After just one year, it could have been an oversight. Two years, though, that’s a travesty. And if “The Americans” goes three straight years without grabbing a Primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series, Lead Actor or Lead Actress, then it can be safely assumed that if there is a God, he’s a cruel one.
Widely regarded as one of the best shows on television, “The Americans” has developed an obsessed group of critics and fans, as well as a vast of array of non-TV Academy accolades. The TCA, AFI, Critic’s Choice and Peabody Awards have all honored the period drama from creator Joseph Weisberg and executive producer Joel Fields. Hopefully, this is the year the Emmys finally follow suit.
The two “Americans” showrunners took some time to chat with Indiewire recently to discuss reaction to the Season 3 finale — which was positive but more mixed than past seasons — what’s changing in the TV world, what awards mean to them and trying to get Matthew Rhys to sleep with people. (Yes, you read that last part right.)
I was curious now, after some time has passed, how you felt about the finale and the reaction you’ve read.
Joseph Weisberg: We think people should stop criticizing us!
JW: It’s been an interesting journey on this finale, because generally speaking, the first two seasons, nobody really had any complaints about the finale. On this one, there’s sort of a mixed reaction. I think generally it got a very positive reaction, but there have been some people who have had problems with some of the structural elements of the finale and then some people who haven’t. I think we’re very spoiled about the critical reception of the show, so we’re not used to a mixed reaction. We’ve struggled with it a little bit and had to really think about how do we feel about it? Do we agree with the criticism? Do we disagree? Are we not really sure? We’re still in the middle of those conversations, trying to sort out our own thoughts and feelings about it.
Joel Fields: Joe and I, from the beginning, have enjoyed reading the critical responses and the blogs and the Twitter feed. We kind of balance really having our own beliefs about what the show should be and our own artistic instincts and our very clear plan and trust in where we’re going. At the same time, we love that input. There’s a lot of smart people who are watching the show and giving it incredible thought, and it’s frankly a luxury to take time in between seasons and meditate on and reflect on the responses from really smart people who think about drama all day long.
JW: Generally speaking, if this many critics are agreeing on a couple points, it must be at least somewhat true. I based that on something I heard once about marriage, which I thought was great, which is, “If your spouse has a problem with something that they’re complaining to you about, it’s probably at least partly true.” It may not be all true, but if you are just dismissing it and saying, “What are you talking about?” then you’re probably making a mistake.
I’m honestly on your side. Some of the complaints kind of took me aback, and I felt like a lot of it stemmed just from the inaction with Phillip and Elizabeth. The last two finales have had so much going on, and this one was so much more character driven from Paige’s perspective. I was most surprised by the people who were angry at Paige for saying what she said, and I was curious if you expected that kind of reaction, or if you’ve seen it, or what kind of reaction you’ve picked up on about Paige in particular?
JW: Joel and I, I don’t know if we read all the same things, but to be honest, for me, I didn’t run into that reaction so much. The reaction I saw was more people who were upset with the Martha storyline — that she didn’t appear in the finale — and they were kind of confused. Because after Phillip pulled his wig off in the penultimate episode, they thought maybe he was about to kill her, and so they didn’t know what happened and felt confused by that. They were really kind of struggling with why she wasn’t in the finale. They felt, in general, that there were just too many storylines going on, too many cliffhangers that left you hanging for the next season. The specific thing you’re referencing, I don’t think I saw that. Did you run into that, Joel?
JF: I don’t recall that. Apparently there are more complaints out there we haven’t seen yet. We’ve got to Google “The Americans finale complaints.” [laughs]
Well, to be clear, I think they’re insane. I was just so surprised to see anything about Paige.
JW: This whole series, ever since the series started, there were a lot of people, for example, on Twitter, who just attacked Paige. Also, [they] think she’s a whiny teenager, but we’ve always just rolled our eyes a little bit at that and not understood that. There have been plenty of people to defend her too, and say, “Why are herds of people attacking Paige and calling her a whiny teenager?” We obviously agree with that.
JF: While we welcome, and read, and really try to meditate on the critiques, on one hand you want to go back and do everything better, but on the other hand, we feel that this show’s coming together very much as we have it in our heads. We can always improve, but I think we feel very good about this finale. It’s true, it wasn’t a finale about a lot of action, although Phillip certainly had to do a horrible thing. But really, it was about, as you said, emotional journeys and that’s what we’re most interested in exploring.
