There are, by my count, three dark rooms in “Darkroom,” all nestled within the hour’s outstanding second half: The one described by the EST seminar leader, spliced to superb effect with Philip’s (Matthew Rhys) daylight run; the one in which he and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) are married by a Russian Orthodox priest (Konstantin Lavysh); and the one in which the Jennings examine, in tandem, Pastor Tim’s (Kelly AuCoin) fretful assessment of Paige (Holly Taylor). As with the finest entries in The Americans’ canon, then, including “Behind the Red Door,” “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?” and “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears,” “Darkroom” pieces together otherwise disparate fragments through its elaboration of a single theme, though I must admit I was wrong, in my review of “IHOP,” to predict its form as “fission.” No, in the exchange of rings as in that blood-red light, or in the match cut of Philip’s face as he hears he’s a pre-programmed machine, The Americans achieves a far more powerful force: fusion.
To unite the characters in common purpose, “Darkroom” must first establish their divisions, and it does so in subtle, efficient strokes. Philip and Elizabeth’s aliases often contain the germ of their private lives, so it’s telling that their respective conversations with Alexei and Evgheniya Morozov (Alexander Sokovikov and Irina Dvorovenko) should refer to the complications of kinship: Philip’s suggestion that there is no permanent peace in marriage (“She’s my wife, I’m going to fight with her, right?”) echoes Elizabeth’s advice for her adulterous mark (“Then fight for that”), underscoring the intractable disagreements that shadowed the action last week. It’s their conversation in the office, though, after Paige describes the contents of Pastor Tim’s diary, that most succinctly expresses the distance between them; combining changes of focus, tight close-ups and a scant handful of cuts, the moment finds the couple of two minds—Philip’s concerned that Paige’s upset is likely to linger, while Elizabeth’s confident Paige will be fine.
Unlike the Burovs, suffering through dinner together in silence, or the Morozovs, already damaged—perhaps beyond repair—by their life in exile, events soon conspire to drive Philip and Elizabeth together. It may be that Pasha’s struggle at school stirs up thoughts of Paige, made miserable by Pastor Tim’s scribbling, revealing the Jennings’ secret: As with Kimmy, Young Hee, and especially Martha, the plan to break Pasha, orchestrated by Tuan (Ivan Mok) with Philip and Elizabeth’s assent, presses on the omnipresent bruise beneath The Americans’ surface, its understanding that no one is immune to the pain of isolation, the awful twinge of broken trust. (“I don’t want Stan to be like Martha,” Philip says, in a similar vein, when Elizabeth questions his ongoing suspicion of Renee.) Even likelier, it’s that their strained exchange with Claudia (Margo Martindale) pushes the pair to set aside their differences in favor of that familiar alliance; the way Claudia brushes off their request for news of the hemorrhagic fever, then condemns them to “years” in the arms of Stobert and Kemp, sends Philip and Elizabeth off in disgust, seething at the Centre’s incomprehensible workings.
It’s here—after Tuan, after Pasha, after Paige; after Claudia, Stan and Renee—that the shape of “Darkroom” shifts, a coded message from the far extremes of family life that still translates to our own. The episode’s latter stages are rich with the raw materials of The Americans’ greatness: the structural daring, the keen use of music and montage, the sensitive treatment of the lies we tell ourselves and our loved ones, and also, more rarely, the truths. Indeed, for all its attention to the ties that bind the Jennings together, “Darkroom” is also a photonegative of the innumerable factors that might tear them apart. Even in the midst of that sweet midnight ceremony, for which Philip and Elizabeth remove their disguise, there are intimations of their prior pitched battles, their longtime partnership’s intermittent fights. “I know it’s not perfect, with God and everything,” Philip jests. “And you have not promised yourself to any other bride?” Father Andrei asks, more pointedly. In an episode defined by its lies of omission—as Elizabeth denies that the family secret is a form of falsehood, or as she and Philip fail to inform Paige that the promise of stronger wheat is not “so huge” as she seems to think—it’s striking that the Jennings conclude their marriage by stashing their rings: Their most affecting gesture of commitment in the entire series must swiftly be hidden, lest they expose who they are.
This is the axis around which the series spins: the notion that all is indeed fair in love and war, but only if you can bear the consequences. For it’s the confrontation with the truth, or two versions of it, that links the “dark room” of the EST leader’s imagination and the makeshift darkroom of the Jennings’ basement, each one a glimpse of the damage we inflict on those closest to us because of the hurt we feel ourselves. Stimulus. Response. Stimulus. Response. Stimulus. Response: The aforementioned match cut comes as Philip feels his way through this season’s darkness toward the destruction of the Morozovs, an instinct no different, perhaps, from his father’s in the prison camp or Gabriel’s during Stalin’s purge. If Philip is a mere “machine,” though, the ghost in that machine, as I wrote last week, is the outline of dissent in his wisdom for Paige, rattling with the hope that she will escape her parents’ sins. “Who you are as a kid,” he promises her, “you don’t have to stay that way.”
If the three shadows on the stairwell’s wall offer a pinprick of excitement, then, the episode’s final sequence, set to Bauhaus’ “Slice of Life,” is also cut with the wrenching impression that Paige is past saving. Returning from Pastor Tim’s with film of his diary’s pages—the very sort of instinct for espionage that Philip fears she’ll inherit—she is, more than ever before, the spitting image of her parents. “The damage is done,” Pastor Tim writes. “She doesn’t even know how much she’s suffering.” The ferocity of that closing montage, a raft of rapid cuts and pans so rare in The Americans that I am unable to recall another example, highlights the terror of the series’ central truth, which is that the consequences of our lies, in love as in war, have a way of passing from generation to generation. It is an irrefutable, medical fact that blood is thicker than water, but in the crimson light of Season Five’s bleakest and most brilliant hour, the sentiment carries less comfort than caution. “So clear up what you are,” the song urges:
Burn out these eyes
Rip up this place and scream
‘I am your slice of life.’
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.