[Note: This post discusses plot points for the series finale of The Americans.]
Just because showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields conjured up the skeleton of The Americans’ ending in its early seasons didn’t make it any easier to write the damn thing. In a new oral history on that gut-wrenching finale from Vulture, the duo’s voices join with stars Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, Holly Taylor, and Noah Emmerich in outlining just how much elbow grease went not only into the writing and directing of the episode, but also the performances. There’s something inherently gutting about a blizzard sweeping through one of the episode’s emotional centerpieces—that parting phone call with Henry—and essentially dissolving whatever sense of warmth and wistfulness the cast and crew could conjure up once it was finished. “It was absolutely freezing,” says Taylor. “We had hand and body warmers everywhere: in our tiny little coats and our wigs. Nobody really did a big goodbye. It was just like, Okay, let’s all go home, we’ll see each other at the premiere party. Everyone just wanted to go to bed.”
Elsewhere in the oral history, Weisberg and Fields discuss the literal months they spent writing the pivotal scene when Stan confronts Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige, a scene that the cast recalls taking roughly 13 hours to film.
“I would probably call that the hardest scene we ever wrote on the show, and the one that we spent the most time on. I don’t think you could point to any other scene in The Americans that took several months to write. We’d leave it alone for a couple of weeks, we would come back to it, rewrite it, leave it alone for a couple of weeks. We never had a scene that really needed that. Part of it was, we would just feel we weren’t there yet. We had to accomplish something enormous. Essentially, we had to make it believable that Stan let them go. There have been six seasons of this relationship, and this friendship building up, and it all had to crash down in this one scene.”
And then there was Paige’s goodbye, having bailed from the train that began the trio’s long journey back to Russia. It’s a stunningly beautiful moment for the viewer, a heartbreaking separation that’s nevertheless a hopeful one for Paige, who here pounces on the choice that her parents were never afforded at her age. For director Chris Long, however, filming it was a nightmare.
“It was one of the most frustrating days of my life because every time we needed to move the train, we’d need a conductor’s permission. It was driving me absolutely crazy because we only had one day to shoot the sequence and it was one very daylight-dependent day, because of the price of getting a train and moving it out from Grand Central to Tuckahoe. We needed a train to pull in and then pull out and leave Holly on the platform. It had to be done on a real train practically, unlike a lot of TV shows [where] it is obviously done with a green screen. We couldn’t do it with a green screen because of that process.”
“It’s difficult because you read a scene like that, and it’s so moving. But it’s one of those things that has to be moving in a second. You have to catch that moment really quickly. It took so many people to make the train go back and forth, you only had a few shots at it. There’s no, “Let me work up to it for ten minutes.” You have to do it right then, to get [Holly] in the shot, to get us in the shot. There were a lot of outside factors happening that were distracting. It wasn’t the easiest scene to shoot.”
The other agonizing decision on the part of the showrunners? Finding the right song to go out on. Any fan of The Americans knows that its soundtrack is one of the best on television, a transcendent blend of ‘80s radio rock, romantic glam, and dreamy psychedelia. Their ultimate choice of U2's “With Or Without You” was the perfect choice, but it wasn’t the first song to come to mind. That was, believe it or not, Don McLean’s “American Pie.”
“‘American Pie’ lived in there for a while,” says co-music supervisor Amanda Krieg Thomas. “I can’t remember who, but it was rubbing someone not quite right. We weren’t really sure about it. It wasn’t ‘80s.” From there, they batted around some Pink Floyd songs and then U2's “Mothers of the Disappeared.” Eventually, however, they made the gutsy move to go with one of U2's most ubiquitous hits.
Says Krieg Thomas:
“‘With or Without You’ is one of the songs [U2 is] most precious about and most particular about how it’s used and where it’s used. We were very fortunate in that we heard people in their camp were fans of the show. A lot of times when you’re clearing songs like that, you have to fight that battle for an unknown show. We were fortunate. But it was not easy by any means. It was down to the wire, like last day of the mix, chasing down the manager and giving them full court press. The last possible day it could be cleared, it cleared.
There’s plenty more to parse through in the full oral history, but don’t expect a definitive answer as to whether or not Renee is a spy.
Though, let’s be honest here: She totally is, right?