“How did you like that hole?”
Joe Weisberg, the creator of “The Americans,” wastes no time getting to his primary question. Sitting with co-showrunner Joel Fields at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena, Weisberg is eager to discuss the climactic scene of the Season 5 premiere. And who can blame him? The largely silent, 14-minute sequence is a stand-out moment in an episode packed with highlights. But whether or not viewers will enjoy Philip and Elizabeth’s latest mission is of chief concern for its two creators — and not just because the scene cost more than $100,000.
But we’ll get to that.
“I think there are three categories,” Weisberg says. “I think there are people who love the hole — of which, we’re in that group. There are people who think it was OK, but will give us the benefit of the doubt on it, and then there are people who think it was too long.
“So you’re with us?”
I am. I was Team Pit from the second they started digging all the way through Hans’ fateful misfortune, and I assure the two freshly Emmy-nominated writers that the final act was a treat from start to finish. The pacing, the performances, and that last oh-so-tragic twist all came together perfectly to illustrate the increasing level of risk present in the Jennings lives — risk that can’t always be guarded against.
Weisberg and Fields, however, remain skeptical. So I tell them I’m eager to watch it again, which only evokes a chorus of conflict.
“No, if you love it, don’t watch it again,” Weisberg says, laughing.
“I think you should watch it again!” Fields counters. “And I’m going to tell you something technically interesting about it for when you watch it again.”
Before we get to that, it’s important to note the scene in question appears quite simple: both in conception and execution. Philip and Elizabeth lead a team of spies into a remote area to retrieve a sample from a body buried in the U.S. government’s backyard. So the location is a large, empty field, the costumes are dark clothes, and the props are shovels. Bring in an excavator to dig a hole, and you’re done.
Easy peasy, right? Weisberg and Fields initially thought the same, imagining it would be a traditional production moment — maybe even easier than usual.
“When we were writing it, we thought, ‘We’re going to write something simple,'” Weisberg says. “‘It will be easy to shoot.'”
“Yeah, it’s a hole. So dig a hole,” Fields adds with a laugh.
“And then they came to us and said, ‘This is gonna be hard.'”
Much like Hans’ thoughtless footing ended up costing him more than he could have imagined, digging a hole turned out to be one of the more costly and complicated endeavors in series’ history.
“That sequence was shot in two distinct locations,” Fields explains. “One is out on location where they dug a hole and sunk fiberglass walls — that we fabricated — into the ground, so that it would be safe. The other [location] is on our stages, where they had another series of fiberglass walls that were assembled so you could shoot inside the hole safely. Those walls came apart so you could shoot different sides of it.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever done anything like this,” Weisberg adds. “I’m really trying to think back. I think we might have been a little deluded. Or we didn’t quite know what we were doing in the way we usually know. I don’t think we quite understood that this was going to become a full act and what it was going to require to give that the feeling it needed to work.”
After noting how such an undertaking only raised more questions than the “billion or so” I already had, Weisberg interjects:
“Well, it didn’t cost a billion dollars, but it did cost over 100 grand.”
“We were blessed with Chris Long, who directed the premiere — he’s our director-producer — and we would be dead without Chris,” Fields says as Weisberg emphatically nods in agreement. “The fact he was able to figure out how to get that sequence is phenomenal. […] I’ve sat with [it] many, many times, and I still lose track of what we shot on the stage and what we shot on location.”
The showrunners are eager to credit their collaborators for the sequence coming together so well, even though writing a full act in almost complete silence takes guts on its own.
“We really cannot claim to be at all courageous,” Fields says. “We have this series of collaborations on this show where we know that what we write is going to get hashed out and executed so beautifully. We don’t have to write defensively — at all. Not directorially, not in terms of production, not in terms of the acting; we can just write whatever we dream up and know this team will find a way to make it sing.”
“Or to let us know we’re insane,” Weisberg adds.
“But so far, no one’s told us we can’t do anything.”
As for the decision to get rid of Hans, a character who dates back to the Season 3 premiere, Fields and Weisberg were very aware of the personal toll this would take on Philip and Elizabeth.
“These people are soldiers,” Fields explains. “They’re going to do what they have to do, as long as they’re on the battlefield. For us, as storytellers, we never want to lose sight of the cost of this work on them, and the more they’re in touch with their souls, the higher that cost is going to be. So I think it’s natural for us to find ways to dramatize that.”
“[But] you cheered me up with what you said about that hole,” Weisberg adds with a smile.
So please, dear readers, if you fall into the category of fans who love the hole, do let these fine gentlemen know how you feel.