'The Americans' Bosses on the Finale Cliffhanger: "It’s a Ticking Time Bomb"

Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields break down that life-changing phone call.
Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in 'The Americans'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from The Americans' season three finale, "March 8, 1983."]

The Americans bid adieu to its third season Wednesday night — and to Philip and Elizabeth’s big secret.

After an emotional trip with her mom, Paige (Holly Taylor) made her parents' greatest concerns a reality when she called up Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) and told him that her parents were Russians.

It’s the breaking point that the FX spy drama has been building up to ever since Philip and Elizabeth (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) opened up to their daughter about who they really are.

"They’re liars and they’re trying to turn me into one, too," Paige hinted to her Christian confidant before blurting out the whole truth. “They’re not who they say they are. ... They're not Americans."

Nearby in their bedroom, Philip and Elizabeth stood glued to their TV as they watched Ronald Reagan give his "Evil Empire" speech, completely unaware of the perilous conversation happening in the other room.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields to unpack the big reveal, find out the cast’s reaction when they got the script and discuss season four plans.

That was quite the reveal in the last minute of the finale.

Weisberg: We’re nervous about it until a bunch of people weigh in. You’re always nervous about a finale because it’s such a big, important episode.

Fields: It’s not only nervous. The word I would use is "insecure."

Why did you decide to leave it on a cliff-hanger?

Fields: We’re glad to hear you say it’s a cliff-hanger. We talked about that in the room, actually, whether or not it should be called a cliff-hanger. I suppose it’s a cliff-hanger in the show in the sense that one really wants to find out what’s going to happen next, and that’s a good thing. But, to us, it’s all about the characters. What’s most interesting to us is what’s going to happen to these people next, and what personal dramas will they go through next. That’s always more interesting to us than someone kicking in the door with a gun in their hand.

Weisberg: We’re also used to drama where a cliff-hanger means that somebody is or isn’t going to die or something like that. So the idea that the real question is: Is this guy who got a phone call going to make another phone call? We were really debating if that would count as a cliff-hanger.

Fields: More like a telephone-hanger. (Laughs.)

And why did you choose for the cliff-hanger to be Paige telling Pastor Tim the truth about her parents?

Fields: We knew Paige was going to tell Pastor Tim for quite some time, but we just didn’t know exactly where it would fall in the drama — just like we knew that Philip and Elizabeth were going to tell Paige, but we didn’t know exactly where that would fall into the drama. This family is truly a family, and as such loves each other in its own way. Yet, at the same time, their family has blind spots. The idea that these parents had thought that they had gotten through a rough patch with their daughter and thought that things were on an even keel while missing entirely what was going on, it just rings very true. Somebody just said in our writers’ room today, "What’s really going on is that Philip and Elizabeth have an adolescent."

For all we knew, Paige could have turned into her own KGB agent this episode. When did you know the story wasn’t going in that direction?

Fields: Toward the last third of the season.

Weisberg: We considered the possibility of her making that phone call the night that they told her, and then we decided that we definitely didn’t want to do that. So then it became a question of whether or not she would tell them this season or next season, and the finale seemed like the perfect point. What’s most moving in a way is how much pain she’s in there after she comes back from her trip with her mother, and how she expresses that pain and what it drives her to do. For us, it was really moving just to see her crying there in bed when her parents are in the next room not really able to connect with her or fully comprehend how much she’s suffering. Then we have her call Pastor Tim and so openly and clearly express the pain she’s in, which is something her parents are not able to do.

It seems that one phone call could set up the entire season four arc.

Weisberg: It’s certainly a big part of it. We’d be fired if we dropped that line. We’d be replaced with new showrunners, as we should be.

Fields: In a lot of ways, it’s the fundamental line of the entire season, and even the entire series. Is this marriage a real marriage? Is this family a real family? What does it mean to love and trust somebody, a spouse, a child?

Could Paige still join the KGB at this point?

Fields: Anything is possible…

You left most of the other characters on a fairly inconclusive note. What was the rationale behind that?

Weisberg: It was really different with each character. With Philip, we’re very much interested in that story of EST and his own personal growth and development. How is this guy going to change? How is he going to deal with the pain he’s in, and at what rate? EST is this very odd and unexpected place where he’s found something that touches something in him. That’s one of those stories that we just stumbled into. It’s provided these remarkable dividends for that character. The promise of that story is personal growth for one partner in the marriage. We got to that in a totally different way than we got to the Stan story.

Fields: With the Stan (Noah Emmerich) story, here’s a guy who has had a lot of success as a counter-intelligence officer in the first season, a lot of failure in the second season, and has really pulled himself back from that all through the course of this season. He solved a major mystery over the course of the season, and, for a bunch of secret purposes, wound up getting his hooks into somebody deep inside the Residentura. On the one hand, he has a great victory in that he sees this person arrested and he’s got a connection with somebody who could be an incredible asset. On the other hand, while this is recognized by the highest levels of the administration — he’s given carte blanche to run with it — not only does he not save Nina (Annet Mahendru), but he’s burned his relationships with the people he most needs to trust at work.

Is there any hope of Stan rekindling his marriage with Sandra (Susan Misner)?

Fields: It’s not looking good. Would you get back together with Stan Beeman? (Laughs.)

Given Paige’s admission, what does this mean for the spy couple heading into the next season?

Fields: That’s the big question. That’s definitely a thread we intend to pick up. Joe says we’d be fired for not picking it up, and we’d probably be fired for talking too much about it in an interview.

Weisberg: It’s a ticking time bomb. That’s one of the most interesting aspects of it. I don’t know if you can turn a pastor into a ticking time bomb.

Henry (Keidrich Sellati) was a bit neglected in this episode, having gone off to Stan’s house again. Will we see more of the young guy next year?

Weisberg: We like where we ended that, too, because going off to Stan’s is also a ticking time bomb. On the other hand, it’s got a lot of interesting elements to it. Him developing a relationship with Stan is something that could be very useful to Philip and Elizabeth in a lot of ways, too. There’s potential for that to go in a lot of different directions.

What reactions did you get from the cast when you handed out that finale script?

Fields: Everybody was surprised that that phone call was made. Holly Taylor, in particular, was pleased. We told them that we weren’t sure how we were going to edit it. The truth is that we tried a lot of options in the editing room. There was a version that went more far and there was a version that went less far, but we’re pleased with where it landed. This was a season of surprises in the actor read-throughs, I would say.

Weisberg: We had a lot of, "Holy f—!"s.

Fields: And Alison Wright, who plays Martha, is the one who seems to read the most quickly and send the most expletive-ridden emails back to us.

What would Paige say in the alternative cuts you considered?

Fields: We just had versions where she wouldn’t say, "My parents are Russian." She would just say, "My parents aren’t who they say they are." You could certainly end it anywhere and leave it more mysterious.

Weisberg: The truth is that in all the versions, the spirit was really the same. The question was more about how we get to her telling Pastor Tim what’s going on where the writing feels honest and true. It wasn’t really a change in intention with any of them. It was really just about making it well-written.

After three years of helming the show, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned that you want to implement in the upcoming season?

Fields: Just to trust the human story.

Weisberg: When our human stories and our spy stories are properly tangled up with each other, that’s when we’re hitting our home runs. If only it were easy to do…