FX’s The Americans returns with a new season on Tuesday. But unlike its previous four seasons, this time it will air with Russia-U.S. relations in the news headlines.
“Mostly it’s a bummer for the world. However, close second is that it’s a bummer for the show,” says creator Joe Weisberg of Russia’s reported involvement in current U.S. politics. “The environment was just right when we started the show, which was that there was no Soviet Union anymore and nobody was mad at Russia. So it’s much easier to stop dehumanizing them.”
Co-showrunner Joel Fields, however, takes a different approach to the matter. “Frankly, what better time to do a show about humanizing the enemy than a time when we’ve got an enemy,” he told The Hollywood Reporter.
THR caught up with the pair behind the spy drama starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys just as Weisberg and Fields are juggling the current season with the sixth and finale one. Below, they discuss their end game, how they feel about current political events and what’s next for them after The Americans (hint: they’ll keep working together.)
So, have you two moved on to the sixth and final season at this point?
Fields: We’re writing season six right now.
Weisberg: And season five is almost in the rearview mirror.
Fields: We were editing this morning on episode 10 of season five. We’re filming episodes 12 and 13 today. As of tomorrow, we’ll be done filming the finale.
Weisberg: But we have no more anxiety about season five, which is the same as being finished.
Fields: Yes, that’s true. (Laughs.)
What was different about constructing this season compared to the last four?
Weisberg: The main thing is that we knew that we were approaching the end game, and we knew exactly that we had this season and next. We knew we had 23 episodes to finish our story, and we also knew for a while how the story’s going to end. So it was different building the story that way with the end in sight and knowing it was coming soon. It changed the way we built it, and I think overall it made it easier.
Fields: I think there was more anxiety about making sure that things fell where they needed to fall because there’s no more room to go as we come towards those final 10 episodes. In that sense, there was anxiety — but it wasn’t harder. For the first time, the story moves fell where they need to fall, thank god. Because every time in the past when they haven’t, we’ve just shrugged and said, “Oh well, we’ll punt that into next season.” But it’s all been working out this season.
The final season is a shortened one — 10 episodes instead of 13, correct?
Weisberg: We don’t like to use the word “shortened.” (Laughs.)
Fields: We prefer “the perfect length” or “the ideal vessel for the show’s finale.” Also, we’re a little tired.
Was that really part of the reason why you made it 10 episodes in length?
Weinberg: We knew we’d be tired. We actually told the network we wanted to do a three-episode final season — but they were convinced we couldn’t tell the story in three episodes and pushed us to do a full 10.
Fields: We were joking today if we could do negative episodes. The season finale will be minus four episodes! (Laughs.)
As you’re approaching the end of the series, does season five feel a little bit like the final season part one, with part two coming next year?
Fields: We don’t think it will feel like part one of two parts, but it’s definitely — in our minds — the first part of the third act.
Weisberg: But we don’t know if that’s because we know what’s coming or if everyone will feel that. We’ll see.
Have you gotten advice from other showrunners or writers about how to end the series?
Weisberg: I wonder if that doesn’t happen as much anymore because showrunners do tend to talk about that but they do it in the press and so everybody else has read it already. You don’t really have to call your friends the way you used to because you already know what they think. I mean, I’ve read people talking about this issue quite a bit. Or maybe we’re covering for the fact that we don’t have a lot of friends. (Laughs.)
Fields: I’m furiously writing down names right now. (Laughs.)
What other TV shows have had endings that you’ve really liked?
Fields: Some of the great dramas: I loved The Sopranos and the Mad Men endings — those were really, really perfect endings. But it’s hard to generalize from other shows ending to your show because even if they were right for that show and even if they were tonally right for that show, there are no two shows that are alike.
Weisberg: I was thinking about about the M*A*S*H ending, which I hadn’t seen since it was on the air but I still remember so vividly how it affected me.
