This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 5 Episode 10
The screener for The Americans Season 5 Episode 10 “Darkroom” FX includes a request for critics. “Everything after 32:14 is embargoed until after the conclusion of the East Coast broadcast of the episode.”
That combined with the typically spartan, yet intriguing episode description “Paige’s snooping leads Philip and Elizabeth to make a choice that could shift the balance of their lives forever” can’t help but set a critic’s imagination on fire.
Philip and Elizabeth have to make a Paige-related choice that could shift the balance of their lives forever? And FX wants to keep it super under wraps? Immediately, I envision that the last 15 minutes of the episode is just an insane, gratuitous scene in which Philip, Elizabeth and Paige choke Pastor Tim to death with his own intestines or something.
But no. Pastor Tim gets to keep his life and his organs for now. Instead, what happens in the last 16 or so minutes of “Darkroom” is somehow far more devastating.
Even before that mythical 32:14 mark, “Darkroom” is a superb episode of television. It’s subtle, atmospheric and equally parts tragic and funny. Pasha and his poor shit-stained locker is a good indicator or what the show can do when it’s firing on all cylinders. Seriously.
When Tuan gravely tells Philip and Elizabeth that he encouraged some asshole Darren Burke* to put dog shit in Pasha’s locker, I couldn’t help but laugh. It’s such a hilariously juvenile way to make someone’s life a living hell for no reason. And with the added context that it’s officially endorsed by one of the world’s two biggest super powers as a strategic ploy it’s just an unexpectedly strong absurdist joke.
*What an absolutely incredible name for a fictional ‘80s high school bully.
Then of course Pasha’s mom, Evgheniya tearfully tells Elizabeth about it around the dinner table and it’s not quite as funny in this context. It’s so real and tragic that Elizabeth can’t even repress some of her motherly empathy.
Evgheniya tells her about the brief affair she carried on with an American intelligence agent and that she feels bad. Pasha is struggling and her husband Alexei can tell. “He looks like a dog somebody beat with stick,” Alexei tells Philip earlier. So Alexei is doubling down on his efforts to do what it takes to help his family. Maybe that means staying, maybe that means going but Alexei and Evgenhiya seem redoubled to making it work. She just wants her family to be happy.
“Then fight for that,” Elizabeth tells her. This might be the first time Elizabeth has told a mark the truth in a long time. Is it still on message for the Center’s mission to get the Morozovs back to Moscow? Perhaps. But Elizabeth can’t for sure know what decision Alexei and Evgheniya will make to make their family happy.
I’ve talked a lot about dog shit in a high schooler’s locker despite acknowledging at the top that the final minutes of “Darkroom” are transformative. We’ll get there. Let’s just take a moment to appreciate the status quo that it transform.
The less momentous first two-thirds of “Darkroom” may even be better than the final act. The sense that the pre-32:14 portions of “Darkroom” instills is that yes, this is all there is.
We know as an audience that Philip and Elizabeth are nearing the end of their story. There are only three episodes left this season and then one more season after this but from where Philip and Elizabeth stand, without our TV viewer’s privilege, how could they possibly feel that all this bullshit will ever end?
Yes, Gabriel has retired. Yes, the Afghan war is winding down. Yes, the kids are getting closer to flying the coop. On a micro level, however, it’s still same dog shit in a locker, different day. There’s a malaise of nonstop work that follows the Jennings family. The Center gave them a break once last year after Martha. Now those days are gone. There’s no more American dream for them. Or as Alexei puts it: “This place have food and money but not so easy to be happy.”
Philip and Elizabeth score an unambiguous victor for their country as the super wheat they secured (which has Kazakh origins it turns out) have exceeded Soviet scientists’ wildest expectations. As a reward for this good work: Philip and Elizabeth have to keep working. They must stick with Stobert and Kemp just in case anything else comes up. Cool.
Beyond just the mind-numbing, soul-crushing day-to-day work, Philip and Elizabeth still have to live with the same distrust of their handlers that they’ve dealt with for years now. They present Claudia with the audio recording that suggests the U.S.S.R. is using weaponized viruses in Afghanistan. Claudia says she doesn’t know anything about that and the conversation is over just like that.
