For the past nine weeks, The Americans has been readying its audience for the events in ‘Stingers.’ It is almost as though the unforgettable moments of brutal physical and emotional violence – carried out by Philip and Elizabeth, or others, like Hans and Rueben, and some by Philip or Elizabeth onto one another – were like Elizabeth guiding Hans through his training. In that sense, a broken body folded into a suitcase, the painful extraction of a shattered tooth, the immolation of a man, and the slow, agonizing forced suicide of an unlucky bystander have been the proving ground of season 3. They have been preparation for the moment when Paige learns the truth about her parents.
There are times when a television show crosses a particular Rubicon and the audience knows that nothing is ever going to be the same. The audience knows that what has transpired will alter the series in a fundamental but necessary way. And here, that brutal moment of truth, like so many on what has been a brilliant and grim season full of compromise and delusions of ideologies, comes at the most unexpected moment. The effect, then, leaves the characters and the audience off balance; it’s like Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields are committed to making Philip and Elizabeth walk on icy, slanted sidewalks, where the inevitability of a nasty spill is simply a question of when. The answer: when the fall is most likely to cause permanent damage.
“Do you hate me?” Elizabeth asks Philip immediately after their daughter’s life was irrevocably changed, during an emotionally charged and yet surprisingly sedate sit down around the Jennings’ less formal, more familial dining table. Philip tells her he doesn’t, but his voice is distant, disconnected, like the phone he took off the hook.
It’s strange to think, but in that moment, when Philip and Elizabeth have committed themselves to an irreversible action – effectively doing as the Centre had told them, acquiescing to Gabriel’s placid demands – they were never closer as a couple or as a family. Elizabeth’s concern is what Philip thinks of her, while Philip’s actions effectively sequester the Jennings household, shelter it from the distractions of the outside world. For the first time, the Jenningses are closer to being a family than ever before, a fact that comes at the exact moment they are closer than ever to being torn completely apart. It is the stinging threat of tragedy within a microcosm that feels impossibly large.
The truth is out, but Philip and Elizabeth are still navigating that icy, slanted sidewalk. And that is what makes ‘Stingers’ such an impressive an unforgettable episode. The hour builds intrigue, layering the CIA’s Mujahideen visitors with Philip’s ongoing relationship with Kimmy, and the revelation that Zinaida is codename: Willow – a double agent seemingly caught in a web of interdepartmental miscommunication. But it’s not long before Paige’s feral demands derail any notion of spycraft, leaving the episode plenty of time to handle her parent’s admission and to deal with the fallout.
There is no cliffhanger here. It is all or nothing. The episode is as completely committed to seeing the situation through as the determined 16-year-old waiting in the kitchen like a frustrated parent. In that moment, the brinkmanship of the Cold War has nothing on Paige. The escalation of the dangerous situation inside their modest suburban home was deliberate, a move encouraged by Pastor Tim, but likely learned through osmosis, the result of reading between the lines of her parents’ relationship or the inevitable consequence of breathing the air of the era in which she lives. Paige’s deep inhalation of so much politicking forces her parents to go to work and hold their breath. It is a long, drawn out day told in a moment, but that moment carries the agonizing weight of hours spend in uncertainty.
It is an effective transition of the balance of power that also shifts the perspective for a single, thrilling moment, when Stan shows up for another feeding, and has his enjoyment of a distinctly American aperitif interrupted by Paige’s penetrative gaze. “You all right?” he asks. “She’s takes everything a little differently since being baptized. Lot more observant,” Philip explains, while sharpening a knife, as if knowing the blade must be surgically precise to cut through the tension in the room.
Pastor Tim may have baptized Paige a few weeks ago, but her real baptism occurred the night before, at the same table from which she stares at Stan and her parents. Instead of washing away her sins, however, it heaped the sins of her parents upon her unprepared soul. The induction did more than reveal the truth; it revealed the potentially devastating implication of something as unassuming as a recurrent dinner guest.
And from the vantage point of knowing the truth, Paige watches through a small window, as an FBI agent sits down to a meal with her parents, spies from the Soviet Union. For just a moment longer, Paige is as she always has been: on the outside looking in. But the episode’s final image shows her getting up to join everyone else. Off screen Paige crosses a threshold, becomes something more than a passive observer, blind to the truth. Her eyes have been opened; she has a seat at the table now. A new station that finally has her on the inside looking out, raising the question: Do Philip and Elizabeth need to look out?
The Americans continues next Wednesday with ‘One Day in the Life of Anton Baklanov’ @10pm on FX.
Photos: Patrick Harbon/FX
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