'The Americans' recap: 'Stingers'
Paige finally looks into her mother and father's deep, dark truthful mirror.
“Paige, your father and I … We …”
“We were born in a … different country.”
And just like that, one of the biggest pressure valves on The Americans bursts open. After a season of Philip trying to protect their daughter, Paige, from being drawn into the control of the KGB and Elizabeth trying to gradually introduce her to the idea, the girl has called them out on their mysterious behavior at the behest of Pastor Tim and learned the truth about what her mother and father.
Now she knows. And, to quote another pop culture touchstone from the 1980s, knowing is half the battle. Except whatever fight Paige is being pulled into is probably just beginning.
After last week’s heart-crushing episode opened a moral chasm for Keri Russell’s Elizabeth, tonight’s installment of The Americans, titled simply “Stingers,” was mostly setting the chessboard for the end of the season and clearing way for this showdown between Holly Taylor’s Paige and her secretive mother and father to play out unencumbered.
The episode begins at the travel agency, which always makes me wonder: Do Philip and Elizabeth actually have to do this job on top of everything else? I’m sure the Soviet Union underwrites their business in some way, and they also have employees who must do something. Can you imagine what happens when Barb really does forget to file the agency sales report with the ATC? I digress…
Into the agency strolls none other than Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin), who says he’s not there to talk about Paige, he just needs a travel agent to help arrange a missionary trip to Kenya in July. (But oh, yeah, he’s really there to talk about Paige.)
“Why don’t you all come with us?” Pastor Tim suggests.
Friendly Smile™ from Philip. “I would love to take her abroad. But um, now’s not the right time, to be honest.”
“It’s always a good time for parents and children to get closer,” the good pastor says.
“It’s not that simple right now,” Philip says, which is KGB code for Get out of my grill, pastor!
“A kid like Paige, really needs to be treated more like an adult than a child.”
Oh baby. The look on Matthew Rhys’ face when this stranger speaks these words. RUN, PASTOR TIM!
But Philip pulls it together: “Do you have kids?”
Pastor Tim’s mouth falls open in a prolonged, “Ummm…”
“Let’s look at some dates,” Philip says, Friendly Smile™.
We then cut to a movie theater, where Noah Emmerich’s Agent Stan Beeman is watching Tootsie with defector Zinaida Preobrazhenskaya (Svetlana Efremova) and two other stone-faced agents.
Last episode, Stan and Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) joined forces to threaten Zinaida in the hope of discovering she is actually a double agent whose defection was orchestrated by the KGB to get her close to American counter-Soviet leadership. Until now, we haven’t known whether she is or isn’t, but their plan is to expose Zinaida, get her arrested by the American side, and then trade her for their imprisoned mutual love Nina—currently detained back in Mother Russia for similarly playing both sides of the fence.
But Nina (Annet Mahendru) is taking care of herself, thank you, boys. She has been tasked with “befriending” and studying the kidnapped scientist Anton Baklanov (Michael Aronov), who is trying—maaaayyybe—to help his captors crack stealth technology. “If the people here want me to get results, they need to get me what I ask for,” he says to her. “Photographs. Simple Photographs.”
“To get a photograph they need to find a way to get an agent in place,” she explains, betraying a knowledge he didn’t think she had. “It could take months, even years.”
Despite showing her nothing but scorn until now, he softens and asks: “Where did you learn English?”
“Here,” she says. And then, after a beat: “And in America.”
It may take many more years before the one in Berlin comes down, but here … a wall just cracked. A little. Anton has come to a realization: They are all captives in this place.
Still, back in the U.S. of A., Stan and Oleg are trying to save Nina. As you probably remember from last week, their gambit didn’t make Zinaida so much as flinch. But … after excusing herself to use the movie rest room, we catch her planting a secret message under the sink.
Confirmation! The defector is playing the FBI. But Oleg and Stan don’t know this yet.
After the credit sequence, we see a pair of hands opening a metal box that was being hidden under some floorboards. Another secret stash by someone who is not who they say they ar—?
