When The Americans plucks at the heartstrings, it sure finds a unique way of doing so. Or, to quote the showrunners, a “fucked up” way of doing so: Staring down indefinitely long operations with Gorp Guy and Lotus Lady (hey, they can both have alliterative nicknames!), the couple born Mikhail and Nadezhda renew their commitment to one another in an unorthodox Russian Orthodox ceremony in “Darkroom.” Theirs is a partnership that bloomed from a forgery, once nothing more than the most ornate of the paperwork that brought Philip and Elizabeth Jennings into being. This wedding in a dingy Washington, D.C. basement is quite the opposite, commemorating genuine love and obligation without documentation—Gabriel’s old contact Father Andrei says whoever winds up in Moscow first will have to secure the new marriage license. In its performance, direction, and editing, “Darkroom” makes the emotional impact of the scene rise above the setting and subterfuge. Please forgive me while I dab a few lingering tears from my eyes.
The subterranean centerpiece of “Darkroom” is ripe for dissection—the religious implications alone! Philip and Elizabeth’s connection has never been stronger, and they’re formally expressing that strength at a time when the pressure of their job is extremely high. This is who they are, not who they’ve been pretending to be for the last couple of decades. It’s important that the ceremony is conducted in Russian—in a script whose English-to-Russian ratio feels like it favors the latter—and that Andrei addresses the Jennings by their given names. It underlines the honesty of the whole proceedings.
But that scene is similarly rich material. “Darkroom” is an emotionally honest episode that’s packed with interpersonal and internal dishonesty. You can’t write a spy story without characters lying to one another, but on The Americans, the way they lie and what they lie about matters. This week, it all comes back to who these characters are, who they think they are, who other people think they are. There’s a lot of conflict to be wrung from the differences between those perceptions.
Identity is another basic spy-story component that’s endlessly complicated and shaded by The Americans’ premise. As Philip and Elizabeth confirm that they are husband and wife—in their eyes, and in the eyes of a god they don’t believe in—there’s a war on over Paige’s true identity. Like any teenager, she’s still sorting that out for herself, but she’s had to do additional digging—through her parents’ cover, through the fact that she was only conceived as part of that cover, through facets of her personality that are opposed to and aligned with her parents’ mission. The process of self-discovery is the sort of thing for which she’s depended on Pastor Tim’s guidance, but her snooping suggests that he’s not the positive role model she’s seeking either.
Holly Taylor’s done a great job of conveying this internal strife all season, but writer Steven Schiff gives her a hand this week, laying out the Lady Macbeth-by-way-of-Mary Hartman scenario that Philip and Elizabeth walk into after leaving the Eckerts’. This waxy yellow buildup accumulates to suspenseful effect throughout “Darkroom,” until Paige returns home from babysitting with photographic evidence of it and smears it across the laundry room. The camera holds long enough on one damning diary passage—the one that equates Philip and Elizabeth’s actions to sexual abuse and infidelity—but the panning and cutting accelerates in time with the climax of Bauhaus’ “Slice Of Life.” Watching without the aid of screenshots, only a few choice words leap out: “psychic injury,” “damage,” “trust,” “suffering.”
One of the takeaways from that sequence is that Paige is proving the diary’s point: She doesn’t trust anyone, not even Pastor Tim, and these photographs are a violation of the trust she’s placed in him. But Tim’s just as susceptible to contradiction and hypocrisy as the next person. In “Darkroom,” he presents Paige with discordant versions of herself: The irreparably damaged one who exists in the diary, and the food-pantry volunteer who’s “moving in the right direction” and “going to do great in life.” In a sign that Paige and her mother continue to influence one another in curious ways, the former is unmoved by the words of scripture in “Darkroom” (“He will never let the righteous be shaken”), while the latter smiles through Father Andrei’s recitations.
The Jennings can let their guard down in these instances, however, because they’re in relative privacy. Who these characters are might remain an open question, but “Darkroom” shows that they’re their truest selves in moments of confidence and intimacy. Think of all the sensitive information that changes hands in moments like this: Alexei telling Brad that he misses the Soviet Union, or Sofia giving Stan and Aderholt all the information they need to nail a KGB operative. In a story like this, in moments like these, silence has its virtues—with tensions high in Moscow, dinner at the Burovs’ is a wordless affair. Anything you say can and will be used against you, even if it just leads to a suspiciously friendly meeting with Tatiana.
Pastor Tim’s diary also gives voice to a conflict at the heart of watching The Americans: “Are they monsters? I don’t know.” Should an expression of love between two monsters bring tears to my eyes? I don’t know. Are they monsters if they encouraged Tuan to take actions that led to someone putting dog shit in Pasha’s locker, or if they helped secure the sample of lassa (not glanders—sorry for that blunder last week) that could’ve been used to kill those mujahideen? One of those is more cut-and-dried than the other. There’s little ambiguity to “Darkroom”’s final images of Paige, Elizabeth, and Philip, as they observe one another observing the photographs, exchanging glances of concern and admiration. In true Americans fashion, the process of turning the laundry room into a darkroom is shown step by step, depicted with the same thoroughness as the wedding ceremony.
Those scenes share the same purpose: They’re both examples of strengthening ties within the Jennings family. They’re all in it now, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, till death do they part. Are they monsters? I don’t know. But what they did in “Darkroom” I’d have to call monstrously compelling television.
- For more on “Darkroom” and Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage, our own Esther Zuckerman spoke with showrunners Joe Weisman and Joel Fields. Read it here!
- The Americans Wig Report: Season Five, Week 10: C. Nothing fancy here, but it does enhance the notion of Philip and Elizabeth being themselves as they head to the ceremony—they drive up in a quick change disguise. (Father Andrei evidently approves of last week’s disguises: He notes that Philip looks different without a mustache.)
- The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Five, Week 10: B+. Of course an episode called “Darkroom” ends with a Bauhaus song—every room in which Bauhaus is playing is a dark room.
- Was there any Mail Robot? Rip up this place and scream, “No Mail Robot again.” But I have it on good authority that we’ll have something to write about in this space soon.
- Secrets from the A.V. Club vaults: The fermented rye bread drink Alexei shares with Brad, kvass, was one of the items we sampled for the Taste Test episode above. Sadly, our reactions were left on the cutting room floor—but, suffice it to say, none of us took to kvass quite like Brad, who’s definitely tasting it for the first time (yep, that’s right).
- Because they’re good actors, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys really sell the wedding scene. But I have to think that they give it a little extra oomph because they’re together in real life. (Side note: Have we ever seen Philip and Elizabeth speak this much Russian in one another’s presence?)
- Philip seems relieved that the waste deposited in Pasha’s locker wasn’t human. In this world, you take consolation where you can find it.
- S.C. Johnson & Son know what the Jennings’ floor goes through in a day. That’s why they make Future shine with tough acrylic, for those high-KGB-traffic floors.
- Approximately what percentage of rental properties in the D.C. area are being used as safe houses? Based on this season of The Americans, I’m willing to venture a conservative estimate of 85 to 90 percent.
- A new multipurpose euphemism for you, courtesy of the FBI: “The Diplomatic Pouch.”