‘The Americans’ producers on season 3: ‘It may be that our sense of bad is changing’

FX’s “The Americans” just completed a third season (here’s my finale review) that was as emotionally rich as the series has ever been, but that at times to my mind suffered from an over-abundance of problems for its KGB protagonists to deal with. When I got on the phone with showrunners Joel Field and Joe Weisberg, we talked about where they left things involving Paige, Martha, Stan, Nina, and, of course, Philip and Elizabeth, about why they don’t feel there’s too much going on, how much longer they see their story going, and a lot more.

(A couple of notes on the transcript. First, because I was talking to them on the phone for the first time in a while, I asked them at the start to identify which one was speaking so I didn’t mis-attribute a quote; this later turned into a running gag where Fields would be sure to make clear it was Weisberg who said something objectionable. Second, because text doesn’t always capture the tone of a conversation, this was a very friendly interview, even at the parts where we disagreed. Anytime where it seems like one of them is getting mad, assume it is in mock indignation.)

Let’s start with the cliffhanger. When you wrote that Paige was going to spill the beans to Pastor Tim, how much did you know about how that would play out next season?

Joel Fields: I think we knew. We would not have written that scene without knowing what we were going to do next season. Nor would John Landgraf probably have let us shoot that scene without us telling him what was going to happen. That was the first thing he said when we pitched it. We rarely pitch through these things with John on the phone, and for some reason, he was on the phone. We pitched that, and that was his first question: “What happens?” And of course, Joe and I had just taken a long walk hours before, so we had it in our head where it goes next season, so we said, “The reason we’re pitching it is we’re excited where it goes next season.”

Joe Weisberg: It’s interesting, we don’t have the immediate next couple of beats. That’s what we’re talking about in the writers room right now. What we have is almost the whole season’s worth of stories. But we’re struggling with what happens immediately after.

Exactly how worried should we be about Pastor Tim?

Joe Weisberg: People think we should answer that question. I think it’s fair to say that’s a question John Landgraf had as well.

Okay, so a question that maybe you can answer. Paige knows, Martha knows, and now Pastor Tim knows something. How many people can be plausibly brought into the circle of trust before Gabriel or Claudia or someone else puts their foot down and says “enough”?

Joe Weisberg: Four!

Joel Fields: This is Joel. Joe just completely pulled that out of his ass.

Joe Weisberg: It’s getting hairy. It’s not good.

Joel Fields: It is, and we like that. It’s becoming problematic. Joe and I have this debate, which is in life, truth is a wonderful disinfecting agent, which helps purify every relationship. But in these guy’s lives, its destructive power has to be considered.

Paige regrets having ever confronted them, yes?

Joe Weisberg: I would not necessarily agree with that. She’s obviously in a lot of pain. But she was in a lot of pain before. Now maybe there’s a different intensity to the pain, but at least her world makes a kind of sense.

Let’s get to Martha. The penultimate episode ends with this big moment where Philip de-wigs, and Martha is stunned and not sure exactly what this means. Martha is not in the finale at all, and it’s not even until late in the episode where it’s mentioned that, yes, she’s still alive and still with the program. Why did you wind up structuring it that way?

Joe Weisberg: First, we like the word “de-wigged.” It’s a good word. And we find that it’s the same way we tried to do the big reveal with Paige in episode 10 rather than the finale, moving things around from their expected places just feels better to us. Things start to feel more real when they’re not falling into the expected dramatic slot.

Sure, I get that. But the finale ends on a cliffhanger, and there’s this question of whether he’s doing this because he has to kill her but wants to let her see his real face first, or if he’s doing it to make her trust him. Lots of different things could have happened there, and there’s essentially no follow-up to that in the finale. I’m just wondering if there’s a specific dramatic reason why you didn’t want to do that?

Joel Fields: For what it’s worth, we felt that the follow-up in the finale was him killing Gene, and telling Elizabeth that he hoped it would take care of the situation, and her asking the question of whether that would hold for Martha psychologically. That at least was what was in our heads. Among the things we’re talking about in the writers room now, although we have in our minds how we pick up that thread, how specifically, in terms of the first scene back for her story, are we going to pick that up, where are we going to be at, and what’s that going to mean for them.

Joe Weisberg: I don’t know if Joel will see this the same way, but sometimes you’re very deeply involved in these stories in a certain way, and you can be caught off-guard in a certain way. At least for me, when he de-wigged, it didn’t even occur to me that it might be preparation for killing her. I was caught off-guard by that response from a number of people in the audience. That surprised me.

Joel Fields: I would say I was not as caught off-guard, because everyone’s been waiting for him to kill her. But to me, I think the answer is to say he doesn’t, and he didn’t. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say if Philip’s going to kill Martha, we’re going to probably show it.