Nope. Just the Jennings’ teenage son Henry (Keidrich Sellati), hiding some sexytime pics he cut out of magazines and catalogs. Henry has been a bit on the periphery for most of this show’s run, but “Stingers” gives Sellati some great comic-relief bits to play with while finally giving the character a place within the grinding gears of his family’s relationship with neighbor Stan. In a lot of ways, both of them are little boys who just don’t know what the hell is going on and are driven by impulse.
Paige tells her parents she encouraged Pastor Tim to come to their office about the Kenya trip, but … I have a hard time believing that. Pastor Tim is a top-notch Svengali, and I put a lot of credence behind those theories that the church is actually The Organization’s way of monitoring the Jennings’ and nudging Paige into the tradecraft. (Remember how she got into it: meeting a young girl on the bus while running away to visit’s the “aunt” she didn’t think existed while The Organization tried desperately to help Philip and Elizabeth get her back.) I’m sure Pastor Tim wanted to go to the travel agency and convinced Paige it was her idea—and a great one at that!
Count me among those conspiracy theorists who think Pastor Tim is trying to hasten Paige’s transition as an agent.
Suddenly a call comes in and it’s for Philip. What? You don’t say … He has to go! “Barb never filed the agency sales report with the ATC!”
Thanks a lot, Barb. World’s worst travel agent employee.
Of course, that was actually The Organization and Philip has been sent to rescue his distressing mark Kimmy (Julia Garner) from a drug- and booze-filled party. “I think you’re the only one who really cares about me,” she mutters once he gets her home. While Kimmy is in the bathroom, Philip hotfoots it down to her dad’s study and recovers the recorder they placed in his attaché case.
On it is news so vital that he goes home and wakes up Elizabeth to hear it.
NEXT: The CIA has some important visitors coming to discuss Afghanistan …
The tape contains information that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, is sending someone important to Washington to meet the CIA and discuss the West’s interests in Afghanistan, where the Soviet Union is bogged down in a bloody war that is dragging on endlessly. (Nothing familiar there, no sir.)
The voices are discussing bureaucratic matters: where will these guests stay and what steps must be taken to get approval for the hotel rooms. Elizabeth deduces they’re talking about Mujahedeen because one of the men says “these guys are used to sleeping in caves.”
Philip takes this information immediately to The Organization and hopes they can contact Yousaf (Rahul Khanna), who owes Philip after getting assistance packing that murdered woman into his luggage earlier in the season. Yousaf isn’t replying to their message, however. So Philip and Elizabeth are at their day jobs, considering infiltrating the hotel in Crystal City to figure out who this top level source will be.
Suddenly, Paige walks into the travel agency and talk turns back to travel agency business. You know. Papers and documents and, oh, hey, Paige—your old LEGOS are in the drawer if you like. Ha, ha, ha. Let’s go home …
Back at the Jennings’ personal Rezidentura, Henry has an encounter with the increasingly lonely Stan, who drops by to offer him a VHS tape: Tron, which would have been in theaters the July before. “We confiscate a lot of pirated videos. We have a whole library!” Stan exclaims. Very little-kid.
It’s not clear why Stan dropped by, but Philip and Elizabeth tell him he’s welcome to stay for reheated lasagna, although they must depart to “woo a client.”
Later that night, Henry makes his way over to the Beeman residence to return the Tron tape. Stan’s house is in shambles—he is going through the rummage sale of his life as a divorcee. “I, uh, have to look at everything we have and say what I want. You know that we’re gettin’ divorced, right? And Mrs. Beeman will come over later and she’ll say what she wants.” Stan looks a little dazed. “It’s really weird.”
“My dad left for a while, but he came back,” Henry says.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Stan says.
“Are you going to move out?”
“I don’t know, Henry,” Stan says. “I don’t want to.”
“Doesn’t Matthew still live here?”
Stan’s answer about his son is heartbreaking. “I don’t know.”
And with that, we see what Stan and Henry share. They are both without families, but clueless how or why that has happened. All Henry has is his football video game, his pirated Tron video, and his little stash of lingerie catalog “porn.” All Stan has is this house full of debris he doesn’t care about.
Stan is missing his son. And he could use a real friend, too. It’s a sweet alliance between these two big little boys, who are both as close to the Jennings as it is possible to be without knowing them at all.
NEXT: Paige discovers the truth about her mother and father
At the hotel that night, Philip and Elizabeth are killing time, waiting to see who is operating the desk so they can pick a person to befriend, maybe seduce, and then siphon information about these visiting Mujahedeen guests.
