(Warning, comrades: The following classified document contains spoilers for the series finale of The Americans.)
After six seasons and 75 episodes, one of the best spy thrillers in TV history aired its last chapter – not with one last eruption of violence, but with an ending more muted and melancholy. Back in 2013, FX’s The Americans opened its story at the dawn of the Reagan era, following a pair of undercover KGB agents, masquerading as married D.C. yuppies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. The series closed with the rise of Gorbachev and a thaw in the Cold War that its anti-heroes had been waging for decades. In between, head writers Joe Weisberg and and Joel Fields plugged fans back into the culture of the Eighties, with all its apocalyptic anxiety, bad hairdos and many, many catchy Peter Gabriel songs.
The finale, puckishly named “START” (after the treaty that eased tensions between the U.S. and the USSR), didn’t lack for edge-of-the-seat drama. Philip, Elizabeth and their operative-in-training teenage daughter Paige finally ‘fessed up to their next-door neighbor Stan Beeman, an FBI agent who’d been a good friend to the family. After convincing an understandably raw Stan to let them flee to the Soviet Union while leaving their son Henry behind, the Jennings the got an unexpected sock in the gut: At the last minute, Paige chose not to join them on the trip. The show ended with the couple looking out over Moscow, still alive and still together, but perhaps permanently cut off from the people they love most.
A week before the finale aired, The Americans stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys (themselves a couple, with a son) spoke with Rolling Stone about concluding a journey they’ve been on for six years. Rhys, a Welshman, talked about the challenges of playing a man with divided loyalties, while Russell reflected on the rare gift of getting to play a complex and active female character. Weisberg and Fields also weighed in – in a separate phone interview – about the choices they did and didn’t make with their ending. These conversations have been edited together.
When did you settle on this ending, with Philip and Elizabeth in the Soviet Union, and Paige and Henry staying home?
Weisberg: The general idea that Philip and Elizabeth would end up back in the Soviet Union came to us we think at the end of Season One, or the beginning of season two. We loved it, but didn’t know if it’d stick. We knew we had a lot of stories still to tell, and if you’d asked us the odds that those stories would change that ending, we would’ve said, “Very high.” We never worked toward that ending. And we did try some other ones on for size. There were variations: This kid, that kid. But the one that was most powerful and emotional was with no kids at all.
Keri and Matthew, you had to have speculated over the years about where your characters might end up. Was it what you anticipated?
Rhys: There were elements I was expecting, and then huge things that I wouldn’t have anticipated for all the tea in China. A lot of beautiful and dramatic curveballs.
How much did you know before you got that last script?
Rhys: None. We had no idea. It was all a harrowing read.
Joe and Joel, was there ever a point at which you thought to yourself that maybe someone should die?
Fields: Curiously, no. Ultimately, the carnage we were looking for was emotional, so death was never on the table. In a lot of ways, we think this is a fate worse than death. What we were looking for was was something that felt as emotional as possible and as true as possible.
Russell: It’s much more painful. Their kids are alive, and they’re just not with them … [we] can’t get to them. The death of the family is the death. It’s so sad.
Of all the scenes in the finale, the one on the train, where Paige steps off and chooses not to go to Russia, had to be the most difficult to play.
Russell: That one was a little complicated, actually. We were shooting with an actual working train, with a lot of extras involved. You have very few shots at it, to get everyone in place all at once and the trains moving at the correct speed. So it wasn’t an ideal environment. Sort of out of our comfort zone, honestly. Thankfully, the moment’s so heartbreaking that it spoke for itself.
There were certain confrontations that had to happen before the series ended – like Stan finally finding out the truth. Was it satisfying to finally get to have the big moment that the show’s been building to since the first episode?
Fields: Satisfying? Yes, very! It was extremely challenging, to write that scene and get it to the place where it was ready to shoot. But it felt really good to get there, because we’ve been heading there for so long, for all of these seasons.
Rhys: When you you’re fortunate enough to make it six seasons you’ve laid a lot of incredible foundation work. So what you eagerly anticipate in the final season are those big, punchy payoff scenes. As an actor, you get your teeth into them.
Weisberg: There was a great moment on set, during rehearsal, Noah Emmerich (who plays Stan) walked over to us and said, “God, after all these seasons, it’s so weird to stand here with a gun pointed at Philip and Elizabeth and say, ‘It’s over.'” It was an emotional day for everybody.
Throughout the series, nearly every time Philip sees Stan he breaks into his almost overeager, “Hey buddy, good to see you!” voice. That last confrontation is tense – and yet it’s also kind of funny that Philip tries at first to strike that same upbeat tone.
Fields: Wasn’t that perfect? Did he himself believe he could pull that off? That scene had what we refer to as a high degree of difficulty. It was not an easy scene to write, not an easy scene to act, not an easy scene to make work. But you have to walk a tightrope if you’re going to get something really great. And boy, those guys were out there.