But that gets to a larger question I want to ask about this season. You had a lot of plates spinning this year, and some of them you left alone for quite a while, while others spun the whole season. We haven’t seen Kimmy in quite a while, for instance, when for a while this season, that was the worst thing that Philip was dealing with. Marcus and Lisa vanished for a while and came back. How do you decide how to balance all those stories, and how do you realize when it’s maybe too much story – not so much for the audience to follow plot-wise, but just for it to all track emotionally?

Joe Weisberg: We have a thing in our head that we try to have their life match all of these things going on operationally. It never occurred to me until you started saying it was too much, that maybe it was a rationalization. But what we’ve been telling ourselves is, in their real spy activities, these things come and go. An operation heats up, it cools off, the way their schedule works is that somebody could be in their lives for an intense period and then you don’t see them for a while. So it felt, to us, natural.

Joel Fields: And these things are also somewhat based on need. They sought out the Stealth information when Baklanov, through Nina, said, “Without these photos, I’m nowhere.” Suddenly, they had to start pushing again on that operation.

But Kimmy, in particular, a big deal is made when Gabriel tells Philip, “You’re going to have to see this girl every week for a verylong time.” And that hasn’t come up in the last batch of episodes.

Joe Weisberg: To us, he’s seeing her, but we’re not showing it.

Joel Fields: We’re choosing to show it when he got the critical information.

Joe Weisberg: For example, Charles Duluth is an agent of his, and he has regular check-ins with his agents. There’s a stable of agents that we just don’t show, but that’s part of their story.

Joel Fields: In our heads, that’s in the web series, Alan.

No, the web series is Gaad attacking the mail robot.

Joe Weisberg: There’s a bunch of web series at this point.

Joel Fields: There’s also Martha at home cleaning.

Joe Weisberg:: At the point when the web series start to sound much better than the TV show, I think we’ve got a problem.

Sandra asks him this, but why exactly is Philip both going to est and going to the advanced sex seminar? What need does he have that he’s getting out of that?

Joe Weisberg: This is one of our favorite stories For us, the desire and need to go to est is pretty much what he told her: something touched him, and interested him, and he’s not sure what, but he wants to go back. I think the choice of the advanced sex seminar is because in some barely conscious way, he’s able to connect that a lot of the strange things in his life have to do with sex. If I were to try to get into his not very conscious and not very self-aware mind, he would look at that list of six or seven graduate seminars, and see there’s one about sex, and he would look at all the honey traps he runs, and the flashbacks he had to his own sex training, and it would be easier for him to get up into his almost-conscious mind that there are problems in that part of his life and pick that seminar.

And how much strife is this now going to cause between Philip and Henry that Philip is about to become Sandra’s best friend?

Joel Fields: (laughs) That’s going to be a tough day if Henry finds that out.

I ask you all the time if Stan’s ever going to get another partner, and he hasn’t. So now he’s running this operation on Oleg, by himself, and we don’t find out for sure until the finale that he’s been trapping Oleg this whole time, because there’s no one he can confide in. Similarly, we never know how much of what Nina is telling Anton is sincere and how much is her just running the mission she’s been assigned. Philip and Elizabeth can confide in each other, or in Gabriel, but you have these other spy characters running around, and you have to leave it up to the audience to figure out what their true intentions are.

Joel Fields: That’s one of the really interesting things about the show. In a way, it’s a reflection of life. Ultimately, we all have to determine whether people are being sincere or not. We can show some of that when we can show it, dramatically. But in other place, the audience, like some of the characters, are going to have to go on faith until the truth is revealed, such as it’s revealed.

Joe Weisberg: It’s interesting with Nina, because in season 2, in the writers room and actors and everyone having to do with the show, nobody really agreed whether she was being sincere in different relationships and what was going on with her. There was great disparity there. But at least in the writers room with Nina this season, there’s agreement that we all know what’s going on with Nina.

Is it a good thing if there’s as much ambiguity as there was in season 2, or do you run the risk of each viewer watching a different show?

Joel Fields: I don’t know. Josh Brand said early in the room, “Ambiguity is good, confusion is bad.” That sounded pretty good to us.

Joe Weisberg: I would normally think you could veer very easily into confusion, because it seemed to work for Nina. Somehow, people found it interesting. It just worked with that character. I don’t think you ever could have sustained that with Philip or Elizabeth.

While Paige is calling Pastor Tim, Philip and Elizabeth are watching Reagan deliver the “evil empire” speech. That speech is coming at the end of a season where they’ve done, even by their standards, some pretty heinous things. Philip hasn’t slept with Kimmy yet, but he’s still manipulating this teenage girl. They kill Betty, they kill Gene the computer guy, they fold Annelise up into a suitcase. Was that intentional that you wanted to paint them in a darker tone before they get up to that speech so people might go, “You know, Reagan had a point”?

