At the end of The Americans’ Season 1 finale, deep-cover Russian spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings are alive and reunited; their daughter Paige is wondering what’s really going on in the basement; their handler Grannie is about to be reassigned to Moscow; and Special Agent Stan Beeman is bummed out, again.
Slate asked the show’s creator and showrunner Joe Weisberg (who is also the brother of Jacob Weisberg, the Slate Group’s editor in chief) and his fellow writer, executive producer, and showrunner Joel Fields about the season’s biggest surprises. Do they regret killing off so many characters, and will Margo Martindale will be back for Season 2?
June Thomas: At the end of the finale, when Elizabeth asks Philip to come home, are we back to square one—or in this case, Episode 1?
Joe Weisberg: On some level. They’re back to wanting to try their marriage again, that’s similar. But they’ve had their first long, hard, painful lesson in marriage. In that sense they’re not in the same place; they’re much further along.
Thomas: The finale is full of misdirections, but the one that was most affecting to me was when we learned that Elizabeth was wrong about Grannie—that she was sticking up for them, she had known and loved Zhukov. I was surprised that Elizabeth had misjudged her so profoundly, because spies rely on their instincts, and her gut was wrong.
Weisberg: I don’t think Elizabeth just got her wrong. She got her partly wrong but partly right. Grannie has also been very duplicitous, extraordinarily manipulative, and willing to do some horrible things in order to control Philip and Elizabeth to get what she wants from them. I think it just speaks to how, when two spies—two master manipulators—go head-to-head, it’s anybody’s guess what’s going to happen.
Joel Fields: It’s true that spies rely on their gut instincts, but to survive, they have to assume the worst in everyone, to be defensive and defended. There’s a fundamental question we have to ask in life, and it’s just what Elizabeth is facing: Do we live our lives defended and lonely, or open and exposed to pain? There isn’t a safe place in between.
Thomas: In a cast full of great actors, Annet Mahendru (Nina) stands out for me because she broke out from nowhere—and in two languages. Was her role always going to be so big?
Fields: That role was always going to be important, but it got bigger the more we got to see the incredible things that Annet brought to the role. We felt good about casting her, but we just felt increasingly great as we saw where she went with the character.
Thomas: Is Margo Martindale coming back next year?
Weisberg: We hope so. She’s on another show, but we don’t know if that show is going [to get picked up].
Fields: There’s always a home for her at The Americans.
Thomas: What was the biggest surprise of this season?
Fields: A surprise for us is how long Philip and Elizabeth stayed separated. We had a bit of a different plan for them, but that was what felt right and true when we came down to writing those scenes.
Weisberg: Another thing that comes to mind is how much we ended up doing in Russian. When we started out, we thought, "We have to be careful about spending too much time in the Rezidentura, and when we’re there we have to make sure the scenes are very short and that each character only says a few words, because nobody’s going to want to read a lot of subtitles." Basically, we just abandoned that and did however much we wanted in Russian, and I think that ended up being a great and successful part of the show.
Thomas: Did you regret killing off Amador, Gregory, and Zhukov?
Weisberg: We would definitely do it again, so we don’t have regrets that we made the wrong decision. Still, it’s very hard to let go of these characters, because in an alternate universe, they have a lot of potential and a lot of life and story left in them. And you also get very attached to the actors.
Thomas: When you named the main characters Philip and Elizabeth, were you thinking of the British royal family?
Weisberg: There’s a whole list of things that I’m going to have to claim I did on purpose. That’s one of them. Another is Clark for Clark Kent. Then someone told me that Marthas were what the British called secretaries.
Fields: It’s all from Joe’s subconscious.
Thomas: The details of what happened to Stan on his undercover assignment haven’t been revealed so far. I hate to suggest that this was because you haven’t figured it out yet, though I do kind of suspect that. Is that horribly wrong of me?
Fields: It’s not horribly wrong of you, but it is wrong of you.
Weisberg: Of course we reserve the right to change the backstory we came up with, but this season we did write a whole episodic story that explored that part of Stan’s past. Then we decided that it wasn’t right to do it in the first season. We got through that process learning a lot about what we believe is that backstory and what drives him. I’m sure we’ll get to it.
Thomas: I hated how quickly Stan broke bad after Amador’s death, though I accept that part of my disappointment was unfair to The Americans, since it was about there being no true heroes on American television. I wanted Stan to be different, and then he shot Vlad in the back of the head, which suggested that his moral compass wasn’t as reliable as we thought.
Weisberg: I don’t think our conception of Stan was so much that he had such a great moral compass at the outset. I think we saw him as very hurt by what happened to him in his undercover days. I don’t think he “broke bad,” so much as that his soul got injured, and now it’s really caught up with him. That said, we think there is a person who is a good man and has a moral compass pointing toward true north, who hasn’t compromised his ideals, who stays true to his cause, who has not hurt anybody in any way outside of the realm of what he believes to be true, and that’s Arkady. When he finds out what’s happened to Nina, he’s aghast. It’s interesting to look at the world through his eyes.
Thomas: I’ve never seen as much hockey as I got in 13 episodes of The Americans. The show is set one year after the Miracle on Ice. Is that why you used so much hockey?
Weisberg: It’s a Russian sport, so these guys could still watch without blowing their cover. And then we were struggling to find sports that were on in the months the show was taking place. And also what footage we could afford.
Thomas: You got wonderful performances out of the young actors playing Paige and Henry. At the end of the finale, even after all that adrenaline-pumping action, I was surprised by how terrified I was that Paige was going to discover her parents’ secret. Am I right in thinking that will be the big tension in Season 2?
Fields: Well, it will be a tension. Paige is heading toward that moment when all adolescents ask the questions “Are my parents really who they say they are? Are my parents really who I think they are?” And in Paige’s case, it’s not just an adolescent transition.
This interview has been edited and condensed.