‘The Americans’ Stars and Showrunners Break Down That Epic Series Finale
The Americans has completed its six season run, and it is truly the end of an era, comrades. The series was always among, if not the, top TV series every year, as its wonderfully nuanced portrait of a marriage was encapsulated in 80s Cold War spycraft that felt increasingly relevant to our news cycle. FX’s The Americans will be remembered for many things, but chief among them was the joy of Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys’ performances as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two Soviet spies playing at being Americans to try and bring down a democracy, and yet we loved them. It’s always been complicated being an Americans fan — it feels lightly treasonous to feel so emotionally invested in spies who want to destroy our country. But that’s what made the show so great; among all of the wigs and the amazing soundtrack choices and the fashion nods were stories and characters who felt incredibly real.
Last week, we were able to speak with stars Russell and Rhys, as well as showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields via a series of conferences calls, to dive into the events of that stunning The Americans ending. Series finales are notoriously difficult to pull off, but Weisberg and Fields had the rare luxury of planning for the end in advance, having been renewed for two seasons at the end of Season 4. That afforded them the chance to complete this tale exactly as they envisioned it, and they did so by finding the right balance between what felt right for the story while also satisfying fans. It was a deeply emotional conclusion, one that cements the show’s legacy as one of TV’s best.
Below are some excerpts from our conversations with the stars and showrunners on this final episode, including what made the series so unique, what that dream sequence was all about, the chances of Philip running into Martha in a Moscow grocery store, and so much more. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity).
Was Justice Served?
Americans fans have been divided over what the right ending for Philip and Elizabeth should be. What does “punishment” look like in this context? “You’re watching this couple go through the series and you’re rooting for them, but you want them to pay in some way for what they’ve done. And [the writers] chose the most painful way for them to pay,” Russell said, also admitting that she initially thought Elizabeth was being set up to die. “They took their kids away, and it’s something I could not have seen coming at all. As a parent, as a mother, it was just like too much!” She continued, “one [spouse] could have died or one could have gone to prison or something, but to take your kids away is pretty hardcore […] It’s definitely not ‘Americana hopeful,’ right? And I think Joe [Weisberg] and Joel [Fields] talked for a while about really wanting a Russian ending. And whatever that means to you, you know, I certainly don’t think it’s like ‘everyone wins and everything’s fair!’ It’s a little more complex than that.” Rhys later added,
“I thought the ending was very fair, you know, I think they pitched it beautifully in that there were so many elements to it that weren’t definitive in one way with, you know, I haven’t gotten killed or caught or everyone made it away. There was so much happening, there was such – I don’t know what word I’m looking for, a penalty for them to pay. There was such an expensive cost they had to pay for the price of their kind of newfound freedom. On one hand they spent their life living a lie. I’m sure the relief from not doing that would be enormous, because as I said before the cost of not being with your children and the betrayal and the abandonment of your children is kind of unfathomable.”
Weisberg revealed that while this ending was not something they knew would play out as it did from the very beginning, “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 […] But then we got to the end of the show and sure enough that ending was still the one that we like best.” Fields agreed, saying “this was always the ending that felt right.” For some, though, it may have been a major surprise that the Jennings all make it out alive. Weisberg continued,
“We start with, ‘what do we think the characters would really do?’ And if that ends up with something like ‘hey, nobody gets killed,’ we’re aware of the fact that that’s not the most normal way to end one of these stories. And it’s probably going to not, you know, defy the expectations of what this genre usually presents at the end. In all fairness, I think, we consider that a plus. That it’s going to surprise people; we were also aware it may disappoint some people. But as long as it rings true and feels emotion to us, we’re happy.”
Russell said that she also has hope, though, for the Jennings’ future. “We obviously know in today’s age that the Berlin Wall does fall and communism doesn’t win the West, and the hope is that in a couple of years they’ll go back and try to repair and find the kids, and seek them out […] that’s the only saving grace I have as a parent and as a fan of the show, is to go. ‘Oh but, you know, it’s all going to change in a couple of years and they can go back and find them!’”
Fittingly, The Americans concludes with Philip and Elizabeth alone, together, having only each other to rely on. It gets to the very core of the series, but those final moments also leave a lot for us to wonder about how the two may continue given the trauma they just survived. “It’s pretty devastating what the loss of children would do to a marriage,” Russell said about that final scene. “When we were talking about those end moments, I think what [Fields and Weisberg] wanted to convey, which was hard at times, was no matter what we’re going to have each other. We’ve come this far together and we’re going to get each other through this […] And ultimately it was this story of this marriage of this relationship, so I think that is their hope that they will pull each other through this moment.”
