The ghosts that haunt The Americans

Stan wishes the dead would just be dead. But that's not how it works. They linger on.

Noah Emmerlich as Sam Beeman.
(Image credit: Matthias Clamer/FX)

The Americans has never held the viewer's hand. Instead, it drops names and directorates and historical references and trusts the viewer to pick them up. That's true at the level of plot, too: Missions develop quickly and — because Philip and Elizabeth have so much shared experience and communicate via shorthand that borders on telepathy — the kind of exposition that explains who this person is and what they're for isn't always forthcoming. Characters with complicated names and vague back stories — or simple names and complicated back stories — are introduced and incorporated and left behind.

Rarely has a show been less sentimental about its own past.

Five seasons in, that cold and speedy realism — that absolute insistence that you keep up with the KGB and the FBI's deep understanding of players to whom you've only just been introduced — has taken its toll. When an exhausted Gabriel laments that "it adds up," he's right: It's an effect we experience too, and with a similar lack of specificity. Gabriel's recollections about his own violent past were painful but generic in ways that mirror the buzzy remembered shock with which a viewer might try to narrate early seasons of The Americans. Try to describe those early arcs and I suspect you'll quickly run into difficulties: None but the most dedicated fans will be able to do so completely or accurately.

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Quick: What was Stan Beeman's partner's name? What was the story with the woman who ended up stuffed in a suitcase? How did you feel about Zhukov? Do you even remember Zhukov? Whom was Nina targeting at the Rezidentura and why?

That isn't a problem with the fandom; it's an artifact of the show's construction. We don't often get to think about the long-term ways a series distorts memory, but if this surprisingly slow season has demonstrated anything at all, it's that The Americans has always been an anxiously presentist show. You aren't supposed to look backwards because (as everyone involved in the KGB keeps saying) Never Mind Then, Things Are Different Now. The price of committing murder on an ongoing basis is guilt, so our protagonists dodge memories like they dodge blows. Forget that! On to the next thing!

That's harder to do when the pace has slowed this much. The show's tension has gone slack in ways that feel suspicious but — for the purposes of excavating memories we'd rather leave buried — productive. Elizabeth's ability to remain in denial is tougher to sustain when she isn't being overwhelmed with emergencies and life-threatening missions. And while it's clear that we're building up to some major conflict for the last four episodes — whatever's going on with Henry will be revealed (my theory is here) — this nine-episode calm before the storm has made me realize how good this show's superficial velocity is at producing a kind of affective amnesia. Its speed helps you forget a colossal amount of world-building and (not coincidentally) violence.

Season five has shown all the signs of wanting to take up those conveniently blurry histories. If you've forgotten some details or characters, the show that never held your hand is suddenly grabbing your arm. It's at great pains to remind you. "IHOP" is a virtual haunting, a heavily expository visit to all the Ghosts of Missions Past. Claudia came back last week, and now here's Kimmy! Martha! Agent Gaad's wife! This episode was a Who's Who of old Americans plots. Oleg is even asked to deliver a refresher course on the Nina plot and his long history with Stan.

And why? Well, because the anesthetic effects of amnesia are local and subjective. Even if we forgot about Agent Gaad, his widow didn't. We might have forgotten the Centre's treatment of Martha, but Martha lives on. Oleg might never have known about his mother's past, but his parents did, and lived with it. Tuan's ideological rejection of the family that took him in is all talk: He can't help but visit them. This is a painful history, a different kind of realism. If The Americans' early strategy was to reproduce the ways in which people pass briefly through your life (or your mission) and disappear, season five takes up a different strain, one that resonates precisely because things don't get truncated. Plots don't end just because they no longer include you. The show is lecturing us — and the Jenningses, and Stan — on the limits of its own sympathetic experiments. Philip can't separate Gabriel from the things he's done, and that lesson is being extended to us, too: We can root for Philip and Elizabeth, but we don't get to forget what they did.

The real pathos of Gabriel telling Martha that "Clark" thinks of her often (and wanted to send her a note) isn't that Clark didn't exist. It isn't even that Martha clearly understands how she was used. It's that, for all the conflicted feelings Martha provoked in Philip at the time, he doesn't appear to have given Martha a thought since.

The same is true for Stan. It was unwise for Stan to hopefully suggest to Agent Gaad's widow — thinking, I guess, that she'd agree that the dead are dead — that his boss wouldn't have wanted revenge. While everyone busily represses the past, only Oleg is honest: He's still angry about Nina's death.

The biggest sign that this "Never Look Back" approach is failing is the return of lassa fever. Philip's ongoing visits with Kimmy lead him to discover that the U.S.S.R. is apparently using the biological weapon — which William died to obtain in order to defend his country from a potential attack — in Afghanistan. The chickens are coming home to roost. All we need is a call from Hans' visiting sister to drive home the point: The Jenningses can put amnesia on like a hat, but these things do not go away.

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