After five seasons filled with amazingly bad wigs, period-appropriate soundtrack cues, and increasingly-complicated intelligence operations, The Americans will bow out of the spy game with its sixth and final season. FX’s brilliant show about Russian spies posing as an all-American family in D.C. in the 1980s has always used its Cold War backdrop and suspenseful action sequences as a jumping-off point to deeply explore the struggles and complications of love, identity, marriage, patriotism, and parenting. And as creators and showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields told us, the show has long been interested in examining the question of why we dehumanize enemies, which the new season really digs into as Philip and Elizabeth live increasingly separate lives.
With only a few episodes left in the series, we spoke to Weisberg and Fields about the muddled morality of the protagonists, the authenticity of the espionage techniques used on the show, the renewed hostilities between US and Russia, and how their long walks around Brooklyn influenced the creation of the show. And of course, the fate of Mail Robot.
Do you guys watch the show live, or have you seen each episode so many times that you don’t really bother with the live broadcast?
Joe Weisberg: Not one. Not one.
Joel Fields: Yeah, I think both we’ve seen it so many times, and—I’ll speak for myself—I feel like it’s very hard for me to watch it once we can no longer do anything to it. It’s too stressful because all I see are those things that we might wanna tweak or adjust. So, when we lock it, picture and sound, we step away.
Now that you finished writing and shooting it, looking back at the show as a whole, do you view The Americans as a tragedy?
Joe Weisberg: That’s a big question, Ben.
Joel Fields: That’s a spoiler. Ben, you have to ask us that after the final episode airs, at which point the answer should be out there. But I’ll tell you this: we don’t view it as a comedy.
On any other TV show, do you think that Philip and Elizabeth would have been the villains?
Joel Fields: That’s a tough one.
Joe Weisberg: One of the fundamental ideas I had in creating the show was that they should not be the villains. That that was not an interesting show. The obvious version of this show was that Stan the FBI agent, and his crack team at the FBI, chased after Soviet illegals, the bad guys, and that seemed really boring. Who wants to see that show? That was just another cop show essentially. But, when I had the idea to make them the good guys, that’s when it got interesting. That’s when it suddenly seemed like a show worth doing because of all the reasons that you can imagine. So making them not villains was the whole thing that, I think, remains interesting to us about this show.
I’ve spoken to Vince Gilligan before about Breaking Bad & Better Call Saul, and he’s talked a lot about the role of moral judgment on his characters. I was wondering whether you two feel similarly towards Philip and Elizabeth, whether you feel that they need to face consequences for actions—even if they aren’t villains, they have wrought a lot of misery upon many of the people they’ve encountered.
Joel Fields: I’m a big fan of Vince Gilligan’s, and my wife and I were huge fans of Breaking Bad, we binged the whole thing, and I love that character [Walt] and I love that story. But it seems to me that there’s a big fundamental difference in that, that was the story of a self-obsessed sociopath who learned to let nothing stand in his way. The Americans is a story of a couple of soldiers fighting for their cause behind enemy lines, and making what they see as necessary sacrifices in that campaign for what they believe is right. They’re fighting for something bigger than themselves. They’re not fighting for themselves. They’re heroes willing to sacrifice themselves for their cause.
Now, it may not be the cause to which we relate as Americans, it may not be a cause that we see as moral, it may not be a cause that is moral—but they’re not selfish people, and they’re not sociopaths. So, they have their own morality in their views.
Talking about the setting of the show, my understanding—and please correct me if I’m wrong—is that you guys chose the ’80s and the Russia/U.S. conflict because when you launched the show, it was an outdated-but-resonant conflict to examine. But over the course of the show, obviously Russia/U.S. relations have taken on a new strange relevancy, which led to a lot of strange press for the show last year. Did you feel like that the narrative around the show and the renewed antipathy between the two countries took away from the story you were telling, or was it just so separate that it didn’t matter?
