'The Americans' Bosses: Season Four Reaches "Boiling Point"

Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields tease what's to come in the FX espionage drama.
Courtesy of FX
Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in 'The Americans'

The Americans is heating up.

When the spy drama, which stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, returns with its fourth season this Wednesday, it’ll bring several conflicts to a head, say the showrunners.

“Really all the major storylines that have been going on for all of these years are reaching boiling point,” says creator Joe Weisberg, with executive producer Joel Fields adding: “Because the characters now are so fully formed and rich and there’s so much history there, we can finally reach the crisis point in some of their conflicts that we’ve been waiting to see.”

While Weisberg and Fields have a vague idea of how they are going to end the series, they still aren’t sure when that will be, though they’ve noted that it will likely run five or six seasons. The pair doesn’t seem too worried about not being able to give the show, which has long been critically acclaimed but never a major ratings draw, its rightful conclusion.

“[FX has] come to us and said that that’s not going to be a business decision from them — it’s a creative decision from us. So they’ve liberated us to do what’s going to be right for the show,” Fields tells The Hollywood Reporter. “There’s no danger that there will be a sudden end to the show. I think we’ll be able to reach the end that feels right to us dramatically.”

Now, with its fourth season set to bow on Wednesday, March 16, The Americans will embark on a biological warfare storyline that is sure to be laden with surprises and secrets. Ahead of the show’s return, Fields and Weisberg talk about what’s in store this season, the most surprising part of the show and whether Phillip is Team Elizabeth or Team Martha.

What distinguishes this season from the previous three?

Weisberg: Season four has a very, very different feel than the ones that came before it. It’s focused on an interesting story about biological weapons. Although that is something that you’ve seen take place in a million spy and action dramas over the years, I think ours is different than anything we’ve ever seen before. It’s all based on a lot of research into the actual Soviet Union’s biological weapons program. So it’s very historical and politically based, and we try to tie that in with action in a way that is true to the history and the characters. We give it what we call the Americans propulsion, which is a little slower than your average propulsion but we think still a lot of fun. It creates a lot of dilemmas for our characters and then ties into the struggles they’re having within their family, which is the thing of paramount importance in our show. It’s different in that it’s moving at a different speed. But as usual, the emotions are all flying out there and up for grabs.

Fields: We did a bunch of interviews after the last season ended and we were asked if we could come up with one word to describe what we wanted to explore in season four. We said “home” and I think that holds true thematically. We’ve been exploring family, marriage, trust and identity, and this season we were able to explore home in ways that are interesting to us. And I think Phillip and Elizabeth’s marriage is in a different place throughout the season that will feel new and interesting and pretty surprising.

You’ve teased that many threads from previous seasons will be interwoven into the coming episodes. Was this just the point in the series where those storylines naturally began to converge?

Fields: In a lot of ways for us this new season has been a season where we’ve been able to really follow stories that have been moving faster and faster for a while now. We’ve been able to reap seeds that are blooming now from things that were planted even in the first season. So that’s been a lot of fun for us, and for the cast as well, because the characters now are so fully formed and rich and there’s so much history there, we can finally reach the crisis point in some of their conflicts that we’ve been waiting to see.

Weisberg: Really all the major storylines that have been going on for all of these years are reaching boiling point.

Fields: And I know that many of your readers are going to be asking about this, so we can say that it does include the mail robot, yes. We’re going to see the pressure that has been building on the mail robot finally addressed in terms of story. We’re really not joking.

Why focus on biochemical weapons this season?

Weisberg: Joel and I joke about the fact that we grew up in the ‘80s, so a lot of the time we don’t do research — we just remember what we grew up with. But when it comes to certain things, we’re always reading and looking around. And we learned about this incredible secret program they had in the Soviet Union where they had a couple thousand people working on this secret. That sounds like a oxymoron, but incredibly enough even inside the Soviet Union they managed to have all those people working on this program that very few people inside the Soviet Union knew about — and the United States knew about it to some degree but had no idea how vast it was. And right there, we knew that was the type of story we were interested in because we tell a story that is so much about secrets and about people hiding things from one another and we knew we would have something to work with. We always harken back to that episode we did in season one with Ronald Reagan where we had real history and then sort of a secret history to build up around it. The idea of taking a chunky piece of real history that also has a lot of secrets people don’t know about, and then fictionalizing a part of it, too, just felt like it’d work for us.

