A review of tonight's “The Americans” – which FX renewed for a fourth season yesterday – coming up just as soon as I'm trying to turn you into a travel agent…
“You're… spies?” -Paige
About the only negative thing I can say about “Stingers” is that I wish there had been more of it – or, at least, more of the Paige storyline, and perhaps less of the season's many other plots. Whether that would have meant devoting the whole episode to that conversation and its aftermath, or simply not cutting away to other subplots once her parents spilled the Soviet beans, I think an incredibly powerful episode would have felt even stronger if we weren't cutting away to Stan at the office, or Arkady and Tatiana discussing what's going on with Zinaida (who is confirmed as a double agent early in the episode). Fields and Weisberg (who get script credit for one of the series' most pivotal hours) kept that stuff to a minimum in the episode's second half, but the tension created by Paige learning the truth – and her anxious parents wondering what she would do with that knowledge – was so thick that I didn't want to cut through it for anything else.
Paige had been a bit backgrounded the last few weeks (as had Kimmy, who returned just in time for an episode with lots of drama for Philip's real daughter), but the show has been tracking her suspicions for so long that it felt entirely natural for her to finally confront her parents about the secret life they have away from that house. (And it was set up amusingly with the episode's earlier line about her parents trying to turn her into a travel agent.) That confrontation scene played out with every bit of the care and drama that one could have hoped for, from Paige listing a series of ridiculous secret identities and not even bothering to mention spies as a possibility because it was too ludicrous to think of, to the looks shared between husband and wife as they decide to stop lying, to Paige's reaction when Philip explains why she can't tell anyone.
This is a burden that no one should have to hold, but especially a girl as young as Paige, and Holly Taylor was heartbreaking throughout that scene and the ones that followed, showing Paige torn between love for her parents and a need to tell someone about what she now knows about them. When you cast a child actor in a crucial role like this, especially someone who was only 13 when she got hired, you're taking a huge gamble that they can pull off what may be needed one day. I suppose of Taylor had turned out to be more limited, the show just wouldn't have gone in this direction, but we would all be the poorer for that. She and her TV parents were all fantastic in that scene, and in the long silences that followed.
And for all the groundwork that Elizabeth has tried to lay about them being on the side of righteousness, the episode's final scene suggests Paige isn't quite convinced. As she watches Agent Beeman – a man whose job it is to stop people exactly like her parents – chit-chat with Mom and Dad, you can see from the expression on her face, and the way the camera stays focused on Stan's face whenever possible (even framing him through the little kitchen window, while Philip and Elizabeth appear blurry or off-camera altogether) that all Paige can think about is how easy it would be to blurt out to him what she knows.
“The Americans” in some ways has moved onto ground as tenuous as what Paige and her parents now stand on. The audience knows she can't actually tell Stan, or likely anyone else of consequence, because it would be the end of the series as we know it. So she will have to get with the program, whether that means simply keeping the secret or going along with the Centre's desires. But the fact that the information is no longer a secret to her opens up so many new avenues of storytelling, especially because the creative team and Taylor have done such a great job of making Paige into a credible character around whom so much of the drama can now pivot.
There's a whole lot of business to be dealt with in the season's remaining three chapters, but with this week's renewal, we know there will be a lot more told of this strange new family dynamic. I can't wait.
Some other thoughts:
* Though Paige was at the center of so much action this week, this was also the greatest Henry Jennings episode ever. He has a porn stash! (But not a porn 'stache, and mainly featuring magazine and catalog photos.) He bonds with Stan! (Not over their mutual attraction to Sandra Beeman, but over “Tron” and Strat-O-Matic football.) He imitates Eddie Murphy as Mr. Robinson! (And Elizabeth's reaction to the “bitch” line was a very funny moment in a show that sometimes gets a rap for being humorless.)
* More '80s pop culture this week: Zinaida is unimpressed by “Tootsie,” even choosing to go to the bathroom during a scene with Bill Murray in it; we hear another Adam and the Ants song (“Stand and Deliver”) when Philip finds Kimmy at the party, following up on “Goody Two Shoes” playing when they met; and I eagerly await one of you identifying the soap Paige was watching when her parents came home.
* Lost in the midst of all the Paige stuff: Philip and Elizabeth are now making a concerted effort to keep her out of honey trap duty whenever possible. Note how they keep waiting for a female manager to come on the night shift, so Philip can seduce her. Last year, it seemed like he was trying to protect her from it, but now it seems like more of a mutual decision, even though she goes along with it this time because they're on a clock.
* In former Soviet Union, right hand often had no idea what left hand was doing, as we discover that Oleg is being asked to acquire the photographs to help Anton, which would in turn help Nina, only he has no idea she's involved. Meanwhile, his own clumsy plan to rescue Nina has Arkady assuming that the person who threatened Zinaida was a KGB agent with no idea that she's only a fake defector. Compartmentalization has its value, but also can create big issues like this.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com