One of the perverse side effects of prestige TV is how much we learn to empathize with antiheroes, despite abundant and unceasing evidence of their criminal misbehavior. Just by virtue of spending time with characters like Tony Soprano, these shows turn us into Dr. Melfi, constantly squinting to find something redeemable about condemned souls who will never walk the path of the righteous. In the later seasons of The Sopranos, creator David Chase went to extraordinary lengths to make Tony as repulsive as possible, punishing the bloodlust of those who tuned in for the Sunday whackings. But everyone’s the hero of their own story and if you spend enough time by their side, you’re naturally inclined to see the world from their perspective. It takes some serious jostling to see things otherwise.
The Americans has always been a particularly complicated example, because Philip and Elizabeth are legitimately sacrificing their lives and their happiness for their country and because they believe (or Elizabeth believes, anyway) the moral balance sheet works out in their favor. But we’ve seen many times this season alone that these are lies they tell themselves and lies they are now passing on to their eldest daughter. They cling to the fantasy that the super-wheat assignment can eventually justify the killing of an innocent lab technician, even though the only thing they know for certain is that Ben Stobert and Co. are on a mission to feed the world. In truth, they haven’t been able to tell Paige anything past the initial premise of the mission — that the Americans were trying to sabotage Soviet crops — because the rest of the story is too complicated and too shameful to disclose.
Consider the last two scenes before the opening credits of “Darkroom,” the best and most consequential episode of The Americans since “Lotus 1-2-3.” The first has Tuan coming home from school to find Elizabeth waiting in the kitchen. He’s looking for absolution for his clandestine mission to Harrisburg and she obliges, with the stern caveat that he never take a risk like that again. The conversation then shifts to Pasha, whose misery Tuan deliberately intensifies in order to push his family back to Russia, where the KGB can exploit his mother’s affair with a CIA deputy chief in Moscow. Tuan has convinced the school bullies to put dog shit in Pasha’s locker. Elizabeth nods her head. “Good,” she says. Pasha is a scared, alienated kid who’s been yanked from home and thrown into a foreign land, where he has no grasp of the language and no evident charisma to make up for it. For this, Tuan detests him and Philip and Elizabeth have no qualms about pounding him with emotional abuse.
In the second, the Jenningses find Paige alone in the kitchen at night, mopping the floor. This is what we in the art-interpretation game call “symbolism,” though there’s nonetheless something unnerving about Paige privately scrubbing her linoleum conscience. She reveals that she babysat again for Pastor Tim and looked through his diary. “Pastor Tim thinks I might really be screwed up,” she says. “He’s worried about my soul.” The suggestion that it may be because of all the lying makes Elizabeth bristle. They kept the truth from her in order to protect her. “And when you were ready,” she says. “We told you.” Which is, of course, a lie. They are still keeping many truths from Paige in order to protect themselves. They have been reduced to propagandists.
Here’s some of visible text from the stunning final scene of “Darkroom,” when Philip and Elizabeth develop the photographs Paige has taken of Pastor Tim’s diary:
“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.”
“There’s a severe psychic injury. Faith may help but I fear the damage is done.”
“How can she trust anyone ever again? She may never understand the difference between truth and …”
“I’m afraid for this girl. She may not even realize how much she’s suffering.”
Antihero TV — and perhaps the hairpiece atop Kelly AuCoin’s skull — has trained us to share the resentment Philip and Elizabeth have for Pastor Tim. “She’s starting to see him for what he is,” Elizabeth says darkly earlier in the episode, as they consider driving a permanent wedge between Tim and their daughter. But as the three are standing together in the darkroom, staring up at the pages from his diary, we can see Pastor Tim for who he is: a decent, genuine caretaker of his parishioners’ souls. Diaries are often a repository of our deepest, darkest secrets, but there’s no disparity between the contents of Tim’s diary and the counsel he offers in public. In other words, he practices what he preaches.
With all the focus on the diary pages, it’s worth watching the scene again to study Holly Taylor’s face. This is Paige’s cry for help, her passive-aggressive way of unmasking the lies her parents might be telling themselves about the “progress” they’ve made with her. Not all teenagers share Paige’s ability to look outside herself and consider the plight of other people — something we see with the scene of her packing groceries with Pastor Tim — but Philip and Elizabeth are actively twisting these noble instincts to their own (and the Center’s) end. Now Paige has confronted them with a truth that they can’t downplay or deny so readily. At best, they are destroying her life. At worst, they’ve already destroyed it.
It means something that this moment comes after Philip and Elizabeth, in a genuinely touching scene, make their marriage official in front of the Lord and whatever ghosts might be bearing witness. Father Andre praises God, “who united strangers and gave them an indestructible union of love.” Just a few scenes later, we see the product of that union, a child devoted to a family that is making her suffer for it. As children of the Revolution, Philip and Elizabeth know the feeling.
Hammers and Sickles
• The Oleg/Russia subplot continues its slow drip of information, with Oleg and his partner spying on a modest-living target in the food corruption case and returning home to a particularly brittle dinner with his parents. Meanwhile, the birds are circling.
• Philip and Elizabeth hand over the tape of Kimmy’s dad to Claudia, who denies any knowledge about the sample they retrieved from William Crandall’s body being used for viral warfare. It’s safe to say that Claudia would not tell them even if she knew.
• “You did something so huge and nobody even knows,” marvels Paige over the news that a (nonexistent) diabolical American plot has been thwarted. It’s the nature of a spy’s job that heroism goes unnoticed. Paige will have to learn that real heroism is elusive.
• “I don’t want Stan to be like Martha.” When the time came, Philip was able to swallow his guilt and affection for Martha and have her sent away to Russia. Stan is being set up as a test he may not be able to pass.
• Bauhaus’s “Slice of Life” is a particularly excellent song selection for the final scene, both for its dark atmospheric charge and for lyrics (“So I lied to you once again”) that suggest the theme without underlining it too heavily.