FX Network’s series THE AMERICANS begins its sixth and final season Wednesday, March 28. The new season takes place approximately three-and-a-half years after the end of Season 5. We’re in the mid-‘80s, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is proposing a new era of “glasnost,” or openness. Philip (Matthew Rhys) has now retired as a spy for the K.G.B., while his wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell) continues to run missions from the cover of their D.C.-adjacent home and job as a travel agent. Elizabeth has also brought college-student daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) into the espionage fold, though Paige doesn’t yet understand how deadly the work can be. It looks like Elizabeth and Philip are heading for a major disagreement on the direction their homeland is taking.
THE AMERICANS creator Joe Weisberg and his fellow executive producer/show runner Joel Fields have remained with the series from start to finish. Once Weisberg is found – he’s initially somewhere in a large crowd – he and Fields sit down in a quiet area during FX Network’s party for the Winter 2018 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.
JOEL FIELDS: First of all, I have to say on the record how relieved I am that Joe is here now [laughs]. It was very hard to talk before Joe was here. Also, we’re closer to food, which is also very good for me.
ASSIGNMENT X: We begin Season 6 with Philip already out of the K.G.B. Did you have any thoughts about jumping over a scene where the Directorate okays his leaving? It had had seemed like they wouldn’t be allowed to quit?
JOEL FIELDS: Well, in truth, they would be. Here’s somebody who’s worked very loyally for many years. It really would be just the same as if a CIA operative said, “Hey, I’ve had a really good long tour of duty, and I’m done.” What can they do but say, “Thank you”?
JOE WEISBERG: I think our sense was that he had announced it at the end of Season 5, he said he was going to do it. So that felt like the big moment. The big moment felt like him, Elizabeth suggesting he do it and him essentially assenting. What other big moment would there be? So it could come back with him having been out for awhile, that felt like the next big moment.
FIELDS: It didn’t seem like there would be any drama with the KGB, because “Job well done,” as far as they’re concerned.
AX: Now Philip actually is running the travel agency, which is what he’d been pretending to do all along.
FIELDS: Plus, someone’s got to run the travel agency.
AX: How was the agency working when Philip and Elizabeth were only there as cover?
FIELDS: Stavos [played by Anthony Arkin]. It was all Stavos before.
AX: And as far as Paige getting deeper into being a spy, she’s clearly in by Season 6, you also just sort of positioned her as already in, rather than showing the moment of “Here’s my Red Youth badge,” or whatever it is.
FIELDS: Those moments, we’ve been showing so many of them. We’ve been building that story and showing those moments forever, so you could take any leap you wanted in that story any time, because we’ve been building along so deliberately.
AX: This season, Philip finally meets Oleg Burov, played by Costa Ronin, a Soviet agent who has been around since Season 1. At what point in the show did you realize, “We really have to introduce Oleg and Philip”?
WEISBERG: Your question implies that we somehow realized there was a problem that needed to be solved. I would say that was more like a bolt of inspiration that hit us. And hit us late. So much of the show is so carefully planned over so long, and then it’s filled for us with these unexpected story surprises. And that really was one, as we were putting together pieces of a story we already had, between Philip and Elizabeth, suddenly Oleg intruded in a very interesting way.
FIELDS: And we did not know if it would work, and we had to break quite a few pieces of it before we were like, “Oh, this is going to work.”
WEISBERG: And in a funny way, you still could have done this exact story anyway, but without that one little piece of stitching, it wouldn’t have quite worked. I mean, it still would have made sense, but it wouldn’t have quite worked.
AX: Margo Martindale, who plays spy handler Claudia, is now in the opening credits as a regular, so does this mean you have her for the whole season this time?
WEISBERG: It’s a trick question. I would say, we have her to the extent that we have anyone on our show.
FIELDS: Trick answer.
WEISBERG: As you know from the past and the show, we’re very tricky.
FIELDS: We giveth to those opening credits, and we sometimes taketh away. You never know. And it is the final season.
WEISBERG: But we do love Margo and we do love Claudia, and that’s all we can say about that.
AX: Should we read something thematic into the fact that it seems in all of the male/female pairings, it’s the women who seem to be tougher, not just with Philip and Elizabeth, but also with their children, Paige and Henry [Kiedrich Sellati], and their handlers, Claudia and Gabriel [Frank Langella]? Philip and Gabriel retire, Elizabeth and Claudia stay in the game, Paige becomes a spy, Henry doesn’t, Oleg wants out …
WEISBERG: I would say there wasn’t a conscious effort to say, let’s flip those genders. I think it was just us following the characters.
FIELDS: And the truth is, I think a lot of people have many gender preconceptions in the world, but in real life, people fill all sorts of different gender roles. That’s just part of our subconscious process, it wasn’t – gender was not consciously on our minds when we made those creative choices.
WEISBERG: There were also certain dominoes that were just going to fall. Because Elizabeth was that, and Paige was her daughter, that story was going to follow one from the other. The one that was more to your point, it’s interesting that Gabriel [left the K.G.B.] and Claudia went on.
