*Warning: The following contains spoilers for the series finale of FX’s The Americans*
How do we define greatness when it comes to television?
Is greatness associated with the amount of awards you win? The Wire may very well be the greatest drama to ever grace a TV screen yet never won any major Emmys or Golden Globes.
Does greatness have anything to do with how many people watch your show? The Big Bang Theory is one of TV’s most popular offerings, yet no one would accuse the show of elevating the sitcom genre.
Should greatness be tied to critical praise? Rectify garnered universal positive reviews yet isn’t spoken of in the same breath as The Sopranos, Mad Men or Breaking Bad.
The measure of greatness, as it turns out, isn’t as tangible as we believe. The quality of a show can and will be overlooked by the major awards bodies, general audiences and even occasionally critics.
Which brings us to FX’s The Americans, the most criminally underwatched, undervalued and underestimated drama of this generation. If you’re reading this, it means you’ve likely been on board for the entire six-season run; if that’s the case, pat yourselves on the back, there are far too few of us.
As The Americans concludes its impressive run tonight, you may be left with lingering questions and unresolved feelings. Fortunately, creators and showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields took the time to address many of these concerns on a conference call with assorted media to help you find some closure.
Here are some of the best questions and insights unearthed in that conversation.
When the show first started, did you already have an idea of how you wanted to end, and if so, did it differ from what we got?
Joe Weisberg: You know, at the very beginning no. There was no idea of how the show was going to end. But when we got somewhere around the end of the first season, beginning of the second season, we suddenly got a very clear sense of the ending of the show. And we had no idea if that ending was going to stick. In fact if you had asked us, we would have told you ‘oh, probably it won’t.’ Because we’ve got so much story to tell between now and then. And as you develop stories and as characters change, odds are any ending you thought you were going to tell is going to end up being changed by all the things that came in between. But then we got to the end of the show, and sure enough that ending was still the one that we like best.
So did you ever have any thoughts of killing off any of the Jennings or having them get arrested or even the killing of Stan?
Joel Fields: You know, on the one hand, we also did our due diligence by running through as many story options as we could in our heads. So we test drove almost every ending you could imagine. But—so we thought of [those scenarios] in that sense. But this was always the ending that felt right. It’s the ending that presented itself early on to us. And it never really shifted even as—to our surprise—it never shifted, even as we moved forward toward it.
My question is about the final, the very final scene whenever Elizabeth and Phillip were, kind of, standing there just looking at their future. And not much is happening. It’s a very pensive and very, you know, intimate moment between them and very thoughtful. Did you have something that you believed was going on in their minds? Was there an internal dialogue?
Joe Weisberg: You know, we want to walk a, sort of, fine line there, because we’re very reluctant to impose too much of our thought process on a moment like that, where we really want to let the scene speak for itself. And the audience, sort of, has their own moment with it. Because we think everybody’s going to, sort of, view that difference. You know, the other day somebody told us something about what they were feeling in that scene that was profoundly different [than] anything we ever felt about it. But it’s still not our place to quash that or get in between somebody and their experience of the scene.
But it’s probably, I don’t know. I wouldn’t say that we felt that there was an inner dialogue that was so different from the outer dialogue exactly. Certainly a lot of very profound feelings [were] going on for both of them, and I think it’s really nice what you said. That they were looking at their future as they looked off toward that city that, you know, was almost a strange, almost a foreign city to them after coming back after all these years. And both trying obviously to grapple with and process this terrible, terrible tragic loss of their children. Something they never ever would have been able to imagine even really a few days ago.
And did you have a game plan in mind when you had Paige in Claudia’s apartment drinking her vodka? Does she have something that she wants to do, or do we just have to—is it the same thing, we get to guess? I want to know what you think.
Joel Fields: Well unfortunately, I think that’s another one where the intent is really to put it into the hands of the viewers and to the hearts of the viewers. There’s no—and it’s not because we’re hiding something there—but it’s because that moment’s not a moment about plot. That’s a moment about where she’s at personally.
There’s been a strong segment of viewers who very viscerally wanted Elizabeth and Phillip to be punished for everything they had done in the course of the season. How would you respond to those people?
Joel Fields: Well, on the one hand, I’d say we’re glad that they’re emotionally engaged and invested. And on the other hand, I think we’d say we’re here to explore the characters. And try to lay out the best drama for them. And we’ll leave it to the audience to decide whether this was punishment enough or satisfying enough. That’s really one of the exciting things about getting to the end for us is, on the one hand, there’s been an increase of obsessive creative control, but it’s funny.
Your question is causing me to think about something that I hadn’t really thought about yet at all, which is two days ago, we did our last piece of actual work on the film. We did a final picture adjustment on a couple of the effect shots at the end. And that’s it. We’re done. And boy, we obsessed just more over this season than any season prior and more over the final episode than any episode before. And that’s been a real—that’s gripped us tightly. But I suddenly realized, as you asked that question, there’s been a letting go too. And it’s nice to be able to turn it over. And not have any more to do on it.
Joe Weisberg: I think punishment is a funny word. It rings a, sort of, funny for us, I think. But I think the idea of, you know, there being a kind of a tragedy that hangs over the spirit of this show. And that it feels like some sort of tragedy is—or some kind of tragic ending is called for, some kind of toll is something that we probably felt. And, you know, to us the question is how big is that tragedy going to be and where does it live? And does it live in, sort of, the emotional world? Or does it have to live in some sort of very direct type of death or something like that. And we explored that and thought about that a lot.
