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Showrunners of the Year: The Americans’ Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg Shattered Hearts With History

on December 24, 2018, 12:00am

There’s a sense that the ending to The Americans has been determined from the start. The Soviet Union is no more. The mission to which Philip (recent Emmy winner Matthew Rhys) and especially Elizabeth (Keri Russell) Jennings have devoted so much of their lives, the cause for which they’ve fought and bled and lost and killed, fails. That’s not narrative. That’s history.

But in another sense, the Cold War is just a tool used to get us into this garage:

The Americans doesn’t have a single bad season, but now that the dust has settled — the wigs packed away, the bodies pulled out of the suitcases, poor old Henry finally made aware of exactly how much he’s missed — it’s obvious that the final season was among the best, if not actually at the top of the heap. The sharp, incisive writing of showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, and the rest of the show’s writing staff, has always balanced the political and the personal, using the geopolitical to reflect on the internal with deceptive ease.

But in Season Six, the undercurrents of meaning and metaphor grew even more apparent, and the taut spy drama wrapped around a tense exploration of family vibrated at an even more subcutaneous frequency. What does it mean when Philip Jennings finally square dances, his face shining with joy, but also oddly empty? What do we learn when Elizabeth burns a painting, watching each inch alight? What moves through Paige’s (Holly Taylor) fist when it connects with the square chin of some dick in a bar, and why does Stan’s lowered gun feel like a loss and a gift, all at once?

The Americans (FX)

The Americans (FX)

The answer, of course, if that they all mean lots of things, because human beings are full of contradictions. A cruel act can also be the kindest option possible. A friend can be a friend and a enemy spy, all at once. A marriage can be a lie that’s also true. A daughter can be lost and somehow freed in the same moment. And it’s possible that, as the song goes, it’s impossible to live, with or without her.

Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) found nothing in the Jennings’ garage at the end of The Americans’ excellent pilot but a false sense of security; he didn’t hear Philip’s terrified breath around the corner. They return to a garage in the show’s finale — one of the great series finales of the century — and he hears it, then. Everyone tells the truth at last, except for when they’re lying. That’s spy shit, but it’s life shit as well. And above all else, it’s damn good writing.

The Americans (FX)

The Americans (FX)

Weisberg and Fields are our showrunners of the year not because they steered this ship so securely into harbor, but because with or without a perfect finale, The Americans would still be lingering with us, like the sting of a fist that met a jaw, like a raised voice in a parking garage, like the gust of air from a train that just left a station. Pain and love have this in common: They stick around for a long, long time. That’s not narrative, either. That’s human nature.

We spoke with Field and Weisberg about the ending to their terrific series, which scenes and choices have lingered with them, and the ghosts of characters past. Yes, we also asked if Renee is a spy.


Joe Weisberg:  Hello! We are calling you from a very green farm in New Zealand, which we are hoping is doubling well as Wyoming.

Well, that sure sounds better than cold and snowy Chicago.

Joel Fields: Oh, that is why we’re not in Chicago or New York.

Do you mind if I ask what you’re working on down there?

Fields: We’re doing a show called Breckman Rodeo that a former assistant of ours wrote, about teenage rodeo riders.

That sounds terrific.

Fields: Yeah, it’s a pretty good project.

The Americans (FX)

The Americans (FX)

Well, speaking of good projects, thanks for six seasons of The Americans. It was such a pleasure, to write about and to watch.

Fields:  Oh, thank you.

Weisberg:  That is kind.

Fields: That means a lot. What we do, we generally do in a vacuum — even though it’s highly collaborative, so it’s often a vacuum with a lot of wonderful partners — but it really means a lot when it lands for the audience.

How did actual historical events—David Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty disappear, the Washington Summit, and so on—make their way into the narrative of The Americans? Were they signposts toward which you navigated, or did they inject themselves into the proceedings?

