The Americans, Season 3, Episode 6: “Born Again”
Written by Tracey Scott Wilson
Directed by Kevin Dowling
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm (ET) on FX
More and more, this season of The Americans feels like it’s centered around Paige. Although the myriad subplots weave together to paint a broad portrait of Cold War life, she’s become important enough to feel like as good a candidate as any for the show’s emotional core. Paige serves a dual function in the narrative: her embrace of Christianity is interesting in its own right and is also an ideal lens for the viewer to understand the complicated relationship between Elizabeth and Phillip. This week’s episode takes its title from Paige’s baptism, so “Born Again” naturally focuses on her, and she continues to be a perfect anchoring point for the show’s broader concerns.
This dynamic is on display from the beginning of the episode, when Pastor Tim dunks her in water after enthusiastically praising Paige’s decision to be baptized as her “most defiant act of protest yet.” Throughout his speech, the camera cuts to Elizabeth and Phillip, making sure that we see their mixture of skepticism and cautious pride. As always, Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell do a brilliant job of conveying a wide range of emotions without much to work with, beyond brief facial expressions. They make a fascinating counterpoint to Kelly AuCoin’s unbridled enthusiasm (further emphasized by the use of slow-motion and cheesy music as Paige goes underwater) throughout the scene, but it’s Rhys’ feigned smile just before the credits roll which speaks the loudest. As with all of Phillip’s efforts to win Paige’s loyalty, it’s hard to tell to what extent his emotions are genuine and it appears as if he himself isn’t entirely sure.
Paige is equally torn up about her feelings towards her parents, as we see after the cold open. She’s understandably confused by his request for her to “do what’s right.” As with many of the show’s strongest domestic scenes, this one is effective for being the sort of interaction any parent is likely to have with their child, but it works even better because of Phillip’s sordid secret. She’s as skeptical as any teenager would be of a father’s advice, particularly after their conflict over her religious views, and the viewer’s omniscient perspective tells us just how right she is to feel as she does.
Phillip is far from being alone in his awkwardness with Paige. Elizabeth tells her daughter how impressed she is with her decision to get baptized and Paige’s reaction is somewhere between skepticism and embrace. Again, as in the scene with Phillip, there’s certainly some truth to what Elizabeth says, but our knowledge of her ulterior motives colors our view of their interaction. The scene is also interesting for the contrast it shows with Phillip—her admiration comes off as more encouraging of Paige than Phillip’s gentle but stern admonition. The differences between the two conversations vary from the austerity shown by Elizabeth and the encouragement shown by Phillip for most of the season, but rather than show character inconsistencies, they reveal the complexity of their relationships. The Americans is a show which stubbornly refuses to pigeonhole its characters into shallow, flat depictions and the relationships each of the Jennings parents has with their daughter have been a particularly apt place for the writers to show off their prowess with characterization.
While the comparisons between how Phillip and Elizabeth handle similar situations have been effective in understanding the two characters, their interactions with each other may be the most fascinating place to examine them. As they smoke a joint and muse about Phillip’s lie to Kimberly, they seem like the loving husband and wife that the KGB arranged for them to be. Rhys and Russell play the romantic aspects of their relationship just as well as the arguments, and the two have a powerful chemistry in this scene. Their marriage may be a lie, but The Americans continually floats the idea that it’s no less authentic than the “real” marriages seen on the show. It’s not like those marriages are without merit either, as the rekindling of Stan and Sandra’s relationship shows. “Born Again” is a good episode for tender scenes with often antagonistic couples, and the image of the Beemans making out on the couch matches the joint scene for chemistry and intimacy.
As entertaining as these relationships are to watch unfold, much of the episode feels like throat-clearing for the fourth act shockers: Nina’s cellmate gets taken in, thanks to her cooperation with the KGB, and Elizabeth appears poised to tell Paige the truth about her and Phillip. In both cases, the conflicts end on somewhat of a cliffhanger, but the writers give us enough to keep us primed to find out what next week will bring. It’ll be fascinating to see how both stories, and the rest of the show, progress as the season approaches its second half.