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‘The Americans’ Writer Hilary Bettis on Moving into the Endgame

If you saw the latest episode of The Americans, “The Great Patriotic War,” I don’t need to tell you that it was a big one.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW — don’t read if you don’t want to know.]

Paige finally got to try out her fighting skills; Phillip finally slept with Kimmy, Elizabeth killed Gennady and Sophia, most likely putting Stan back on her trail; and Phillip finally defied both Elizabeth and the Centre by not only refusing to participate in their plan to use Kimmy to extort information from her father in exchange for her freedom, but warning her to steer clear of whoever might next get the assignment.

The episode was written by Hilary Bettis, who was kind enough to take my call and discuss writing this episode in particular and writing for what I have long called the best show on television.

 

Oh my god, this episode! It feels like now we’re really in the endgame.

Yeah, we’re really getting into it!

Did you realize when you drew this assignment what a big episode it was going to be?

Yeah, absolutely! I mean, the way that our writer’s room works is that, from day one, everyone knows — all the writers working on the season — which episode you’re going to write, and I was really excited to get assigned this one.

The J’s [series creators/showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg] are really incredible people to work for, and we get this two-month mini-room, and then we break for hiatus and then we come back, and we had the entire season broken [“breaking” a season means plotting the arc of what plot events happen in which episodes — Ed.] before the hiatus, so everybody knew where the season was going, so we had the whole summer to take the first pass at our episodes, then came back in September and of course threw everything away and re-broke everything and redid everything. We all know, from the beginning, where the entire show is going, where the characters are going, so we can focus on what are the little nuanced details that we can play with and kind of integrate into our dialogue. I feel like this episode is a massive turning point.

Colossal! I had to watch it twice. So you’ve been with the show for two seasons?

Yes, five and six.

Were you a big fan before you joined it?

I was, but I watched the first season years ago, and this is gonna sound really crazy, I watched it with my now ex-boyfriend who was obsessed with it, so I was like, I’m not gonna like this show because it reminds me of him. So even though it’s an amazing show, I was like, I’m never gonna watch it. And then when my agents called and said the J’s want to meet with you about working on The Americans, I had 48 hours to do as much research as possible, so I binged as many episodes as I could and read interviews with the J’s and I had this new appreciation of the show. When they hired me, I went back and I watched everything twenty million times. I’ve since watched every season, no lie, probably four or five times.

Wow!

Yeah, I write on the show — I know how the sausage is made, so to speak — and I’m still blown away by it. I’m blown away by episodes I’ve seen 15 times. We have assignments all the time where it’s like, go back and watch season two, for example, and see if Elizabeth ever mentions where she’s from, or if Phillip ever mentions where they’re from, and track scene by scene, so you’re never watching passively, like the audience, but you’re still in awe of how incredible and well-made, and well-executed, and well-directed, and well-acted it is. It’s been a magical experience, really.

Do you have a favorite character to write for?

Yes and no. At some point or another, I’ve written or rewritten a scene involving every one of our main characters. And they’re all so human and nuanced and deep and complicated, I feel like it never feels too easy — in a good way. The J’s biggest thing is, everything, every moment, has to be psychologically true and authentic to who these people are, so we’re all really trying to crawl inside their minds and pull them apart. We talk a lot about what’s happening with them subconsciously, and how that plays into their entire character arc. But I will say, I just really get Paige. I was sort of a wild teenager once upon a time, who felt like I didn’t really fit into the world I was in, and didn’t really know my place in the world, and so on a visceral level I feel like I really understand her in a way that I don’t have that same connection with the other characters. But I still love writing the other characters as well, especially the marriage dynamic between Matthew and — I mean, Phillip and Elizabeth.

That’s interesting — since they are a couple themselves now (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys now have a child together), have they ever brought any ideas from their life as a couple into this? I’m sure it informs their performances, but does anything ever make it into the writing?