Rhys: One weird thing I struggled with on The Americans is that sometimes we never quite had the real estate – the time or space in the story – to do what would feel most real. If Stan and Philip were great mates in the real world, there’d be more nonchalance. If this series were only about a KGB spy living next door to an FBI agent, you’d probably have more time to see Philip being a lot more normal. Instead, I always needed to show the cogs working, you know. You skirt this line of kind of having to tip off the audience to what Philip must be thinking, to show that this isn’t a comfortable thing for him … that his guilt in this situation is affecting the way he’s behaving. There are so many pieces to play that sometimes as an actor you second-guess, especially when you have one day to do it.
The characters would say one thing, while expressing something very different. It was up the audience to read between the lines.
Russell: Yeah, I loved that aspect of the show. I think Joe and Joel relied on quiet scenes a lot more in the later seasons. I love watching actors not really saying anything but you still know exactly what’s happening. As a woman, y’know, a lot of times you’re the supporting wife of the guy who’s having this really interesting emotional life. But I got to play a real character who maintained her character through the whole thing, instead of just becoming softer over time, or gradually fitting in with everyone else.
Sometimes your costumes and wigs did a lot of the work. Did you have favorite and least favorite disguises?
Rhys: Anything with facial hair [drove] me nuts. You can’t eat. You’re restricted in the way you can talk, or act. Someone’s poking your lip every four seconds to keep the piece stuck on. Having said that, my favorite disguise was probably this guy in the pilot who had a mustache and long hair. I liked to think he was Spanish.
Russell: He named him Fernando, and when he spoke off-camera, it was in the voice of Buzz Lightyear … you know that scene in Toy Story, when he got switched to Spanish?
Rhys: Your best was when you looked like John Denver.
Russell: Okay then, I’ll say my favorite was John Denver, because that’s hilarious. My least favorite was anything with a lot of makeup, that you just have to keep putting it on and on and on. I did like playing “Steph” a lot this year – the home care worker with a bad permed orange hair and terrible clothes. I could wear that costume around off the set, and just be invisible. I’d wear it to the grocery store.
Whenever you’ve talked to fans, did you get the sense that they were rooting for Philip and Elizabeth to succeed?
Russell: I think they were rooting for what I root for in any story, which is the relationship. Even though they’re doing these unlikable things, you still want them to make it.
Rhys: Our viewing figures weren’t huge, and this ccould be an incredibly difficult show to follow. So for fans that stuck with it, they probably feel they’re a part of a select club.
Joe and Joel, given what’s been happening in geopolitics lately, was it tempting at all in this last season to plant the seeds in your story for the current conflicts between the U.S. and Russia?
Fields: It really wasn’t. We just had no pull in that direction at all. I think in part that’s because when the show started, none of that was a factor in our world, and therefore the show wasn’t designed in any way to comment on the present. It was really all about the characters and the themes.
You did seem to play with this irony that the the cause Philip and Elizabeth have been fighting for is pretty much about to become moot – the Cold War as they’ve known it is about to end.
Fields: But as impossible as it is for us to be unaware of history, it’s equally impossible for these characters to be aware. One could never have guessed at that moment in time that the Berlin Wall was going to collapse in a few years. So we really do think of them in those last moments as being behind that Iron Curtain, which is still pretty impenetrable.
Have you had any conversations about what you think these characters might be doing after the end?
Weisberg: We only had conversations about what they would do up until then, because that’s always how we got our story. We kept asking what felt most real to us: What would this one do, what would that one do? How would they feel? That’s really what always guided us. Once we got to that endpoint, we really weren’t speculating too much.
So you have no thoughts about where Paige is in 1994, or now?
Weisberg: No, because we’re desperately obsessed with where we left her.
Rhys: Paige changed her name to Stormy Daniels. [Laughs] For Philip and Elizabeth, I imagine it’s a pretty bleak landscape for the two of them. They’re the only two people who have an understanding of what the other person has been through.
Russell: But I have to say: The only saving grace about the heartbreaker of this ending is that we do know that communism doesn’t win out, that the Berlin Wall does fall – that everything sort of falls apart, politically. So there’s this outside hope lingering that, in a couple of years, they’ll be able to go find their kids again and start that slow road back. But I don’t know. Philip and Elizabeth are the only two that know specifically what they’ve been through. And so hopefully they can find comfort at least in [the fact] that they have each other.
Have you said goodbye to these characters yet?
Russell: Well, to be honest … the shooting ended [in March] and then you do a few hard months of press, nonstop. So I would say not yet. Maybe by fall, when we’re used to going back, I’ll go, “Oh wow, we don’t have a job, babe.” [Laughs] Then they’ll be gone. Really gone.
Rhys: I don’t like to get out of character until the DVD is out.
But you’re not doing your American accent right now.
Rhys: Inside, I am.