Warning: The following interview contains spoilers for the Season 3 finale of “The Americans” titled “March 8, 1983.”
How much longer can Philip and Elizabeth Jennings hide the truth? The carefully crafted lies of the undercover Soviet spies played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell are slowly leaking out. In the final four episodes of the season, their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor), Philip’s “second wife” Martha (Alison Wright), and now, it appears, Paige’s confidante Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) all learned the couple’s true identities. During the FX drama’s eventful finale, Philip almost even came clean to Sandra Beeman (Susan Misner), the soon-to-be ex-wife of his FBI agent neighbor, Stan (Noah Emmerich).
Meanwhile, Stan saw his own covert plan to reunite with exiled lover Nina (Annet Mahendru) go up in flames when he finally revealed the details to horrified boss Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas). But even as Stan lost a friend in Gaad, he gained a powerful supporter in the form of Deputy Attorney General Warren (Cotter Smith), who was impressed by the way Stan played romantic rival Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin).
With so much going on, and so much left hanging (seriously: where was Martha?), Variety spoke with co-showrunner Joel Fields just hours before the finale aired to ask a few of the most pressing questions.
I have to start with the obvious: Where the hell is Martha?
Wow. Standby! You know, it’s so funny, everybody is asking this and now I feel bad. There’s no great mystery here. We originally intended to have Philip reveal himself (to Martha) over the course of the finale but there was just so much story there that it really felt like it would be better explored and played at the end of episode 12 where it can really get its due, dramatically. Then we could continue the Martha story by having Philip’s act of matrimonial love be the murder of Gene, and setting him up for the crime Martha had been committing. The real question in our minds is: “How’s she gonna take all that?”
Interesting. Even the scenes at the FBI office were so discreetly filmed. Are we supposed to assume Martha is at work?
She’s there. She’s not at her desk …
I don’t mean to be coy. If anything serious is going to happen to Martha, I don’t think it’s gonna be off camera and Philip won’t be lying to Elizabeth about it, I don’t think.
That’s what I assumed based on how the show works, but maybe I’m starting to feel more like Paige: I don’t know how much I can trust Philip and Elizabeth, even when they’re alone together.
I think that’s all good. In a way that’s the fundamental question of the show. But if you were confused by the story point, that was bad. You can blame me and Joe, not Philip and Elizabeth. But the question of trusting them and them trusting each other? That’s the fundamental stuff the show’s exploring.
It makes sense if you had originally intended to include Philip taking off his Clark disguise in front of Martha in the finale, but that was such a powerful way to end episode 12. And then we don’t see Martha in the finale at all.
I felt very confident we had made the right dramatic choice there, up until today when everybody is asking, “What the hell happened to Martha?” Now, I have to admit, I’m not so sure. Maybe you should put it to a poll.
Let’s talk about something else we didn’t see: What’s gonna happen to Pastor Tim after that phone call with Paige? Is he a dead man? Secretly a Russian spy?
I’d say tune in. When we pitched this final thing, [FX CEO] John Landgraf happened to be on the line and his first question was, “Well, what happens?” We said, first of all we’re really glad you’re asking — cause that’s a good sign — and second of all, we told him what I can’t tell you, which is what’s in our heads about what happens. We said the reason we’re interested in that moment at the end of the episode with Paige isn’t for shock value but because it really propels some interesting character explorations for season four and beyond.
How did you decide this was the right season for Paige to find out the truth about her parents?
It’s an interesting one because we’ve known that Paige was gonna find out the truth. I think for a long time we assumed that would come out of the conflict between Philip and Elizabeth and they would decide to tell her, or one of them would decide to tell her. We played with a lot of options, and a lot of different places when it could happen. But the big surprise was not only when it happened, but how it happened. And that the x-factor was their own child being her own person and confronting them.
It then built to such a powerful climax in the finale. Was the Ronald Reagan speech always something you had in mind to use to end the season?
Oh boy, I say this acknowledging that we often change stuff along the way, but when we formulated the beginning, middle and end of season three, we knew we wanted to end with the Evil Empire speech. And again, open always to that shifting, but that’s something that held for us and I think worked really well.
It did. And was the plan for it always to be somehow connected to Paige as well?
Yes, but the specifics of that moment and phone call did break and come together later as the story unfolded with Paige.
Let’s talk about Stan, who dealt with quite a few twists and turns in the finale. He’s lost Gaad’s trust and respect, but how much will that matter if he earned even more powerful allies?
It’s one of the interesting questions for us to explore. It shouldn’t matter in terms of his work, but it might matter in terms of human experience and actually it might matter more than he thinks in terms of work. What does it mean to be outside of the organization? What does it mean when you have betrayed the trust of everybody who had faith in you and the system rewards you by doubling down on you and pushing them off to the side?
And related to Stan, in a way, I loved the development of Philip and Sandra getting closer through the EST meetings. What was the idea behind opening up that relationship?
First of all there’s just the big picture, Philip has been struggling with the human costs of his job since the beginning of the series and over the course of season two and this season. The first image we saw of Philip this season was in EST, with Stan. As someone who is struggling with deep pain inside, he’s finally looking for a way to deal with it. Here he runs into a woman whom he knows well, who has been down this path in her own way, and for whom the most important currency in life right now is honesty. In her view, and the view of this program, the way out of pain is through honesty. While that might be true, for Philip Jennings that’s the most dangerous thing in the world.
As Philip tells Sandra, the only person who truly knows him is Elizabeth. But given what happened this season, is it possible he could be that open with Martha too?
Yeah, look what’s happened in this fake marriage that started with him committing act of manipulation after act of manipulation. If one is human and not a sociopath — and Philip and Elizabeth are not sociopaths — one can not help developing feelings for people that one is with every day and spending time with, let alone making love to and being close with. Over the course of the season we saw (Philip) faced with a couple of opportunities where he could’ve shut down the operation, he could’ve quietly disappeared, he could’ve killed (Martha). But here in the end, faced with the greatest crisis of her loss of faith in their marriage and in herself, his human instinct and his spy instinct is to double down by further exposing himself to her. At the end of the day in any relationship you have two choices: to be more intimate, and expose yourself to greater risk of pain, or wall yourself off and run away and be lonelier.
Last season ended with Nina getting shipped off to Russia, and she’s still there now. A more conventional arc might have seen her return to the US at some point during season three. Was this always the plan?
No comment. Redacted. Redacted. Redacted.
Well, what can you say about where you’ve left off with Nina?
It’s interesting. The Nina story, although it’s contained some surprises for us along the way, has really in large part hued to the original story we’d broken. Annet Mahendru is such a wonder in that part and there is more to tell …
I will tell you one thing that became a surprise to us. And when I say became a surprise, it really was a surprise as of the middle of last season, which was with Nina going to the Soviet Union we loved the idea of intersecting her with the Anton Baklanov story. Part of that was how the story unfolded and part of it was just what a marvelous actor Michael Aronov is and the depth that he presented in those episodes in season two. It just seemed like those characters were destined to come together.