Joe Weisberg: Yeah you’re pretty close to right. I wouldn’t say exactly that the ideas, or the times, were outdated, rather the idea was that because we were no longer in an antagonistic relationship with the Soviet Union or with Russia, it would be easier for people to accept KGB officers as heroes, or at least to look at them sympathetically. If we were still at a time where they were our enemies, it didn’t seem very likely that people would be open to viewing them with the sympathy necessary for this show to work. They would only be willing to view them as villains, and we wanted to have people explore the question of why we dehumanize enemies, and it’s better not to ask people to go that far with current enemies.
The fact that it’s all come back around, and the Russians have turned back into enemies has been pretty bad. Obviously it’s been bad for our country, and for Russia, and for the world, but also it has not been in keeping with the general plan for the TV show. Joel tends to focus more on it being bad for the world, I tend to focus a little more on it being bad for the TV show.
Joel Fields: Yeah, please don’t misquote us on that.
With your background in this area [Weisberg is a former CIA officer], do you see old patterns repeating today in terms of the spy games and tactics that are being used now?
Joe Weisberg: It’s an interesting question. I’ve been thinking a lot about whether or not all of this is repeating, or whether or not it ever even ended. So we’re really just in the same slog we were always in and there was just a brief period when maybe it paused, but the general patterns…you’re asking specifically about espionage, and the general patterns of espionage are fundamentally identical. Some things have a little bit of a twist on them. If you look at everything going on on the internet and what not, there’s a little bit of a technological shift there, and but none of it is stuff that wasn’t done during the Cold War.
All the attempts to influence, and the propaganda efforts, and attempts to undermine each other’s societies, it’s close to identical as back then, just with a little bit of a technological boost. In my view, the motivations, and the misunderstandings, and the absurdity of it all is the same. On a macro level the absurdity, on a micro level the techniques, and right in the middle between those two, the human interplay— generally confused people going after each other without really good reason to do so—it all feels just like the same thing.
I was just reading a few articles earlier today that said that Dead Hand, the automated nuclear launch system that popped up in the season six premiere, may still exist in Russia today.
Joel Fields: Well, that’s some disturbing news.
Joe Weisberg: Dead Hand was tied to the season six storyline, and from everything we learned about it, the final version of Dead Hand was never actually completed. So, when you say it’s still in Russia I’m not sure what you mean exactly.
Joel Fields: I think maybe the un-automated version of it was completed.
Joe Weisberg: Right, are you referring to the un-automated version, or are you saying that they’re now talking about building an automated version? Where did you read it? I’d like to look it up.
You guys would probably understand some of the nuances better than I would…
Joel Fields: I’m not gonna check it out. I don’t wanna know. I’m just gonna go on record right here in this interview, Joe, I don’t want you to tell me.
Joe Weisberg: I’m gonna put an automated system to tell Joel.
Joel Fields: Oh God.
We started the season with Paige working very closely with her mother, which has led to her getting uncomfortably close to seeing just how brutal the job can be. Does Elizabeth really believe that Paige can avoid the unseemlier elements of this job?
Joel Fields: She does really believe it, that’s right. First of all, as the great Steven Bochco would often say in the writers room, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” There is a truism there for all human beings. For her, there’s a good reason to be in denial of that. After all, the whole purpose of training Paige as a second generation illegal is for her to take a good job in the FBI, or the State department, the military, even maybe the CIA, and get deep long term access to things. That would not involve honey traps or murder by any stretch, it would involve planting herself in an organization and working her way up.
Were second generation illegals or even third generation illegals something that was common during this period?
Joe Weisberg: Common would not be accurate, but they did try to get second generation illegals. There’re a couple of stories of first generation illegals recruiting their kids to be second generation illegals. There are a couple stories of the second generation illegals starting out a little bit, but I don’t know of any stories of second generation illegals making it to full fledged active spying.
Joel Fields: Well, you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t would you?
Joe Weisberg: Well, I guess that’s true. I’ve never heard of anyone refer to a third generation illegal.
If they were good enough to make it to three generations…
Joe Weisberg: You know what, you’re right. It’s true.
