The Americans Showrunners Choose Their 7 Favorite Death Scenes

TV Features The Americans
The Americans Showrunners Choose Their 7 Favorite Death Scenes

The Americans, the FX drama starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Soviet spies living in the suburbs of Reagan-era Washington, D.C., has always been a “we’re not so different, you and I” allegory about politics, history and human nature. The series, which begins its sixth and final season on March 28, has also become known for some of the most macabre, emotional, and sometimes even humorous death scenes on TV.

No one knows this better than showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields. While speaking at the winter Television Critics Association press tour, they happily regaled me with some of their favorite death scenes from the past five seasons (which, obviously, means spoilers for those who are beginning or midway through a binge session). However, they did have some ground rules.

“I would like it noted somewhere in the article that we’re not actually killing anyone. This is all for dramatic purposes,” Fields laughs, perhaps feeling a little guilty after I refer to a death in the show’s third season by naming the actress who played the victim (Lois Smith) instead of the character (Betty Turner).

Weisberg was more pragmatic about the situation, saying, “You’re going to make us seem like sick people. It’s OK. We are. We came up with them.”

Keeping all of this in mind, here are Weisberg and Fields’ favorite death scenes from the series—as well as their least favorite featuring a surprise guest star.

7. “The Colonel” (Episode 1.13)
Director: Adam Arkin
Writers: Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg
Victim: Richard Patterson

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Of course, Philip and Elizabeth aren’t the only ones who aced the assassination part of the exam in spy school. Their handler, Claudia (Margo Martindale), also has a habit of creating cadavers. Fields likes a scene in the Season One finale in which she offs a CIA officer (played by Paul Fitzgerald) who was getting too close.

“She gets him with the Taser and she decides she’s going to let him die slowly while she tells him about how much she loved Zhukov,” he recalls.

6. “Comrades” (Episode 2.01)
Director: Thomas Schlamme
Writers: Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg
Victim: Restaurant busboy

The fact that so many of the show’s slayings happen to victims of circumstance is not lost on its showrunners. In many instances, like the couple shot at their dining room table in the closing stages of Season Five, it’s Elizabeth who pulls the trigger—either to save her husband the guilt or by acting on impulse. But that doesn’t mean Philip isn’t capable of doing what needs to be done.

Fields and Weisberg think back to this scene in the Season Two premiere. Philip has no trouble offing some meddlesome Afghan contacts at a restaurant. As for the busboy (Justin Ahdoot) hiding in the back, though, we almost think he’ll let him go. Almost.

“The fact that these deaths, how they way weigh on Philip and Elizabeth so differently, is telling,” Fields says.

5. “Pastor Tim” (Episode 4.02)
Director: Chris Long
Writers: Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg
Victim: Airport security officer

The Americans has a reputation for using music and other period-specific pop culture to serve as both historical time capsules and move along its stories. A favorite example is Philip’s late-night liquidation of a pesky airport security guard (Izzy Ruiz) on a shuttle while an oblivious passenger (Chelsea Sheets) rocks out to Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”

Fields credits his director for this um, execution, saying it’s a “Chris Long masterpiece.”

“There are times when we write things and it’s just extremely clear in our heads and, therefore, easy enough to realize. And there are other times and we have a sense that they can work in our heads but, really, without the right director, they would fall apart,” Fields says. “But that was a perfect example. Which bus are they on? How many people are on the bus? Where are they situated? How does this become believable? How late at night is it? What’s it like when they get off the bus? All of those things. Every one of those choices had to be just so. And Chris is a master, period.”

4. “In Control” (Episode 1.04)
Director: Jean de Segonzac
Writers: Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg
Victim: Security officer

No one likes receiving citations, especially when they’re covert spies. In the first season of The Americans, we got a real taste of what Elizabeth Jennings was capable of when she shoots a neighborhood security officer (Ted Koch) who really shouldn’t have phoned in for backup.

“What I love about that one is it’s so early in the show that nobody really knew that this is what Philip and Elizabeth did and that they would do that kind of thing,” Weisberg says. “It was just a real shock. By Season Two or Season Three, you wouldn’t be so surprised about that. In Season One, you’re like, ‘What the fuck?’ And that’s how you knew what this character was going to be… She has had no trouble with it. It’s like, welcome to Elizabeth Jennings.”

Hey. As Fields points out, she did ask nicely.

