From an International House of Pancakes in Harrisburg, Pa. to a no-frills apartment in Moscow, from an outbreak of Lassa among the mujahedeen to a tony boarding school in New Hampshire, The Americans’ tentacles reach the ends of the Earth. Though its drama often inhabits, as I wrote last week, “the space between the lines,” the series draws on the Cold War’s signature feature, which is its span in place and time: In five seasons, through flashbacks and conversations, sustained subplots and brief allusions, The Americans has asked us to reconsider World War II, the Stalinist purges, nuclear proliferation, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, Nicaraguan contras, and South African apartheid, condensing four decades of conflict until it fits in the Jennings’ garage. If the five-episode arc that follows “The Midges” boils The Americans down to its fundamental elements, its atomic weight, “IHOP” sets in motion a process of fission that promises fireworks to come: It is as wide-ranging an episode as the series has ever delivered, reeling in the long ago and far away until the lines begin to seem like a net.
The photograph of Kimmy (Julia Garner) in her father’s office signals this structure from the opening frames, and from there “IHOP” proceeds to rummage through the series’ attic. There’s the specter of Mischa, of Henry (Keidrich Sellati) and Paige, in Philip’s (Matthew Rhys) pledge to “do it right” this time around. There’s the shadow of William and Hans in the news of hemorrhagic fever on the Afghan front. There’s the mention of Nina in Oleg’s (Costa Ronin) discussion with two Soviet investigators. And then, of course, there’s Martha (Alison Wright) and Gabriel (Frank Langella), not phantoms at all but forthright presences, the double helix around which the episode swings.
With its brutal punctuation on Martha’s appearance in “The Midges,” “IHOP” appears to close the chapter on The Americans’ most recent interregnum, mirroring the arc of her exile in Season Four: After her wounded exchange with the Jennings’ former handler, anchored by Wright’s superb turn, the season shifts into declarative mode, as rueful and hard-edged as she is. This is the grand ambition hidden within the series’ subtle design—to situate its characters’ imprint in the narrative scaffolding, matching its understanding of “old scars, new skin” with another that goes bone-deep. In the course of a few minutes, after all, Wright captures the profound dissatisfaction that now pervades The Americans, mixing Martha’s wrenching loneliness with ice-cold wrath. (“Well, that must be nice,” she says when Gabriel mentions his family, a line spoken so sharply I felt the sting on the back of my neck.) It’s not simply that her life is forlorn, though it is—she has no career, no friends, no “suitable” suitors, only drab clothes and pitiful dinners through which she seems to be willing herself to disappear. It’s that she’s come to see her insignificance in this interminable conflict, her infinitesimal place on the Cold War map.
At the moment she finally meets Gabriel’s eye—after staring, near tears, into some untold recollection—”IHOP” brings this season’s remarkable gambit into relief: Here, at her table, are the seeds of the Soviet Union’s ultimate self-destruction, the point at which fear and fatigue blossom into fury. “What’s best for me?” she spits, rebuffing his reassurances. “I understand everything now, Gabriel. All of it.”
All of it: This gets at the connection between “IHOP,” Season Five and The Americans entire, among the multiple histories I spied last week. More uncertain than ever, the characters’ commitment to the fight for or against communism must now navigate “all of it,” all the awful wreckage strewn just off the series’ shore. “Every family has a story like this,” Oleg’s father (Boris Krutonog) says of Mrs. Burov’s time in the camps, and on this point, at least, he’s right. What do any of the characters have to show for a lifetime of sacrifices, of dead colleagues, betrayed friends, innocent victims, unhappy children, distant lovers, former marks? The promise of an assignment in publishing? A cloud of suspicion? A retirement as barren as Siberia itself? A widow’s desire for revenge, a son’s desperation to flee, a daughter’s broken spirit? It’s not simply that the Cold War cannot be won, though it can’t—not with biological weapons in Afghanistan, not with napalm in Vietnam. It’s that each insignificant cog in the conflict, each infinitesimal dot on its map, loses so much in the process. This is, has been, the ghost in the series’ machine all along, and as such Season Five’s mournful quiet seems, to me, essential: It is the simmer of resentment that precedes revolution, the calm before the storm.
And so “IHOP” turns, in its final stages, toward action, its knotted histories unraveling before our eyes. There’s Oleg, nursing his anger at Nina’s unjust execution as he coerces a name from a source. There’s Tuan (Ivan Mok), slipping out in the dead of night to call his foster family in Seattle. There’s Philip and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) cornering their charge at gunpoint, then returning to their most intractable disagreement in the car. “Maybe that’s what he wants,” Philip says, speaking not for Tuan but himself. “To be pulled out of this shit. Start over.” “That’s not who he is,” Elizabeth replies, trying to convince herself as much as she is her husband. It is, as with Martha’s dismissal of Gabriel, a proxy for every conflict in The Americans’ annals: Whether their cause is noble, whether their children should follow in their footsteps or strike out on their own, whether their marriage is strong. In this, “IHOP” condenses four decades in the characters’ lives much as the series does the Cold War itself, each, in its way, a ferociously brilliant miniature. “It had counted after all,” Joan Didion writes in “Goodbye to All That,” a sentiment tonight’s episode echoes. ”[E]very evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.