“It’s sort of interesting because, you know, what is left you don’t know really how it will work out,” Rhys said. “Ultimately they’re the only allies in each other that they have, that someone else who understands this incredible journey they’ve been on. Therefore they do need each other in that respect.”
Russell added a more hopeful note, saying that in discussions that were had about the character, “Elizabeth sort of leaving the system and going rogue and going off on her own was in a way choosing Philip and the relationship. And I would argue that they were inching along toward that past the whole way. You know, they were always sort of taking steps away from the center and getting married in private and telling each other secrets they weren’t supposed to tell and that bond was getting much stronger than I think and the level of intimacy much more than just average operational, you know, relationship.”
Plus, the rings! The crowns! Yes, that marriage ceremony was ultimately what outed them, but it was conversely the bond that might see them through. As for what the showrunners hope audiences get from that moment, Weisberg said that, “we want to walk a 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 have their own moment with it.”
Stan Beeman. What a scene. What a choice! Noah Emmerich has always been phenomenal in this role as an FBI agent who suspects, but ultimately doesn’t really believe (until now) that he has spies living next door who are also his best friends. The show waited a long time for this revelation to happen, where Stan is confronted with the cold hard facts that the Jennings are indeed Soviet agents. That parking garage scene in the finale was one of the series’ most gut-wrenching (which is really saying something), but the way it was left uncertain as to what, exactly, made Stan let them go (and how he moves on from here) was also the right call — but it wasn’t easy.
“We think that was the scene in the whole series, the scene that we spent the most time writing. Went through the most drafts on. Probably had the most anxiety. That we were never going to crack. Put down and walked away from,” Joel Fields revealed, with Joe Weisberg agreeing. “I mean the stakes were high. Because if that scene didn’t work, the whole ending of the show didn’t work.”
Russell applauded the way the scene ultimately played out, though. “I love that Stan doesn’t turn them in. I think that’s the complication that Joe and Joel present so well is there is no bad guy there is no good guy. You like a lot of things about people that do shitty things […] I think Stan and Philip were friends, they just had this whole other story going on and privately, but I think that’s what they told very well in this story. So I’m just glad Stan let them go,” she said.
The friendship between the two mean always felt genuine, and it’s also what made that scene with Stan so heartbreaking. “I think Phillip and Stan, in another world would have loved having [each other] as a best friend,” Rhys told us. “And for all intents and purposes Stan was his only friend, you know, in this kind of world of pretend that he lived in. Stan was the only friend he’d ever had and, you know, just the irony of everything else that came with it.”
Rhys also spoke about how he likened Philip’s relationship with Stan to that of Martha, saying how Philip loathed having to use innocent people. He also addressed that really interesting line when Philip says to Stan that he wishes Stan had stayed in EST. Was he being genuine? “I think it worked on a few levels,” Rhys told us. “The primal instinct is to defend your family, to protect your family. And therefore you need to get them out of that parking garage. So you will do anything that allows you to do that. By appealing to human nature Stan, you know, he’s going ‘I wish you could see this bigger picture. I’m just trying to take care of my family and we’ve got our job to do.’ […] And that’s what it is. That’s what it boils down to.”
As for what ultimately made Stan choose to let them go, Weisberg said, “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 a lot of different answers of their own on.” He continued,
“But I think we can talk a little bit about, you know, our approach to that scene. Which is that – why we wanted that scene as you say to be the dramatic crux and 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.”
“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.”
Finally, the biggest question on fans’ minds: Is Renee a spy? Keri Russell thinks there was something to that lingering shot of Renee looking at the house, but Matthew Rhys said clearly “No, I don’t [think she’s a spy].” Hmmm …!
Another major emotional whammy in this finale was Paige’s (Holly Taylor) decision to abandon her parents and remain in the U.S. What is her plan, exactly? What should we take from that final vodka-filled scene in Claudia’s now empty apartment? Fields was mostly mum on the matter, “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. 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.”
“Maybe she’s just had enough. But it’s such a painful choice,” Russell said, musing that maybe Paige is ready to make her own decisions. “It did surprise me but I kind of loved it.” Rhys added that while it was a shocking moment, it wasn’t done for the sake of shocking the audience. “It’s always incredibly well justified […] It gives the audience enough to go, ‘well, you know, any number of things [could happen].’ She can go in any number of directions now. She can, you know, continue her work, look after Henry. There’s so many variables presented to you in that moment and in a very poignant way.”
As for whether Paige might have stayed if Henry had also been with the family? “Oh that’s a good question. I don’t know. God I don’t know!” Rhys said, pondering. “I think possibly she would have stayed just out of a feeling and a fear that she needed to be there to protect him because she’d been through it, the great revelation, and she kind of knew how hard that was. And I think for him to be so shell shocked by probably that news, and that escape out of being the only person in the world who could understand his position, she would have stayed to kind of protect him. That’s my feeling.”
