The Americans, Ep. 3.10: “Stingers” is a shocking and wrenching hour

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The Americans, Season 3, Episode 10: “Stingers”
Written by Joel Fields & Joe Weisberg
Directed by Larysa Kondracki
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm (ET) on FX

In film music, a stinger is a jarring dissonance which accompanies a shocking moment, and this week’s episode of The Americans, “Stingers,” contains what might be the show’s biggest surprise so far. However, unlike a musical stinger, the scene is delivered entirely without music, relying on the strength of the actors and the quick cuts between their faces to maximize their emotional gut punch.

And what an incredible job they do. This is in regards to, of course, Paige’s discovery of the truth about her parents, which finally gets set in motion by Phillip’s stern nod. She decides she’s had enough of her parents’ duplicity, and she insists upon them telling her what’s going on. Elizabeth and Phillip realize that they finally have no choice but to acquiesce to their daughter, and his quiet relent begins the process.

Given the tension that’s been building to this moment throughout the series, it’s hard to imagine it falling flat, but the performances do particularly well in revealing the scene’s many layers. To start, there’s Holly Taylor’s heartbreaking evocation of Paige’s innocence. Her pleading tone of voice as she asks her parents if they’re murderers (combined with our knowledge that their iniquities don’t stop there) tugs at the viewer’s heartstrings in a way that doesn’t feel cloying in the slightest.

Although the audience’s unambiguous sympathy for Paige is the emotional hook in the scene, the complex dimensions seen in Phillip and Elizabeth’s interaction make it more than just an easy play on the viewer’s feelings. Matthew Rhys’ menacing threat to Paige if she reveals their secret is downright terrifying on its own, and his ability to talk as he does to his own daughter is even more frightening. Judged merely by tone of voice, his speech to her sounds no different than the threats he’s delivered (and made good on) to the enemies of the KGB he’s faced throughout the series. It’s obvious that he has no choice, but it doesn’t make the moment any less shocking. If anything, it draws out the inexcusableness of placing his daughter in the scenario that she’s now in.

Last for the scene, but certainly not least, is the relationship between Phillip and Elizabeth, which is, in many ways, the emotional crux of this far-reaching show. Although their relationship has been severely strained by the conflict over how to treat Paige (among other things), they still care about each other enough for her to wait for his approval before telling their daughter the truth. The dynamics between the couple continue to evolve as they begin talking to Paige, as Keri Russell’s stuttering evokes Elizabeth’s hesitation. The actress has done a masterful job of evoking a character who, despite being very headstrong, is also insecure, and the scene develops the characterization even further.

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One of the scene’s lesser virtues is its explanation of Pastor Tim’s behavior in the teaser, which initially comes across as one of the few flaws in an otherwise very strong season. His stubborn insistence on prying into Phillip’s relationship with his daughter feels too tenacious to be believable. Tim clearly cares about Paige, which fuels his interrogation of Phillip, but it’s hard, at first, to reconcile his aggression with his otherwise fairly passive nature. That being said, Paige’s explanation prior to his confession clears up the discrepancy.

The same sort of clarification doesn’t come for Stan’s bizarre relationship with Henry, which distracts from the intensity of the big reveal. “Stingers” is clearly built around the theme of parenthood, which the subplot aims to develop, but it’s too awkward and unexpected to do so effectively. As lonely as Stan is, the thought of him coping with his loneliness by being a paternal figure to Henry feels a bit too exaggerated for the generally sober nature of the series.

That being said, the other parental relationship explored in “Stingers” lands quite a bit better. When Phillip takes Kimberly home from a party, he puts her to bed in the way he’s often done for Paige. As soon as she goes to the bathroom, though, he’s off to her father’s briefcase to pick up a crucial recording.

At first glance, he appears to be clearly using her, and without the benefits of the paternal influence he exerts upon Paige. He’s not the best father, as the writers have frequently shown, but his attempts at parenthood are at least somewhat positive. By contrast, he’s been just about exclusively a negative influence on Kimberly’s life, and his grasp for information the moment she passes out exemplifies his exploitation.

Still, by the time the episode ends and viewers have come to terms with what he’s done to Paige, his actions towards Kimberly feel somewhat diminished. He’s certainly hurt her, but he’s made his own daughter’s entire life feel like a lie. “Stinger” forced him, Elizabeth, and the viewer to come to terms with the situation, and the episode did so in a truly artful way.

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