When you get complaints, like the thing with Martha, are you just thinking to yourself, “Just wait. It’s coming. We didn’t abandon her. Just be patient and it’s going to happen.” Then are you surprised and kind of taken aback by the fact that people are so upset that it didn’t happen now? How do you balance all of these storylines and decide which one comes when and which one can you hold off on until next year?
JW: Honestly, it’s hard. That’s a part of our job, to try to balance all these stories and keep them all in an interesting place and decide at the end of a season which ones you have to tie up and which ones you keep going. I also would like to think that we have it all perfectly controlled, but the truth is, stories often go in the directions they want to go. You can’t always exercise the complete control over that you want. You do your best, and it doesn’t always work out exactly how you want and it’s hard.
JF: Martha’s story is the perfect example. That moment that Phillip takes off his wig was originally going to be in Episode 13, but as we constructed the two episodes, it felt like we weren’t giving her her due by lumping it in with the other big emotional peaks. So that we could really make that a peak thing and let the story close out by seeing Phillip commit that murder for her and then see Elizabeth and Phillip talk about her and talk about what the fallout of that was going to be for her. To us, that was a way of tying all these things together and if that didn’t land for some people, that’s unfortunate. That’s definitely got to be considered, but in terms of our intent, that’s what was in our heads.
Do you think reactions like this might be lessened if you were being released on a different schedule — instead of people having to wait week-to-week and guessing what was going to happen next? If they were watching it all at once, do you think they’d have the same reaction?
JF: We had exactly that conversation. It’s so true. You’re right, if somebody were bingeing this show and could go straight from the finale to the next episode, yes, they wouldn’t miss a beat, obviously, in the Martha story. The trick is right now, we know what schedule we’re on and we know that things are being watched this way. I think it’s incumbent upon us to consider that schedule. I think we owe the audience that.
Is it something that interests you at all? Or do you prefer writing for the distribution model where people have to really focus on it every week?
JW: Maybe they should just order seven seasons of the show, let us make it and then they can release that all at once. [laughs]
JF: I have to say, I like this. I like that feeling — maybe because I grew up on it; maybe the next generation will be different — but I like this feeling of “you watch it and you wait a week.”
JW: I’m like that in my viewing, too. I’m less of a binge-er. Even when things are already available, I seldom watch a lot of episodes at once. I like that feeling of waiting. I like it as a storyteller, but I do worry that I’m becoming the minority.
Honestly, I like it both ways. I feel like “The Americans” is a show that really needs to be given time to let viewers contemplate and examine each episode. If you go through it super fast and binge it, then you’re almost doing a disservice to how much is happening.
JW: It’s a dense show and there may be a limit to how much you can absorb all at once before you need a break.
JF: I think it’s great that we are in a landscape now that offers these kinds of options. If you’re the sort of viewer who wants to watch it week-to-week when it comes out, you can, and if you want to wait for a few episodes you can and if you want to wait for the season you can. It can sometimes be frustrating because the measure of your success today has gone from who watches it in the overnight national ratings to maybe who watches it in a Live +21, but how you capture those people who are planning to binge it later, I have no idea. Artistically, it’s nice to live in a landscape where people can treat it like a book and pick it up when they want.
JW: That’s a good point maybe more about the viewers than the show. I used to be a teacher, and I took a course once about reading. I was surprised by all the different ways people read, including that there are a substantial number of people who start a book by looking to see what the ending is. The point that they were making in the course was instead of looking at that as something crazy, that’s just something that’s akin to a person’s learning style. It’s a person’s reading style. To enjoy the book, they just need to know what’s going to happen. There are actually a fair number of people who do that and also sort of skip around and move back from one part of the book to another. They end up reading the whole book, but they don’t do it in a linear fashion. It’s interesting how many different types of people are out there.
That’s wild. I’ve only heard that concept in the movie “When Harry Met Sally.” When Harry talks about reading the end of the book every time he gets a new one because he thinks he’s going to die before he can finish. I can’t imagine watching what Paige says in the Season 3 finale and then going back to the start. That just seems crazy. How would you know the importance of it?
