‘The Americans’ Imparts A Chilling Mother-Daughter Lesson In ‘Pests’

Senior Television Writer
03.14.17 31 Comments

FX

A review of tonight’s The Americans coming up just as soon as I take you to a restaurant with a see-through grand piano…

“I am sick of treating her like a goddamn kid.” -Elizabeth

The Americans is a show about marriage and parenthood, but because Philip and Elizabeth are deep cover Soviet spies, all the familiar family conflicts become much bigger than if they were really the all-American travel agents they claim to be.

Rarely, though, has that magnification been more apparent — or unsettling — than what goes on between Paige and her parents throughout the events of “Pests.”

When you’re a parent, there are certain traits you’re proud to pass on to your kids, and ones you wish they never knew about, much less inherited. This is Mom & Dad 101. But it’s one thing for me to be happy that my daughter shares my love of TV, or to be frustrated that my son is no more interested in cleaning his room than I am in cleaning mine, and quite another to see Philip and Elizabeth share lessons from the Centre about how to emotionally disengage when having sex with an asset.

Throughout the series, we’ve seen that both Jennings parents take deep pride in their homeland their cause — Elizabeth more than Philip, but he still mostly believes — even as they don’t much like most of what they have to do for that cause. These are necessary evils they perform, but they are still evils, and while the Centre taught them to compartmentalize, it’s still not easy for them to have to sleep with strangers, or drop cars on them, or ruin their marriages or careers or any of the other monstrous things they’ve been ordered to do over the previous four seasons. Elizabeth is excited to be able to tell Paige about how they really are, where they come from, and what they believe in, but that honesty not only brings with it constant peril (I’m, frankly, stunned that Pastor Tim is still alive at this stage of the story), but is forcing them to teach Paige about the unsavory parts of the job. And — as we saw when Philip had that flashback to learning the sexual part of the spy trade — few parts are more unsavory than the forced separation between mind and body they have to facilitate and endure when seduction is on the table.

Now, Paige isn’t just trying to use Matthew for the cause. That’s what makes this far more complicated, and in some ways even uglier, than when, say, Philip first seduced poor Martha. She likes Matthew, and feels almost normal when she’s with him most of the time, and the fact that his father is an FBI counter-espionage agent is a bug, not a feature, of her interest in him — something she’s had to accept, and even take advantage of, in order to get through it all. When she and Matthew start making out on Stan’s couch, it’s not with any agenda in mind beyond teenagers being teenagers.

But her parents know that Paige can’t just be a 16-year-old girl anymore. When she demanded to know what Mom and Dad were really doing on all their late nights out, she put herself in a situation where she can risk the entire family’s freedom without even realizing she’s doing it. She knows that, and it’s why she seems so distracted that even Stan — in a scene remarkable for how uncomfortable Philip is made by the topic, even as he has to pretend not to be — can tell something is amiss in Paige Land, and thus why Philip and Elizabeth have to bring her into the advanced spycraft class in the episode’s chilling final scene.

It’s moments like that conversation — or the earlier one, where a birds and the bees talk becomes something quite different because Elizabeth is less concerned with her daughter’s sex life than the danger of her blurting out something incriminating while her hormones are in overdrive — The Americans is both incredibly familiar and terrifyingly alien. Parents share things with their children, teach them lessons from their own experience, and try to steer them toward the best possible outcomes. But few parents have jobs like these, which result in them having to teach their child something that will protect her, and them, in the short term, but surely do profound emotional damage for the rest of her life.

I feel sick just thinking about it. For some shows, that would be the mark of an episode gone badly awry. But it’s what The Americans does best.

Some other thoughts:

* On the spy mission end of things, “Pests” gets its title from the sequence where Elizabeth checks out the greenhouse in Illinois where Alexei works and discovers a section filled with midge-like insects. Incredibly creepy in its own right — for a few moments, it turned into an X-Files tribute act — and also effectively disturbing because so much of that scene is shot in a way that suggests someone is in that greenhouse with her.

* Stan once again puts his career at some level of risk by pushing back against the CIA’s request for help in turning Oleg now that he’s back in Moscow. Whatever issues Stan and Oleg once had about Nina, or their respective jobs, Oleg’s decision to turn in William for the greater good seems to have permanently put him on Stan’s good side. As he tries arguing to the Deputy Attorney General, Oleg did them an enormous favor, and shouldn’t be punished for that. Instead, even without Stan’s involvement, that’s clearly what’s happening — the CIA operatives in Russia are even dropping Stan’s name to make it seem like he’s part of this — and you can see that Oleg knows he is in deep, deep trouble. “We have to play by the rules,” Stan insists, but his side can and will play just as dirty as the Soviets.

* Callie Thorne never amounted to a whole lot as Stan’s season three girlfriend Tori, so I wouldn’t go automatically assuming that the casting of Walking Dead alum Laurie Holden as his new love interest Renee portends something bigger. She could just be yet another representation of the normalcy Stan will never get to fully enjoy because of his job. Still, it’s nice to have Holden back on FX, since she played a big role in the final days of The Shield, where she was ICE Agent Olivia Murray.

* While Americans some whimsy on the margins with the wigs and Mail Robot, it’s for the most part a very serious show. Still, every now and then there’s room for a particularly dry joke like Philip and Elizabeth, posing as American airline employees for their Bennigan’s dinner with Alexei’s family, pretending not to speak Russian when Alexei is complaining again about the USSR, followed by a patient Elizabeth assuring them, “We understand.”

* Philip and Elizabeth have in the past worked with assets who believed in the cause perhaps too passionately. (This was a concern about Hans, for instance, in his early days.) Tuan seems like he could be trouble as well, though his passion for now mainly manifests itself as scathing resentment of the spoiled Americans he sees every day.

* Philip says William would have liked them getting the sample off of his body. No he wouldn’t have; William made it very clear to Philip that he didn’t trust the Centre with that virus, if for no other reason than the shoddy equipment the Soviets have been using at this stage of things.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com

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