They single out a young man, who takes over as night supervisor, and Elizabeth invites him to her room to point out a wine stain on the comforter.
He is shocked, SHOCKED at this sloppiness and offers to comp her room. She praises his professionalism, but doesn’t want a free room, since her company is paying the bill anyway. She is being mildly flirtatious, so he ventures: “How about dinner?” Apparently, the restaurant downstairs makes a terrific steak.
“That sounds lovely,” she says. “But I’m exhausted and have to prepare for a meeting in the morning.” It’s remarkable how Elizabeth preys on people. She lures them in, flatters them, then destabilizes them. It only makes them want to venture closer.
When the hotel manager stammers that he just meant he could get her a voucher, she smiles and says “Can I get that from you the next time I’m in town?” The hook is set.
He walks out with a smile and some swagger, but that degree in hotel management from Michigan State did not prepare this man for the KGB’s top femme fatale.
Back at his place, Frank Langella’s imperious KGB godfather Gabriel lets Philip and Elizabeth know Yousaf has been contacted but won’t share any information with anyone other than Philip. But he’s coming in 24 hours.
He also tells Philip that The Organization arranged for his son to get an early release from his assignment in Afghanistan.
“I didn’t ask you to do that.”
“Elizabeth did. He turned it down. But we can make him go home. Do you want us to?”
This mirrors a similar conflict playing out between Oleg and his Department of Transportation bigshot father back in the Soviet Union. Oleg didn’t want to come home either.
“No,” Philip says. Being a soldier just runs in the family. There’s no point fighting it. (I wonder if he would have answered differently if he knew what was waiting for him back in his kitchen.)
When Philip and Elizabeth get home, Paige is ready to call them out. The title of this episode refers to the Stinger missiles the CIA will later try to supply to the Mujahedeen, but Paige is about to launch one of her own.
“I need to talk to you,” Paige says.
“I’m not stupid,” she goes on. “I know there’s something going on. The phone rings in the middle of the night and you’re gone. We have no family here. No aunts, no uncles. No cousins, no nothing.”
Her parents reach for her. She withdraws.
“No,” Paige says. “This isn’t normal. I felt it for a long time now. I thought it was me. I thought I was crazy. But it’s not me it’s you.”
(Sidenote: In today’s world, would Paige think her parents’ constant work schedule is completely normal? Home at 5 p.m. for dinner? Now that would be suspicious.)
“I talked with Pastor Tim and he agrees,” Paige says. Oh, that needling Pastor Tim, pushing, pushing, pushing. “I need to know the truth. I don’t care what it is. But if you love me, if you really love me, then please tell me. What are you, in the witness protection program? Did you kill someone? Are you guys drug dealers like your friend Gregory? Are we adopted? Are we aliens? What?”
Aliens, we’re aliens. But no … Philip and Elizabeth have decided to bite the bullet, so to speak.
“Paige, your father and I … We … “ Elizabeth begins.
“We were born in a different country,” Philip finishes. There are a lot of halting, half-sentences in this conversation.
Then it’s laid right out on the table: They work for the Soviet Union.
“We’re here to help our people. Most of what you hear about the Soviet Union isn’t true,” Elizabeth says.
“We work for our country getting information. Information they couldn’t get in other ways,” Philip tells her.
“You’re spies …?” It sounds absurd to Paige. It is kind of absurd.
“We serve our country. But we also serve the cause of peace around the world. We fight for those who can’t fight for themselves. Paige we’ve wanted to tell you this for such a long time,” Elizabeth says.
“But you didn’t.”
“No, you’re right,” her father says. “We didn’t.”
But now that they’ve come clean, Philip has one more thing to share: “Just in case you’re not thinking quite clearly enough, we’re going to have to say this: If you do tell anyone … we will go to jail. For good.”
Paige walks to her room. Philip takes the phone off the hook, whether it’s to prevent her from calling out or to make sure no one else can call in tonight, we don’t know. Maybe both.
The next day, Paige stays home and her parents offer to stay with her, but she doesn’t want that. To her credit, she also hasn’t pulled a Luke Skywalker: No! That’s not true! It’s not possible!