FIELDS: Although that was a domino, too, in a way, because Claudia was who she was in Season 1, we wanted to replace her with a very different sort of character, so Gabriel became who he became, which never was going to be [like Claudia], it had to be in a way the mirror of Claudia, and so when Claudia returned, dominant, she was going to be the stronger version of that.
AX: Since it is the final season, did you feel it incumbent on you to give either Elizabeth or Philip, if Philip does get back into the field at all, a particularly outrageous disguise?
WEISBERG: The disguises – it’s funny for Joel and I, because we’ll be sitting in our office, and we’ll get an email, “Here’s this disguise, here’s that disguise.” We open it up and we look at it. So we don’t give instructions like, “Concoct an outrageous one for this.” We just hope that they all come in, in a way that the character will disappear and nobody will notice them. But in reality, of course, some are a little wilder than others.
I will tell you, the real way those disguises happen now is, the writers’ office creates what’s called a “disguise bio.” When a script is written, it won’t say, “Elizabeth in heavy disguise.” It’ll say, “Elizabeth in heavy disguise as a high-powered corporate executive.” And then really a one- or two-page bio will be written up as to who that corporate executive is. And the thinking is, well, Elizabeth is creating this character that she’s using to work whoever it is. And then that file will go out to the hair, wardrobe and makeup departments. And that’s how that collaboration works.
AX: Are you ending THE AMERICANS after six seasons because you felt like you were running out of story, did you feel like the political situation in the real world was getting so out of hand that you couldn’t keep up as far as how crazy it was …?
FIELDS: Well, no. Really, the end of Season 3 or the middle of Season 4, maybe it was 4, FX came to us and said essentially, “How do you guys want to end the show? Is it one more season, is it two more seasons? What’s the story?” And we took some long walks and talked about the story we had had in our minds from the beginning, and different ways to tell it and for it to play out, and I remember, it really seemed like it was going to be six seasons. It wasn’t seven, and it wasn’t five, it was six. I remember one day we took a walk and we said, “Let’s see if we can do this in five,” remember? And we really gave it a go for an hour or so, which just convinced us that six seasons was the right container for the show.
WEISBERG: But it’s funny – to your question about running out of story, I remember Joel and I taking a walk, it was in the middle of Season 3 or Season 4 – I remember both of us talking about the fact that, wow, we could tell this story for twenty seasons. We have an endless amount of story. And it turns out that was not true.
WEISBERG: I can feel now, and I think Joel can, too, that we’re ready. It’s time to end. We don’t have an endless amount of story. There are certain things that you could feel would start repeating themselves, and it’s time to end.
AX: Any reason Season 6 starts three-and-a-half years after the end of Season 5, versus two years or four years?
WEISBERG: To get far enough into Gorbachev that the reforms were taking place and were solidly entrenched. You wouldn’t want to get six months into Gorbachev, when not that much is happening yet. We wanted Philip and Elizabeth colliding within a world where Gorbachev’s reforms are really happening and there was conflict about them.
AX: Do we see Gorbachev? I mean, is that a casting issue?
FIELDS: No, we are not casting someone to play Gorbachev.
AX: Was there anything going on in reality that affected how you’re telling the story this year?
FIELDS: In our reality today, in 2017 and 2018? We really write the show in a bubble, so what happens in the outside world affects our very spirited lunchtime conversation in our writers’ office every day, but in terms of the show itself, it really is set in the ‘80s, and the characters don’t know any of this future, and to the extent that we would be affected by it, it would burst that bubble in a way that wouldn’t work, we think, for the drama.
AX: Well, for example, the movie THE POST, which costars Matthew Rhys as Daniel Ellsberg, even though it’s set in 1971, it looks like it was written in response to the realities of the past year …
FIELDS: Yeah. I liked it a lot.
WEISBERG: Yeah, and it was very powerful in that dramatic response to what’s happening. But I think that’s a case of something that was made powerfully for that purpose and serves it well. This show serves a very different purpose, and the big things we’re exploring aren’t about the specific things that are happening today, except in they’re about what it is to have an enemy, and what it is to be an enemy. It’s an interesting artistic point, though. You can make something where you have to be consistent in your work. So if you’re creating something where you want it to be a response to something today, and that’s your world and your tone and your voice throughout, that’ll work. If you’re creating something like what we say, you’re in a bubble where you’re ignoring the world, that’s great, too. What you can’t do is pop in and out. You couldn’t do what we’re doing, where you’re keeping it deliberately separate from the world, every once in awhile, suddenly shift and have something feel like we’re aware of the world, because that’ll break the spell. You’ve got to choose.
AX: Have you ever followed up to see what happened to the real K.G.B. families that THE AMERICANS is very, very loosely based on?
