The two stars of the FX spy drama open up about the show’s gut-wrenching twist was the perfect end.
The Americans completed its final mission on Wednesday night as the FX drama came to a close after six seasons on the air.
In true form, the spy thriller delivered a gut-punch near the end of the episode when Elizabeth and Philip’s (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) daughter Paige, played by Holly Taylor, chose to not follow her parents to Russia, separating them for what could be forever.
“I loved the way the guys wrote the ending,” Russell tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding that she doesn’t think her character had any idea that Paige was capable of making that decision. “And I think that’s why it’s so devastating. You just go into complete numbness because it’s so unbelievable and just incredibly painful, heartbreakingly so.”
The episode also saw the trio of KGB agents have a long-awaited stand-off with their neighbor and FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), who’d finally put the piece together and figured out the Jenning family secret. “I think that like with Martha, there was always a guilt that Philip feels for the using of the innocent,” says Rhys of having to break the news to Stan, his best friend.
THR caught up with the pair, who haven’t yet seen the finale, to talk about their most emotional scene to film, how the couple will look back on their 20 years in the U.S. and how they think Philip and Elizabeth are handling their return to Russia (“There would just be a lot of raging alcoholism,” jokes Rhys.)
When do you think Philip decided that Henry should stay behind?
Matthew Rhys: That’s a good question. I think the germ of that [idea] was planted a long time ago in Philip. I think that kind of question and indeed everything that entails the fleeing has been thought through so many times — the execution of what they do, where they’ll go, how they’ll do it, etc. I don’t think Philip had a conversation with Elizabeth about him not coming but I think it’s been something that had been growing inside of him for quite some time the more he sees him flourish in school. It goes back to season one, episode one where this is what he wanted for them, for them both really. And he sees that it’s still a possibility for Henry, and it’s kind of the ultimate sacrifice. He wants him to grow up safe in this country with having all the opportunities he never had and free from his own baggage. So I think it’s been germinating in him for a long time, but obviously he tells it to Elizabeth in that moment.
And do you think Elizabeth just really wants the whole family to stay together?
Keri Russell: Definitely. I know there’s a lot of talk about her being a bad mother at times throughout this show, but I don’t think there’s ever a moment in which Elizabeth thinks they will be separated. I think when Philip presents this, it is so shocking and so just absolutely cannot happen [for her.] I think she can’t even wrap her head around what he’s presenting.
Do you think that Elizabeth had any indication that Paige was going to get off the train?
Russell: No — and maybe that’s part of the blindspot in their relationship, not seeing the toll it was taking on Paige. But no, I don’t think she had any idea. And I think that’s why it’s so devastating. But at the same time, I think she accepts it very quickly. The devastation of losing the first kid, and then for it to happen with the second one, you just go into complete numbness because it’s so unbelievable and just incredibly painful, heartbreakingly so. I loved the way the guys wrote the ending. It really works for me with the whole story.
Philip seems to have a subtler reaction to Paige getting off the train. What do you think he was thinking?
Rhys: There’s this weird thing you have in those big moments, and the logistics of shooting on a train meant we kind of had one shot at it. So there’s been a few instances where I’ve seen people react to huge things and almost in a very numb way because you’re protesting. It’s like the emotions haven’t hit. But usually in drama, you need to react and then process and then have the appropriate reaction in less than a second because that’s the kind of journey you need to go through in many seconds. So there was this thing going on in my head where I was like, “You’d be so shocked that you might not even get to the emotion in that moment.” But really, I think he’s just so shocked, it’s not protest. That’s what I was kind of going for. I don’t think it’s any degree less; it’s probably the same as Elizabeth.
Russell: You could say you didn’t love her as much as Henry. [Laughs.]
Rhys: It’s not that I didn’t love her; I didn’t like her. You don’t really have a choice with loving your kids but you don’t have to like them.
Russell: That’s true.
Rhys: As soon as she said she wanted to be a spy, I was like, “I don’t like you.” [Laughs.]
Russell: I was going to say. Neither of us have seen the ending, just so you know. We don’t typically watch the show — we were there, we experienced it, we lived it. And we are going to watch it next week when we’re in Los Angeles for [an event.]
Another big moment in the finale is the confrontation with Stan. What was filming that scene like?
Russell: Noah and Matthew obviously had the bulk of that scene and they just came super prepared and just went for it. And they were so good in it. You know, it was a long scene to have to stand there all day. It ended up around 9 hours, I think.
Rhys: It was certainly close.
