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‘The Americans’ Co-Showrunner Joel Fields Talks Martha, Stan and Planning a Series Finale

Spoiler warning: The following interview includes plot details of “The Americans” Season 4 premiere, “Glanders.”

Everyone’s favorite undercover Russian spies are back on FX as “The Americans” returns for Season 4. Variety spoke with co-showrunner Joel Fields about the twists in turns in the season premiere (including Martha’s confrontation with Clark, and Stan’s confrontation with Philip — it was a busy episode for Matthew Rhys), adding Dylan Baker to the cast in a mysterious new role (he’s the one who gives Philip and Elizabeth the vial that could cause an outbreak of the titular disease, glanders) and why Fields feels this season represents the end of “Act Two” for the series overall.

One of the big questions at the end of last season was, “Where’s Martha?” It doesn’t take long to find out she’s still processing what Clark told her.

That is one where I have a bit of a regret. To me in the world of binge-watching it was so obvious — Philip just exposed himself to her, he took off his wig and exposed his heart to her, there was no way (he would kill her). We’d pick it up later but there just wasn’t enough space in the thirteenth episode. Joe (Weisberg, co-showrunner) might feel differently, but in retrospect I wish we’d just shown her in the background so that no one was confused. It just didn’t occur to me, frankly, that anybody would think anything else. She went home and went to bed, that’s where she was.

The more and more she discovers about Clark/Philip, how much should we worry about Martha’s safety and what she’s going to do?

I give you freedom to worry from all angles. And, look, Stan Beeman, the end of last season was dropping by Martha’s to have a chat with her, which is an odd thing for Stan to do. With his marriage over and more time on his hands I think that’s something to be concerned about too. It’s becoming a more dangerous game. On the one hand, Philip is being more honest in his other marriage but, as with his daughter, honesty has its consequences.

And now she knows he’s killed someone for her.

Don’t you think that’s a super loving act? What more could she want?

Is she so invested in this relationship that she’ll want to make it work at any cost?

We’re gonna see. I think that’s part of the interesting dynamic of her character and her marriage to him and that whole relationship. I won’t give anything up but I don’t think we’ll be sitting here next year with you saying, “Why didn’t you explore that?”

Philip has more to worry about now too, after his confrontation with Stan, who thinks Philip may be having an affair with Sandra. But Stan has no idea how dangerous that really was.

If only he knew. I remember seeing this incredibly powerful documentary about serial killers and there was one very eloquent serial killer who told a story about carrying the head of his victim in a bowling bag and a neighbor was headed out on a date. She waved and said hello, and he waved and said hello — but he had a human head in a bowling bag in his hand. I guess there’s a weird parallel for Philip in that moment. He’s got something pretty terrifying in his pocket that Stan doesn’t know about.

But from Stan’s point of view, he’s a guy who doesn’t have a lot of friends in his life, and Philip is one of his only friends, maybe his only friend at this point. I think finding out that he was sharing confidences with his ex-wife is a painful thing. For Philip, (he) probably feels bad and awkward about it. At the same time it’s complicated by the fact that Stan’s a really good investigator. He never targets that switch off. When he confronts Philip, even though Philip didn’t have an affair with Sandra, (Stan) does sense that he’s hiding something.

Speaking of Sandra, (actress) Susan Misner is no longer a regular this season.

It’s a function of following the story. One thing Joe and I talked about at the beginning of last season especially, and it’s become a way we’re telling the story, is we don’t want to feel like we have to tag a character base. We just wanted to follow the story as it lays out. That marriage felt like it landed where it landed. She will be back intermittently, but (Stan) is not coming home to her every day.

And now you’ve added Dylan Baker to the cast. What can we expect from his character?

I’ll just say he’ll be an important part of the season. There’s some other great additions too, (including) Ruthie Ann Miles, who will show up in the third episode to play a target of Elizabeth’s in an ongoing relationship.

One of my favorite moments in this episode is such a small thing: Paige standing outside the classroom during the pledge of allegiance. Where did that come from?

That’s a perfect example of the collaborative nature of television. What I think Joe and I originally wrote was Paige sitting in class being distracted while the teacher was giving a lecture. Then Thomas Schlamme, who directed the episode, and Chris Long, our new producing director, came and we were sitting there talking about, “How can that be a more poignant moment?” I think it may have been Tommy who said, “What about her being there for the pledge?” Then through a series of discussions she wound up late outside of the door waiting. And then there are a variety of performances from Holly Taylor, everything from wiping tears away to just standing stoically. And of course the pitch perfect right one was in there.

It’s interesting that so much thought goes into such a brief moment.

One of the exciting things about making this show is there’s such a collaboration that starts with me and Joe and the walks we take — figuring out where the story is going to go. We have these phenomenal writers who are collaborators in the process, and then our directors, down to the small details of production design and sound design and Nate Barr who writes that incredible score — some things you don’t even notice, but you feel.

And then there’s this incredible weird alchemy with the actors. Sometimes Joe and I will sit down and have long conversations with them about character, about nuance, about moments. And other times we don’t talk at all. We’ll watch them at the read-through and see them in dailies and they will have come at a scene from a slightly different angle than we ever expected and it’s so much richer and deeper — the tone and creative intent is just as we imagined, but in a deeper way that only they would’ve found.

How much are Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys involved in the creative process at this point?

They really like to wait until they see scripts. There’s sometimes a fun moment when they’ll ask what’s coming, and I’ll ask “Do you really want to know?” At one point in season two, Keri asked me about what was going on with Jared. I said “How much do you want to know?” And she said, “No, don’t tell me.” Pause. “Wait, tell me!” So I told her everything. Last year we had a similar thing happen around the (idea) of telling Paige. We were talking to Keri and it came up. They like to be involved but they also like to wait and be surprised by the script.

Now that we’re in Season 4, are you starting to see an end in sight?

We’ve talked about the shape of the end of this story, and we have a lot of ideas. Our process is that we simultaneously know a lot of things and remain open to the fact that we’ll discover things along the way. I think it’s safe to say that if there’s a three-act story structure to this big story that we’re telling, this season is the end of the second act. We’ll see where we go in that third act. One thing that John Landgraf, FX and everyone have made clear to us is that it’s not going to be a business decision, that’s going to be a creative decision mainly for us. So whether it’s five seasons or six seasons, Joe and I don’t know yet. As we wrap this season we’ll dig into next season and it will become clear.

You don’t anticipate it extending beyond six seasons?

With the caveat that we can always surprise ourselves — there are always surprises as you break story, and one thing we’ve discovered is we always progress more slowly than we expected to — that’s what it’s looking like right now.

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