Spoiler Warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Americans” season 3, episode 6, titled “Born Again.”
If watching Philip Jennings string along a 15-year-old girl clearly interested in sleeping with him has made “The Americans” a little more uncomfortable for viewers lately, that’s exactly how the showrunners want it. It’s the “will they or won’t they” that just makes you go “ew.”
Now that we’re almost halfway through the third season of FX’s intricate Cold War drama, Variety asked showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg to discuss the twists and turns in the Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Kimberly (Julia Garner) relationship, as well as what’s going on with Elizabeth (Keri Russell), their newly baptized daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) and Philip’s other “wife,” Martha (Alison Wright).
Morality is relative on the show — Philip has murdered people after all — so why does this flirtation with Kimberly seem like the creepiest thing he’s done?
Joe Weisberg: As you said that I flashed back to season one and two when people used to say, “Philip is always murdering people but the worst part is Martha and the cruel things he’s doing to Martha.” Now you can’t say that anymore. Kimberly has taken the place of Martha among the awful things Philip does.
Joel Fields: I think [Philip’s alias] Clark’s marriage with Martha is going so well, it’s hard to even complain about how he’s treating Martha now.
JW: One of the bizarre, disturbing things we had to do in development of (Kimberly’s) story was to start looking up statutory rape laws in the US at the time, in DC and Virginia at the time and around the world today. If you think morality is relative on the show, consider the issue from culture to culture. It’s very disturbing from where we stand.
What did you find out? Kimberly is 15 on the show …
JF: The character is 15. The actress is 47.
JW: Yeah, the actress is 106, so just relax. [Editor’s note: In case you’re wondering, Julia Garner actually turned 21 this year.]
JF: We think the age for statutory rape in DC was 15 at the time. We didn’t actually know that, that’s just how we wrote the story. We did not intend to put her at an age where it would be legal. There was a lot of discussion about is it too much of a mirror for her to be Paige’s age? Should she be older or younger? On a show where we discuss a lot of this stuff as we write, this is one of the storylines that was rewritten a lot as we went.
We had a whole iteration scripted through episode six, and because we hadn’t shot yet were able to go back and re-break. We thought about who she was, what her level of romantic experience was, her relationship with her parents, sexual experience, what was driving her, all of that. And then of course look at it from Philip’s point of view as well, and what would make him uncomfortable. That’s part of the interesting challenge of the story. It only works to the extent it makes the characters uncomfortable.
JW: Sometimes stories work the way we want and sometimes they don’t. I think what we’re seeing from the audience response so far is we’re actually getting what we wanted in terms of the choices we made about her age, the actress, what she looks like and everything like that. The intention was for it to be a hard to stomach story. We’re happy with how it’s working out. We’re sorry that we want the audience to feel deeply uncomfortable but that’s the only way the story works.
How difficult was it to cast Kimberly? Julia Garner has done some great work in indie films and is such a smart choice.
JF: It was a hard role to cast. We were discovering through the casting process what our level of comfort was and what would be right and wrong. You could find an actress who is actually 16 or 17 years old but feels mature and it might not be as uncomfortable, or you could find an actress who is somewhat older but looks too young and it felt uncomfortable. The truth is as soon as we brought Julia in it felt right — in the sense that it felt wrong. She did a chemistry read with Matthew and we were able to gauge that level of chemistry between the actors and how they felt together.
JW: When you cast you’re often looking for the best actor who looks right for the part. It’s very unusual to be casting and looking for just the right level of heebie-jeebies — where you’re incredibly uncomfortable but you don’t actually have to look away from the television.
JF: One thing I think Julia was able to bring to it is there’s a sense of a character struggling with damage. You can look at the intrinsic heebie-jeebies of the older man and underage girl part of the story, but part of what really makes it resonate is this is a girl who has been damaged by several things over the course of her life. Philip has to ask himself: is he going to help her or is he going to contribute by adding further damage to this life?
And you have all the unsettling parallels with Paige. Both Julia and Holly Taylor have this natural innocence — you want to protect them from heartbreak.
JW: We did a funny thing, where we actually had the two of them read together. Not because we planned to have scenes with the two of them but because we wanted to have a sense of how their ages felt in relation to each other. That parallel in the story is such a strong thing we wanted to have a sense of how it would feel to us and the audience.