But then, she hasn’t been asked to join the Empire yet. (By the way, in the timeline of The Americans, it’s February of 1983 and Return of the Jedi won’t be out for a few more months. Henry will be in that line, you know it.)
Henry has become quite a pop culture aficianado and is downstairs performing Eddie Murphy’s “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” sketch from Saturday Night Live, but once he’s gone off to school Paige asks her parents for a performance of their own: “Speak Russian,” she commands.
Elizabeth does, and Philip translates: “We love you very much.”
There is a lot of silence now. Philip and Elizabeth go to work, and he tells his worried wife: “We know that pressure in this situation is counterproductive. … There’s no way around this. We go to work. We hold our breath.”
Then comes a masterful bit of directing by Larysa Kondracki and writing by Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, the show’s creator:
We see Philip and Elizabeth at work in the travel agency while we hear Paige’s side of a phone conversation with Pastor Tim. It is agonizingly tense as the girl says: “I talked to them last night … I told them how I felt, like you said … They didn’t get mad. But they were … surprised. They didn’t think I was crazy or anything.
“I think that … I think that they’re …. I um, I just wanted you to know that it happened.”
Then she gangs up with, “I’ll see you Sunday.”
This is another reason I believe Pastor Tim is part of The Organization. They would have wanted to establish an outsider as a trusted force in Paige’s life—just in case she did decide to tell someone her parents’ secret once she knew it.
I think she passed the test.
Back at the FBI, Stan is being given a test, too. The investigation about who planted the bug in Gaad’s office is still underway, and Stan is asked if he has any suspicions about who may have done it. He hesitates, and the interrogator asks if he is thinking of someone.
No. Nah. Shmeh. Of course not.
But when Stan comes out, he asks: “Dennis, have you seen Martha?” But Martha has gone home early. Some family thing.
I still think she is working with the FBI on a covert basis. Unlike the KGB apparently, they aren’t making her keep up with her day job.
Back home, Paige is watching a soap opera. All is well in that house.
Back at the Soviet Rezidentura, Oleg is being informed about the need for those bomber photographs that Nina’s little scientist needs. But Oleg is excused while the resident chief Arkady Zotov (Lev Gorn) is briefed on another matter.
“’Willow’ says she was threatened by one of our people,” he is told. “Willow” is the codename for Zinaida, of course.
Now we are certain, if there was any question after the movie theater scene, that Zinaida is definitely a KGB plant. Zotov just thinks the operation is so secret that someone else in the KGB has put a hit on her, thinking it’s real. “I’m going to cable the center,” he says. “They need a procedure to keep this from happening that doesn’t blow the operation.”
Uh-oh, Oleg. You better hope they don’t find out you’ve gone rogue.
The episode eases to an end with Stan joining the Jennings for dinner. Philip and Elizabeth are cooking. Henry is playing a football game. But Paige … All Paige can do is stare at Stan. He asks if she is okay.
“She takes everything in a little differently since being baptized,” Philip says. “A lot more observant.”
There’s a bowl full of pears on the table in front of her.
1980s Watch: Lots of pop culture references in this one, starting with Bill Murray’s appearance in The Americans via his role as Dustin Hoffman’s roommate in Tootsie. The theater is also playing The Verdict and The Dark Crystal. (Those movies all came out about two months earlier, but movies stayed in theaters longer back then.)
Henry is obsessed with his Tandy Championship Football video game, which looks like a caveman artifact now compared to modern console games like Madden NFL.
We also get a large chunk of Eddie Murphy’s Mr. Rogers’ spoof “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” from SNL.
The soap opera Paige is watching dates this episode: General Hospital from Feb. 10, 1983, with Susan (Gail Ramsey) threatening to report her husband Scott (Kin Shriner) to the police for forging documents. (No hidden meaning there!)
Line of the Week: When Paige shows up at the travel agency, Philip tells her: “We were headed home in about an hour. If you help with the stack of ticket requisition forms, we’ll all get home a little sooner.”
Paige, who has not yet learned her parents’ true identities, says to them: “Are you trying to turn me into a travel agent?
Elizabeth laughs a little louder than she should. If this were an ’80s sitcom, they’d have freeze-framed on that as the credits rolled.