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.
You spent a lot of time in Russia this year, not just with Mischa but with Oleg, with Martha, and others — more time there than you did even during the period when Nina was serving out her sentence. Is this something you would have been comfortable doing a few years ago? And how did you come to realize that now was the time to plant your flag in Moscow for a while?
Weisberg: It’s not even that we would or wouldn’t have been comfortable doing it earlier, it didn’t even occur to us. We didn’t have a reason to do it, we didn’t have the idea to do it. We have the Rezidentura, and those were our parallel Russian stories that seemed an important part of the DNA of the show. We had a little bit in Russia when Nina went up there, but when Oleg went back, suddenly it just happened. We had an important character there, and we saw that we could tell stories about a character we cared about, and open up what was going on in that society, and open it up for a very interesting perspective for American television: the son of a (government minister), and what he’s going through when he’s doing this investigation. It’s historical, it actually was a real investigation into corruption in the food trade. It just seemed so unusual that it was right for the kind of storytelling we like to do, and at the same time it was this wonderful counterpoint of what Philip and Elizabeth are doing, because they’re so wrapped up in this question of, “Are they going to go home or not?” Well, here’s home.
Fields: We not only spent much story time in Russia but we went to Russia, as you can tell from watching the season. We wrote all that story first, and one day Mary Rae Thewlis, our brilliant line producer, and Chris Long, our brilliant directing producer, came into our office and said, “We think you should to go to Russia to film this season.” To which we responded, “That’s a good idea. How are you going to do that?” And they told us, and they did it, and we went and boy, it really, really paid off onscreen, we thought.
(After the interview, I emailed Fields and Weisberg to clarify exactly how much of the Russia scenes were filmed in Russia, versus Brooklyn standing in for Moscow. Fields explained that all the interiors were shot on their soundstages here, and a handful of exteriors, but most of the outdoor scenes were filmed over there.)
Before you sent Oleg back home, did you have plans to catch up with Martha, or was there a part of you when she got on the plane that thought, “We’re never going to see her again and people will have to just wonder what happened and even if she made it”?
Fields: God forbid, Alan. Yeah, we always knew. We don’t talk, but we know. We didn’t know it would be as many scenes; originally we just had one scene, and then we had two scenes, and then we had three scenes. But that wasn’t really a function of the fact that we had more storylines going on there; that was just a function of the fact that ideas kept popping up for one more scene. And each of those scenes that you see could have been the end of the Martha story, but then we just had an idea and it got even better and even better.
The entire time Philip and Elizabeth are talking about taking the kids back to Russia, my wife and I are saying to each other, “They’re completely delusional. Paige and Henry will hate them forever if they actually do this.” Are we wrong, or are Philip and Elizabeth wrong?
Fields: Did you happen to see, Alan, there was a story in The Guardian about one of the illegals in 2010 who went back with their two teenage kids, who of course didn’t have a choice — the kids were deported along with them. The story talked about the struggles they’ve gone through. The kids didn’t speak Russian, and they never adjusted to Russian society, and their relationship with their parents is terribly strained, and I think you would have to describe it as a miserable failure. But, for that family. That’s not to say that it’s the only possible outcome.
Weisberg: As you know with us, the answer is always, “Both.” They’re simultaneously deluded and right, and hopeful, and realistic, and all of it. By the way, we think Martha’s going to be okay. We wouldn’t have predicted that! Adopting this girl. Insanely, it’s possible now that when the Wall falls if she were given a chance to come home she wouldn’t because she’s smart enough to know that this girl wouldn’t want to go.
It has occurred to me that Mischa is technically Martha’s stepson.
Fields: [Laughs.] That’s a very interesting question. I’ll have to talk to the lawyers about that one.
Everybody — me included — asks you all the time, “What’s going on with Henry?” This year we found out what was going with Henry. Did this story come out of people always noting how he had been off to the side, so you decided to make that the subject, or was this something that had been in the works long before annoying people like me kept bugging you about it?
