Some endings feel inevitable. Shows like “Breaking Bad,” “Friends,” “Friday Night Lights” and more seemed destined to play out in no more than two ways. Walter White would live or die. Ross and Rachel would get together, or…okay, we knew they would get together. And Coach Taylor and Mrs. Coach would keep “l-i-v-i-n” like a couple of OG’s. But when it comes to a show like “The Americans,” the final chapter is as mysterious as every episode leading up to it.
Speaking at the Woodstock Film Festival following a screening of the pivotal Season 3 episode “Stingers,” co-creator Joe Weisberg did his best to hold onto the show’s secrets while still sharing some behind-the-scenes details. Luckily, Indiewire Deputy Editor and Chief Film Critic Eric Kohn was on hand to moderate the discussion, and craftily worked some specifics out of the former CIA official. Below are the highlights from the 45-minute Q&A, covering everything from how binge-viewing has changed things in the writers’ room to what Weisberg has in mind for the finale (which is hopefully still a long way off).
Ending the Cold War Era
While Weisberg didn’t go as far as to explain how “The Americans” would end — despite some playful prodding to use the audience as a focus group — he did state he has a pretty good idea how his critically-hailed series will come to a close.
“I think we’ve got it down to about five possible endings,” Weisberg said. “They’re all fairly similar to each other in a way, so maybe it’s one ending with five different variations.”
Such a specific final goal should only bolster viewer confidence in a show that hit the ground running and remains at an artistic high. That being said, everyone in the theater and reading at home undoubtedly hopes we’re a long way off from a series finale.
The Evolution of Paige and Her Season 3 Tipping Point
No character was more crucial to the third season than Paige (Holy Taylor), who — after becoming more and more suspicious of her parents’ perplexing antics — finally learned the truth in “Stingers,” the tenth episode of this past season as well as what was screened prior to Weisberg’s Q&A.
“I think, in a way, the whole show was really conceived around Paige, to a certain degree,” Weisberg said. He then discussed how, when he was in the CIA, agents would always end up having “the talk” with their children, but there was no set time or speech provided by the agency.
“Like, no one in the upper brass said, ‘When your kid turns 16, you sit them down and have’ — what was called — ‘the talk.’ […] Basically you lie to them their entire lives, and then sit them down and tell them.”
Weisberg said he knew the time would come for Paige as well, but he and the rest of the writing staff didn’t know when she would learn the truth about her parents. All they knew was they wanted her parents to be taken off guard when they had to tell her.
“We wanted them to be taken by surprise,” Weisberg said, pointing out how this desire also carried over to the audience in that the conversation took place in Episode 10, rather than the season finale to increase the surprise factor.
Is “Slow Burn” a Compliment or a Criticism?
“The Americans” is a difficult show to describe in terms of its style. It’s a period thriller, undoubtedly, but the pacing, structuring, depth and cultural commentary are difficult to summarize in a few words. One term that keeps coming up — and did, in passing, during the panel — is that “The Americans” is a “slow burn.” Weisberg quickly tried to explain the various interpretations of such a statement, as he’s heard them while making the series.
“In television when you say ‘slow burn,’ it’s got a couple of different meanings,” Weisberg said. “One: Okay, maybe you’re making something that could potentially be high quality because you’re not rushing to have incident after incident after incident in your show, but the other is, like, ‘Be careful! Because the show is going so slow, maybe no one is going to watch it.'”
“Even the network says to us, ‘Your show is really like a slow burn… We really like that it’s a slow burn… We’re really nervous it’s a slow burn.’ So we always hear it in two different ways at the same time.”
Just to be clear: If Indiewire ever used the term regarding “The Americans,” we meant it as the former.
Joe Weisberg Reads Reviews of “The Americans”
“They’re really interesting to read,” Weisberg said about episode reviews and recaps of his show. “I might read eight or nine lengthy critical essays about each episode, and when you read eight or nine lengthy critical essays about each episode you get a real sense of what your critics thought about how that episode worked. Did you get across what you wanted to get across? Was it artistically successful (which is a very big deal)? Up until sort of the end of last season, during an episode I would go on Twitter a lot. That would be how I sort of gauge the audience’s reaction, and watch scene by scene as people were tweeting their responses to what was going on. But I think in a sense because of my age, I didn’t know how to fully process it.”
“Indiewire, by the way, is one of the few recaps where they give you a rating for each episode,” Weisberg added.
“I’m saying it’s stressful.”
Binge-Viewing Has Affected How “The Americans” is Made
“The Americans,” like most modern shows, is being watched in a variety of different ways. Plenty of fans are still enjoying it weekly as new episodes are released, but many others are binge-watching weeks or seasons one after the other.
“We do whatever we want,” Weisberg said. “We just try to have something emotional or interesting [at the end]. What we’re concentrating on now is not having too many more endings with Philip and Elizabeth in the bedroom.”
Weisberg said the show’s creation hasn’t been affected all that drastically, with one minor exception.
“I don’t have any strong feelings about it one way or another in terms of which is better, but I can tell you that we’ve really started to think and talk about it when we write.” Weisberg then went on to use location scouting as an example, noting how, in the past, they felt they could use a tough-to-get location once and then fake it if they needed to come back in future scenes.
“Well, with binge-viewing, the problem is they won’t have seen it eight months ago, they’ll have seen it a couple of days ago, so they’re more likely to notice.”
Those Wigs Work
Despite the many different avenues of intrigue built into “The Americans,” everyone in the theater had just one question on their mind, and Kohn asked it: Would those wigs really work? In response, Weisberg through out an example from his days working for the CIA.
“I went down to the — believe it or not — costume shop in the basement of CIA headquarters, and I had to put on a disguise for something,” he said. “I sat in the chair and the disguise person put a disguise on me, which consisted of a wig, a pair of glasses and a fake mustache. I looked in the mirror, and I thought, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ I just looked completely like me in a ridiculous, ridiculous disguise. I said, ‘This is silly.’ And she said, ‘Trust me. You’ll be surprised.'”
“So I went up to the cafeteria where there was a table full of 12 people from my trainee class who I, at this point, had known for a year and a half. And for the first year of that year and a half, I had been with them every day for 10 hours a day. And I got my food, and I sat down at that table, and not one of them had the vaguest idea of who I was. I sat with them for half an hour, and nobody said anything to me. So at the end of that half-hour, I said, ‘Guys?’ and they basically looked at me like I was crazy. They thought some weird guy had just sat down at their table and invaded their social space.”
“So the disguises do work.”
Surprising Historical Accuracies
Speaking to what other elements of “The Americans” are drawn from reality, Weisberg said, “It’s not always the things you think that are completely historical, but a lot of it is.”
“The KGB ran a lot of these honey trap operations where they would seduce people from the West, and it’s shocking how often they were successful,” he said, before noting how ambassadors, high-ranking officials and even people who were briefed to look out for such traps all were tricked by foreign spies. “So peoples’ stupidity in a way was overwhelming.”
Touching on a notable storyline from Season 3 [spoilers ahead] in which Martha (Alison Wright) — FBI Agent Gaad’s secretary — ended up marrying an undercover persona embodied by Philip (Matthew Rhys) who was using her to gain information on her boss, Weisberg said, “The KGB ran some operations where they would target secretaries of very important political figures, and they ran a couple of them, and they were able to do it successfully. And — incredibly enough — they had their officers marry them. They stayed married to them without the women having any idea what was going on.”
The missions were so successful, in fact, the KGB started an initiative called “the secretaries offensive” where they aimed to mount similar information all over the world.