It’s rare, if ever, that The Americans goes into dream sequence territory, but when it came to the finale Weisberg and Fields felt like it was an important moment for Elizabeth to get that scene. “That moment is one that came fairly late in the evolution of the script,” Fields told us. “We were both looking for a way to move forward through time there, but also to expose everything we could about what Elizabeth was feeling. We really struggle with dream sequences, we tend not to do them because they’re just so tricky and they have such a high probability of going wrong.” He continued,
“But there just seemed to be so much in her subconscious there. And this seemed like a great way to put it together and shake it up and just let it all be. Everything from the fact that this whole season had been one in which her soul had been stirred by art in unexpected ways. She certainly had never thought about the fact that her first true love had been an art collector who loved and had an understanding for art that she also couldn’t relate to back then. Everything from that to the fact that that moment that she had talked about in the first season was the moment that she was starting a family. And now here she was leaving them behind, and looking across the aisle at this man who had over all these seasons truly become her husband.”
A big part of that dream, and of the season as a whole, was the way Elizabeth connected to Erica’s paintings. “We thought a lot about choosing the artist and the paintings that were going to be in the season. And we really were thinking about how Elizabeth was somebody who had been brought up with essentially very little exposure to art other than, sort of, socialist realism. And how her whole idea of art was going to be essentially dismissive; it’s only purpose was really to serve a political function to the degree that she really thought about it at all,” Weisberg explained. He went on to say,
“So the question was what kind art was going to, kind of penetrate into her soul against her will and without her even realizing it was happening? And that’s what we imagine happening as she was stuck in that room for hours and hours, often with Erica asleep staring at these pictures. What could, as she looked at it, worm its way into her, have this effect on her without her realizing it. And we felt that all those incredible paintings of Alyssa’s [Monk] which were so beautiful and so dark and so powerful would just make her feel things, again, without her necessarily even knowing it was happening.”
“And in a way that painting ‘Mother’ was a particularly penetrating and powerful one. I don’t know that we want to say all the reasons that we felt that would be a particularly powerful one for Elizabeth. We like to leave that up to the audiences’ imagination. But we felt that that was the one that she would keep coming back to and back to again and again. And then, of course, not even consciously choose it, but have her eye keep being drawn back to it until Erica’s husband told her to just go ahead and take it.”
Russell told us that the moment when Gregory appears in the dream and admonishes her for smoking when she’s newly pregnant with Paige, followed by the flippant reply that she never wanted children (and the children appearing in the painting) was a painful juxtaposition with what was happening to the family in that moment. “I thought it was so devastating, and to me, what it is is how much her kids [mean to her, and now] they’re gone. So that to me was sort of what the dream was.”
Martha, Wigs, McDonald’s, and Fernando
One of the The Americans‘ most defining features was those wigs over the years, with Rhys admitting that “if I never wear another wig in my life it’ll be too soon.” But as for any favorites, he told us that “There was a guy, he kind of appeared first in the pilot episode of the first season, and he had kind of long hair and a moustache and a little faux soul patch on his chin. And I just kind of gave him this huge Spanish alter ego. He kind of came back throughout the years in various guises, not quite the same. I called him Fernando. So I was always very happy when Fernando came back.”
Though Martha did not appear in the final run of episodes (after getting what was a really great send-off in the penultimate season), it is worth noting that she and the Jennings may conceivably run into one another in Moscow, perhaps at the grocery store? “Yes, you know, that’s the joke right, is an uncomfortable moment in the supermarket where the three of them all meet again and go, ‘Oh hi. What are you getting? Oh we’re getting the same, you know,’ because that’s the comedy spinoff version,” Rhys joked. However, the showrunners have no plans to explore any spinoffs. “Todd VanDerWerff from Vox was pitching a sequel called ‘Better Summon Stavos,’ Weisberg said. “Which we thought was pretty funny.” Fields added, “And ‘I, Mail Robot’ could be pretty compelling, too.”
One of the most striking images in the finale was, funny enough, McDonald’s. “McDonald’s ended up being enthusiastic about it,” Weisberg explained. “And we had a really great experience with them. […] It was all done, sort of, at the last minute. So we weren’t sure it was going to pull off […] it’s not that easy to find a period McDonald’s. There aren’t that many left. And then they found that one, which as you saw is literally like a dropdown from heaven to be the perfect McGlowing embodiment of everything we wanted to represent in that scene. It was so beautiful.”