Fields: The Mary Tyler Moore ending was so brilliant. I mean, there are so many great endings but, in a way, if you try to replicate something, you’re going to fail. The nice thing about endings is they have a certain sense of inevitability to them. If your story is built right, you’re driving toward it — and it’s a question of how you execute it. In a way, the ending-ending may not be as challenging as the seasonal endings because have to serve multiple purposes. They have to simultaneously be extremely satisfying but sufficiently unsatisfying as to keep people coming back, whereas the ending of the show just has to be satisfying.
Weisberg: In a weird way, it’s a lower bar. We’re trying to take the pressure off ourselves.
Have you guys given any more thought as to what’s next for you both?
Weisberg: Not really, no. We’re been a little absorbed in season six.
Fields: We’re going to nap a lot — separately, of course. We actually made a very conscious decision — though Joe and I developing some things together with some other writers — in terms of us creating something, we know we want to do something together. We’re going to continue working and writing together, and we have a deal to develop another show with FX — but we’re really keeping our focus on the final season of the show.
The kids on the show have played an increasingly integral part in the series, and that presumably continues this season. Was that always the plan?
Weisberg: It was always about a marriage, but it was also always about a family. We did always know that the kids would be important, we always knew they were going to tell Paige who they were — but what I don’t think was predictable was when they would tell Paige and I don’t think we knew before we broke the story what her reaction would be or any of that stuff. And I also don’t think we knew that that story would occupy as much screen time as it did. We knew it would be hugely important and a major source of the emotion that drove the show, but we didn’t know that that would mean that Paige would be there onscreen dealing with it. You could have told that story much more from the perspective of the parents, but this is the way it ended up working out.
There have been some interesting headlines recently about the U.S. and Russia. How would you compare Russian-U.S. relations when we pick up in the fifth season to the countries’ current dealings?
Fields: Well, here’s the good news — it was much, much, much worse in the early ‘80s. And nobody is talking about global thermal nuclear war right now, not with Russia. I don’t think people are walking around worried about that as a daily threat. Maybe they should worry more, but they’re not. So as frustrating as it is to see things eroding in terms of that relationship and as much as it’d be good for the world for things to be better, it might be useful to remember that they’re not as bad now as they were then.
You’ve made it clear that modern-day developments won’t affect the writing on the series since it’s a period piece. Does that still stand?
Fields: That’s exactly right. We’re very much focused on this story taking place in the timeframe of the early ‘80s, so it can’t be influenced by what’s happening now. But, of course, the audience will have its own experience of watching the show and what’s in the zeitgeist will influence them — and that’s OK.
You two have said that you didn’t see any of this coming, but how does it make you feel as creators? Is it a bummer that people are viewing the show through this lens now or does it not really matter?
Weisberg: Every time I answer a question like this, I end up sounding like I only care about the TV show and not the broader world. So I want to first say that mostly it’s a bummer for the world. However, close second is that it’s a bummer for the show because the show was intended to be a meditation on the enemy and what’s it’s like to have enemies and why we create enemies, and the show very deliberately humanizes so that we can see that they’re like us in a lot of ways and it’s a mistake to treat them and think of them so differently. In order to do that, the environment was just right when we started the show, which was that there was no Soviet Union anymore and nobody was mad at Russia. So it’s much easier to stop dehumanizing them. To have that turn back to where it was — or maybe not where it was but at least close to where it was or on the path to where it was where everybody is angry at Russia and turning them into the enemy all over again — is just not exactly the right environment for this show. Or you could argue it’s a better environment. Maybe you need more of this environment to remind people that these people are like us.
Fields: That’s my point of view. I think it’s a huge bummer for us as citizens of the United States and citizens of the world to see this happening, but for the show, I’m pretty neutral on it. We’re fortunate that this is a day and age where we’re making television that will have a long shelf-life and people can watch it now with their experience now and they can watch it in the future with a very different point of view. But frankly, what better time to do a show about humanizing the enemy than a time when we’ve got an enemy. It’s really easy to humanize the people we like, but what’s important is we see the things that connect us when we’re on the precipice of conflict.