WEISBERG: As much as we can, and of course this is our favorite story. The most flattering compliment we’ve gotten is that one of the illegal families, the father gave an interview to a Russian magazine where he said that he really likes the show, but he and his wife find it very difficult to watch, because it’s very true to their experience – he said, of course, not the murders and things like that, which they weren’t doing, but emotionally, in terms of what they went through as a couple, and what they went through with their family, he found it’s very hard for him to watch, because he feels it’s emotionally true. And I think the reason that was so meaningful to us is, the illegals didn’t write a book that we had as source material – we had to kind of guess. But the truth is, in a way, it’s not that hard to guess. You could see what this experience would probably be like for a human being. But it was nevertheless very affirming to hear that we had guessed right, and to hear it from that guy. It really, really meant a lot. I mean, more than anything. To mention one other thing, which is that, I think it was that same guy’s kids, but I could be wrong, it could be a different one of the illegal couples, where the kids have now been going through this big battle where they’re trying to get their Canadian citizenship back, and one of them seems to be getting it back, and the other one not, but what’s going on with that family is just extraordinary, where the family went back, and the kids didn’t speak Russian, and they were miserable and unhappy and are trying to now move back to the West and that agonizing story has been in the press a lot, and so if you’re interested, it’s one of the most powerful and interesting stories about illegals you can imagine. And it’s a family story.
AX: Was there anything you ever thought of having Elizabeth or Philip do and then went, “If we do that, we’re going to lose the audience”?
WEISBERG: That’s like our favorite thing [laughs].
FIELDS: It’s funny – we don’t really think about “the audience” in that way. That’s not our scratch test. Our scratch test is always, “Does this feel real and true to what would happen to the characters?” Any time we’re feeling lost story-wise, we always step back and just ask ourselves on this show that question – “What would really happen?” Because there is some sense at this point, so many seasons in, that they’re operating in an intrinsic reality. And what’s most important is to follow that reality. And any time we try to protect the audience from it, or manufacture drama to create more excitement for the audience, it always falls flat and we have to step back and follow what feels true.
AX: Would you have thought it was a bridge too far to have Philip have sex with Kimmy, the underage young woman he was ordered to get close to, who was played by Julia Garner?
WEISBERG: We don’t regret that.
AX: I know you don’t regret having him not do it – would that have been a bridge too far for the show?
FIELDS: I don’t know. It’s hard to think what the bridge of the show would have been, but when you think about who the character is, it would have been a bridge too far for Philip. What was interesting about that story was his struggle with that relationship, and with the hole between his duty to his job and his country, and to his humanity. That was what was interesting in that story. I think the point you’re raising is, the other version of that story also exists, and that’s also an awfully interesting version of it. There’s no question. There’s no question we talked about it.
WEISBERG: We broke that version of the story. It wasn’t a hundred percent obvious that that wasn’t the version.
AX: Do you have any particular scenes or storylines over the years that have been your favorites, or have been your un-favorites?
WEISBERG: Choose your favorite child, we’re not good at that. There are a few that we feel we f***ed up – not the longer ones, not whole episodes, a few things here and there that didn’t work out well, but the major storylines, we’re pretty attached to all of them now [laughs].
FIELDS: I think there are so many that we have such fondness for, you just start mentioning them and more and more come. But I remember towards the end of Season 1, someone, it was either at the network or the studio, asked about whether we needed to discuss making a deal for Alison Wright [who played Martha, the FBI employee who married one of Philip’s undercover identities] at all for next season. And we said, “What do you mean? She’s critical to the show.” And they said, “Martha? There can’t be much more story there.” And Joe and I had in our minds, little did they know, they were going to get married and have this whole thing. We said, “There’s four seasons of story here.” And the fact that that wound up unfolding over those four seasons the way we saw it, pretty much, in Season 1, that was pretty gratifying. And then the way the Nina [the compromised K.G.B. agent played by Annet Mahendru] story unfolded, too – initially, we didn’t see how far it would go, and then it just kept giving and giving and giving.
WEISBERG: I’ll tell you, from the lost archives of THE AMERICANS, there’s a world in which the Season 1 Gregory Thomas [played by Derek Luke] story – Elizabeth’s boyfriend from the ‘60s, her recruited lover – could have been that same thing, sort of. That just could have been a story arc in flashback that might have had a much longer life if he had not met his demise in the way that he met it. And I think that in a way we needed some action and we needed some excitement. And I don’t think we’d do it again differently. I think at that point it was the right story decision and it worked. And by the way, the fact that he died and how that story played out worked very effectively even in terms of what that did to her and Philip, so I don’t regret it, I don’t think you regret it, either, but there’s a different version of it that I think we both have certain pangs for.
AX: Do you have any other projects going on that we should know about?
WEISBERG: None that you should know about. We made a very conscious decision to just focus on the last two seasons of THE AMERICANS. That’s good for us as human beings, but also, it’s been very good for the show.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about the final season of THE AMERICANS?
WEISBERG: [laughs] Yeah. I don’t know. It will be like all the seasons of the show – it’s not going to be easy. And hopefully, if you’ve stuck with THE AMERICANS this long, that’s what you like.
FIELDS: And if you haven’t, we’d strongly urge you to watch the first five seasons of THE AMERICANS before you jump into the last one.
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Article: THE AMERICANS: Joe Weisberg & Joel Fields talk the final season – exclusive interview