such a surprise that it enabled her to have a kind of relationship where she could grow as a human being as she’d never been able to before. Once she started growing and growing like that, I think she developed a very pure and true love for him. Because he hadn’t tried to exploit her, because he had truly cared about her in a way you can’t if you’re just trying to get inside someone’s pants. Or even if you’re really in love with them. His feelings for her had a purity and a goodness. As she grew and developed as a person and as someone who could care about another person in a deeper way, something she hadn’t had before in her soul, she became a richer and fuller person. If she had lived, I think it’s possible she could have fallen in love with him in a way that would have included a sexual component to it. But I don’t think that’s where she was when she died.
Joel Fields: It’s funny: the word romantic is both right and wrong. It’s romantic with a capital R or a small r, you’d have to tell us which. It’s romantic in the sense that it’s bigger than her, but it’s not romantic in the sense of crush-y.
Joe Weisberg: It’s like those nuns who wrote each other love letters.
Joel Fields: There’s something transcendent about it. She transcends herself and becomes a different person through her relationship with him. She stops worrying only about her own survival and starts worrying about the survival of her own soul. In a way, what could be more romantic than that?
It sounds like you were committed to this ending all along, but was there ever a point where anybody pitched the idea of finding a way to get Nina back to America?
Joel Fields: Other than Graham Yost? Well, maybe Annet’s agent.
Joe Weisberg: No, it was discussed. But as much as it was discussed, it seemed impossible. Once she was over there, the circumstances under which she left, how could they possibly send her back to the United States? It seemed implausible.
How difficult was it for this last season and a third to be writing this satellite show where it’s thousands of miles away from everybody, and features a few characters we know but is basically unconnected to what’s going on back in DC?
Joel Fields: It’s funny: we’re looking at each other and shrugging. It didn’t feel difficult, nor to us did it feel unconnected. For us, it was connected, because these characters are so much a part of the lives of the other characters. Oleg and Stan are so connected to Nina, and so invested in what happens with her. And she, frankly, had become so important to the landscape of the show, It just seemed like a story that needed to be played out to its conclusion. It would have felt arbitrary to do anything but that.
Joe Weisberg: I certainly heard people say that this is a disconnected world, and I get that feeling. But I think we have a different feeling. We have a world of the show feeling where it’s a show about America and the Soviet Union, about American and Russian characters, about spies, and if a tangent goes off and takes place in a KGB prison, or a secret scientific facility of theirs, where she is with a character Philip kidnapped, that just feels like world of the show to us. I understand if it doesn’t feel that way to everybody, but it did to us.
Everybody spent the first season asking, “Is this the week Martha is going to die?” At the moment, we’re all in a panic about Pastor Tim, and at this stage, Pastor Tim is still alive. But I don’t think anyone lately has been speculating, “Oh, when is Nina going to go?” And that’s exactly when you did it. So my question is… why are you so evil?
Joe Weisberg: Now, you’ve called us monsters and evil, and I will say that when we talk about you, Alan, we say only nice things.
There’s a lot of characters on the show, the things that they do could at any point easily result in their deaths. You’ve found ways to avoid that, and to keep people alive and in play. How much of a challenge is that? Or is it a situation where, because Martha was never designed to die back then, you were never thinking about it in those terms?
Joe Weisberg: I think it’s closer to that, but I think none of it is by design. I think we really try to follow these stories, and see where they go. And if at such a time where the story seems headed is their demise, and we are not afraid to go there, and don’t care so much when it hits. And if a character and a story have life, and are blossoming, and have interesting things in them, we’re very excited to go there, even if that goes on indefinitely, to the end of the series or beyond, in a funny sort of way. So I think we really try to follow the truth of these characters lives as if they’re not in a TV show. Maybe that sounds strange, but that tends to be our guiding principle.
With Pastor Tim, when you decided at the end of last season that Paige was going to let him in on the secret, did you have a sense at that time of how you were going to deal with it? Or did you just say, “Hiatus! We’ll come back and figure it out later”?
Joel Fields: (laughs) No, we’re crazy but we’re not that crazy. We may be monsters, but we’re not crazy. No, we knew, and it’s funny. We had that storyline in mind from the moment Paige was telling Pastor Tim, we knew that there would be a longer story to tell. This show is so much about the consequences of our actions. And boy, the consequences to Philip and Elizabeth of doing something to Pastor Tim – they’re pretty big. Either way, they’re in a tough spot to manage.
Joe Weisberg: 99 out of 100 things (FX boss) John Landgraf says to us really hit home to us. But one thing he said sent shivers down our spine. He says, “Paint yourselves into a corner, story-wise, and just see how you get out.” And I think Joel and I are like (frightened voice), “We’re not that kind of people!”
One of the things that happens in the episode is that, when Elizabeth thinks she might die from the Glanders, she can finally come out and acknowledge this thing that’s been going on in the marriage since the first episode of the series: Philip wants to stay in America, and would defect in a second if Elizabeth agreed. Has her position changed at all over time, or is she just as committed to the cause as ever before?
Joe Weisberg: I love the scene you’re referring to in the bathroom. I think it indicates what the change is, which is she’s very compassionate about his position. I don’t think it’s that she’s sick or afraid to die. She’s become less judgmental and more accepting of her partner.
Joel Fields: And she’s willing to sacrifice for her children on some level, which is a new perspective for her, within boundaries.
You talk about boundaries, and I love the scene at the end of the season premiere where Stan shoves Philip and we don’t know at first if the Glanders vial has been cracked. There’s an idea that these two shouldn’t be alive anymore. They should be dead or in jail, or somehow both. And it’s remarkable that they’ve been able to keep these plates in the air and keep things going. It seems more and more like doom is coming at any moment. As you’re heading towards the end of the series, whenever that will be, how much of a thought of what the ending’s going to be is hanging over what you’re writing?
Joel Fields: As you asked that question, it occurs to me that you could ask the same exact question about the United States and the USSR at the height of the Cold War. It’s astonishing that we all survived, given the nuclear plates that were spinning at the time. There were moments where it seemed like we weren’t going to, and moments we now know from history where we almost didn’t. And we’re talking a lot about the endgame. We’ve had thoughts in mind for a long time. Now, actually, you’ve caught us just as we’re really focusing on breaking the final arcs of the show.
Really? Tell me more.
Joe Weisberg: I’ll just give you a warning. You say we’re monsters, but our Russian consultant, Sergei Kostin, after he read episode 4, sent us an email that read, “You are hard men.” We’ve basically waited our whole lives for someone to say that to us.
Joel Fields: We ran around the office screaming like girls, “We’re hard men! The Russian consultant says we’re hard men!”
Joe Weisberg: So anything could happen at the end of the series. Look out. We’re hard men.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com