“He pulled her over and she asks two or three times, ‘Please just let us go,’” he says. “I think that goes to what humanizes these characters. As tough as Elizabeth is, she would rather not kill that guy, just as a soldier would rather not kill an innocent inside the house where the enemy’s hiding. But she’s not going to get arrested…”

3. “New Car” and “Martial Eagle” (Episodes 2.08 and 2.09)
Directors: John Dahl; Alik Sakharov
Writers: Peter Ackerman; Oliver North and Tracey Scott Wilson
Victim: Lewis Rendell

Sometimes the desire to do the right thing ends up going horribly wrong. Philip and Elizabeth had to hijack the wrong place/wrong time Lewis’ (Graham Winton) sewage truck so that they could break into a training camp and steal some photos. But it didn’t end there. In fact, we have to wait until the next episode to find out his fate.

“Philip doesn’t want to kill him; he just wants to let him live. But instead of getting a quick death from Elizabeth, he dies slowly of frostbite,” Fields says. “It’s just so sad. Part of what I think we love about that tragic death is it shows that once you’re in war, the choices are only bad. And sometimes, being more brutal fast is better that doing something to make you feel more humane.”

2. “EST Men” and “Baggage” (Episodes 3.01 and 3.02)
Director: Daniel Sackheim
Writers: Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg
Victim: Annelise

Poor, sweet, beautiful Annelise. This character, played by Gillian Alexy, just wanted more out of life than being a trophy wife, and Philip—undercover, of course—was happy to oblige by training her in the art of seduction.

Unfortunately, Annelise fell for her mark (Rahul Khanna) and revealed her true identity in the hopes they could run off together. He didn’t take the news well and strangled her at the end of the Season Three premiere. This meant Philip and Elizabeth were on body disposal duty in the second episode. For a refresher on just how they did it, look to the title of the episode.

While Fields says Annelise’s death was sad because “Philip was in the other room and couldn’t do anything about it,” Weisberg points out that “what he did afterward was still horrifying.”

“Even though she was dead, some of the callousness toward human life still comes through,” Weisberg says. “And this is part of the strength of the show. It contains both their utter callousness toward human life and also their suffering about their own callousness. That’s a lot about what the show is about.”

1. “Chloramphenicol” (Episode 4.04)
Director: Stefan Schwartz
Writer: Tracey Scott Wilson
Victim: Nina Sergeevna Krilova

The death of Annet Mahendru’s conscience-stricken KGB officer, which occurred deep in the bowels of a Soviet prison, was a surprise both for its suddenness and its attention to detail. Weisberg says the harsh premise—she’s told she’ll be executed “shortly” and has a bullet in the back of the head barely after her knees buckle—was rooted in real events. As detailed by author and Americans consultant Sergei Kostin in his book, Farewell, the Soviets thought this was kinder than the taunts of stays of execution that we do in the States. They also knew to have people on either side of the accused to keep him or her from flailing, that a little bureaucratic business of reading the charges was necessary and the reader would need to be stand exactly so far away to avoid blood splatter.

“That death scene was, moment for moment [and] down to the burlap sack that they use to cover her body, taken from how they would execute traitors,” Fields adds. “What was fascinating to us is it was done for the purposes of being humane. If you think about how capital punishment is carried out here [in America] and you think about how they would do it there, it’s pretty interesting. Certainly, they thought it about at least no less than we think about it here and probably more. When you think about being told it’s coming, being told again it’s coming, waiting for that final stay from the governor, which could be years… as opposed to being told, look we’re just transferring you cells and then being shot in the back of the head? It’s pretty good.”

And one least-favorite death…

“Mutually Assured Destruction” (Episode 1.08)
Director: Bill Johnson
Writers: Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg
Victim: A bomb-throwing German assassin

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“Season One, we had this massive shoot-out in a hotel room with a German guy,” Weisberg recalls. “And we just hadn’t quite figured out how to do stunts yet on the show. So, we just planned this massive thing that we didn’t know how to execute yet. And we learned later not to plan things so big and do them a little smaller. It was this huge thing where the bathroom exploded and the guy was shot a million times.”

Weisberg says early episodes like this taught them something about casting. While nowadays they’d only hire an actor who is a native speaker, this time they simply cast someone who Weisberg says “did a good German accent.” That actor is named Chris Sullivan, and he now plays Toby on one of Weisberg’s favorite shows, NBC’s This Is Us.

So be warned, Toby haters. “He could pull out a gun and start shooting anyone on that show,” Fields jokes.

Season Six of The Americans premieres Wednesday, March 28 at 10 p.m. Read our episodic reviews here.

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