Episode M.V.P.: Noah Emmerich
Emmerich almost earned last week’s M.V.P. award on the strength of his endearingly realistic awkwardness when talking about the woman he had his eye on at the gym (who we now know as Renee), but this episode was truly his chance to shine. This season’s first two episodes have really put the spotlight on Stan’s sincerity, and Emmerich is so good at reminding us that—even though we have more of an emotional connection to Philip and Elizabeth at this point—Stan isn’t someone to root against; he’s a flawed but good man just trying to do the right thing for his country and for the people he cares about.
“Pests” allowed us to see just how deeply Stan cares, and I love when Emmerich gets to show the upstanding, big-hearted side of this character. When Stan was talking to Philip about Paige, part of me was obviously worried, but part of me was deeply moved by how much Stan sincerely cares about her. Emmerich did a great job of playing the layers of that scene, too, because underneath his genuine concern was a war between wanting to believe his friend and trusting his instincts as a trained FBI agent. Stan knows something isn’t right, and I like those moments when he gets to be a competent agent. It gives Philip and Elizabeth a worthy adversary and credible threat, and it also asks us to closely examine who we’re rooting for, because Philip and Elizabeth may be the characters we care about the most, but it’s hard not to root for Stan, too. And that’s not because he represents America; it’s all because of the humanity Emmerich gives him. (In fact, one of the best thing Stan did in this episode was show that he was willing to put his integrity before his country’s orders.)
That humanity was evident in all the scenes that featured Stan worrying about Oleg in this episode. Their relationship has always been one of my favorites on the show, and Emmerich has made it heartbreakingly clear that Stan has come to truly care about Oleg. The deep sense of responsibility and guilt Stan carries when it comes to Oleg is clearly connected to what happened to Nina, but it’s more than that, too. People matter to Stan; they’re not disposable or easily forgotten.
Whenever I think of Stan, I think of him as the opposite of the “The Bureau does not feel” message that was delivered last season. The Bureau may not feel, but its agents sometimes do. And Stan feels more than most. It takes a great actor to make that depth of feeling and caring—that steadfast sense of responsibility to those who trusted him—truly resonate on a show with this much moral ambiguity. Stan is the very definition of this show’s idea that caring about people makes life a lot more dangerous but also makes it worth living, and I can’t wait to see what Emmerich continues to do as Stan’s story progresses this season.
Favorite Scene: Philip and Elizabeth teach Paige to control her emotions
Sometimes a scene is my favorite because of its beauty or the powerful emotions in it, but other times a scene is my favorite because it haunts me so much that I can’t let go of it. This is definitely an example of the latter. As the founder and president of the Paige Jennings Defense Squad and as someone who gets sad every time she thinks about the damaging effect of the sexual aspects of Philip and Elizabeth’s work, that final scene was so hard to watch—but also completely riveting. I knew we were in for something that was going to break my heart from the moment Elizabeth said she wanted to stop treating Paige “like a goddamn kid,” but what I love about this show is that the scene that followed still played out like nothing I could have ever expected—and yet it still made perfect sense.
This entire storyline with Paige and Matthew is—like every good storyline on The Americans—about something universal made more dramatic and nerve-wracking because everyone involved is connected to the world of espionage. In this case, it’s the story of parents trying to deal with the fact that their teenage daughter is inching closer to her first sexual relationship. But on this show, sex is never just sex, and intimacy can be dangerous and even deadly. So Philip and Elizabeth have a lot more to worry about than pregnancy scares and hormones if Paige starts having sex with Matthew. Paige already confessed their secret to Pastor Tim, so it makes sense that they want to do everything in their power to help her control her emotions with Matthew. But their advice only served to prove just how much spying destroys the concept of intimacy for so many people caught up in its web.
