'The Americans' Cast and Creators Reflect on "Heartbreaking" Series Finale: "It Just Felt Right"

With its stars and creators on hand in Austin, the acclaimed FX spy drama took a final bow at ATX Festival.
Courtesy of FX
'The Americans'

Less than two weeks after The Americans aired its final episode, the cast and creators of the FX espionage drama reconvened at ATX Festival to look back on the series.

In conversation with The Hollywood Reporter's chief television critic Tim Goodman at the Austin, Texas-based TV fest were stars Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Noah Emmerich, Holly Taylor, Keidrich Sellati and Brandon J. Dirden, as well as executive producers Joel Fields, Joe Weisberg and Chris Long. Over the course of the hourlong panel at the Paramount Theater, the gang fielded questions about the finale, including the garage confrontation, that shocking moment on the train and the final return to the homeland.

Leading up to the finale, Fields, who served as co-showrunner on the series alongside creator Weisberg, noted that several people asked the pair about the price Philip (Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Russell) would have to pay for the awful things they did as spies. "We didn't think in those terms," he said, explaining that he didn't see the series as some sort of criminal court in which they ought to be judged. "But it did seem that there had to be some emotional or physical toll for what they’d done, and that the place for that to play out was inside their family."

As for what that specific cost would be, Weisberg and Fields had the germ of the idea near the end of the first season and beginning of the second. The scene wasn't exactly beat-for-beat how it ended up, though. That it took place on a train, for example, wasn't something they figured out until they were actually writing the episode ("It was every other mode of transportation," said Fields). But the pair were struck by how similar the ending was to what they'd initally pictured. "We just wanted to see where the story went and what would happen to everybody, and we were sure it was going to be tragic on some level," added Fields. "It seems the toll that took, when you look at Philip and Elizabeth standing there at the end and what happened to them with losing their kids — well, that’s a hell of a toll."

For Russell, it couldn't have been a more perfect ending. "It just felt right," she said, adding that while it "makes absolute sense," it's still "heartbreaking" and "awful." The actress echoed director Thomas Schlamme's first thoughts when he read the script: "I thought I wanted this couple to pay in some way, and they made them pay in the worst possible way." Russell also appreciated that the writers allowed her character to stay true to herself throughout the entire run of the series. "She didn’t have to suddenly become nice. She got to stay who she was," said the actress of Elizabeth. "It was endlessly interesting to be the character that she got to be."

One finale scene that was particuarly fun for Russell was where Elizabeth and Philip go to Paige's (Taylor) dorm room to tell her their cover has been blown. Philip, at that point, had already come to the conclusion that they can't bring their son Henry (Sellati) with them to Russia — but Elizabeth hadn't quite gotten there yet. "That's the devastating part of it, to me, her slow realization of it," said Russell. "Those scenes are so fun to do with Matthew," the actress added, regarding her onscreen and offscreen partner, to "awwws" from the panel audience. "That’s one of the great things about this show — you’re only as good as your scene partner," she continued. "I feel like that’s been one of the best things about the show is getting to work with you."

When Rhys was asked whether he thought Philip was happy to be back in Russia at the end, he didn't miss a beat. "No!" he said, pointing out that his character wanted to defect back in the first season. "He always knew that there was a very loud clock ticking on this one and he want to save their children ... and now, it’s decimated him." At one point in the discussion, FBI secretary Martha Hanson (Alison Wright) was brought up and Rhys quipped in response, "Which one was Martha?" He kept the audience laughing when he jokingly argued that his character left a lot behind in America. "I left a failed travel agency, a new car and new suit that I never got to wear, so I think Philip’s sacrifice was way greater," he said.

Emmerich, for his part, was careful not to reveal too much about what was going through his character Stan Beeman's mind during both the garage scene in which he confronts Phiip and Elizabeth and the scene where he presumably tells Henry that his parents are Russian spies. "I’m always hesitant to write outside what the writers wrote. I think sometimes it’s better to see what’s happening instead of hear what’s happening," the actor said. 

Sellati, however, said that Emmerich played the scene fairly straightforward as though he was breaking the news to Henry for the first time. "In the moment, it was heartbreaking, too, like, 'You didn’t tell me this entire time, and then again they leave you with the baggage?'" he said.

Asked whether he thought his character was in a moral quandary in the garage scene, Emmerich would only offer that it "seems probable." What he was sure about was Philip's intentions when he told Stan that Renee (Laurie Holden) might be a KGB agent. "That’s pure love. I heard some people say that was mean of him to do — but I think that’s the greatest gift," Emmerich said, noting that it's technically treason for Philip to say it. Rhys acknowledged that, for the most part, he played the scene as honestly and sincerely as he could. "If you took that as a burn, I'm sorry. I don't know how to quit you," he joked to Emmerich, adding of Renee's possible secret identity to howls from the audience: "I say never trust a woman who goes to bed when her face fully made up."