By Carole Avalon of PoliThink
Imagine an alternate reality in which FX’s hit drama “The Americans” is being reviewed in a modern world where the Berlin Wall came down but the Soviet Union has survived to the present time.
Join us, comrades and retro ’80s fans for a weekly review as we follow the exploits of undercover agents Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings.
Season 3 / Episode 10: “Stingers”
It finally happened in this episode: Paige learned about her parents’ true occupation as spies for the Soviet Union.
The revelation has been in the workings since day one of The Americans.” Philip and Elizabeth Jennings finally have a true marriage of emotional partnership in addition to the nonstop covert activities. The bumps in their marriage have been more than matched by the bruises and emotional scars left by the harder aspects of a spy’s profession.
They are closet soldiers who believe—Elizabeth especially—in keeping their homeland safe. Given the United States’ military superiority and the militant posturing of the early ‘80s Reagan administration, there’s an intense need for intel about American operations and advanced weaponry. It’s a matter of life and death, the couple believes.
Life and death in particular for Philip’s oldest son, Misha, who is a soldier serving in Afghanistan, then wracked by terroristic attacks on Afghan’s elected governments as well as by mujahedeen fully funded, trained and armed by the United States.
We learn in this episode that the Jennings’ handler, Gabriel, acted on Elizabeth’s request that Misha be transferred away from the front. Misha is Philip’s son from an adolescent fling with another woman, but no matter, Elizabeth is looking out for her husband.
Misha, however, refuses to leave his unit. When Philip drops by to see Gabriel, he’s told about Elizabeth’s sincere effort to help Philip’s son. Misha can be forced to transfer, if that’s what Philip wants. Faced with such a life or death issue, and knowing his son’s desire to stay with his brothers in arms, Philip decides not to go against his son’s wishes.
It’s a difficult decision. Philip has never met the young man, but he knows full well the possible consequences of being in a war zone.
For him, the American East Coast is a war zone with several ongoing missions, among them trying to find out what the stateside CIA unit in charge of the covert Afghani operation has planned. Deadly plans that places his countrymen and his son in harm’s way. CIA-trained mujahedeen are executing Russian soldiers in front of video cameras, and they are bombing marketplaces, schools, and other places where civilians gather.
Philip, in the guise of a stoner lobbyist, has gotten close to Kimmy, the teenaged daughter of the stateside CIA boss of the Afghani operation. Close, but no cigar, which is a relief for Philip, who’s deeply creeped out that he’s having to court a teenager. Thus far, he’s played the God card, which has kept him from having to bed the girl. In this episode, he’s called upon to rescue Kimmy from a raucous party and deliver her back to her typically empty house. While she’s in the shower, he replaces the miniature cassette tape he’s hidden in her father’s briefcase.
When he takes the tape home, he and Elizabeth listen to the frustratingly incomplete recording, but it’s clear that ISI (Pakistani intelligence) is sending agents, including the Jennings’ asset, Yousaf, to meet with their CIA counterparts at a Washington DC hotel.
Something’s up, so Elizabeth books a room at the hotel, presenting herself as a frequent traveler to the area, and does her classy sexy routine to make a deep impression on the hotel concierge. Whenever the CIA-ISI meetup happens, she wants to have every possible advantage in finding out what the two rival spy agencies are up to.
Meanwhile, we learn that Zinaida, the Soviet defector who’s being shepherded by FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), is in the habit of hiding messages in movie theater bathrooms.
Beeman has long suspected her of being a fake. He’s right, although he doesn’t know it yet. Her message is studied by the Soviet embassy’s head of the Rezidentura, Arkady, and his associate, Tatiana. He’s apoplectic to learn that Zinaida was subjected to a fly-by threat session from a Soviet agent. Arkady assumes that some other Soviet spy operation is at fault. He complains about the lack of communication between Soviet agencies.
For his part, Beeman may be closer to figuring out who’s at fault in the FBI’s ongoing spy-pen scandal. He endures questioning from creepy investigator Walter Taffet. Afterward, Beeman inquires as to Martha’s whereabouts. Martha had access; does Martha have motive? Beeman’s been rather clueless this season, but he may be about to gather some leads.
At home, however, he’s back to being lost and unsure of himself. He’s built a quasi-son friendship with Henry Jennings over ‘80s-style football gaming, but currently he’s faced with figuring out who gets what in the division of belongings. The divorce from his wife is going forward, no matter how Beeman feels about it.
For Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, another difficult process is about to go forward—that of their daughter’s introduction into the truth underlining their lives.
Earlier in the episode, Paige made an unannounced visit to her parents’ travel agency. She’s seeing where they work. It all seems so normal, but this dose of the quotidian doesn’t satisfy her.
One evening, with Henry safely upstairs, Paige lets loose with a years-long backlog of unanswered questions. Her parents keep strange hours, they have no relatives, so many unexplained loose ends—are they drug dealers like the late lamented Gregory, are they in the Witness Protection Program, are they aliens?
“Do you love me? Tell me the truth. I’m not stupid. This isn’t normal. I’ve felt it for a long time now,” she says.
Philip and Elizabeth look at each other. He gives her a small nod, but she finds herself unable to speak beyond a word or two.
Philip, who’s been against any revelation, says to his daughter, “We were born in a different country.”
The Soviet Union, Elizabeth says.
The edited truths continue: they came to the U.S. before Paige was born. They’re in the U.S. to help their countrymen. Most of what Paige hears in school and on the news about the Soviet Union isn’t true.
“We work for our country, getting information we can’t find in other ways,” Philip says.
“You’re spies,” Paige says.
Elizabeth hastens to explain, “We serve our country. We fight for the cause of peace, and for people around the world who can’t fight for themselves.”
After all of Philip and Elizabeth’s verbal duels over whether or not to tell their daughter, Paige has taken the initiative, proving that she’s ready to know, if not quite ready for the full import of what they’ve told her.
Now comes that full import. Elizabeth cautions, “Knowing this comes with a lot of responsibility.”
“You can’t tell anyone, not now, not ever—not Pastor Tim, and not Henry…if you do tell someone, we’ll go to jail for good,” Philip says.
Paige spends the rest of the episode in her room, stunned and bewildered. Her parents, not without trepidation, allow her a day home from school, but at work, they’re barely functional. What if Paige tells her pastor, what if she runs away—what if, what if, what if.
Paige does call Pastor Tim to say that yes, she did talk to her parents about her questions, but she doesn’t give away her parents’ secret.
The final scene shows the Jennings family at home. All looks normal. Henry is lying on the sofa playing his Tandy hand-held proto-computer game while Paige is studying at the kitchen table. Her parents are in the kitchen preparing dinner.
Then Beeman drops by for a visit. As he drinks a beer and the adults commiserate with one another about the day they’ve had, Paige sees her neighbor with new eyes. He’s an FBI agent. Her parents are Soviet spies. They are friends, neighbors, and although Beeman doesn’t know it, they’re also mortal enemies.
Paige’s world has become much more complicated.