Joel Fields: As you talk it through, what comes to my mind is that look of utter shock and incredulity that Elizabeth gives to Philip when she hears Reagan call the Soviet Union an evil empire. “How could this monster heave those words into his mouth about us?” Thinking of it as you give that list, it’s pretty ironic.

Joe Weisberg: I am willing to go on the record in saying, I do not think the Soviet Union was an evil empire.

Joel Fields: That was Joe who said that.

But was it an intentional thing to specifically up the game in terms of the nefarious things they were doing and the kinds of people who were being hurt?

Joel Fields: To the extent it was intentional, it was subconsciously intentional. That was not part of our conscious architecture of the season. But now that you mention it, I wish it had been.

Joe Weisberg: We have our assistants come up with a list of the murders Philip and Elizabeth committed each season. It’s just a surprise to us. We don’t really consciously know how much worse things are from season to season.

Joel Fields: But it did spike in season 3, it’s true. But when you talk about what’s consciously and unconsciously planned, Joe and I also talk a lot. We plan overtly, and we also try to make room for the Jungian unconscious mind in the process. That clearly is at work in this.

When you do an episode like “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?,” and she’s murdering Betty and we spend that much time with Betty, you’re hanging a lamp right there. She’s doing a bad, bad thing.

Joe Weisberg: That was a bad, bad thing. No question.

Joel Fields: Yeah, and it impacted her. Which is rare for Elizabeth Jennings.

Joe Weisberg: It may be that our sense of bad is changing. In the first season, when she shot that security guard, that was back when they hadn’t done so much bad stuff yet. We really suffered with that, or when they poisoned that kid, we couldn’t believe we were having those guys do that. We have become somewhat inured ourselves, so maybe we have to up the ante for us to feel it ourselves. We have to have them kill an old lady with her own pills to make it feel so bad.

Joel Fields: There’s another thing at play, too, which is a chicken and egg. I don’t mean to say it to belittle it, because it’s part of the global part of the show, too. They’ve also, in their minds, done all those bad things because Ronald Reagan is the evil empire guy, even though he hasn’t said it yet. In their view, he’s launching a real offensive to destroy the Soviet Union. That much he’s made clear. So, yes, things are going to get a lot darker.

Joe Weisberg: (laughing) Yeah, what about the bad things he did, Alan? Why don’t you bring those up?

Ronald Reagan is not a character on your show. He exists only on the television.

Joe Weisberg: We think of him as a character on our show, and we have a cardboard cutout of him in our office.

Getting back to Nina, was it challenging to write for a character who was so far away from the others for an entire season? Did it turn out to be easier or harder than you expected?

Joel Fields: I would say it was not hard. That story was pretty well-broken in our heads. For better or for worse, it unfolded as planned. It all felt pretty good to us.

When we spoke in December, you talked about playing a long game with this story, and John Landgraf rewarded you with a renewal. Having told the story this season of bringing Paige into the fold, how much longer do you think the series can run?

Joel Fields: I think there’s still plenty of gas in the tank for us in terms of story to explore. I don’t think we’re in a position where we can yet say, it’s exactly five, or exactly seven, seasons. One thing that has surprised us season to season is the pace at which story unfolds. We have a lot of story we’ve talked about, but even as we are breaking season 4 in the writers room, and people are going, “Oh, that’s an episode 4 story, or an episode 7 story,” we keep reminding them that whenever we say that, although our stories tend to unfold as planned in terms of what happens in what order, we tend to surprise ourselves in terms of when those stories fall.

Joe Weisberg: It’s a very hard question to answer in the middle. That Paige engine could keep going or kind of sputter out and be replaced by something else. Just very hard to feel completely.

When I was on the set that day, Keri told me that this was a really hard season for her. She felt that Elizabeth was really being the bad guy in the family, and that was tough on her. In a lot of my early reviews, I wrote about how the show’s sympathies seemed to very strongly be with Philip about the Paige situation, only for commenters to insists, “No, they’re giving us Elizabeth’s side, too.” How do you feel like the emotional balance played out over the season as far as you were concerned?

Joe Weisberg: For us, we didn’t feel that we struggled to balance it. We felt very sympathetic with Elizabeth’s point of view and where she was coming from.

Joel Fields: Not to speak for Keri, but I remember that day, and more specifically, I remember a lot of our conversations with Keri. And I think there was a moment over the course of the season where she started to feel very differently about Elizabeth, and started to really feel not only not like the bad buy, but that this was all part of a mother’s act of love towards her child.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com