There are a lot of words to describe tonight’s episode of The Americans, a game-changing haymaker craftily setup by last week’s feint at slowing things down. The usual adjectives apply to “Stingers”: it’s devastating, heartbreaking, powerfully tense but delicately observed (with praise like that, how can this show possibly not be the biggest thing on TV?). But it’s “Yakovian,” a word I just made-up in reference to comedian Yakov Smirnoff, that I’ll choose to lead with. “Stingers” is no chuckle-fest, despite the April Fool’s Day airdate, but it is one big joke at the expense of the Jennings, a Russian reversal gag of the kind Smirnoff is often associated with: “In Soviet Russia, punchline precedes setup!”
That punchline comes from Tim, of all people. “Stingers” opens with the good pastor trying to buy a ticket package to Kenya, while also selling Philip on the benefits of a family mission trip. “Now’s not the right time, to be honest” Philip says with evasive politeness. “I think it’s always a good time for parents and children to get closer,” Tim replies. Ha. Haha. Oh, Tim. You may not know what it is to be a parent, but you do know know a thing or two about unintentional comic irony! Considering where “Stingers” leaves things by hour’s end, Tootsie showing up in the very next scene makes for a logical followup act to Tim’s hilarious warmup.
In retrospect, the signs for where the episode is going seem almost obvious: the entire opening scene lays out how Tim’s influence on Paige is going to inspire her actions tonight, and you know the show is going to bring its A-game when Fields and Weisberg are handling script duties. But for the first half, “Stingers” plays like an average episode of The Americans burdened by an above-average degree of plot busyness. The show has been spinning more plates than ever this season, but even one this good can’t keep the routine from looking a little wobbly at times.
Just look at how much happens in the first half of the episode: Zinaida really is a rezidentura asset! Henry is still dealing with hormones! Stan is mopey and needs attention! Nina and Baklanov bond over English! Most of this happens even before Philip goes to check on Kimberly, which segues into the Jennings starting a whole new operation involving a visiting member of the Mujahideen. The whiplashing across subplots is even more noticeable once everything becomes about Afghanistan. While Elizabeth is trying to rebound from last week’s draining field mission, and Philip is considering Gabriel’s offer to get little Mischa out of dodge, we’re wondering if the episode title is meant to foreshadow the Jennings’ future involvement in the sale of anti-aircraft weaponry. There’s so much going on in “Stingers” that I watched the first half wondering what had caused The Americans to become so uncharacteristically hectic.
Then Philip and Elizabeth come home late one night to find Paige waiting up for them, and “it” happens. The conversation that the season, and the show have been building towards between Paige and her parents finally happens. The term “schmuck bait” is used by writers to describe a dramatic event that can’t possibly happen on a show, but is made to look like a possibility anyway. Paige finding out about her parents was hardly impossible –heck, it seemed inevitable. But now, in the middle of all this craziness? As Paige kept pressing, backing her parents further and further into a corner, I kept waiting for the bait to get pulled back. “This can’t really happen now,” I thought, “they must have an out, or a delay they’ll employ at the last second. It’s not the right time for this.”
But there was never going to be a “right time” for Philip and Elizabeth to tell Paige that her parents are undercover K.G.B. agents from the Soviet Union. Season 3 has been all about watching the Jennings lose control of their missions, their commitments, and their family: of course they weren’t going to have the luxury of choosing when Paige finds out the truth about them. She presents the case against her parents so strongly that there’s simply no other way to avoid the conversation. Their silence at her accusations doesn’t satisfy her, and any lie they could possibly come up with would just do more damage.
“I need to know the truth, I don’t care what it is. If you love me – if you really love me, then please tell me! What, are you in the witness protection program? Did you guys kill somebody? Are you guys drug-dealers like your friend Gregory? Am I adopted, are we aliens, what?!” The answer is a complicated mix of many of the above, but Philip and Elizabeth end up taking Tim’s advice, treating Paige more like an adult than a child. They present the truth as matter-of-factly as possible, avoiding the details and history of their life as spies in order to get the terrible broad strokes across. Just as Elizabeth saying her real name sealed Betty’s fate last week, Philip simply stating, “we were born in a different country” marks the point of no return.