'Americans' bosses on endgame: 'We hope they'll still trust us two years from now'
The Americans just wrapped up its fourth season, which we now know will be followed by two more (13 episodes, followed by 10) to wrap up the story of the Jennings family. My review of the season finale is here, and I spoke with showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg about where things stand, how they decided they needed two seasons to wrap things up instead of one, and more, just as soon as I offer you a Coke...
The last time we spoke, you said you were breaking the final stories of the show, and you didn't know if you'd need one or two to do it. How and when did you realize you'd need two?
Joe Weisberg: Joel and I took our usual series of walks, and the main thing we realized was we had this very very full story that 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.
Joel Fields: It also felt like the ending we had would feel falsely accelerated if we tried to tell it next season as opposed to wading into six.
It's funny, though, that the episodes that have aired since that announcement was made have had a real air of finality to them. People are dying, people are being sent away, Stan and Aderholt are getting ever-closer to figuring things out. And I've had a lot of readers say, "I trust these guys to finish the story the right way, but I'm not sure how I see two more years after the point we're at now." What would you say to that?
Joel Fields: We hope they'll still trust us two years from now.
Joe Weisberg: We could give a very convincing answer that would put everyone's minds at ease, but it would be too big a spoiler.
But as I'm watching the finale, I'm thinking, "Everybody's leaving!" Arkady is being banished, and Oleg wants to go home to his parents, William's dead, and Gabriel is even talking about Philip and Elizabeth going home. I'm not expecting that to happen, but between Nina's death, and Gaad's death, and Martha going to Russia, you've lost or are in the process of losing a lot of characters. What's that going to be like to deal with over these final 23 episodes?
Joe Weisberg: We talk about this every year, that in our minds — and only in our minds — we reinvent the show every season. So it's not as daunting to us. You're right that there are a lot of characters who are leaving, and it's going to require a lot of reinvention, but we're used to that.
Did you go into the season knowing that you were going to be saying goodbye to a lot of people?
Joel Fields: I think we knew we were going to say goodbye to a lot of people in season 4. In a way, that gave us a lot of story propulsion, a lot of emotional content to explore over the course of the season. That really became, in many ways, a big part of what the season was about, for the show and the characters. Now, having broken so much of the detailed story of season 5, I would say, in a way, those challenges and fears that you're asking about, for now are somewhat behind us. We have a bit of a feel for liberation of having more of a blank canvas to explore with the characters who remain.
Philip and Elizabeth seem stunned by the idea of going home when Gabriel pitches it. In their minds, was there ever a chance they were going to return to Russia?
Joe Weisberg: It's a complicated question. They have lived with that question, as well as certain questions we've been exploring in our new season, in a kind of funny denial. I don't think that they were given the impression that this was a lifelong mission. I think they understood that this was a mission that possibly had an end. But once you're here for a really long time, and raising kids, it was just easier to never really focus on it, and try to live their lives. So when it becomes very concrete, very fast, that's a real struggle.
You certainly have enough characters either in Russia now, or going to Russia, that you could just reboot the show and try to answer Paige's question about how her parents can be Russian spies in Russia. Was this ever even half-seriously discussed?
(a very long silence follows)
Joel Fields: I think we're both being silent because we're trying to decide how much of a spoiler it would be to even answer that question.
That's fair. But you do introduce the idea of them going to Russia around the same time you show us Mischa and tell us he's coming to America, and I began to worry it was one of those Game of Thrones things where characters never actually get together.
Joe Weisberg: I think you're almost pitching where you have one plane going one way, one plane going the other way, and the planes pass each other in the sky.
Joel Fields: I think it's safe to say we're not rebooting the show that way, but it would be pretty funny if next season, we had all the characters who had been in America now be in Russia, and all the Russian characters now be in America.
Mischa was introduced as an idea back in the first season, but there's always been speculation about whether he actually existed, or was just a lie being told to manipulate and control him in some way. How did you decide to not only confirm his existence, but send him to America, as opposed to leaving him as someone Philip knows about but will never see?
Joel Fields: It did feel like one of those things, there were certain story elements we knew the big moves of from the beginning, like the Martha story and the Nina story. There were a lot of refinements along the way, but we had the main arcs broken. The Mischa thing was a somewhat late-breaking and organically breaking story. When that first relationship was introduced in season 1, she brought up the idea of the son, and that blossomed through the development of that script. And then there was this question of whether he was real or not. I think how he was going to be used came into focus that season, really.
Joe Weisberg: We loved that ambiguity of whether he was real, so you could love the ambiguity, then forget about it and then years later revisit it.
Let's talk about the time jump. You've talked about how your stories always take up much less chronological time than you expect them to, plus you're dealing with Henry now being eight feet tall. How necessary was it to take a break, jump forward, and maybe have Henry look like less of an NBA player?
Joel Fields: I think we had long ago given up on trying to control Henry's height. I don't know how they did it on Webster and Diff'rent Strokes. All I can tell you is that Keidrich is a wonderful actor, but his growing is out of control. And we don't even know how he's going to come back for next season. Keidrich broke his ankle early in the season, which actually helped, since he was seated for so much of this season.
Time jumps aren't uncommon these days in dramas, but it's still a big deal, and when I saw the "seven months later" chyron, I said, "Wow." How did you decide that you needed to do it?
Joel Fields: It's so interesting, so many people felt this was a big deal, it's a struggle, we had to avoid the tropes. We thought about none of that, Alan. We knew we wanted the time jump going into season 4. It didn't even occur to us that there was some television convention that had to be carefully navigated. To us, it was part of the crucial part of the emotional story for Philip and Elizabeth: that things were going to get to such an intense point that Gabriel was going to step in and give them a break, but at a moment when Paige was going to have to really manage Pastor Tim and Alice, so we could see how all those emotions and relationships and family dynamics progressed after that jump.
Joe Weisberg: We had to choose our emotional stories over our historical stories. The way the story laid out, the time we jumped over contained many of the biggest events of that phase of the Cold War. So we jumped over the KAL shootdown, we jumped over the Able Archer military exercises, the invasion of Grenada, all these things that we thought would be part of the historical backdrop of the season.
Joel Fields: And that, we talked about. I remember sitting in the office saying, "Gee, we need to do the time jump, but if we do it, we'll lose the historical stuff," but ultimately we talked and walked and decided that was where the story was going.
The story as it stands now is relatively close to the end of the Cold War. I'm not asking for spoilers, but did the way the time jump worked out give you any kind of ideas that, "Maybe when we get to the end, we might be able to do some other jumps and see some things that we might not otherwise get to?"
Joe Weisberg: Isn't the sentence, "I'm not asking for spoilers" the same sentence as "I am asking for spoilers"?
Joel Fields: It sure sounds that way, Joe.
Fine, so let's close with a question you can answer: What was the original plan with Young-Hee before Elizabeth found out that she and Don were the nicest couple in the world and had no secrets? What were they going to do?
Joe Weisberg: They were going to do the same thing but be much less horrible about it.
Joel Fields: Remember, with the spy work, sometimes you go in with a very specific plan. But in this case, they needed those codes, she seemed to be the best angle, she seemed the best angle into him, but whether that was going to be a honey trap, or blackmail, or just searching their house and finding something, that was something she was going to figure out as she went along.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com