A review of tonight’s The Americans coming up just as soon as I’ve been to the dentist four times…
“You want to make it official?” -Philip
The “Darkroom” screener link that FX sent to critics came with an unusual embargo. Usually, if a network doesn’t want us to spoil something before an episode airs, they’ll name a specific scene or story point. Here, FX’s request was related to time, asking that we not write about anything that occurred after the 32:14 mark of the screener until after the East Coast broadcast.
The vagueness of course set me wondering what it was, and keeping a close eye on the running time as I watched, holding my breath for someone major to be killed, or cross continents, or endure a soul-crushing disappointment far worse than what we get from week to week on one of TV’s darkest series. Instead, it was the opposite: 32:14 (minus commercials) marks the moment when Philip and Elizabeth are in the car together as he prepares to surprise her with the secret wedding ceremony he’s arranged with Father Andrei, the undercover priest he didn’t have enough time for last week.
It’s a lovely scene, and an incredibly rare Americans moment of unmitigated sweetness and joy, even if the move is still largely symbolic. As Andrei notes, if they ever want to make it fully official(*), there is paperwork to be filled out back in Russia. But it’s still a powerful gesture of unity at a time when their world and family seem to be falling apart at the seams. Earlier, when we see Philip jogging mixed in with an est lecture about how humans are programmed machines, he somehow looks paler and more drawn than he ever has before, even when he’s sat in the Camaro for a few minutes too long. After the marriage ceremony — a chance to break free of the programming he and Elizabeth have both been given, and to once and for all make real that which was always intended as little more than an acting job — they both seem more comfortable and secure than they have in quite some time. It’s another secret to keep — they even hide the rings from that ceremony in their laundry room wall stash, since they need to keep their Jennings rings on in public — but it’s a secret they’ve chosen to keep, together.
(*) It does at least finally put Elizabeth in the lead over Martha in terms of who is more legally married to Philip. Now they’ve both had a ceremony, but Philip and Elizabeth wed using their real Russian names — Mikhail (Mischa is a nickname, for both him and his son) and Nadezhda, in case you’d forgotten — while Martha is married on paper to “Clark Westerfeld.” Still, when Father Andrei asked Philip if he had promised himself to any other bride, I couldn’t help crying out a protest about our favorite baker of Russian potatoes.
I’ll assume my counterparts in the FX PR department were vague about what they wanted us not to spoil as a professional courtesy, since usually specific embargoes wind up spoiling us before we can actually watch the episode ourselves. But it did a neat trick, in a way: by making me focus on what would happen around 32:14, it made me assume that the wedding would be the biggest event of the episode. And good as that scene is, something bigger comes at the very end: when Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige convert the laundry room into the eponymous darkroom to develop the photos Paige took from Pastor Tim’s journal, and the three of them come face to face with this passage:
“Are they monsters? I don’t know. But what they did to their daughter I’d have to call monstrous. I’ve seen sexual abuse. I’ve seen affairs, but nothing I’ve seen compares to what P.J. has been through.”
This is an incredibly harsh slap of reality to the face of these two, in the same evening where they had declared their love for one another. They may reject it outright in the same way that Elizabeth was incredulous at hearing President Reagan refer to the USSR as an evil empire — Elizabeth distrusts religion in general and Pastor Tim in particular, even projecting her own distaste for the man onto Paige earlier in the episode, when she suggests, “She’s starting to see him for what he is” — but they can’t unsee those words, or the ones that follow about how Paige will never be able to trust, never understand the difference between good and evil, never overcome the “severe psychic injury” they’ve inflicted upon her. They will linger and nag at them — and at Paige, for that matter, who was already deeply troubled by what she read in the journal earlier in the episode — no matter how good they’ve become over the years at compartmentalizing and suppressing painful emotions.
Earlier in the hour, all three of them seemed so pleased to be discussing Philip and Elizabeth’s role in saving the Soviet wheat crop: Paige so proud of her parents, the two of them in turn so pleased to be telling her about something good they’ve done, especially now that they’re focusing on the good thing they actually did (getting the super-wheat sample back to Moscow), rather than the thing they thought they were doing (preventing the evil Americans from attacking Soviet wheat). On the whole, their hearts seem to be in the job less and less — even Elizabeth looks miserable when Claudia tells them they’ll be going back to Topeka on the regular for years, and she seems more conflicted than usual when talking to Evgheniya (more on that down in the bullet points), while Philip admits his Renee fixation is because “I don’t want Stan to be like Martha” — and are both troubled by the effect it’s having on their daughter. But for a moment, they all get to feel good about the situation, only to be confronted with Tim’s brutal but utterly reasonable words.
Now, we know from the run of the series — and Elizabeth’s response to the “evil empire” speech in particular — that both of them have enormous capacity for denial, which you have to in order to do this job and live this life. So the next episode could pick up seconds later with Elizabeth lighting all the prints on fire (preferably while a Peter Gabriel song plays) and telling the others that that’s the last they’ll ever discuss of it. But for all of her mistrust of Pastor Tim — and Philip’s, for that matter (remember his trip to the church at the end of “Martial Eagle”?) — it seems impossible to look at what he wrote, consider it in the context of all the difficulty Paige has had since she was read into the secret, and not have this question at the back of their minds: What if he’s right?
The season as a whole continues to be a slow burn, even by Americans standards, but in moments like that one — and, for that matter, in the contrast between the emotional high of the wedding ceremony and the uncomfortable low of the development process and what it reveals — the show can still hit with devastating force.
Some other thoughts:
* I had to laugh when Sofia mentioned that her boyfriend plays defense on the Soviet national hockey team, since Noah Emmerich played one of the assistant coaches in Miracle — directed by Americans pilot director Gavin O’Connor — about the legendary U.S. upset of that team in the 1980 Winter Olympics. (Here he is reluctantly blowing the whistle while Herb Brooks forces the team to do sprints, again and again, after a bad game.)
* Hey, it’s Tatiana! With Oleg back in Moscow and Arkady reassigned to who knows where, tonight was our first visit to the Rezidentura of the season, and it appears Tatiana hasn’t transferred out quite yet, as she receives the coded message Philip dropped (hidden inside a hollow rock) during his jog, then follows his instructions to approach Evgheniya about the possibility of going home without repercussions.
* Speaking of Evgheniya, her conversation with Elizabeth was fascinating: a rare instance where you can see Elizabeth’s fundamental instincts as a person, mother, and wife butting heads with her spy instincts and the needs of the mission basic impulses go against spy impulses. She does eventually try nudging Evgheniya toward the idea of going back to Russia — which is how her suggestion to fight for her family could be interpreted, without being read as an American like “Dee” outright telling her to un-defect — but you can see her very much not wanting to, and feeling terrible for what she and the others are putting this family through.
* The silent family dinner at the Burov home wasn’t as long as the digging scene from the season premiere, but it felt that way, given how uncomfortable Oleg and his parents all were throughout. Not in a good place, those three.
* The song playing during the darkroom scene is “Slice of Life” by Bauhaus.
* Russell and Rhys wore matching tuxes to the Met Ball last week — true to Jennings form, Keri wore the pants (Matthew went with a kilt) — but after watching the wedding scene, I kind of want them to wear crowns wherever they go in public. Not that either of them needs the help, but it’s a startlingly good look for them both.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org