Every week, some of Vox’s writers will gather to discuss the latest episode of FX’s spy drama The Americans. This week, critic at large Todd VanDerWerff, associate editor Libby Nelson, and staff writer Alissa Wilkinson talk about “Immersion,” the eighth episode of season five.
Todd VanDerWerff: Because I was on vacation when they aired, I watched the sixth and seventh episodes of this season of The Americans right on top of each other, immediately before watching this eighth episode. And not only did the three episodes form a loose trilogy of sorts — call it the Gabriel trilogy — but they all informed each other in interesting ways.
I've gotten the sense from some fans of the show that they're feeling this season hasn't yet coalesced in the way previous seasons have. (Remember: At this point in season four, we'd already sent Martha off to the Soviet Union!) And I'd have to agree with that. But after watching these episodes one after the other, I think that's very much intentional.
Or, put another way: Something's coming, and we're meant to be terrified of it.
These episodes ramp up the dread, and when "Immersion" ends on a wide shot of Elizabeth and Paige in the distance, taking their walk, talking about how maybe Elizabeth could have been a doctor if her life had taken a different turn, it was hard not to think that the conversation served as a premature obituary for some other Elizabeth, someone who hadn't hardened herself so much that she seemingly doesn't feel things any more, except when they slip through the cracks of her exterior.
Structurally, the season has so many balls in the air that if this were any other series, I would be sort of nervous about some of them being dropped.
But The Americans has never really had the chance to try this kind of “everything’s up in the air” story, because it's never had the benefit of knowing another season is coming. In a way, it reminds me of the first half of The Sopranos' final season, which felt at the time like a bunch of throat clearing but now plays as one last pause before the descent.
That's enough big-picture stuff for now, though. What did you both think about "Immersion" and its many, many, many plot strands?
Should we be feeling mounting pressure — or frustration?
Libby Nelson: Ooh, I’m dying to talk about this — because I wish I were having the response to these episodes that you’ve experienced, Todd.
I want to feel the building pressure and the looming sense of doom. Instead, I’m just frustrated and lost. I’m confident it’s all heading somewhere, but not from anything we’ve seen in the show itself; I simply have too much faith in The Americans to believe otherwise. (Well, and the fact that I had the same impression for most of season five of Mad Men — whose final episodes then turned out to be the best arc of the series’ entire run.)
Then again, I’m still watching week to week, and this season feels influenced by the rise of streaming and bingeing — it seems like we have a lot of plot lines and yet somehow not a lot of plot.
In part, I suspect, this mirrors how Philip and Elizabeth are feeling too, pulled in a dozen different directions between missions they’re not fully invested in. The result is that while there’s a lot going on, most plots feel like they’re nowhere near a climax. Existing characters’ stories feel like they’ve slowed to a crawl — Stan has taken months to develop a source, which is accurate, I’m sure, but not necessarily a thrill a minute to watch — and new additions don’t get the emotional space and time to breathe that made William and Young Hee, for example, such vital figures last season. The Jenningses, and The Americans itself, are spread thin. It can’t be meaningless that Tuan once again, in “Immersion,” begged for time and attention that our protagonists simply don’t have.
And those protagonists are getting sloppy. We’ve seen Philip pack paramours into suitcases and/or send them off to Moscow, but we’ve never seen one send him packing — until Deirdre, who wanted someone a bit more aggressive. (She never met Clark in the bedroom, I guess.) He managed to execute a last-minute save by claiming to be married (which intrigued Deirdre), but it makes me wonder: What else is getting sloppy treatment from two people who are, as far as I can tell, just plain burning out?
Todd: Season five is the best season of Mad Men on an episode-to-episode basis, Libby, how dare you.
Libby: It’s improved dramatically for me with age. But I vividly remember just being confused by where all these weird, disparate plot threads (and red herrings) were going.
Alissa Wilkinson: I can see that, but on the other hand, that's what I love about television that is almost impossible to pull off in film: the brushstrokes on an upside-down canvas that only reveal themselves to make sense when the whole thing is completed. That's what I loved about Mad Men, and for me it's a mark of great TV writing — though it can make for infuriating viewing in the week-to-week stretches.
But as you’ve noted, Libby, I think what we're seeing is two characters burning out. (Well, more than two — Paige is also treading water; there's no way we're not headed for an explosion there.) A lot of what passes for TV drama often seems unmotivated to me: characters having dramatic emotional moments because a big moment has to happen to get the plot to move forward. Here, though, it feels like the show is letting us feel some of Philip and Elizabeth’s weariness.
And their uncertainty, too. Philip isn't the only one feeling rejected, remember; Elizabeth watched the evidence in the last episode that she's not the only thing on her own mark's mind, even though it seems like he really likes her. It's making her uncertain as well (even if it leads to Philip paying her a rather nice compliment).
What struck me about this episode was how everyone is navigating cultural divides between themselves and their own parents, in one way or another. Oleg tells his parents they don't understand how things are today — they're from the older generation. Philip and Elizabeth feel the same way about Gabriel and now Claudia, wondering what sort of things their mentors (or at least handlers) actually did in the past.
The Jenningses are faking a connection with Tuan, whom they nonetheless find a bit idealistic, and there's a big divide between them and Paige. They've raised an American kid who naturally thinks about what people actually wanted to do when they grew up, what her parents' hopes and dreams were. It's like seeing the gap between an older Soviet Union and a newer one. Same principles, different feeling. Maybe?
