Like all great things, The Americans must eventually come to an end. The FX series, which first premiered in 2013, arrives at its climax with 10 final episodes, ultimately revealing the fate of KGB spies Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell). The sixth season, which begins Wednesday, March 28, leaps three years forward from the end of last season, bringing us to the latter part of 1987. That jump is purposeful on the part of showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Field, who wanted to move the action into the end of the Cold War, but also wanted to reveal what it means for the Jennings when Philip leaves the family spy business.
As the new season opens, Elizabeth is feeling the pressure of handling the spy game on her own, although the Jennings’ daughter, Paige, is beginning to wet her feet in the work. Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) is still none the wiser to the fact that his friendly neighbors are running KGB business out of their house. The stakes feel high, particularly as the new pressures and stresses of the characters begin to emerge. And it’s all leading up to … well, something. That something was determined by the writers all the way back in the beginning of the show.
“It was somewhere in the end of the first season or the second season where we kind of figured out the ending,” Fields says. “It was somewhere to go. But we had no idea whether that ending would stick. But as it turns out, that ending we came up with all those years ago has actually stuck.”
“It really goes to our process because the way we did the show really started from–at the beginning of the second season when we had a lot of time–[us doing] an enormous amount of planning,” Weisberg adds. “We always had it written out in these big story documents where each character journey was going and where each story was headed. But also we were very open to things changing along the way, and things did change along the way. So it really could have gone either way at the end.”
There’s likely not a happy ending in store for these characters (“Let’s look at it this way: Has there ever been a happy episode?” Fields quips), but the conclusion does feel right to the show’s cast. For Emmerich, who has directed three episodes over the years, six seasons is the right duration for *The Americans*. “This is the longest job I’ve ever had,” the actor says. “It was really challenging and fulfilling creatively and personally, and there’s a sadness to letting go of it all. But it feels like the right time and place to do that.”
“I certainly didn’t predict it,” he adds of the eventual finale. “I didn’t know what it was going to be, and it surprised me–but I think it’s perfect. I do think it’s a great ending. It really feels honest and true and moving and beautiful. It seems like it fits really well with our story.”
The Americans has struggled with ratings over the years, despite being a critically adored series. There were several seasons when Fields and Weisberg weren’t sure whether they’d move on to the next season, so it’s important for those involved with the show that it’s gotten a thoughtfully created ending at all. For the showrunners, the emphasis has always been on the characters and in the story feeling as natural as possible. As insane as some of the episodes may seem (remember the body-in-the-suitcase situation in season 3?), there is a serious emphasis on realism.
“We’re obsessed with the research, and we’re obsessed with accuracy,” Weisberg says. “Truly, it’s impossible to calculate because there’s all the research we do–our office is filled boards and information, and we have a calendar of 1987 with all these real events and our fictional events laid against them–and then every department is doing extensive research, too. Whenever we have a song playing in the background or a radio program or a television show, we peg it to a particular date, and it’s what was actually on television on that date. It gets pretty dense. We feel like if we’re that obsessed about the accuracy, it will just feel more true.”
“In a weird way, this story has become so real to us,” Fields notes. “We try so hard to tell it as if these are real characters having real experiences. Life doesn’t give you dramatic foreshadowing–it just takes you where your character journey is going to take you.”
Emmerich finds the importance of the show in this realism as well. He’s much more interested in the “humanity” of the series than he is in the plot machinations. Although the actor hesitates to comment on the ultimate legacy of The Americans, it’s that humanity that will likely linger beyond the finale.
“Some of the deeper questions of life and relationships and identity are the central wheel of this story,” Emmerich says. “All of the spy craft and all the sexy espionage make it fun and captivating and enticing, but the meat of it has always been the humanity of it. How we hold ourselves in the world and how we relate to each other. Our true selves versus our presented selves. It’s not really about spies–it’s about people. That's the strength of the show, and what drew me to it in the first place, and what I feel has been carried on elegantly.”
While The Americans is set in the ‘80s, it’s hard to ignore current events when watching the show. That relevance has become even more extreme in recent months, particularly when it comes to how Russia is viewed by the rest of the world. America’s relationship with Russia is uncertain, and news from the U.K. reveals that Russia is still, in some ways, involved in the international spy game. For Weisberg and Fields, it’s been important to keep those current events out of the writer’s room, even after the presidential election, when the relevance became more noticeable.
“We were in denial about that fact,” Weisberg says. “It’s important to us that we never find anything in the writing or in the drama that makes you sense that the writers are thinking about that. That pops you out of the world of the past and out of the world of the show. The best way for us to accomplish that is to never be thinking about it. So even though we know it’s true, we try to live in a forced denial about that.”
“We talk about, personally, how bizarre it is,” Emmerich says of the cast. “In the beginning, we were wondering how people who hadn’t lived through the ‘80s would understand the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States. Would they be able to understand this enemy dynamic because it was so not the case when we began filming? Russia wasn’t a country that young people thought of as, in any way, an enemy. The fact that we’re here in a place and time that it’s resurfaced with such a polarity and such an antagonist dynamic between the two countries is very bizarre. The cyclical-ness of it and the recurrence of it is very bizarre.”
Weisberg and Fields aren’t entirely sure of The Americans’ legacy, either. But they are hopeful that fans will continue to experience it after the finale airs on May 30.
“I think we just hope the show will be remembered,” Weisberg says. “One of the beautiful things about making television these days is that you’re making something that’s going to last, and you know that it’s going to remain out there, whether it’s on Amazon Prime or FX Now or in DVD collection at the public library. Years from now, people can go and enjoy the show. That's a great feeling.”
“I hear from people all the time who are just discovering it,” adds Fields. “We're also hearing how young people, more and more, don’t start shows until their run is finished. I think there are going to be–hopefully–a lot of new viewers.”