Fields: Well, closer to the first, but it’s kind of both. We knew we wanted to do a story about Henry and we would always struggle to find bigger stories for him. We found this one and were very excited about it, and had written it and were halfway through filming it, and then the clamor began on Twitter, and you must have seen the memes, and somebody did a whole article on all the excuses about where Henry’s been. By then of course, we had the storyline in the can, so Henry’s has been going on for four seasons.
I’m curious if you have any theories on why people were instantly so much more suspicious of Renee than they were of Tori. Is there something about Laurie Holden that screams, “possible spy,” more than Callie Thorne?
Fields: Yeah this is interesting. People really veer towards, “she is,” over, “she isn’t.”
Weisberg: Yeah, I don’t know. Is it because she’s blonde?
As we’re watching Oleg at work, we’re really getting to see for the first time how different the USSR is from the place that Elizabeth and Philip are always describing to Paige and the cause that they’re committed to. Was that a purpose, as well, of some of the Russia stuff? To show us they’re really putting their faith into something that is perhaps not worth it?
Weisberg: I wouldn’t say that exactly, because the Soviet Union was a huge, complicated place with a million different things going on, and we’re showing one little slice of it there, and one of the pieces of what’s going on. There was corruption when Philip and Elizabeth were there, too, and all kinds of problems and all kinds of inequality. So I don’t think if they were to come back, they would see what was going on that we’re showing in our story and suddenly have their eyes opened or think that that was something so terribly shocking.
Fields: But I will say, it was a great chance this season for us to just find a way to bring to life the place, and not so much the commentary and what Philip and Elizabeth might know or not know, but really for an American audience to have a chance to experience that. Really, we’ve only experienced it through the Rezidentura up until now, except kind of in a rough circumstance for Nina, and this is a chance to see different ways of what it was like to be a citizen, a human being, in that place at that time. And really going back to that montage sequence that kicks off the season, it was something that we consciously wanted to have experienced for the audience.
Weisberg: It’s not just that Philip and Elizabeth left the Soviet Union 20 years ago and the Soviet Union changed a lot, but there’s also the obvious point that they left when they were young. And when you grow up in a society that limits the amount of information you can have, often the time when you start to understand more and think more clearly and be less susceptible to the propaganda is as you get older. And they didn’t have that experience in their home country.
It’s been a few years now: Do you remember what it looks like when Matthew Rhys smiles?
Fields: Well what we know from hanging out with him on the set is Matthew’s always smiling. Philip, on the other hand, we’re not sure we remember.
Weisberg: It’s amazing that he got through a whole season without a smile, isn’t it? That’s really something.
Fields: Yeah he had a new baby at home, maybe all he had to do was set his memory to 3am Saturday morning to get in character.
You got rid of a lot of characters at the end of last season, so you had to introduce a whole bunch of new people: the assets in Topeka, Alexei and his family, you’re using Agent Wolfe a lot more, there’s Stan and Aderholt’s new asset Sofia, and then obviously all the people in Russia. What was that like having to integrate this many recurring characters all in the same year?
Fields: We didn’t really give a lot of thought in terms of the process. We were just talking the other day about it, though, and one thing we realized is we didn’t feel like integrating them because they were not characters who we ever really dealt with outside of our main characters. So we never really spent time with Sofia as a character except through Stan and Aderholt. We never spent time with the Morozovs unless we were with Philip and Elizabeth. So, unlike Martha or Nina, they weren’t really their own full tributaries. They were stories that we told through our main characters.
Finally, Claudia is their handler again. Margo (Martindale) still has another day job, but it’s a day job working on another show that Graham [Yost] is producing. Did that make it easy enough to finally bring her back into the fold on a more regular basis?
Fields: We had to really twist Graham’s arm, call him, threaten him, yell at him, send him presents. It took a lot.
Weisberg: He’s notoriously difficult.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com