Weisberg: Well, you bring up two things that existed on very different sphere. When you’re talking about the Summit, you’re talking about a really fundamental, historical event and series of actions that were very important. In a way, the whole show revolved around historical events like the Summit, and so many others throughout the run of the show.

We’re dealing with characters who were very ideologically motivated. Politics and history were central as to who they were, and how they saw the world, and really how they were shaped as children. So really big events like that were central to character, and therefore central to all of our stories. They became inseparable. We always thought when we were making the show that it was really a benefit [to us] that historical events were able to play such an important role in the show, because [those events] were so important to our characters and who they were.

And then there was a different tier of [historical events], like the Statue of Liberty disappearing. Those weren’t exactly as central in the same way, but they were able to play a role in individual episodes— they grounded an episode, or came in and made everything feel real, or just centered you in the time period. We wouldn’t necessarily know ahead of time what effect they were going to have [on the story].

But the example you gave just now [was] a perfect example. It just had an almost magical influence on an episode, maybe working from our unconscious mind in a certain way. We would write an episode, and then walk ourselves back afterwards to see what it has done, all the tentacles it has spread out in the story.

Fields: We had this big wall in the office that we, every year, would cover with research material from the period in which the story was taking place. The purpose of it wasn’t to find things that we were going to jam into the show, but rather just to put them into the consciousness of all the writers, so that we’d be walking past it every day.

And your example of David Copperfield is such a good one, because I really remember vividly how as a kid I loved those magic specials. So I kept saying, “You’ve got to put those up, remember when [Canadian magician] Doug Henning did this, remember when David Copperfield did that?” So they were always up on the wall.

But for that episode [Season Four’s “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears”], we had not thought at all about putting David Copperfield in. But we were struggling with a big story problem—there was this big time jump in the episode—and we kept trying to find cinematic ways to make the time jump work. You start with a bad idea, pages flying up the calendar, and then you start asking how you could do it differently, and we really struggled. We had a lot of good stuff that was working in that episode, but we didn’t have the time jump working.

How exactly David Copperfield’s magic trick with the Statue of Liberty got off the wall for that year and entered that story remains a magical mystery [to us], but as soon as that idea presented itself, we found ourselves re-watching the David Copperfield special, and of course, you find that David Copperfield is talking about all of the themes that we were exploring in the episodes. Suddenly, it became this beautiful added layer that not only solves the question of making the time transition work, but just elevated the whole story.

The Americans (FX)

The Americans (FX)

Weisberg: It was actually very funny because… When we started out that season, there were all these incredibly important historical events that took place during the year [in which season four was set]: Marine barracks had been bombed, the invasion of Grenada, the invasion of Lebanon, the shooting down of the KAL Airliner. We thought that these would all play huge [roles] in our season, because they were all very important to U.S-Soviet relations, and would be important to the spying on the United States.

But the way our season shook out, every one of them ended up landing right in the middle of that time jump. So we actually didn’t cover any of them during the show. And it was one of those moments where as people running the show, you think, whoa, those had loomed so large for us in what we thought would be an important part of our storytelling, but the storytelling did not want to go that way. The storytelling, and the chronology of our story, and our characters [wanted] to skip all of it. And you just have to go with that flow.

Fields: If we learned anything, you have to follow the characters. You can’t leave them.

The Americans (FX)

The Americans (FX)

Sometimes the characters don’t seem to leave the story, either. Characters like Young-Hee, and Gregory, and Lois Smith’s character from “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?”, they seem to linger in the story long after they’re gone. What’s the secret to filling your story with characters so potent, they leave behind ghosts?

Fields:: I think sometimes we did this more successfully and sometimes we did it less successfully, but when the characters ended up having some really, really vital, emotional intersection with the main characters, it’s not enough that they’re some kind of foil, and it’s it not enough that they have a plot intersection. It only really, really worked in the deep way you’re talking about when they have a very deep emotional intersection.