I feel like they bring their intimacy into their acting, and they’re such a beautiful couple, and such beautiful human beings, when you see them on set, the way they are, how they’re just Matthew and Keri and how much they love each other, and how committed they are to each other, and how much fun they have together, but I think that level of intimacy really permeates their performance, which makes them such an incredible TV couple to watch. But we’re pretty tight-lipped about the writing process. We send outlines to production, so they can start thinking about the production process, but even amongst the writers, the J’s like us to work individually. They’ll give us scene assignments, and they’ll give the same scene to multiple writers, because they like to see the different perspectives. So in terms of the intimacy, I would say yes, but in terms of the story and plot ideas, no.

You mentioned how the arc of an episode is decided on by the showrunners (with the help of the writers’ room), as it has to fit within the larger plan of the season and the series as a whole. How much wiggle room do you feel when you write an episode? Are there any moments you can point to where you feel true ownership? Or is it all groupthink?

No, there’s a lot of freedom. I think the J’s hired every writer on our show because they had such a specific voice and perspective, and they really wanted that voice and perspective to come through. We have really specific outlines, in terms of all the moving parts that have to fit together for a season to work, but it’s really bare-bones stuff, like Elizabeth comes home and Phillip and Elizabeth have a fight, and Elizabeth wants to tell him about the meeting in Mexico but she can’t, and Phillip had this secret meeting with Oleg that he can’t tell her about, so they have these big secrets that neither of them can talk about so they end up in a fight. You get something like that in your outline, but you have a lot of freedom in terms of how it plays out, what kinds of things they say to each other, what the silent moments are. That’s something I really really loved, having the specific structure, and then the freedom to play within that. They’re so supportive of that, they really encourage us to take a lot of perspectives into a scene  — sometimes they’ll ask us to write the same scene two or three different ways, just so they’ll have a lot of choices. As I writer, I felt a lot of freedom working on that show.

A line from this episode that struck me as an example of that freedom: “I wanted to tear that bullshit they were teaching you right out of your head and shove the truth right in there.” I can’t remember Elizabeth ever speaking in such coarse, violent language to anyone.

Yeah.

And at the same time, we have Phillp sparring with Paige, and he’s being much rougher on her than he ever has been before.

I think it’s a couple of things going on there — one, psychologically, we’re watching Phillip and Elizabeth, and they’ve been doing this for so long, and it’s taken such an incredible toll on their psyches, that they’re both in their own way starting to crack, and these new parts of them are starting to come through. On a personal level, I’m kinda like a grittier — I grew up with all boys, and we moved a lot around rural parts of the country, getting a really terrible public school education, and I think on a personal level there was understanding for Elizabeth, what it means for her daughter to be taught something that was so incredibly opposite of her value system and the way she wants her to see the world. And the anger that that comes with.

She kinda let the mask drop a little bit.

Yeah, she does, and I think her relationship with Paige is becoming much more intimate, and I think Paige in some ways is her protege, and Elizabeth is beginning to see her as a colleague, and someone who’s gonna take the torch and carry on what Elizabeth came to the U.S. to do. So I think in a subtle way also, that language is coming from a place of seeing her daughter differently, seeing that she can handle this world. Which I think actually, starts to scare her a little bit, and Phillip as well, because Paige is really really good at this. By episode 5, Paige has been in it: she’s in the relationship with the intern, and she’s seen dead bodies, she’s wearing disguises, she’s taking covert pictures — she’s really in the trenches. So I think Elizabeth respects that as well.

I wondered, once Elizabeth asked Phillip to help entrap Kimmy, if that was the reason she’d approached him the night before — if she was working him like she would any other asset.

(Laughs) Oh…

That’s how it is in marriage, right? I want you to fix the dishwasher, so here’s a little something?

You know, that scene, we had so many conversations in the writer’s room in terms of what her motivation was with Phillp the night before, and I think we left it a little vague. On some level, subconsciously she might be working him, but at the same time, there’s such a gulf between them and they really do miss each other and they really do love each other, so on another level it’s geniunely wanting to connect with her husband and be with her husband, which is what makes their relationship so complicated and amazing and great to watch, because it’s both of those things at the same time, which is like a real marriage.

Do you think it occurred to Phillip?

I think it is also in the back of Phillip’s mind for sure. I think it’s the same thing for him, he genuinely want to connect with her, but he also has this massive secret, and he’s spying on her, and he feels used, so I think it’s all of those things too. Whether he wants to believe it or not, I think it’s definitely part of what’s going on with him.