Kudos to Philip and Elizabeth for being realistic and relatively open-minded about Paige having sex as a teenager, but that realism made for the most uncomfortable version of “the talk” I’ve ever heard. Philip and Elizabeth’s advice to Paige was to start practicing a technique they obviously mastered (I need to go back and watch some old episodes to see if they ever did the thumb/finger trick.) to control her emotions and remind her where she comes from, what she needs to protect. What broke my heart was that they sincerely thought this was great advice, and it is—for an asset. Obviously, Paige does need to learn to control her emotions with Matthew to protect her family, but that will cut her off forever from forming a truly intimate relationship.
Paige wasn’t being as dramatic as Elizabeth acted like she was being when she said she’d just be alone forever. In a way, finding out her parents’ secret has doomed her to exactly that fate. Philip and Elizabeth have each other; they have a kind of intimacy that is both physical and emotional. They can let go with each other, and they’re learning how to be vulnerable together. But—unless Paige finds another child of KGB agents to be with—their daughter will never be able to have that in her own life. She’ll never be able to have the level of emotional intimacy and honesty her parents have. And for a teenager who was once so sure of who she was and so open about her beliefs, never being able to be truly herself or completely open and vulnerable with someone is such a sad fate. Philip and Elizabeth essentially told Paige she could have sex if she could master doing that without true intimacy, which is just one step closer to becoming an agent.
So much of the beauty of Philip and Elizabeth’s relationship has come from the two of them seeing each other for who they really are in a world where they lie to everyone else, so it was devastating to see that Paige will never be able to have that outside of her family. Her parents love her; it was clear that this moment came from a place of care and thinking they were doing the best thing for her. But Paige deserves to have the kind of open, vulnerable first love all teenagers experience, and this moment made it clear that—just like her parents’ ability to form healthy relationships has suffered because of their job—she will never be able to have a normal romantic relationship.
• A close runner-up for my favorite scene was Philip and Elizabeth’s talk in the bathroom. That one scene covered so much ground so realistically—from Elizabeth’s grief over Hans to their concern about Paige. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys didn’t have to deliver huge blocks of dialogue to convey their shared stress; it felt like a real conversation between a married couple about a loss in the family and a troubled teenager—just with the heightened stakes that come from the world they inhabit.
• I could also have written about a billion words on the moment Philip and Elizabeth find Paige sleeping in her closet. The sincere heartbreak and worry on both of their faces when they realized the trauma their daughter has been working through—and most likely won’t be able to handle without crumbling much longer—destroyed me.
• Elizabeth and Paige’s training sessions continue to captivate me. I could watch Russell and Holly Taylor tensely and tersely deliver lines while staring each other down all day. Elizabeth may not be great with motherly advice, but she gives great punching tips.
• I loved the moment at the dinner with the Morozov family when Elizabeth told Alexei that she related to dealing with a teenager who hates the life his family pulled him into. It was also very fun to watch Elizabeth and Philip pretend not to know Russian.
• Pasha’s line about wanting to die back home rather than living in America reflected Philip and Elizabeth’s choice to continue living in America even when given the chance to leave at the end of last season. The question of what home is for each of these characters is central to this story, and I like knowing it’s going to be explored even more this season.
• Tuan still scares me, and I still think he’s going to go from being a kind of surrogate son for Elizabeth who loves the cause the way Paige doesn’t to being a cautionary tale of what happens when young kids get involved in this line of work. He’s going to kill someone this season; I can feel it. The question is, who?
• The scene with Elizabeth and the bugs was so terrifying that I’m actively trying to forget it happened. But that means it was done perfectly. The score, the direction, the lighting, and even the sound effects combined to produce some of the scariest minutes of television I’ve watched in a long time.
• This show is filled with not just great actors but great reactors, and Russell was at the top of her reaction game in “Pests.” From the opening scene with Gabriel (going from clearly shaken up by Hans’s death to frustrated over Philip’s naïveté) to her final look of pride at Paige and everything she did in that greenhouse scene, Russell made the most of every moment she was on screen in this episode.
• Not that I don’t think Stan can get a date, but does anybody else think something is up with Renee? Is she a Russian spy? Does she work for the CIA? Whatever it is, I think the line about her being a female Philip wasn’t thrown in there just as a joke.