There’s a moment in “Immersion”—you already know the one I mean—at which the camera pans to the patch in the wall and Paige (Holly Taylor) drifts out of focus. Even before Elizabeth (Keri Russell) speaks, the sight of the rough rectangle where her rapist’s head punctured the plaster steels us against the onrush of the past, just as Elizabeth steels herself: She closes her eyes, face framed in tight close-up, and tells of that long-ago trauma as one that shaped, then re-shaped, her life. “The more I fought, the better I felt,” she says, reassuring her daughter that the terror she’s feeling will eventually dissipate. “And I’m OK. I’m not afraid anymore. And you’re not going to be, either.”
Here, in the Jennings’ garage, as Paige, impatient for progress, continues her training, The Americans displays its adroit sense, as Joan Didion once wrote, that “style is character.” With the slightest change in the composition of the image, we become privy to Elizabeth’s train of thought: At first, the mention of fear sends her eye, and her mind, to its lingering traces; then, we watch her gather her strength, channeling calm; finally, we return to Paige, her expression of surprise and concern swiftly met by her mother’s comfort. In short, the scene combines the actors’ emotional naturalism with the series’ subtle formal cues to suggest the hour’s hinge, the central event in an episode that begins and ends in medias res. At a glance, “Immersion” seems as soft as a whisper, but as with much of The Americans’ fifth season, its echo carries far.
In the midst of an arc that has made the series’ multiple histories—personal, familial, political—more inextricable from each other than ever, “Immersion” plunges into the annals of The Americans even as it presses forward; Elizabeth and Paige’s exchange is simply the most striking of several interludes in which the characters’ choices are informed by the past without being bound by it. Gabriel’s replacement by Claudia (Margo Martindale), for instance, sets Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth on edge, a reminder that the trio’s working relationship has often been strained—and yet, chastened by her dispiriting time in Russia, Claudia is careful not to “handle” her agents as before. Elizabeth warms to her, albeit warily, going so far as to admit that she and Philip will never “see eye to eye” when it comes to Paige’s future: It’s as if, in finding common ground with Claudia—another mother, not unlike herself, or her own—Elizabeth acknowledges that Claudia, too, has a past, one suffused with its fair share of pain.
After all, one of the advantages of The Americans’ methodical construction, both dense and delicate, is that no conflict, once resolved, is ever quite finished; as in life, the consequences of our actions, and the actions of those around us, tend to endure longer than we bargain for. Though Philip and Elizabeth’s partnership is stable, then, the strife of “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears” leaves its own lingering traces in “Immersion”—as Elizabeth once again misinterprets her husband’s interest in EST (the initial subject of their acrimonious encounter in Season Four’s finest hour) while trying to account for the end of his relationship with Deirdre (Clea Lewis). “Next time, you might have to hurt someone’s feelings again,” she suggests, and she needn’t mention Martha by name to signal that Philip’s former lover still shadows the Jennings’ marriage. In similar fashion, as Soviet officials ransack Oleg’s (Costa Ronin) bedroom, the meaning of his mother’s (Snezhana Chernova) tacit warning, “They find things even when there’s nothing,” is abundantly clear: She has not fought her fear of political purges to a draw so much as found ways to avoid it—until now. In this, “Immersion” points to The Americans’ terseness as the place where its portraits of kinship and tradecraft fuse together: For the spy and the spouse, the handler and the parent, entire histories reside in the space between the lines.
If the episode’s profusion of plot threads emphasizes its interstitial nature, then—Topeka and Tuan (Ivan Mok) are more or less on hold; the FBI continues to cultivate its new contact; Evgheniya Morozov (Irina Dvorovenko) romances a man, possibly a “big sex guy,” from the CIA; and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) crushes on Chris—its structure underscores life’s lack of clean beginnings and endings: In between birth and death, it’s all in media res, each moment made by what came before as we attempt to mold what comes after. “Immersion” closes on a sweet note, with that lovely winter stroll on which Paige pokes fun at her mother’s missing “bedside manner,” but in the context of the opening sequence, Elizabeth’s abandoned interest in medicine contains a certain pathos: She wants for Paige to learn from her, to emulate her, even as she begins to understand that the future she envisions for her daughter—free from fear, from strife, from the fatigue that’s worn her husband and her handlers down to the bone—is one in which Elizabeth’s professional experience is relegated to the dustbin of history. “Wouldn’t it be a nice world if nobody had to do this,” she says softly, though the awful consequences of “this” are sure to shape Paige for years.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.