'The Americans' Boss on Season 4 Finale, Killing Characters and the End

"We get to be in a position of telling new stories rather than circling around to old ones," says the FX drama's showrunner Joel Fields.
Ali Goldstein/FX
'The Americans'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the season four finale of The Americans.]

On the heels of a two-season renewal, The Americans wrapped another critically lauded season Wednesday night.

The FX drama's fourth installment continued to prove that parenting can be just as difficult as espionage work by exploring how the lives of undercover Russian agents Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) become increasingly complicated by the decisions of their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor).

"One of the moments I loved [in the finale] is when you have these parents that are staring at each other, one out of the window and one from down below," said executive producer Joel Fields, who runs the spy drama with creator Joe Weisberg, of the episode's final scene.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Fields ahead of the show's final season-four outing to discuss the decision to end the drama after two more seasons, why the show said goodbye to three beloved characters this year and what's next for the showrunning duo.

Congrats on the two-year pickup.

Thank you very much. It's a very good feeling.

How did you end up deciding you needed two more seasons rather than just one?

Well, Joe and I walk a lot and we really talked about what story we had to tell on our walks. We talked about looking at it both ways [one season or two seasons more.] None of this is new — we've been talking about how the show is going to wrap up for quite some time now. And it just became clear that the show really needed two seasons to fully tell its story.

Why are you ending with a 10-episode final season instead of the usual 13?

It's funny, it just seems like the right vessel for the storytelling. We'll see when we break all the details of the season, but we have a pretty good shape of the season and it seems right so far. We're really much deeper into the specifics of season five than we are of season six right now. I'm sure if we found that we needed an extra episode or something, we could ask the network, as they've been so supportive. But somehow, everything seems to fall into place in the right shape and I have a feeling this one will too.

You've said that you have a general idea of where you want to end it, but have you actually nailed it down?

We know for sure the direction we're headed and we have an ending in mind that we've had in mind for a while. There's some different versions of it that could unspool for us. One interesting thing about our process is that we tend to know very clearly where we're going but also tend to be very open to the story surprising us and changing along the way. So there are certain storylines over the course of the last four seasons that we broke early or in the middle in season one and for the next three and a half seasons played out exactly as scripted — and others that we expected to play out a certain way and then surprised as they unfolded.

Anton (Michael Aronov), for example, was a character who was really just expected to appear in those two episodes as the Soviet scientist who was kidnapped and Phillip had to battle to get back to the USSR, and ultimately that character, when Nina (Annet Mahendru) came back to Soviet Union, became incredibly important to us and apart of Nina's story. Although we always knew that she was going to be arrested and go back to the USSR and ultimately be executed, we didn't know the details of what was going to happen that was going to lead to that execution. Anton became a big part of how to tell that story.

What were you trying to achieve with that last scene in the season finale where Elizabeth is looking out the window as Philip and Paige are walking into the house?

What we were exploring was a big transformation of this family dynamic that's leading them to greater and greater crisis. And here are Philip and Elizabeth, in a way, going through a very universal parenting problem. Our teenage daughter is becoming sexual and individuating herself and is no longer controllable — but in their case, the ramifications of it are literally life and death. They literally involved the very survival of this family unit.

There is this micro moment of Matthew [Rhys] as Philip Jennings glancing off toward his wife as he walks across that driveway and the connection between them in this problem. There's something to me and to Joe that felt so universal about that — and yet so specific to the crises of this show, which is really the sweet spot where the show always lives for us.

We've seen Paige became an increasingly vital part of the story. Can we expect to see something similar with Henry (Keidrich Sellati)?

I'm trying to think of a non-spoiler way to respond to that question and I don't have one. [Laughs.] Were you expecting a nonspoiler-y response to that question or did you just think I'd fall for that?

I had to try — but fair enough.

Well, we're very much looking forward to exploring the character further.

You said that you had known from the beginning that you were going to kill off Nina, but what about Frank Gaad (Richard Thomas)?

That's been coming for a while. Of course, there was no way that character was going to survive, politically or professionally, the exposure of Martha. We knew obviously that he wasn't going to be staying in counter intelligence. There was a real story of an attempted Soviet kidnapping of, I believe, a CIA officer in the Middle East that we were interested in transposing onto Frank's character and it just seemed to work well as this season unfolded for Stan (Noah Emmerich) and for Philip, and unfortunately for Frank.

How long did Thomas know you were going to ice him? 

We told Richard, I think a few episodes before it happened, and he's great and such a wonderful actor. I feel like this season we gave Richard even more to do with Frank's character. I can think of several moments this season that were, to me, just breathtaking. In episode eight, he's telling Stan: "Don't forget who these people are." Or, in episode seven, where he looks at Stan and says, "They married my secretary." He's delivers those lines on so many levels of reality — it was just marvelous to me.

We called him in and told him what was going to happen and he was great about it. He has just had so much fun playing this part and we have been so lucky to work with him. He said something interesting, which is that when he started in the business, you were around for the duration of a show. And now, the world has changed and your days are numbers from the beginning. So he was glad to have stayed around this long. He said something like, "Well at least Elizabeth didn't kill me." [Laughs.] Although, she came close.

Between Nina and Frank's deaths and Martha (Alison Wright) being shipped off to Russia, it must be sad losing all these regular castmembers, no?

Yes, it's personally very sad — both because they're wonderful to write to, but even more really because they're all such wonderful people. We just miss having them around. On the other hand, there is something creatively liberating about being able to take the show in different directions. As we've worked on season five, we have not had that feeling of retreading anything because we don't have those characters to retread with. In all of those cases, the stories had been told and that means that we get to be in a position of telling new stories rather than circling around to old ones.

Will there be any time-jumping moving forward? Will you take us through the end of the Cold War?

Again, you slip in these spoiler-y questions. Tell me about the glance at the end and then, by the way, could you tell me about the end? [Laughs.] We will be moving forward in time, that I can guarantee. The rate of that movement, I can't speak to.

You and your creative partner Joe recently signed an overall deal with FX. Are you not working on any next acts until you're done with The Americans?

We're talking about it, we think about it. But I think honestly, until we're through season five and we really have the back broken of season six, Joe and I won't be jumping into specifics of that. It's hard to assess how far away that is. We made a lot more progress on season five than we expected to, so here we are about to take our writing hiatus and we've already written the first two episodes of season five and really, half of the season is completely outlines — and we have a very good sense of the rest of season five and a very good sense of the general shape of season six. So we'll just see how it unfolds. I think once we feel like we really got our arms around it, then we'll be able to take a breath and start getting concrete about what's next. But we need a little bit of a breath. [Laughs.]

Do you already have a general idea of what the show will be?

We don't. It's not like there's a specific idea. I think are arenas and themes that excite us, but that's always a discovery process. One of the ways we like to work together on the show is by being open and seeing what really sparks us creatively and makes us enthusiastic — and I'm sure we'll do the same for whatever we do together next.

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