This post contains spoilers from last night’s episode of The Americans.
So Paige knows now. After a relatively tame confrontation, where Paige insisted that she was aware her parents were hiding something from her, Elizabeth and Philip came clean, and explained that yes, they were hiding something from her: They were born in the Soviet Union, and they were here gathering intelligence, and if Paige told anyone they’d go to jail forever. That’s a lot to drop on anyone, let alone a teen so square she gets baptized for her birthday. There are kids who react in horror to seeing their parents kiss. This was, in such a huge way, too much information.
Paige was paralyzed by this knowledge, and we could see her stall out somewhere in the denial/confusion/refusal zone. “Say something in Russian,” as if she could possibly recognize what Russian sounds like and thus prove or disprove something. She looked like such a little kid at that moment — that’s the person with the drawer full of Legos in mommy’s desk, not the person who drops by the office to say hello. The way she stared at Stan was with the stunned horror usually reserved for the day after you get The Sex Talk: You people just walk around knowing these things? Like it’s nothing? Yes, Paige.
In a lot of ways, this is just normal teen stuff, figuring out your parents’ dark shit and wondering how you’ll ever deal with it, only to discover you’ll do it the same way everyone else has: You just kind of do. We’ve seen it in ourselves (who’s with me?), and we’ve seen it as a rite of passage for other TV teens, too. Angela Chase on My So-Called Life rifles through her dad’s briefcase, so convinced is she that something is wrong with him; she sits at the dinner table in grossed-out misery, because how can everyone just chew in front of each other? Or Grace on Once and Again, slowly realizing that her father was at fault for her parents’ divorce, and that Tiffany isn’t just her dad’s girlfriend, she was his mistress. Oh. Paige already had lurking thoughts that maybe her dad was cheating on her mom, and she’s kind of right, though kind of not right, in the only way teenagers are ever really right about things — that “yes … but that’s not really the whole story” way. And now Paige has the whole story. And it’s too much, just like all parts of growing up are too much until they aren’t. We know she’s a smart and resourceful kid, and if she was already so primed to be groomed into a travel agent, maybe secret agent isn’t so far off.
There are three episodes left in this season. It’s hard not to think things are going to get much, much darker. We’ve seen catastrophic violence on the show plenty of times, but this is the season that violence started taking a more serious emotional toll on Philip and Elizabeth. On The Americans, the truth doesn’t set you free, it opens you up to tremendous hurt. Philip admitting to Elizabeth that he has to sometimes rely on spy training to go through the motions of their marriage? She kind of knew that, but having him say it didn’t make things better. Admitting to that old lady that she was from Russia didn’t give Elizabeth a gentle moment of reprieve, it gave her a moment where some random old lady called her a horrible person. (And she is! We love her, but she’s basically a super murderer.) Telling Paige the truth isn’t giving her a gift, it’s giving her a curse. One of the things The Americans has to wrestle with is that we ultimately know how this all works out: Even if Paige became the best damn teen-girl spy in history, she’d still be on the losing side of things. She’ll be, what, 24 when the Iron Curtain falls? What happens to her life then? Is Henry going to be in on it, too, at that point? The absolute best-case scenario is … the Jennings family going double-agent, helping America, and then living in witness protection until their deaths? I suppose Philip and Elizabeth could move back to Russia — if Russia would have them? — but what is Paige going to do in Moscow in 1992?
But that’s not information these characters have. No one’s parents know what the future holds, and mostly they tell us things they think will be helpful, not hurtful, even though they’re sometimes wrong. The content of what Philip and Elizabeth told their daughter is shocking, dangerous, and unpleasant, but Paige is hardly the first teen to discover her parents aren’t really how and who she thought they were, that the world involved a lot more lying than she’d realized, and that secrets wind up being a much more important part of grown-up love than anyone really wants. Bad talks with parents, a day spent at home watching soaps. Paige Jennings: Normal American teenager.