JW: It’s interesting how these things change. We’re now breaking Season 4 of the show, and we’re in 1983. Among the things that happened in 1983 is “The Day After” airs. One hundred million people watch “The Day After” on the same night. There was something great culturally about that, as well. The truth is we’re not in that world anymore, and there’s something “great” about the new golden age of television. The truth is, you create for the form that you’ve got and are grateful for the audience.
Getting back to the finale itself, one of the parallels I really liked was the conversation that Phillip was having with Elizabeth and then that Paige was having with the pastor. I liked how Paige ended up being able to get it out, but Philip couldn’t quite say what he wanted to say — he got interrupted. I was curious if when you were writing it, how you chose his phrasing and if you ever had a version where he went farther with what he was going to say?
JW: First of all, thank you so much. One of the things we struggled with is we always wonder if we’re being too subtle and if people are getting what’s in our soul and our intent and you’re right onto it there. That’s great to hear that analysis and that question. And no, the whole point of that scene was that he can’t express himself. We never wrote past that, although we did have a long conversation with Matthew Rhys in which we shared some of the details that might be on the other side of it if Phillip could articulate it. Essentially, talk to him about what would be in his semi-conscious mind that he couldn’t find the words for.
Is the Martha situation something that’s going to be finished come Season 4? Is Phillip going to finish his statement in one way or another? Or is this just something that he’s been dealt and now he’s going to deal with on his own?
JW: That’s a great question. You see in that final scene how much he wants to be able to say it, but the issue isn’t for us, so much, that he can’t say it. It’s that he doesn’t know what to say. He’s not yet at the point of his own personal evolution where he can actually form the words. Or else, he would tell her, I think. I mean, this is open to interpretation. But in my mind if he knew what to say, he would say it. So I think the question going forward is, is he going to find in himself what those words were?
One of the things I was curious about, since you mentioned how you were breaking Season 4 right now, was how you divvy up your writing responsibilities. You two always handle the season premiere, the season finale and a few in between, personally, but I was curious if there was a strategy behind picking the episodes you write yourselves.
JW: I don’t know if there’s that specific of a strategy. We like to kick the season off because we like to do it. It’s fun to write the first couple episodes and get the whole writing staff going to catch up early with some of our thoughts and ideas.
JF: From a practical standpoint, there’s just less to do at the beginning of the season, so we have more time to write. Also, because we’ve been doing this for a while together we tend to be fast working together. There’s nothing better than getting a head start. I would say that’s the strategic part of it, that we can crank those first couple out quickly, which is very good for us.
JW: I think Episode 10 last season was an anomaly ending. It just felt so important and pivotal that we wanted to write that one and find a way to make time for it. It’s hard in the midst of everything else to make time for them, but there’s a beginning of the next season, so you want to be in the middle of that, too.
It’s obviously very frustrating for fans not to see the show get more recognition at awards shows. Since you guys are obviously people who pay attention to reviews and buzz and what’s going on out there, first and foremost, do you feel the same kind of frustration that the fans do? Second of all, do you think any of the rejections, so to speak, stem from the fact that a lot of Emmy voters are just the wrong age to root for Russian spies? Perhaps they’ve lived through the Cold War and maybe this is too much for them to take on?
JW: That’s a good new theory!
JF: The day the nominations came out and we weren’t on the list, Joe and I were talking and I said, “Well, as great as it would be to be nominated, it’s somewhat hard to be working on this wonderful show with this incredibly talented group of people, having such a great experience, getting all of this critical acclaim and having the audience not only tuning in, but get it, and then to complain that we’re also not getting Emmy nominations. There’s something that seems like you’re begging the universe for a little more than maybe you deserve.” But still, it would be nice.
JW: It’s hard, certainly for a couple of years, to find a classy answer to this question. It’s very tough. I know Matthew Rhys has answered this question by saying he just thinks he hasn’t slept with the right people. So I’m going to go with the same answer: that Matthew Rhys hasn’t slept with the right people.
Well, just put him to work then, because you really need to get these.
JW: For the record, by the way, we would accept the nomination. [laughs]
JF: Whatever’s happened in the past is fine. We would be totally grateful and would gratefully accept it.
[Editor’s Note: Indiewire’s Consider This is an ongoing series meant to raise awareness for Emmys contenders our editorial staff and readership find compelling, fascinating and deserving. Running throughout awards season, Consider This selections may be underdogs, frontrunners or somewhere in between. More importantly, they’re making damn good television we all should be watching, whether they’re nominated or not.]