Russell: And I guess that’s what you’re waiting for. You’re waiting to watch Stan unravel all of this information. And you want to see Elizabeth and Philip take it, whatever he has to give. So in a way, the words speak for themselves. But that’s what we’ve been waiting to hear for so long. But I remember that Noah really hurt his back and could barely stand, so he had to shoot that whole scene in a ton of pain.
Rhys: That explains why his character was named Stan.
Russell: [Laughs.] Yeah. It was a serious scene and we just let that one unfold. But I do love the ending of him going, “By the way, I can’t tell you for sure but Renee could be one of us.” You’re just like, what?! I loved that.
Why do you think Philip felt the need to reveal his suspicions about Renee at that point?
Rhys: I think that Philip would have loved to have had Stan as a best friend — but he’s being incredibly truthful when he says, “You were my only friend.” He has this whole life of lies, and yet the degree that Stan was in all of this, but there’s a degree of truthfulness in him saying that he was his only friend because he was. And I think that like with Martha, there was always a guilt that Philip feels for the using of the innocent. So I think the one thing he owes him and the one thing he can give him in that moment after all of this betrayal is the one element of him actually trying to look out for Stan. It’s to say, I know you think I’m a terrible person but if there’s one thing I can give to try and protect you, it’s good. But I could be wrong.
What was the most emotionally difficult scene to shoot in the finale?
Rhys: Being on the train. Also because of the logistical length of time we had to do it. We didn’t have too much to do it.
Russell: I guess you’re right. It was an actual moving train and it involved a lot of people and timing and there were so many things that could distract you. That was tough. But to be honest, I was so with the story that I really thought it was pitched so perfectly. Granted, I haven’t seen the whole episode but there are so many dramatic moments in it that you can’t sit and cry through all of them. That would be really boring to watch. So some of them have to be just operational. Like, this is the information and we have to get out of here. It’s hard because when Paige says, “But we’re leaving Henry and who is going to take care of him and who is going to help him figure out college,” it’s devastating. But which one wins out? Getting out of their quicker or really having a discussion about what could happen to Henry? So I think that one was just one where we had to figure out where to let it lay.
How do you think Philip and Elizabeth feel about returning to Russia?
Russell: It’s interesting because if you think about it, they left when they were kids. Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t know of any 45 year-olds who are just dying to join the army. They get there when they’re 18 or 17 when you’re up for adventure and ready to go. So home is a very different place at 17 than when you’re in your mid-40s, and what you need and what you want and what you expect are all very different things. So I don’t know. I think both of them are coming back to a wildly different country than they left and [Russia] is only going to become more different in the next two years. I think that’s what the rocky path that they have in front of them looks like. I think it’s uncertain and rocky and kind of all they have is each other to say, “I’m going to be with you and we’re going to get through this together, and we’re hopefully find a way back in the next few years.” Hopefully they will find their way back to the United States to somehow find those kids and work it out.
Matthew, how do you feel about what Philip and Elizabeth’s future looks like?
Russell: He’s like, I’m going to take Martha on a few dates. [Laughs.]
How is Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage doing at this point? Has everything been forgiven?
Rhys: No, I don’t think so. Oh God, I don’t even know where to begin on what those two talk about in their shitty little apartment. Probably they’ll actually be given a hero’s welcome. Probably that’s what happened. When the KGB members have been serving for a long time, you would be treated like royalty upon return. But I think the fallout of what those two would have to go through in order to live — and I don’t think Elizabeth would be open to couples therapy. So there would just be a lot of raging alcoholism. There could be an enormous amount of resentment from Philip to Elizabeth… but they were kids who didn’t know any better when they were brought into this situation. But the sacrifice has been so enormous. Ultimately, they’re the only two people who can understand what the other has been through.
How do you think Philip and Elizabeth feel about the mission? Do you think they feel like they succeeded or failed?
Russell: I think with all that’s happened to Elizabeth in the last year, I think she left it where she had to leave it. She went against orders and made decisions for herself and the fact that they don’t get their message through. There is something said in that garage scene with Stan where we are desperate to get this message through and Stan is like, “I don’t give a fuck about your message.” But I think it kind of moves into something else when it all becomes so personal about their loss of their family. I think everything kind of falls away at that point, and that the immediacy at hand is getting out of the country and then going from there. I think they had to leave everything and figure it all out later.
Rhys: I mean, on paper in a military debriefing they would say, two operatives were under deep cover for 20 years and came home. So the director of that would say that that’s a success. But I’m sure if you asked Philip and Elizabeth whether they felt like successes or failures, I’m sure Philip would say he felt like a failure.