[This story contains spoilers from the series finale of The Americans]
Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) left the United States and returned to their native Russia in the series finale of The Americans on Wednesday night.
But in a tragic twist, the Russian spies, who’d spent years posing as an American couple living outside of Washington, D.C., had to leave their children behind. The pair early on made the decision to let their son, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), who didn’t know his parents’ true identities, stay in the U.S. But eldest child Paige (Holly Taylor), who had entered the family business this season, spying alongside her mom, was set to make the trip with her parents before she suddenly left the train they were on. The moment was a shocking one for Elizabeth, who throws herself at the window of the train when she sees Paige still on the platform as the train pulls out of the station, and Philip.
But as for why Paige got off the train or what’s next for her, apart from “probably a hangover” after she’s shown drinking a shot of vodka near the end of the episode, showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg wouldn’t say, preferring to leave those answers to the audience.
Similarly, Fields and Weisberg declined to speculate as to what was behind the resolution of another dramatic development in the episode — the Jennings’ confrontation with their FBI agent neighbor, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich). While much is said, particularly by Philip and Stan, who assess whether their friendship was indeed real, Stan chooses neither to arrest nor kill the Jennings, instead letting them go.
And the showrunners left it to “the hearts and imaginations of everybody” in the audience to speculate about what’s to come for Philip and Elizabeth in Russia, including whether Philip would reunite with Martha (Alison Wright). But the showrunners pointed out that the characters don’t know that, returning in the late ’80s, the Soviet Union is on the verge of collapse, making the family estrangement seem permanent to the Jennings.
“As they stand there looking over Moscow in the end, they’ve got no sense that the Soviet Union will ever fall,” Fields said of Philip and Elizabeth. “They’re back behind the Iron Curtain, and their children are on the other side. That’s pretty tragic to us.”
But Fields and Weisberg did discuss the stories behind the ending and the confrontation with Stan as well as what the series, a period piece that became especially timely in the last two years because of the ongoing investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, has to say about modern-day relations with Russia. Also, they reveal why the series didn’t definitively answer whether Stan’s spouse, Renee (Laurie Holden), is a KGB agent.
Is this what you always envisioned for the Americans finale? How did your original vision for the end of the series change compared to what we saw?
Joel Fields: Well, Joe and I came up with pretty much this ending either toward the end of season one or beginning of season two; we don’t quite remember exactly. … This ending was there from pretty early on, and though we considered a lot of different ones over the seasons and things could have gone very differently because the story was definitely a living, breathing organism and it changed a fair amount as we went, to our surprise, this is the ending that stuck.
What about the last shot and last line? Was that in the original plan or when did you come up with that?
Joe Weisberg: That was all stuff that we broke this season. It was really only the idea of Philip and Elizabeth going back with one of their kids or none of their kids that we saw so far in advance. Everything else you saw in that finale came about as we broke the final season this last year and that last scene in particular. How they would get back to the Soviet Union and where they would land in the Soviet Union and what the final scene would be and what they would say to each other — that was very late in the game.
The whole storyline of Philip and Elizabeth having to leave their kids behind, why did you decide that was the way to go?
Weisberg: We’re always guided by what feels like it would happen. So a lot of things that are happening in the story are engines that we put in motion and then it feels to us like the story takes off on its own and we try to follow it. That didn’t mean that it couldn’t go off in one direction or another, but we always try to stick with what feels most real and most true to us. So if you think about what would happen as they were leaving and how would they feel about their kids, what would their kids do, these seemed to us like the most likely events to unfold. And then we have to ask ourselves certain questions like, “Does it then make for an ending that is both true and real but also satisfying?” And we felt that it had to be tragic, so, “Is it tragic and does it work on all of the levels we need it to work?” And it seemed to us that the answer was yes. We were devastated in the right way.
A big moment in the finale is the confrontation with Stan. Did you always want Stan to find out and have this face-off with the Jennings?
Weisberg: That was one that I don’t think we 100 percent knew the answer to. If you had asked us in season one or season two, my guess is you would have gotten a “probably” but not a “definitely” because we’ll always go where the story takes us and it’s not that hard to imagine a version of the story where they don’t confront each other, and if the story had really leaned in that direction, I don’t think we would have been afraid of going there. But we also liked the idea of it coming to this conclusion largely because of this relationship that grew between Philip and Stan and what we knew was waiting in that garage scene. This show really lives and breathes in those conversations between people — those are often the best and most powerful emotional scenes. And that Philip and Stan have to have it out after all of these years — sometimes when we write we do this thing called “scenes we want to see,” and I can’t think of anything higher on that list.
How did you figure out the dialogue for that scene in terms of what they would say and what they wouldn’t say?
Fields: Through a lot of writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. We spent a lot of time on that scene. … The question that we asked ourselves was: “If you imagine that these are real people and that this story is actually happening, What would get said here?” That was what we were looking for … the most honest version of that scene.
Obviously, this show became very timely in recent seasons with the Russia investigation. Ending the series with that story in the news, what would you hope that people take away from The Americans in terms of their view of Russia and Russians?
Weisberg: The show had almost something to say in that regard even though it launched at a very different time, when the United States and Russia were getting along, and therefore it was a comfortable time for this point, which is that we tend to demonize and dehumanize the enemy and fail to even understand that they’re human beings like us, and so let’s take some people who were the worst of the worst enemies, these godless communist KGB monsters, and demonstrate that they’re fundamentally people just like us and we’ll prove it. But then lo and behold a couple years in, Russians started getting turned into the enemy again and dehumanized again and not being seen as fully rounded, three-dimensional people, with good sides and bad sides, just like us. So even though it was very different from the original plan, it would be a great time for people to remember that that’s a tendency of ours to turn people into enemies and stop seeing people in their fullness.
What about Renee? Why did you decide to leave that open-ended as to whether or not she’s a KGB agent?
Fields: I think for us, we were really thinking about what our characters know, so to us we weren’t leaving it open-ended. Philip had information and he made a decision about what he could do with the information that he had but in order to get any other answer, we would have had to create more plot and give answers to the characters that they didn’t have and that seemed unimportant to us at this moment in the story. What seemed important was what the characters would do with what they knew rather than adding information to the mix.