Once again, I wan to apologize for taking an unplanned week off from my The Americans posts, but I’ve returned this week to talk about an episode that demands discussion!
Episode M.V.P.: Holly Taylor
The Americans had made many brave and bold storytelling moves in its first three seasons, but perhaps its bravest move was placing a teenage girl at the center of an entire season’s plot. Many TV shows—especially TV dramas—have no idea how to create compelling young female characters, so they often leave them in the background if they exist within the show’s universe at all. However, The Americans decided that Paige wasn’t just going to be a big part of the story this season; she was going to be the story this season, and that decision has made a great show even better. In order for Paige’s prominent story to be as successful and engaging as it has been, the young actress playing her needed to be not just good but great—and Holly Taylor has proved she’s worthy of being one of the main focal points of as brilliant a television season as I’ve ever seen.
Taylor has had strong moments throughout this season of The Americans, but those moments were nothing compared to the performance she delivered in “Stingers.” To be as young as Taylor is and have the talent to share a scene with Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell and command an equal amount of the audience’s attention is no small feat. Taylor absolutely broke my heart in this episode, and she did it in so many ways. When Paige first confronted her parents about her desire to know the truth, Taylor nailed Paige’s sense of righteous anger over spending so much time believing she was crazy because of their lies. What was so moving about that moment was that it never felt like a teenage girl whining; it felt like a profoundly adult desire to know the truth about her parents and thus the truth about herself. The hair and costuming forTaylor added to her sense of maturity in this scene; Paige has never looked more like an adult.
As secret identities were revealed, what was so stunning about Taylor’s work was her use of silence and stillness. The dinner table scene between Elizabeth, Philip, and Paige was as brilliant as it was because all three actors were playing on the same level, and that says so much about Taylor’s ability to hold her own against two of the most nuanced performers on television right now. Taylor said so much in Paige’s quietest moments—from her hesitation on the phone with Pastor Tim to her silence in reaction to her mother speaking Russian. And that silence was heartbreaking because it contrasted so clearly with who Paige has always been—a young woman of action, passion, and strong opinions that she readily voices. Seeing her shocked into silence by the truth of who her parents are felt so realistic—more so than any hysterics would have felt. It reflected the episode’s title in a wonderful way, too. “Stingers” happen when people are hit and experience numbness afterwards. Paige just experienced the most profound stinger imaginable. And the way Taylor played that numbness with real depth and not just emotionless acting fit into the overall tone of the show perfectly and made Paige’s harsh transition into adulthood feel as honest as it was painful.
Favorite Scene: Paige learning the truth
Paige learning the truth about her parents was one of the best examples of the way The Americans remains one of the few shows on television that can still surprise me. I honestly thought this storyline wouldn’t reach this point until the season finale or into next season. Even when Paige first started asking questions in about who her parents really are, I expected Philip and Elizabeth to get around the truth in a similar way to what Philip did with Martha.
But Paige isn’t Martha. The truth matters more to her than anything else—even her current relationship with the people she loves. I was blown away by the fact that Paige’s intelligence and intuition—two traits she clearly inherited from her parents—were used against them in such a devastating manner. Paige isn’t dumb, but she’s not annoyingly precocious either. She’s just a smart, resourceful young woman who was tired of feeling like there was something wrong with her, and I was so proud of her for finally standing up for herself, for finally saying she’s not the crazy one; there is something wrong in her family, and she wasn’t going to back down until her parents told her the truth.
And just as I was floored by Paige’s assertiveness, I was also floored by Philip and Elizabeth matching her openness with their own. Rhys and Russell conveyed so much in the silent moment they shared before moving to join Paige the table. Without having to say anything, both of them came to the understanding that they had to tell Paige the truth. And what broke my heart the most as the scene progressed was the way all three actors conveyed the sense that this wasn’t how any of them wanted this moment to go. Paige clearly never expected to find out that her parents are the “bad guys” she hears about on the news. Philip fought so hard to keep this moment from happening, but it turned out that Paige forced his hand in a way Mother Russia never could. And Elizabeth wanted to tell Paige the truth after months or even years spent subtly preparing her for it. She never expected to be doing it on the defensive side of the conversation. This moment didn’t go the way any of them hoped it would, and that reflected an idea that The Americans has dealt with many times this season: Sometimes the truth doesn’t set anyone free.
My favorite decision in that scene was to have Philip be the one to start the avalanche of truths. It broke my heart to see Elizabeth unable to start the conversation she always believed was necessary because it was all happening so wrong. But it was even harder to see Philip have to do something he’d fought against so strongly. I genuinely believe Philip would have betrayed his own country if it meant protecting Paige, but he couldn’t protect Paige from her own desire to know the truth. Part of adulthood is learning that your parents have lives beyond what you idealize them to be, and part of parenthood is realizing that your children have minds of their own and you can’t always control how those minds will work. Those hard truths become even harder in the world of The Americans.
• The moment where both Elizabeth and Philip silently stare into space next to each other, with the noise of the phone in the background, gave me chills. I thought Rhys and Russell played their characters’ sense of uncertainty with characteristically brilliant restraint.
• My next choice for favorite scene would have been the moment in which Paige asked her parents to speak Russian. I loved the symbolism of Elizabeth being the one to speak in Russian and Philip being the one to translate it for his daughter into English. Elizabeth telling Paige they love her in Russian reminded me of her telling Philip to “Come home” in Russian at the end of Season One. In both cases, it felt like Elizabeth opening up her deepest, truest self in an attempt to connect to the people she loves.
• It was nice to see Henry have more to do in this episode. His relationship with Stan has always been interesting (because Philip isn’t there for Henry as much as he should be, and Stan wasn’t there for Matthew as much as he should have been), and this episode brought that back into the spotlight. I also thought his box of suggestive photos proved that Paige isn’t the only one with some serious spy skills. And his Eddie Murphy impression was the perfect awkward comedic relief after the tense dinner table revelation scene.
• Does anyone else think Philip is actually going to snap and kill Pastor Tim every time those two characters share a scene? Nobody on TV right now projects silent rage in a way that’s as terrifying as Rhys.
• I am incredibly worried about Martha now that Stan seems to be onto her. I also thought his “realization” moment was done so well. Noah Emmerich is quietly doing stellar work once again this season.
• On a show where family and country are often at odds, I found it incredibly profound that Paige chose her parents—despite their lies—both in the scene with her phone call to Pastor Tim and in the moment when she realized she could tell Stan the truth. The true brilliance of this show, though, lies in the fact that I honestly worried in both scenes (especially the phone call) that she would say too much.