And ultimately, the tragedy taking place inside the family felt exactly right to us. So the fact that they lose their children just resonated more deeply with us. That every going on with their lives, but with the loss of the children, was to us the most powerful and in a way the most painful thing that could happen to anybody.
I know this is up for our interpretation, but what did you think or what do you think the kids’ futures were, Paige and Henry?
Joe Weisberg: Well, you’re right, we’re going to pretty much leave that up to you. You know, it’s worth noting that in a way, we always from the very beginning of the show thought of Henry as being, you know, the kind of most American or most fully American person in this whole family, then in a way, he [had] not really inherited the Russian soul of either of his parents. Whereas Paige, it seemed to us, was American but had also gotten her mom and dad’s Russian soul. And, you know, you [can] factor that in. If you agree with that, which you may or may not. But that seemed to be the story that got told. You can think about that when you think about their future and what it might hold for them and what the possibilities are.
But we’re certainly leaving that at the end of the show. What [an] extremely dark and tragic and difficult moment for both of them. Everybody’s got a lot of hurdles in front of them. But, who’s to say what they’re going to do with those hurdles?
How tempted were you—given all the headlines that have, you know, sort of make people joke that the show’s become a documentary—to have some kind of coda or something that would be contemporary? Did that come up at all in the discussions to show, you know, what someone was doing in 2015 or 2016?
Joel Fields: We had no temptation. You know, what we’ve been—over these six years, we’ve been so dedicated to writing in a bubble and keeping all of that out of [the] process. So that’s become so embedded in us and imbued in our process that we would have literally almost had to turn into different people to decide at the last minute that we were going to let it all in like that. I don’t think that could have happened.
I know you said that you’re, kind of, glad to be done with this for now. But of course, the ending opens up all kinds of possibilities down the road. Futures of the children, futures of Philip and Elizabeth, Stan and whether his woman friend is really a spy. So I know you’re saying not now, but are you leaving yourselves open to a possible continuation in times when reboots and sequels are almost an epidemic?
Joe Weisberg: I’m going to say no, although Todd VanDerWerff from Fox was pitching a sequel called “Better Summon Stavos.” Which we thought was pretty funny.
Joel Fields: Yes, and “I Male Robot” could be pretty compelling too.
Joe Weisberg: No, we feel it’s done.
Joel Fields: I mean in all seriousness, I really don’t think so. It really feels like this one wants to be fully told at this point. It feels like that kind of story. It does seem like the story is over to us.
Are there any other characters that you wish you would have had time to go back to? It was great that you brought back Pastor Tim… but Misha and Martha, [we] haven’t really seen them since last season. Would you have liked to do something more with something like that?
Joel Fields: No, not really. I think one of the joys of being able to plan so far ahead in these past two seasons is we’re able to tell the story the way we wanted to—for better and maybe for worse. But it was the story as we saw it. And we were able to let go of those stories and characters as hard as it was in the moments when it felt like it was time to be done with them. And god, we loved the Martha story and really enjoyed those blasts of her over the course of the penultimate season. But they didn’t—there just wasn’t [a] story to return to this season. And the same with those other characters for us.
The garage scene between Stan, Phillip, Elizabeth and Paige was really the dramatic crux of the episode and really the whole series. And if you were going to explain why Stan changed his mind, why he made the decision he did after he was so angry at the beginning of the scene, what would you say persuaded him to let them go?
Joe Weisberg: Unfortunately, this one we’ve been getting asked a lot, and we have taken a pretty tough line that we don’t want to answer that one, because we think that’s one that people are going to come up [with] a lot of different answers [on] their own. But I think we can talk a little bit about, you know, our approach to that scene. Which is that and why is—why we wanted that scene, as you say, to be the dramatic crux. And, you know, it’s really ultimately why Phillip felt that he had a shot there. Why there even was a shot to take, because if you look at the beginning of that scene, you know, where Philip is talking and almost pretending like “oh, hey Stan what are you doing here?” And it looks so desperate and pathetic. And like how could he possibly even be making a play in this situation?
But at the end of the day, that friendship was a real friendship. And there’s no question about it through all the layers of bullshit and lying and manipulation and everything else, it’s hard to argue that these two men didn’t love each other. And, you know, that scene becomes an exploration of six seasons’ worth or however many years it actually was. You know, six seasons’ worth of a real relationship and a real friendship and all the shit that went into it and all the shit that is now [getting] to come out of it. And one of the challenges in writing that scene was taking everything, particularly these two men would have to say to each other and figuring out which of those things would have to come out and in what order?
And every one of the reasons we went through so many drafts of that scene was because every time we had it in the wrong order. Every time we got what they would say when even slightly off, the scene rang false and didn’t work. And it was only when we really ultimately figured out who would bring up what, in what felt like exactly the true time, what their first concern would be. Second concern, third concern, exactly when we believed that would well up from their heart, that’s when the scene started to feel real and believable. I know that’s not an exact answer to the question you’re asking, but it may be a little bit of a roundabout one about a human interaction between two people.