“We go to work, we hold our breath,” Philip (Matthew Rhys) counsels Elizabeth (Keri Russell) in tonight’s episode of The Americans, and though he’s referring to the emotional ambush that arrives midway through “Stingers,” he might well be describing the series itself. To watch The Americans is always to be waiting, much like the characters, for the other shoe to drop, and yet each episode depicts such a profusion of new developments that it becomes possible to lose sight of the long game. Rather ingeniously, then, “Stingers” deploys the recent distractions of mail robots and anti-apartheid agitators to surprise the viewer as surely as Paige (Holly Taylor) surprises her parents: When the truth comes out, it does so without warning, a reminder of the consequences the characters face when they let their attention drift.
“Stingers” achieves this end by returning to a number of subplots that had fallen slack in recent weeks. When Philip finds Kimmy (Julia Garner) sauced at a party, for instance, he guides her safely home, using the opportunity to retrieve valuable new intelligence about the C.I.A.’s Afghan group from the recording device planted in her father’s briefcase. Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin), last seen at Paige’s baptism, turns up at the travel agency for help planning a church mission to Kenya, offering his unsolicited advice that “Paige really needs to be treated more like an adult than a child.” Even Henry (Keidrich Sellati), so long neglected that he turned up in Grantland’s “Support Group for the Sad Boys of Prestige TV Drama,” suddenly has something to do, though it’s admittedly a bit heartbreaking to watch him seek out Stan (Noah Emmerich) as a father figure in Philip’s absence. Indeed, the first half of “Stingers,” which also sees Zinaida (Svetlana Efremova) using a multiplex restroom as a dead drop and Nina (Annet Mahendru) attempting to woo scientist Anton Baklanov (Michael Aronov) to secure her freedom, has the feeling of a late-season plot dump. In retrospect, I might have taken Pastor Tim’s conversation with Philip or Henry’s newfound closeness with Stan as a sort of premonition, but in truth the episode had me fooled. Twenty-five minutes in, my own drifting attention led me to wonder if this uniformly excellent season of The Americans had finally suffered a letdown.
What follows, of course, is the revelation that’s shadowed the previous nine episodes, one that quite fittingly sends the rest of “Stingers” off the rails. The remainder of the hour focuses on the fallout from Paige’s provocation: “Do you love me?” As The Americans is wont to do, it uses a commonplace of adolescent angst to suggest the particular challenges of the Jennings family’s strange situation, and yet never loses sight of the fact that Paige was, until this very moment, just another moody kid. Though her questions, which might seem outlandish in any other situation, are actually not farfetched enough, the doubts she harbors about her identity echo Philip and Elizabeth’s parenting debate from “EST Men,” “Baggage,” and “Dimebag”:
“This isn’t normal! I’ve felt it for a long time now, and I thought it was me. I thought I was crazy. But it’s not me, it’s you!...What, are you in the witness protection program? Did you kill somebody? Are you guys drug dealers like your friend, Gregory? Am I adopted? Are we aliens? What?!”
Unfortunately, the cost of the truth is another lie. Though Philip and Elizabeth come clean, in the broad strokes, if not the grim details, Paige is left with a secret she can never speak. “No matter how much you trust someone, or think that you trust them, you can’t tell them,” Elizabeth cautions. Indeed, from the busy signal on the phone and the suspiciously absent secretary to the supposed “defector” seeing Tootsie and the counterintelligence agent coming over for dinner, “Stingers” presents trust, even of the most elemental sort, as more illusory than ever before—“an apple with a worm in it,” according to the F.B.I.’s Walter Taffet (Jefferson Mays). Trust, you might say, is simply the time we spend waiting for the other shoe to drop, and in The Americans, it always does.
For more recaps of The Americans, click here.