It’s scary to think, as you were saying before, what if this battle between the two sides never ended?
Joel Fields: Look, I’m not saying that Carter Page’s grandparents were first generation illegals, I’m just saying it’s possible.
I saw that fascinating Times profile of artist Alyssa Monks, whose work is featured this season. How does the artwork play into Elizabeth’s arc?
Joel Fields: Oh boy, Elizabeth is a character whose emotional boundaries are so calcified. We were talking for a long time about how we could create a final storyline that would somehow pierce through and for a lot of reasons—some planned, and some subconscious I think from our standpoint, and some just happy coincidence—we found this art story, and it became a way to shake and pierce Elizabeth’s armor, and it’s been really effective and affecting, and really fun to do. We were blessed with this incredible collaboration with the artist Alyssa Monks whose work you’ll see throughout the season, and it’s been a really, really wonderful part of the drama this year.
How much of this final season, or the ending of the show, did you foresee early on? Or at what point did the end game become clear to you guys?
Joe Weisberg: It’s an unusual story because we are very improvisatory. We change our story constantly. We’re very open to new ideas coming in and adjustments, but kind of miraculously we came up with an idea for the ending sometime around the end of season one, beginning of season two, and we didn’t really think it would stick. We really liked it, but we just figured the way we work, the odds of it sticking, we just figured we’d come up with something different, or else the story would develop in a way that made it no longer be relevant or no longer make sense. But we also hoped it would stick because we liked it so much. Incredibly enough, that’s the ending we used. The path towards it just shifted and moved constantly. We didn’t work to make sure we could use it. We didn’t write to it for the next five years, but we’ve known this ending almost since the beginning.
Were there any storylines or characters that were particularly hard to crack over the six seasons?
Joe Weisberg: In a funny way they’re all the same. It’s the same process for all of them. They all start out with ideas and characters that are not yet dimensionalized, that are just vague ideas, and you have to go through the same process to make the characters three dimensional. You have to put them through stories that bring out who they are, force them to make decisions, bring them into contact with each other in a way that will make them more and more real until they start feeling like real people. It’s never easy.
Joel Fields: Re-write, and re-write, and re-write, and re-write, and cast. There’s a lot of hard work, so there’s nothing to point to and say, “Well that one was particularly hard.” The whole thing is of a piece, and to point to any particular moment as easy, or any particular moment as hard, is really irrelevant. You look at the whole piece and I think what we can say about the whole thing for us is it’s been a deeply gratifying creative adventure.
You guys have been shooting in Gowanus for the entire run of the show. How much time did you spend walking around Brooklyn and discussing the show? How much of that was part of your process in writing and envisioning it?
Joe Weisberg: All our time.
Joel Fields: Yeah, our writing time is spent walking, and it’s all really more about thinking about it and talking it through than it is writing it down. The writing it down is the easy part, it’s the figuring out what to write down that’s the hard part, and I will confess, sometimes when walking around Brooklyn we found ourselves dropping our voices into a little bit of spy register when we were talking about story that we thought might be spoilery.
Speaking of spy stuff, the costume department has had so much fun with the wigs and various costumes for Philip and Elizabeth. Did you hope to subvert some of the spy genre cliches in how you approached that material?
Joe Weisberg: It was very fundamental to the show to try to have it be more realistic in terms of how it presented espionage than other shows. That doesn’t mean that everything about it was supposed to be true by a long shot, but we wanted the trade craft to be more real and more true, and we wanted to avoid the spy tropes as much as possible because they’re both unrealistic but also kind of tired and old. We didn’t want people lurking in shadows, and when we did a dead drop we wanted it to look like dead drops really looked like.
Surveillance had almost never been presented in television and movies in a realistic way, usually you just have somebody following right behind somebody. We wanted to do that much more realistically, and kind of across the board. There were limits to what we could do because we’re a television show on a television budget, so you couldn’t do everything really exactly the way it was really done, but in a lot of ways we could do it completely realistically, and where we couldn’t we could come close. That was a real goal of the series.