I don’t expect or even want you to confirm or deny this, but it also felt like that might have been the last time that’s gonna happen.

[silence]

[both laugh]

Was it as hard to write Phillip finally seducing Kimmy as it was to watch? I had to watch it through my fingers.

It was, yeah, but it wasn’t? Writing these people, you become them. We so live in their psychology and their subconscious, we know these characters so intimately, that on our lunch break we can be like ‘Man, that shit is fucked up,’ but when you’re sitting in front of your computer to write, you’re not really thinking about that. It’s more like, This is really important, and Phillip has to do this, his marriage is on the line, and Kimmy is of age, so it totally makes sense from his point of view, and Matthew Rhys is really good-looking, so why would Kimmy not be interested in that? When I was writing it, that’s what I was thinking. Although, when I saw the whole Kimmy relationship from the beginning, I think it’s season 3, it’s really creepy, it’s really unnerving, it’s one of the things in this show that makes you say, Wait, that’s a line too far, is he really gonna cross it, and can I empathize with him if he does cross it? And I think we’re always playing with those boundaries on the show, too, like what is the very edge we can push this family to without losing the empathy of our audience? It’s hard. It’s a very, very tricky fine line.

I have been rewatching the whole series from the beginning, and the first time through, I didn’t catch on for a while that Oleg was going to be a major character, in it to the end. Now, the second time through, he seems to me to be the closest thing to a true hero on the whole show. Is that how you guys see him?

Yeah, I would totally agree with that, although I don’t think we ever talked about him in terms of being a hero. It sort of organically became apparent that we needed a Russian character who could be a counterpoint to Phillip and Elizabeth who is also extremely idealistic, but his ideals come from humanity and peace, as opposed to nationalism. We never set out and said, okay, Oleg’s gonna be the hero. It just sort of happened. And Costa [Ronin] is such an incredible actor and human being, he’s this gentle soul in real life, I would say that what he brought to the character is part of the reason Oleg ended up in this direction.

I’ve always dug his wardrobe. You can tell he’s not American just by his clothes.

(Laughs) Yeah.

Elizabeth’s story about not quite losing her virginity (“He thought he was doing something, but he was really driving into the space between me and the couch”) felt like a metaphor for the Jennings’ whole mission — was that intentional?  

I totally think that’s right, yeah. It’s funny, you know, I hadn’t really thought about it in that way, writing it, but again it’s like, as a writer your subconscious is so much, and you put together so many pieces that you don’t even necessarily realize until it comes out and it’s pointed out to you, but I would totally agree with that.

There was a line that really stuck with me from season 4, I think, with the Mary Kay Lady — what was her name?

Oh my god, Young Hee.

Thank you, where she’s talking about living with all her in-laws and it’s awful and she tells Elizabeth, “It’s amazing what you get used to.” That’s what this show is. It’s amazing what you get used to. It’s insane.

It is, it really is.

The soundtrack has always been one of the best things about the show. I know this episode did not have any needle drops, but I’m curious — do you guys get to weigh in on those choices?

I think it’s sort of a little bit of everything. We definitely pitch songs in our episodes when we write them, if it really feels right for the scene, we’ll put it in, sometimes the J’s will take it, sometimes they won’t. I think especially this season the music has become such an important part of letting the audience in on what, subconsciously, our characters are feeling, I think our show does that brilliantly. I think it’s really a collaborative thing, sometimes it comes from the director, sometimes it comes from the showrunners, sometimes it comes from the writers, I’m sure there’s a whole other part of it that comes in postproduction that I am not privy to — it probably comes from the editors as well. I will say that the J’s are incredibly collaborative, and always willing to listen to ideas, which I think is what makes our show so amazing.

I thought the one that opened the season (“Don’t Dream it’s Over,” by Crowded House) was amazing.

Oh my god — amazing. That montage? And the one where Elizabeth is meeting with the guy in Mexico? [“We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37),” by Peter Gabriel]? Incredible. Incredible. And none of that was written. We knew there was music. But we didn’t know what the music would be. Chris Long directed those, he’s an incredible director.

Episode 605 of The Americans, “The Great Patriotic War,” is available on-demand, along with the rest of season six so far, on FX. 

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