So Young-Hee wasn’t just there servicing the story as the person Elizabeth needed to use to get to Young-Hee’s husband. Young-Hee had to also be the person who was going to be, in a funny sort of way, Elizabeth’s first close friend. And once she became that, then she took on that depth. And even though she was playing that role for Elizabeth, it turned out that [it also] made Young-Hee dimensional as a character. We found that over and over and over again.

The Americans (FX)

The Americans (FX)

One character who cast an especially long shadow over the series is Martha. When you sat down to write the pilot, was it planned that Martha, and thus also and Alison Wright, were going to play such a key role in the series?

Fields: Well, I remember as we were finishing out the first season and were talking about what deals we’re going to be making for actors going forward, [someone from FX] said, “Well, are you going to need Alison Wright at all for next year?” And we said, “Oh yeah, we need a series deal for her. She’s going to stay with the show. We have years worth of story for that character.” And it was interesting because we hadn’t really broken that whole story, but to us, from pretty early on, we knew that there was going to be a very long, emotional run for that character.

This last seasaon, the character of Erica Haskard [played by Miriam Shor] exerted a similarly inexorable pull on the characters and the story. Why in this season was it important that Elizabeth be challenged Erica’s art, of all things?

Weisberg: That was a really interesting question for us. We thought a lot about how [Elizabeth] grew up, and where she grew up, and the role that art would have in her upbringing. What would she have exposed to [as a child]? She would have been exposed to socialist, realist art. It’s not that she would not have been exposed to art at all, but she would have been exposed to art with the idea that it had a solely, purely political purpose. So the idea was that she would have spent all these years in America, and yet never really crossed paths with art with any other function, or grappled with the idea that there was art that had any other meaning.

The Americans (FX)

The Americans (FX)

[Then Elizabeth encounters] this woman who would suddenly present this idea: “Well, hey, there is art that doesn’t have a political purpose. It has a purpose tied to emotion, and tied to the world of feeling,” which is exactly the place where Elizabeth struggles. That’s not to say that Elizabeth doesn’t have feelings about, of course she does, but her feelings are all tied into the world of politics and ideology, and of course, [she has feelings about] her children as well, but that’s also tied up with politics and ideology.

So someone who could say, if you ever went to Elizabeth and said, “Let’s talk about politics, and then let’s talk about a world of feelings divorced from [politics],” it wouldn’t make any sense to her. But what if she ran into art—it all has to be unconscious—so she runs into art, and it just starts to penetrate into her. She’s just staring at these things, and it makes her feel. It seemed like something that could make her feel. And she wouldn’t have words for it, it would just start happening. And then it would happen with a relationship, and with art. You always ask yourself: “What would be a way to penetrate her shell?” And it just seemed like a beautiful way to do that.

Is there a scene or an episode that you remember watching and thinking, Wow, we really nailed that, that’s the perfect realization of that idea?

Fields: That’s a tough one. So many people came together and did such a good job on the show, so you can point to a lot of really well-realized moments, a lot of well-realized scenes, and a lot of well-realized episodes. But for some reason, especially with the last season fresh in my mind, I find myself coming back to this moment where Elizabeth came home and she brought Philip zharkoye [a Russian dish made with meat and potatoes]. It was a trespass for her to do that, to bring something into the house, something connected to their Russian heritage.

They’re never supposed to do that, because of their cover. But it was important enough for her to connect with him, and to bring him something special like that, something that she’d never done before. He appreciated it, but told her, “Oh, that’s so sweet. I really appreciate it, but I’m full, I just ate all the Chinese food,” and she understood that, but also was sad and hurt. Then [Philip] realized his mistake, that he should have eaten it anyway, and he said, “Oh, here, here. Give me a bite,” and he took the bite, and she appreciated that.

The Americans (FX)

The Americans (FX)

[But it was] too late. The moment had passed. And she went and she threw it down the sink. I found that to be the most heartbreaking moment. It just says something about marriage, and how precious these little intimate gestures are that we make to each other. They both wanted to connect with each other, and they both wanted to show their love for each other, and everybody’s intentions were so good, and just because this little moment was missed for no real reason, they can’t quite get it back.

