Adding a tragic coda to a subplot involving biological weapons and setting up a potential getaway for Soviet sleeper agents Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) Jennings, FX’s Cold War thriller The Americans wrapped its fourth season tonight. After screening “Persona Non Grata,” The A.V. Club spoke with Americans showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg about choosing this episode for a previously unseen character’s onscreen debut, the show’s many definitions of home, and unintentionally dropping the perfect vintage soap opera clip into season four.
AVC: All of the questions will be Mail Robot-related.
Joel Fields: Finally somebody who gets the show. You know, somebody started a Mail Robot Twitter feed.
Joe Weisberg: That was Erik, wasn’t it? [Laughs.]
JF: [Mail Robot’s] story broke a little late this season.
AVC: He was hidden in the shadows for most of the season.
JF: He was trying to renegotiate his deal, so we had to write him out for a couple episodes.
AVC: In the real world, 1983 was a year of nuclear anxiety. What made you base so much of The Americans’ 1983 around biological weapons?
JW: It was interesting to us, because the biological-weapons history is not known in the same way. There was this massive Soviet program that was kept largely secret. And it’s also metaphorically interesting: It’s biology. It gets inside human beings. And it hasn’t been done in the same way that nuclear stuff has been done. So it’s easier for us to construct our secret, covert type of story about it.
AVC: The richness of that metaphor is something that really stood out. It made up a lot of my finale review.
JF: We love that you’re seeing that, and it’s always a very delicate balance for us, because you never want that metaphor to take over or become distracting or too present. I think Joe and I have a similar way of dealing with those things, which is we talk a lot about them early on, and we hope that they’ll recede into our subconscious and bubble through in the right places in the process of writing and telling the story.
AVC: How did the idea of sending Philip and Elizabeth home come about?
JW: Joel, I’m trying to remember if last season we were messing around with the idea, thematically, of “home” itself.
JF: At exactly this moment last season, we were talking about the season three finale and getting the question “What are the themes for next year?” I remember our answer was “We want to explore the question of ‘What is home?’” To have a home, to make a home—that was part of what we did end up exploring. And at the same time there was not a plot point we were driving to. “Are they going to go back because the crisis was getting so hot?” That’s something that unfolded as the intensity of the storytelling developed in the last few episodes.
AVC: What themes are on your mind for season five?
JW: In season four, our discussion of theme was a little less intense than the discussion of theme for our previous season. We’ve broken the story for about half of season five, and we’ve found ourselves not delving into theme as much yet. It comes at different times: Sometimes we find themes crop up early and help you tell the story. Sometimes you’re in the middle of breaking the story and themes reveal themselves. I don’t know if they’re there yet in season five.
JF: I think there’s something else in play. Those sorts of questions are such a useful guide as you’re constructing at the beginning. Part of the transition we felt in season four is now pivoting toward the end of the story. And having written half of season five now—in terms of specific story—and two of the scripts, and knowing how the rest of five is going to play out in great detail, and working with the big moves of the final season, there’s an element of inevitability that starts to happen for us as storytellers. It’s just less necessary to be asking those overt questions of theme when you’re building to a crescendo. I hope. Or, this time next year, you’re going to be saying, “Guys, what happened?”
AVC: That final shot of the Jennings’ house—it looks like it’s ported out of a horror movie. Was that the intention there? To make home look a little bit foreboding?
JF: That was exactly the intention. Chris Long directed that episode, and I remember him coming in after he read the script and saying, “I have an idea for our final image, which is to hang on the house and have it start to look like it’s haunted.” Not to hit it too hard, but to get the sense that the place that had been their home—there’s that word again—is now foreboding and scary.
AVC: What made the finale the right episode to introduce Philip’s son?
JF: There’s another choice that was fairly on the unconscious side. We did not set out to say, “Let’s introduce Mischa, finally, in the finale.” It was just something that unfolded at that moment which just felt so right. Unlike so much of the show, which is very carefully planned and plotted out from very early on, that was something that revealed itself really over the course of the season. We were in the latter half of breaking the season when the idea of introducing him as a character and igniting that storyline came together.
AVC: When did Dylan Baker find out that William was going to die, and what was his response to his big speech from the finale?
JF: When he took the part, he knew he was going to die.
JW: We knew it was a one-season arc, at least.
JF: He didn’t know how he was going to die. We didn’t tell him he was going to bleed out of every orifice. We wanted to save that as a surprise. But he’s such a brilliant actor. He’s game for anything.
I don’t remember his response to that specific speech. I remember my specific response to seeing it in dailies, which was “Holy mackerel: I always know he was a wonderful actor and he was great this season, but this is a whole new level.”
AVC: Maybe this is reading too much into things: Every episode of season four, it seems like one of the main characters is having trouble sleeping. They’re lying awake in bed, they’re talking about their lack of sleep. Does that tie into the “home” themes—or is it way off the mark?
JW: I think it was because Joel and I were tired.
JF: Those questions are best left for you to dig into, but this is not a job where you get a lot of sleep. Running a show, you wind up not getting a lot of sleep, but being a deep-cover illegal or an FBI counterintelligence officer, that’s not good for your night’s sleep either. And then to raise teenagers—man. I think you are onto something, Erik.
AVC: Anything else you’d like to talk about that we didn’t get to?
JW: It’s been great reading your stuff this year.
AVC: It’s been great watching the show!
JF: In addition to actually making the show, one of the really gratifying things is reading the analyses of people like you who are getting all of the subtle stuff that, when we write, we go, “Okay, who is possibly going to get this?” And then we find out!
AVC: The General Hospital thing in “A Roy Rogers In Franconia”—where Paige and Elizabeth are watching scenes from that show’s Russian spy plot—was a knockout.
JF: That I have to admit was coincidental. What we struggled with in finding the right scene is we knew what day it was, so we were limited in what scenes we could pick, and ironically, we had to find something that wasn’t a laugh in terms of how soapy it was. [Laughs.] I remember sitting in the editing room, and the first three potential General Hospital scenes we looked at seemed like they were directly commenting on the show somehow. Remember that, Joe?
JW: I have to admit that I didn’t know this until right now: Those characters are in a Russian spy storyline in General Hospital?
JF: Now or back then?
AVC: Back then.
JF: I’m learning this for the first time, too.
JW: Erik, you just broke the story that we don’t know what we’re doing. Congratulations. [Laughs.]
JF: There goes the Emmy. We had a sliver of a minimal chance this year, and Erik just destroyed it.