Then herpes in human form Pastor Tim flares up again. Philip and Elizabeth come home to find Paige aggressively mopping the floor in the dead of night. What’s wrong, they ask?
“Pastor Tim thinks I might really be screwed up. He’s worried about my soul,” Paige says. She found it in his diary. Great, now the Opiate of the Masses is striking back.
Even characters outside the Jennings family are suddenly dealing with the same issues they always have. Oleg is following a lead in his grocery corruption case that seems to be going nowhere. This woman in particular drives a beatdown car with no windshield wipers and lives in a rundown apartment. Meanwhile every night he goes home to his father’s apartment and eats plate after plate of fresh fruit and starches for dinner. Oleg is so wrapped up in his own investigations and the investigation against him that the hypocrisy barely registers with him. Just like always. Another day in Moscow.
Stan and Aderholt seem to be making only minimal progress with their new mole, Sofia. They’ve got her a new apartment to meet at and they’ve got her new teeth but all she’s got her them is the news that she works with a KGB bigwig and that he’s “nice.” That same “Darkroom” synopsis that teased big developments for Paige also assures us that “Stan and Aderholt’s recruitment of Sofia suddenly bears fruit” but I see no fruit just the same American tragedy replaying over and over again for every character.
We know the end is near. The end of the Cold War and the end of the show but the characters could be forgiven for thinking that they’re just wind-up dolls going through the same motions for eternity. Even EST has a telling lesson for Philip on the subject.
“We’re all machines. Follow instinct. Your lives are mechanically programmed. Stimulus: response. But if we’re nothing more than machines programmed to respond to stimuli. What are we to make of enlightenment.? Enlightenment is the truth: accepting that you are a machine.”
Finally, confirmation of what we’ve always expected. Mail Robot is the most well-adjusted character on the show.
So everything’s dog shit (in a locker), nothing ever changes and everything always hurts in the exact same ways.
And then the final 15 minutes arrive and Philip and Elizabeth discover new, exciting ways that they can be hurt.
First, Philip and Elizabeth get married. For real this time. The Russian orthodox priest who Philip meets with last week comes back for an encore. Philip drives Elizabeth to a rundown factory in the middle of nowhere so that they can make things as official as they’re ever going to get. It’s a powerful scene, if a touch long. Not to disparage the Russian Orthodoxy but it’s difficult to view something so equally foreign and sincere for so long without some confusion and discomfort setting in. Still, it’s another level of armor around Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage that they will definitely need for what comes next.
I don’t know if Paige truly knows what she’s doing when she brings her parents photographs of Pastor Tim’s diary to develop. I kind of think she does as she’s her parents’ daughter after all. She intuitively knows how to make people tick – how to make them hurt. Regardless of intent, the effects are devastating.
Paige has concurred with her parents plan to help get Pastor Tim a job elsewhere. First, however, they should develop some of these diary photos. So in a stunning, brutal, wordless closer father, mother and daughter gather in the darkroom to see what Pastor Tim has to say.
The camera doesn’t linger on any single snapshot long enough for us to read the entire thing but what we see is damning…because it’s the truth. Pastor Tim says Philip and Elizabeth are monsters the likes of which he’s never seen. They’re evil, true evil. The damage they’ve done to Paige’s soul and psyche is incalculable. Pastor Tim has dealt with survivor’s of sexual assault less traumatized than Paige.
Here’s something new. Here’s something to break the monotony of day to day missions and tasks. Here’s every scar that Philip and Elizabeth have unknowingly inflicted on their daughter laid bare. Pastor Tim may be biased of course and he may even be manipulative but as we view every new photo through Paige’s eyes we know that he’s not wrong. There is real damage here. There’s real pain.
Tomorrow Philip and Elizabeth have to somehow go through the same missions, keep all the same secrets and deal with the same level of bullshit with the fresh knowledge that they may be ruining the only thing in the world truly important to them.
This place have food and money but not so easy to be happy.