The way those two [Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys] acted that, they were just little moments, but they were also transcendent little moments. It was all so perfectly realized by the two of them, and by Chris Long [who directed the episode], and my heart still breaks every time I think of it.

I fully recognize that it’s far more interesting to not know the answer to this question, and I’m certain you won’t answer, but I have to ask you all the same: Is Renee [Laurie Holden’s character] a spy?

Weisberg: Noah Emmerich [whose character, Stan Beeman, is married to Renee] has a great answer to that, which is that, really, that’s not our question to answer anymore. The show’s done, and anybody can answer that question now. What we think is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. What matters is how it played during the show, and it’s great that those questions still loom, because it means that the characters still live on some level. And that’s a really good feeling.

The Americans (FX)

The Americans (FX)

Father Andrei [played by Konstantin Lavysh] was key to one of the most moving moments of the series, which is when Philip and Elizabeth get married in a Russian Orthodox ceremony, using their real Russian names [S5 E10, “Darkroom”]. When that scene happened, and they weren’t in disguise, did you have any sense that that decision would play a role in the finale? That their choice to use their real names and to be themselves with this person briefly, was going to come with such a cost?

Weisberg: No. We had no idea. None whatsoever, and I think we’re glad we didn’t. Who knows how it could have interfered with our ability to write that, and their ability to act and direct it, with a purity of honest, open, happy emotion? Had anybody known it was going to serve that dual purpose [that could have been lost]. That’s a good television question-and-answer moment in a way. Working on TV, that’s how it unfolds.

Fields: A piece of that, which is the A side of that, is that the scene of them getting married for real was one that we had come up with and [had] planned to include in season one. It was going to be two thirds of the way through season one, and [then]  it was going to be the end of season one, and then we knew for sure [it] was going to happen in season two, and it just kept not quite settling in.

Eventually we gave up on it, but there we were in a later season, and Father Andrei’s character presented itself, and the choice to pretend to get married finally landed. Instead of trying to lead the characters to this moment, the characters led us to the time when it was going to be right.

I cannot imagine anyone watching this show could’ve thought, “Well, The Americans was definitely going to have a really happy, sunny ending”. But the way in which it ended, with the bloodshed being mostly metaphorical, was surprising. How did you go about making those decisions, and deciding the fates of Henry and Paige in particular? And how are you feeling about them, months after the fact?

Weisberg: It was the first and clearest story that came to us. That was the story we wanted to tell. So then we examined it a lot, and even thinking that was our story, we ran through a lot of alternatives. That’s our job in a sense, to do our due diligence and see if there’s a better story. So we certainly ran through stories of all kinds, of bloodshed and violence, and every iteration that you could just possibly imagine. We didn’t like any of them better, we liked them less.

This felt like the truest story, it felt like what would really happen, it made us feel the most. When we thought about it, because we think about these things a lot, what we realized is that this story had tremendous violence. It was just emotional violence. The bloodshed was just not literal bloodshed. The bloodshed was all emotional.

The Americans (FX)

The Americans (FX)

That was in keeping with this whole series, not that there wasn’t a lot of angst and bloodshed, but it really was a story about a marriage, and a story about a family. To have the ending be about the horrible, painful toll that took on them, with the parents essentially losing their children was the right way to end it. It’s horrible, it’s horrifying. How could it even be more painful?

Fields: It all felt right to us. And it felt a little bit scary, because there’s so many expectations about how stories end, and so many things we thought the audience might expect, but we were pretty confident this was how the story had to end. I think now, and I’m sure I speak for both of us, we just feel better than ever about it because it was so well received. That’s the real anxiety: Will the audience like it as much as we do? Now it’s later, and the answer seems to be yes, so we’re dancing on clouds.