JF: We actually wrote a scene we had no intention of ever shooting and had them play it together before we cast Julia.
JW: One thing we thought was so beautiful in the episode tonight is what (director of photography) Richard Rutkowski did with the lighting of Kimberly and Paige. At the beginning of the episode in the baptism scene there’s a point at which Paige is standing in front of a window and the light is reflecting off the back of her head in a very beautiful way. At the end of the episode when Philip is with Kimberly there’s that same halo effect that Richard replicated. It shows how all of the departments contribute to making this stuff resonate.
Philip uses religion to get out of actually sleeping with Kimberly, not once but twice. I can’t decide if it’s sleazy or sweet.
JW: Our favorite thing is when a writer or director or actor comes into our office and will bring up one, two, three, four, five more interpretations of a scene or a moment. Sometimes we’ll say we didn’t intend that, but mostly what we like to say is “Yes! When we were writing it we thought it through and the answer is all of it.”
JF: Why can’t you be tender and sleazy? You can.
JW: Joking aside, part of our fundamental operating principle is in real life people are many things simultaneously. That’s interesting and hard and complicated. It’s easy to say, “That person is sleazy” or “That person is tender and loving.” To the extent this is a show about undermining one’s preconceptions of the enemy, it’s really even more about undermining this binary view of people. And accepting that humanity is a very nuanced thing.
Clearly Philip never would have thought of that plan if not for what’s happening with Paige.
JF: You really see him come up with it in that moment. You see the light bulb go off in his head almost.
JW: There’s another aspect of it that’s really powerful, because in this episode he so wants to tell Elizabeth about his son in Afghanistan. In the laundry room he tries to tell her, and he just can’t. And he winds up using that with Kimberly too.
What made this the right time to bring that thread back into the story?
JW: We brought it back early in a subtle way. He’s been listening to the story of what’s going on in the world. He knew that he had a son who was a soldier, at least that’s what Irina told him. There was nothing sure about it but now it’s being confirmed by Gabriel. The question is, is he in a place where he can share with his wife? The other piece of it that seems right for this moment in the story is it becomes very personal to him. The choice of what he’ll do with Kimberly, this real person right in front of him, could potentially save the life of a child he never knew. It’s a metaphor for his whole work life.
I also love the scene where Paige catches Elizabeth smoking in the garage and says, “I wish you didn’t and I hope you quit.” She’s becoming more and more like a parent to her parents, or at least a peer.
JF: We went through many iterations of that scene, including an early one where Elizabeth knows Paige is coming home and the whole thing is a set-up planned by Elizabeth. We dropped that version in part because Keri Russell came in and said, “I really think there’s a more human version of this scene where I don’t know she’s coming home and I get caught.” I’m really glad we did it that way. It plays in a more human way and to a strength of this show, which is when the scenes are very relatable to everybody. You take out all the side parts and just see a scene that any parent and child could go through, but the espionage element of who these people are is underneath it in a deeper way.
That same feeling is also in the great scene of Philip and Elizabeth sneaking the joint. How important is it to find those moments where we see them as genuine friends and lovers?
JF: We joke about that scene too. It’s such a moving example of their bond but it still goes a little south at the end (when Philip acknowledges he might have to sleep with Kimberly). Because of the reality of their lives and who they are, even the tenderest things have a way of getting undermined by the choices they’ve made. I think that opens the question of will they ever at some point get out from under the painful reality of what they are, and be able to enjoy some of the tenderness and love?
You mentioned earlier that Martha seems to be doing better. Do you guys talk about her life outside of her marriage to Philip/Clark and try to fill in the blanks?
JF: To be honest not in great detail. We don’t have her life plotted out, but we try to think about where her life is in terms of Clark. What she’s thinking and feeling about him and where their relationship is.
Should we consider her interest in adopting a child as a sign that she feels stable with Clark or maybe that she feels something is missing because she doesn’t see him as often as a wife might like?
JF: I don’t think it’s exactly either, but I think things have been getting better with him and she’s feeling strong in her life and better as a person. But a child would solidify things even further and make her feel more stable.
JW: Or, as we said earlier, both and some other stuff.