We also had this great consultant, Keith Nelson, who has literally for years been collecting the actual spy paraphernalia that the KGB used. He’s got the real stuff, and he would loan it to us, so whenever you would see spy gear used by Philip and Elizabeth it was actual KBG spy gear, which was just amazing. That’s just another example of being able to make things authentic in that world.
One of my other favorite aspects of the show has been the use of music— I still have “Don’t Dream It’s Over” stuck in my head. I watched the premiere episode weeks ago and I’m still waking up with it in my head.
Joel Fields: Yeah, we’ve been working on that episode for months and months, and I still have it stuck in my head.
One of my coworkers connected it to the pilot and the way you used “Tusk”—how the audience got an information download in this very cinematic way. Were you trying to evoke that first scene with it?
Joel Fields: It wasn’t a matter of choosing to evoke that although, who knows to what extent that subconsciously had play. But we had found ourselves gravitating more and more towards trying to tell the story with fewer words and through action. I think that’s also something that you earn over the course of many seasons because the audience comes to know the characters and their situations, so you can do a lot more with an image, a gesture, a moment, than you can early on, because you’re coasting on so much intimate knowledge of the characters and their relationships.
Then, add to that the fact that we had, in our director Chris Long, somebody who can rise to that visual storytelling in the richest of ways, which to us means doing it with a focus on truth rather than on flash. That opening montage sequence is just a perfect example of that, where the truth of the characters is captured to us with such simplicity and honesty, and you’re never pulled out by anything that says, “Look at me.”
The amount of acting done just with Philip and Elizabeth’s faces is just incredible every season, but that opening of this season in particular was a masterclass.
Joel Fields: Yeah. It was really something else.
Have you two talked about working together again in the future? Have you started thinking about a new project or anything?
Joel Fields: In fact, next week we’re on vacation and when we get back we’re moving to our new offices where we will be planning and plotting new projects. We don’t know exactly what they’re gonna be but that is our planned future.
How much of your working relationship do you see reflected in Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship?
Joe Weisberg: Well, we talk about that all the time. We think about our marriage as the other marriage.
Joel Fields: Yeah, our marriage is really the opposite marriage from Philip’s and Elizabeth’s. We like to say if Philip and Elizabeth worked as hard on their relationship, and communicated as much about their feelings and their relationship as we do, there would be no show.
Joe Weisberg: Also, when you think about it, we’ve often also said that we actually think Philip and Elizabeth have a pretty good marriage.
Joel Fields: That’s true, but nobody would wanna watch the show about that. The show would get very boring very fast.
Look, we’re two guys who have very happy real marriages of our own, and in that first season we navigated the beginning of our collaboration. I think in some ways we were very lucky because we happen to have very similar personalities and similar ways of communicating. We also knew that forced marriage between co-show writers could be very fraught and can lead to a lot of challenges, and we just chose to talk through everything. We’re also lucky in that what we realized early on is that our most effective way of working together is to work together. So, instead of dividing things up, we tend to be more effective working on everything together. That tends to be much more efficient. That’s also created a certain kind of bond between us. Particularly in that first season when the days were always 24 hours long.
Lastly, as things are winding down, are there any props that you guys are keeping from the show?
Joel Fields: Well, I’d say there are props that will hold dearly in our heart.
Joe Weisberg: There’s a couple posters. We can’t keep the mail robot.
That would have been my number one thing.
Joel Fields: Yeah, that’s going to FX.
Joe Weisberg: The network’s keeping the mail robot. The mail robot will live on.
Joel Fields: Yeah, we can visit it. We’ll be able to visit it when we go to the network in L.A.
It’s a piece of TV history now.
Joel Fields: It is.
Joe Weisberg: The mail robot even has its own Twitter feed.
— The Americans (@TheAmericansFX) April 5, 2018
I love the comic beat in the second episode with mail robot. Is that the last we’ll see of it?
Joe Weisberg: Oh no.
Joel Fields: We’re not telling you.
Joe Weisberg: Well, I just told you. There’ll be more mail robot this season.