'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.