Finally, Rhys was asked about the possibility of any line-dancing in Philip’s Moscow future. “I imagine there’s no line dancing in the future. There’s a lot of line or waiting in line in his future in Russia – certainly no line dancing,” Rhys said. “For me to dance publicly is my Achilles heel. So I found that hideous as an experience!”
The Last Scene They Filmed
Both Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys said that the most difficult scene to film in the finale was saying goodbye to Henry (Keidrich Sellati) over the payphone. It was also the last scene for that episode they filmed. “You know as a new father just … it came very easily to kind of put yourself in that situation and go ‘I can’t even fathom doing this to my own son.’ So I did and still just think about as one of the most heart-breaking moments of our show,” Rhys told us. Russell added, “those scenes are so hard, watching someone try to be normal, but you know they’re dying. And just the sweetness of him saying, ‘Oh I’m just hanging out with my friends’ and he’s like ‘hey weirdos I got to go.’“
Weisberg said that what happens to Henry after Stan reveals the truth to him during hockey practice is up to viewers. “It’s worth noting that in a way, we always, from the very beginning of the show, thought of Henry as being the most American or most fully American person in this whole family. In a way he didn’t really inherit 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.”
The challenge of the scene, though, went beyond emotions — it was also freezing. “It started to snow, and it wasn’t snowing in the other shots, and we were freezing and it was probably about 3:30 in the morning,” Russell explained about the payphone call to Henry. Because of the fact that everyone was freezing, when the scene was finished everyone jumped into their cars and left without much fanfare. However, there was one more scene that truly served as the final shot of the series — a pickup for the episode “Harvest.” As Russell detailed, it was “literally a quick shot of me noticing Philip taking the ax out of the ax case and going, ‘Oh shit he’s going to chop her head off!’ And that was really the last scene of the whole series.” Fitting, perhaps.
The End of an Era
“If anything we would kind of say, well this is the year to get out because maybe people won’t be so sympathetic anymore,” Russell told us in regards to how the show seems to be relating more and more to current events, even though it takes place in the past. “It didn’t affect because our show isn’t just a political show, it’s really a show about relationships. I don’t think it lowered this great weight on us or anything,” she said. And as real-life stories of spies that seem to mirror the Jennings have come forth, it hasn’t had any real bearing on this series. “Over these six years, we’ve been so dedicated to writing in a bubble and keeping all of that out of process,” Weisberg explained, “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.”
When it comes to the legacy of this show and these roles, though, Russell said that, “I love it. To get a chance to play what feels to me as a woman this true character, and see out the full arc and the full story of it. When, you know, a lot of times the female part is like the doting wife or the comforting wife or so it feels incredibly satisfying to begin this process six years ago what we did and then to start to end here. I just relished it, it was a real treat to get to do this job.”
“As sad as I am to go it just feels like the right time,” she added. “Because I think the stories were still so good and so compelling and I would hate to be involved with something that I thought was creatively so interesting and then watch it sort of peter out. So as much as this sixth and final season coming to a head was hard in some ways it felt right. That was sort of comforting in some way. “
“I’ve never kind of encountered a show of this calibre where the kind of layering of the writing and indeed the characters have been so textured, really,” Rhys said about what he’ll miss most about the show. “The challenges that came with this part and kind of landing in a real believable place has always been large and varied. So I’ll miss the day to day challenges of this part, which were tenfold daily […] I’ve enjoyed the kind of enormity of this undertaking massively, and that’ll be the hardest thing to say goodbye to.”
Both Rhys and Russell praised each other as partners on the show (and they are, of course, also partners in real life after having met on the show). “He’s fun because he’s good. So I will definitely miss that,” Russell said of no longer having Rhys as a co-star now that the show has wrapped. “And, you know, just the intimacy you have with someone that you’re so familiar with. It’s easy and hard I guess in some ways too but I will miss that. And he’s so funny. We had a lot of fun together.” Rhys said of Russell, “I haven’t got the time to tell you what it is I’ll miss most about her because she’s kind of everything you want in a co-star” (and he said he fully supports everyone who is pushing for Russell to win an Emmy for her role this year).
Still, the series will be a hard thing to say goodbye to, with the showrunners admitting it was just now hitting them that things are really done. Russell perhaps sums it up best with a story about her discovering how the series would end: “I read the end about half way through maybe and I was a little behind in reading my scripts and I had a chunk of the day that in my shooting day that I had like three hours off before I had to go back,” she said. “And I went to this super fancy restaurant near where we were shooting and I sat at the bar of this slinky restaurant and ordered a giant glass of red wine and read [episodes] eight, nine, and ten in one sitting. And so I cried and I tried to hide my eyes from crying like I’m not crying. I just read them back to back and went back to work. I loved it, and to me it feels pitch perfect and devastating in all the right ways.”