What’s in store for Annet Mahendru’s character Nina this season?

Weisberg: We’ve always wanted to keep her story rich and keep it real. I remember when she got on the flight back to the Soviet Union, people were already asking us if she was going to come back to the United States. The twists and turns that would require would probably be beyond the type of storytelling we do because if you think of the situation that she’s in, the idea that that system would ever send her back here seems pretty unlikely. We’re trying to keep that story grounded and real.

Is it challenging to go back and forth between Phillip and Elizabeth’s storyline and what’s going on at the Rezidentura?

Fields: We don’t really think of it as a challenge. One thing we really made a commitment to at the beginning of season three — and it’s been a good rule for us — is never to feel obligated to tag a character base in the show but rather only go to a story or character when it feels like we have something essential to say. That serves us really well, and it’s also liberated us from any need to service anything.

Alison Wright’s character, Martha, seems to be playing an increasingly vital role now that she knows more about Phillip. Will she be even more central this season?

Weisberg: We’ve seen her as a central part from the beginning. So in our minds, she’s not a bigger part of this season than previous ones. But there’s no way to overstate how important she is to our story. She’s Phillip’s other wife and is so central to his struggle and to what goes on in his marriage and the complexities of the drama. If you had to pick one thing that’s most surprising about The Americans, it’s probably that Phillip actually married a second woman.

You think that’s the most shocking part of the series?

Fields: Do you know any shows where someone is married to a second woman? We think it’s surprising! And we didn’t make it up. It’s a true thing that KGB spies did. [You can find it] in something called the Mitrokhin Archive, which revealed incredible stories of the illegals including how they seduced and married secretaries and other highly placed people in the intelligence community.

Weisberg: We also find that it gets the strongest emotional reaction. People get upset at Phillip and Elizabeth for killing people and other callous things they do, but the thing they are most upset about and most moved by in a negative way is that he would do that to Martha. So it’s interesting that it has more of an impact on people than murder.

How about Phillip’s relationship with Martha: Is it more real or fake?

Fields: I think you have to define the terms real and fake. He knows he has one kind of marriage with Elizabeth, a certain amount of time and level of commitment, history, trust, openness, etc. And then he has another relationship with Martha, which on one hand is a total sham but on the other hand is legally binding, except for the fact that it’s with a fictitious character. And he has slowly revealed more of himself to her. Part of what is exciting to explore in this show is the question: What does it mean to be married? What does it mean to be in a relationship?

When season three ended, Paige had just confided in Pastor Tim and the audience was left wondering how it would all play out. How much will that conflict play into this season?

Weisberg: You can feel in the first couple of episodes this season how hot that story point is coming in. But we don’t want to say where it’s headed.

With Russell’s role being a very physical one at times, did you have to tone down any of the missions or fight scenes to accommodate her pregnancy?

Fields: Amazingly not. Keri is strong and game and absolutely indefatigable, but the story broke in ways that just worked. Of course, there are some production issues that you have to deal with when a star is pregnant: You change things with computer graphics, you hide things with a coat. But we’re telling exactly the story we wanted to tell. And I don’t even think it had a subconscious influence on us because we were pretty far ahead on our story before we found out.

Do you know how and when you want to end the series?

Weisberg: We have a pretty good sense. I would say we got it down to about four different endings. So we’re pretty well honed in on a zone we’re going to go to, but we haven’t decided for sure. And the way that we work, it could also all change. As it gets closer, we could come up with something totally different that would surprise me.

And is that a conversation you’ve been having with FX?

Weisberg: We haven’t told them our thoughts for how the story ends, but we’ve had conversations with them about wrapping up after five or six seasons.