The Americans 3.10: “Stingers”

Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings; Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings; & Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings.
Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings; Holly Taylor as Paige Jennings; & Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings.

In last night’s “Stingers,” The Americans continued its pattern of structuring its episodes around one extended, intimate, difficult-to-watch scene. Though sometimes harrowing due to the infliction of physical pain, more often than not it is some form of emotional trauma that causes the viewer to look away. Last night’s featured scene promised to be the most trying yet, as it’s the one we’ve been dreading all season, the moment when Paige (Holly Taylor) finally learns the truth about the family business.

And yet, of all the distressing confrontations we’ve had to endure, this one was surprisingly painless. Part of the reason is because we’ve had to witness some pretty awful stuff lately, so anything short of euthanizing an old lady would come as a relief. But there were a couple of other factors at play that also lessened the impact of the Big Reveal. First, the writers have been loudly signaling this eventuality (even again in last night’s episode, when Paige asks her parents, “Are you trying to turn me into a travel agent?”) that we were more than prepared for it, even if it was Paige and not Elizabeth (Keri Russell) that broached the topic. The audience has been bracing for this conversation since the swimming lesson flashback in Episode 1. With that long of a wind-up, it’s only natural that we would feel a bit of a let down.

But it wasn’t just the lengthy gestation period that (despite the episode’s title) took some of the sting out of it. The tenor of the confrontation was deliberately cool and mature. The whole episode, in fact, had a quiet feel to it. Perhaps taking the advice of Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin), who counsels Philip (Matthew Rhys) that, “Paige really needs to be treated more like an adult than a child,” Elizabeth and Philip explain to Paige in calm, precise language what they really do for a living. Paige, being emotionally wise beyond her years, responds in a relatively muted way. She becomes upset, for sure, but she doesn’t freak out like other teens (and adults) might. In fact, after a bad night’s sleep, and a regrettable montage of her struggling with whether or not to tell Pastor Tim the following day, it’s over. The Jennings return home from work, and Paige is watching a soap opera, eating a sandwich, just like she would any other afternoon. The storm has passed. All that build-up, worry, and angst apparently for nothing.

She’s not that good. Not yet…

Yeah, I didn’t buy it, either. This false sense of security is quickly pulled out from under us when Stan (TV’s new Kramer, the whacky neighbor) pops over for dinner, spooking Paige. The sight of an FBI agent in her house seems to drive home the reality of what she’d learned about her parents the previous night. She is left literally speechless, gawking at Stan (Noah Emmerich). The episode ends ominously, with the camera switching between the points of view of Paige, Stan, and her parents (while Philip sharpens a knife!) and finally going back to Stan. I don’t want to read too much into this ending, because The Americans has pump-faked us before, but with only three episodes left in the season, the prospect of THE confrontation (a la Raylan vs. Boyd, Walter vs. Hank, Stringer vs. Avon) of Stan vs. the Jennings is on the table like never before.

This possibility is even more likely given the developments at Stan’s work (despite his relative lack of screen time, this seemed like a Stan-centric week). His hunch about Zinaida (a.k.a., Willow) being a double-agent was correct (divulging this at a screening of Tootsie, a movie about someone pretending to be something he’s not, was a fun choice). Oleg’s (Costa Ronin) plan to flush her out also worked, sending the Rezidentura into a full-fledged panic. With Nina (Annet Mahendru) making small inroads with Anton (Michael Aronov), her fate is looking more and more sanguine, even if it’s doubtful that Oleg and Stan will seamlessly pull off their far-flung scheme.

Stan’s other flash of insight, however, promises to set off the most fireworks. While interviewing with Walter Taffet (scenes that I never tire of), Stan realizes it’s Martha (Alison Wright), with her unfettered access to Agent Gaad’s (Richard Thomas) office, who is the most likely “worm in the apple.” It’s not hard to connect the dots from this suspicion, to Stan investigating Martha, to Stan discovering Philip masquerading as Clark. The fact that FX has stated its intention to give The Americans five seasons (it just officially picked up its 4th), means it might be a little early to flip that switch, but then again, there would be no bigger cliffhanger to end the season with than the light bulb going on for Stan regarding his hockey playing neighbors.

Stan’s getting closer…

Other notable events from “Stingers”:

First Pastor Tim poaches Paige, now Stan bonds with Henry (Keidrich Sellati) over Tron and Strat-O-Matic. At least Philip has Yousaf (Rahul Khanna), who “only has eyes for him.”

Between Henry’s porn stash and his imitation of Eddie Murphy’s Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, do we even need to send out the MVP ballots this season?

After a couple episodes off, Kimmy (Julia Garner) returns, still an emotional wreck. After being called to rescue her from a frat party, Philip swaps out the tape in her dad’s briefcase. The operation pays its first big dividend, when the tape reveals a high-level meeting between the ISI-CIA. Elizabeth sets the trap at the hotel where the meeting is to take place with the help of Neil, the unwitting Michigan State Spartan. I don’t like his chances of winning his next encounter with Elizabeth any more than I like his alma mater’s odds against Duke this weekend.

Court Haslett is the author of Tenderloin, a crime novel set in 1970's San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @courthaslett and at The Rogue Reader.

Read all of Court Haslett's posts for Criminal Element.