Is this whole season about the inability to escape the past? Perhaps!
Todd: That inability to wholly account for the past has haunted this entire season. We're only now really getting into, say, Stalin's gulags (one of the few things most American laypeople would think of when it comes to "the Soviet Union") and how they continue to haunt certain characters.
And the generational conflicts around Mischa and Paige are starting to unravel at an alarming rate, even if that's happening mostly off to the side of the main story. Children are accounting for the sins of their parents all over the place, even when they don't know what they are.
The Americans has always been at its strongest when the show’s spy storylines neatly intersect with its questions of what it means to be part of a family. This, if anywhere, is where season five is sort of marking time. Sometimes — as when Philip killed the lab worker — the two clash in horrifying fashion. But mostly, the show feels far more engaged by the human stories than the spy stories. That's my preference too, but it means the show doesn't always have the strongest story engine.
With the depopulation of the cast, the Stan side of things in particular feels less and less like it matters outside of knowing that he will probably react poorly when he finds out Elizabeth and Philip's secret. (I couldn’t tell you what his FBI storyline is supposed to be about this season, beyond a basic sketch.) And the overall feeling we've gotten about Philip and Elizabeth's missions this season is: All of this is pointless.
Which is not a bad place to leave us, to be honest. The Americans has always been a bit skeptical of placing ideology above human connection. That's always made it a great TV show, but it's also made the show feel absolutely vital in this particular historical moment.
Gabriel's final warning to Philip last week that Paige shouldn't have been drawn into all of this is echoed in Claudia's realization that her own grandchildren didn't know her. Do the ghosts that all of our spies chase bring meaning to their lives? Or is it their human connections that bring meaning?
Or think about that moment when Paige, understandably, goes to hug her mother after Elizabeth tells her daughter about how she was raped. Elizabeth holds her at arm's length, because that's what Elizabeth does. That's what all of these people do — push away instead of pull close. And season five is arguing it's wrecked all of them, is maybe even wrecking Paige in this moment.
Alissa: I wonder, though, if Paige is the Jenningses' salvation. (I don't really intend the double meaning of that, but it's true that Paige keeps wearing her cross necklace conspicuously in every scene.) She has the ability to surprise her parents, to show a commitment to their values that doesn't seem like it's totally compatible with them, either. As someone wrote several seasons ago about this show, it's kind of remarkable that it chose to have a professionally Christian character who isn't caught up in all the Moral Majority stuff but rather is a progressive Marx-reading pastor.
It's also interesting to me that Elizabeth talks to Philip about EST in this episode, while having apparently taken up tai chi, which certainly also has spiritual roots. She likes that it's relaxing, but I think she also sees a kind of grounded core in Ben Stolbert that she admires and understands. If she sees a groundedness and a concern for humanity in several different Americans, like Stolbert and her daughter, that she hadn't really thought of as part of their culture before, could that be what is subtly chipping away at her confidence?
I'm stuck on Stan, though. Renée wants him to go skydiving. She keeps upping the ante. If she's a spy, I think she might be trying to get Stan killed, except in a plausible way.
The Stan theory corner
Libby: Since you brought up Renée, it’s time for a Stan theory that’s been rattling around in my head all day: What if Stan doesn’t figure out who Philip and Elizabeth really are on his own? What if they (okay, Philip) tell him the truth because it’s the only way to avert some kind of deadly danger — like a Center-approved assassination via skydiving — to Stan himself?
I’ve long assumed Stan Beeman, FBI Man, will find out the truth, but it’s rare for an interpersonal plot on The Americans to unfold just the way you think it will, and it would fit with the ongoing theme of valuing human connection over ideology.
However, it’s possible Renée represents merely another way for The Americans to put us inside the characters’ heads. What have we really learned from this storyline? That, like Philip, we’re paranoid, seeing spies and danger everywhere.
Speaking of human connections: I know Philip and Elizabeth have, you know, destroyed marriages, threatened innocents, actually killed people, but is there anything more cold-blooded than calmly plotting with Tuan to make an already unhappy kid so miserable that his mother decides the only option is to flee the country?
If there’s a ticking time bomb planted in this season, my guess is it’s not in the Jennings household itself, but in the second family that Philip and Elizabeth have set up, complete with a third child they don’t really understand.
Todd: As we talked about above, this isn’t the first time Tuan has told his “parents” that they need to spend more time at the house, before something bad happens. And even as season five of The Americans seems to flout storytelling convention all over the place, I doubt it would go so far as to completely ignore such blatant foreshadowing.
The same goes for the season’s various targets, on both sides, who have been turned into such basic plot functionaries that the story keeps stretching tighter and tighter until something’s gotta give. The spy scene that gives the episode its title — with Philip and Elizabeth realizing Evgheniya is having an affair with one of her Russian immersion students — also flips the show’s interest in human connection on its ear. Human connection, after all, is what Philip, Elizabeth, and Stan all exploit to get their jobs done.
Maybe I’m reading too much into this. Maybe this season is casting about for something to hold on to because the real fireworks can’t start for a few more episodes. But “Immersion” struck me as purposeful in its aimlessness. Something’s coming, and once we know what it is, a lot of this season will snap into place.
The Americans airs Tuesdays at 10 pm on FX. You can keep up with our coverage of this season here.