One of the most exhilarating feelings a TV show can bring to its viewers is a sense of “Wait, they’re getting to this right now??” The nature of episodic television means a viewer can settle into a comfortable rhythm. Certain episodes throughout a season will be great but the “big” stuff will always be saved for a season finale cliffhanger. And some expected events are so big you don’t even expect them until even a season or two later. “Stingers” features one of those “everything changes” events…with three full episodes in the third season to go.
With news breaking a couple of days ago that The Americans was renewed for a fourth season, combined with FX President John Landgraf’s promise to allow the show at least five or six seasons, The Americans can afford to plot out its big surprises and game-changing moments episodes or seasons in advance. That’s why it’s so satisfying that Paige finally learning the truth about her parents occurs in this: season three, episode 10.
This revelation works perfectly not just because the timing of it is unexpected but also because it makes sense in its own logical way. “A kid like Paige really needs to be treated more like an adult than a child,” Pastor Tim tells Philip when he’s looking to book a trip to Kenya for the church. Philip shuts him down quite adeptly but there is an element of truth to what Tim is saying. Paige is intelligent and observant, something that Philip and Elizabeth might not have fully realized through many light nights of spying and tucking drunk teenagers into bed so they can collect their listening device.
There is no smoking gun that Paige needs to know that something is up with her parents. It would have been just as surprising if Paige found out the truth about her parents by seeing them pulling a body out of a trunk or listening to Russian on a radio transmission. But the gentle accumulation of clues combined with Paige’s own feelings of disillusionment is fairer: both to Paige as a character and the audience as a whole. At a certain point it becomes ridiculous that nobody in Gotham City would realize that Bruce Wayne is the only person alive rich enough and physically strong enough to be Batman. It would have become just as ridiculous if Paige just ignored the weirdness of one or both of her parents disappearing every night (“Barb never filed the sales report with the ATC!”) combined with the fact that she doesn’t have any extended family members that she knows of.
So, she asks her parents late at night when they least expect it: “Do you love me?” “Then tell me the truth.” And so they do. Even the best spies have to know when their cover is blown. They remain quiet for a moment, searching for one final lie before realizing that truth is the only option.
“Paige, your father and I…we…” “We were born in a different country.”
“The Soviet Union.”
“We’re here to help our people.”
“We work for our country. Getting information. Information they couldn’t get in other ways.”
Just like that one of The Americans’ biggest dramatic arrows is out of the quiver for good. It’s deftly handled and again: so surprising. Not only was last week’s episode surprisingly good for a mid-season episode of any series, but to follow it up with something so unexpected is just pure “we’re the best drama of TV and we know it” confidence.
“Stingers,” itself, begins by looking like its going in a completely different direction. Zinaida is revealed as a true spy early on, leaving a drop in a movie theater bathroom during a screening of Tootsie (“He dresses up like a woman. In Soviet Union, this would never happen.”). Then Philip is invited to a frat party with Kimmy through that fateful phonecall from “Barb.” While tucking a hammered Kimmy in, he retrieves crucial information from the listening device in her house. The Mujahadeen is going to be meeting with the C.I.A. on American soil.
Immediately Philip and Elizabeth swing into action: Yousuf tried to get in touch with Islamabad but can’t. Elizabeth must seduce a hotel employee through a gross bloodstain on a mattress and Gabriel advices them all to wait until Yousuf can meet with them all personally. The episode develops a sense of urgency and escalation with the Afghan war out of thin air and then brings it all to a crashing halt for Paige.
It’s a fascinating experience from a structural perspective, like an episode of television kicking it up to 90 mph then slamming on the breaks. And it’s also rings true from a parenting perspective. The world can be spinning off its axis and Philip and Elizabeth will make it stop for a moment for their daughter in crisis.
And everything does come to a stop. Philip and Elizabeth sit alone in their car, unsure of what to do. So they do the only thing they can do: go back to work. To fake-work, not work-work. They have dinner that night like normal: Philip, Elizabeth, Henry, Paige and whacky next-door neighbor/Strat-o-matic enthusiast: Stan. Paige becomes immediately attuned to an irony her parents rarely acknowledge: that two Russian spies live next door to an FBI agent.