“Stingers” was the right title for last night’s episode of The Americans. It was a quietly devastating episode in which the Jennings’ born-again daughter Paige (Holli Taylor) finally confronted her parents about their bizarre, furtive behavior and got an answer she didn’t expect to hear, and that Soviet spies Elizabeth and Philip (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) hoped they’d never have to volunteer.
The first word that springs to mind when I think back on “Stingers” is “silence.” It rhymes with “violence.” This might seem like a strange association, but it fits: The parents’ revelation of their secret lives created an enormous psychic upheaval in the household, one that seemed to strike all of them as keenly as a physical blow. The conversation between Paige, Philip, and Elizabeth unfolded at the episode’s halfway mark, in the kitchen — the room where most serious family business tends to be discussed. Afterward, we saw shot after shot of the parents sitting or standing quietly in their home and in their workplace, outwardly functioning but inwardly paralyzed by grief and shock. Paige retreated into her room and curled up on her bed, on her side, nearly in a fetal position, as if recovering from trauma to the gut.
“This isn’t normal,” Paige told them, by way of broaching the unthinkable. She summarized all her suspicions and misgivings over the years with the phrase, “It’s not me, it’s you” — a grimly funny formulation, once you realize it’s an inversion of what people often say when they’re about to break up with someone.
The rest of Paige’s prelude to confrontation was a laundry list of possible explanations: that her parents were drug dealers (“like your friend Gregory,” she casually said, referring to Elizabeth’s late ex-boyfriend, shot to death by police in season one), or that they were “aliens, what?” (“alien” has many meanings). “We were born in a different country,” Philip says. “The Soviet Union,” Elizabeth continues. (They seem to be delivering a single monologue in tandem throughout this scene, a great, true touch; they're on the same Paige.) “We fight for people who can’t fight for themselves,” Elizabeth says, at the tail end of what sounds like a rehearsed position paper justifying her and Philip’s entire adult lives. “Stop,” Paige says.
“Knowing this comes with a lot of responsibility,” Elizabeth says. “You can’t tell anyone, not now, not ever,” Philip says. Things only got worse from there. It was as hard to watch the last half-hour of “Stinger” as it was to watch scenes of intense physical violence in other Americans episodes: torture, assassination, men burned alive. We (hopefully) have no familiarity with the extreme brutality showcased in those other episodes, but we all know what a moment like the one in the Jennings’ kitchen feels like — not the particulars, but generally, and generally is more than enough of an audience connection point. We know what it’s like to feel misled or betrayed, then have our fears confirmed. That’s why violent genre shows can be somehow more devastating when the episode’s center of trauma is mainly emotional — think of the season two episode of The Sopranos where Tony realized one of his friends was a snitch for the FBI.
Written by series creator Joe Weisberg and co-executive producer Joel Fields, and directed by Larysa Kondracki (who has done superb work on The Walking Dead and Better Call Saul, among other dramas), “Stinger” knew exactly what it wanted to say and how to say it. Everything fit with everything else — including the stuff in Russia with Nina (Annett Mahendru) and its related scenes in the Rezidentura, the material with Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and Paige’s younger brother Henry (Keidrich Sellati), and Stan being interrogated about that bug in his boss’s office — but not in a too-neat or obvious way.
All the subplots were joined by betrayal, feelings of abandonment, and the fear that an important part of your life has become hopelessly corrupted (like "an apple with a worm in it," to quote a line from Stan's questioning). Gaps in conversation, moments of anxious, silent introspection, empty spaces, uncomfortably quiet rooms all become signifiers that something has gone horribly wrong. That’s why Stan’s early comment about his divorce-emptied home (“What am I going to do in a big house like this, all by myself?”) obliquely connects, via Stan’s still-unconfessed affair with Nina, to the interrogation, where Stan has the chance to spill about Nina (by way of explaining why his marriage fell apart) but chooses not to. The latter scene’s peak is the moment where the interrogator asks Stan who would’ve had access to Gaad’s office, and Stan silently realizes it was Martha during an awkward pause, but doesn’t come clean. (“No matter how much you trust someone, or think that you trust them, you can’t tell them,” Elizabeth warns Paige, a statement that resonates in Stan’s scene later.)
In an episode like this one, even seemingly ordinary objects and sounds gain metaphoric dimensions, as when Elizabeth and Philip stand side-by-side in the kitchen and the sound of the abandoned phone receiver rises on the soundtrack (like Paige retreating to her room after her parents confessed their deception, the receiver has been disconnected from its base). Even moments of levity tie back into the script’s central concerns: When Henry does an impression of Eddie Murphy from the old Saturday Night Live sketch “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood,” it’s funny because it’s a pretty good impression for a young white kid, and because his humorless mother walks in right as he’s landing a punch line on the word “bitch.” But the specifics of the routine — Mr. Robinson’s wife left him — connects both to Elizabeth and Philip’s confession to Paige (they’re afraid they’ll lose their daughter now, in every sense) and to Stan’s divorce (his wife left him alone in the house). Stan’s secrets and the Jennings’ connect later, in a wonderfully mordant moment: Stan comes over for dinner and makes eye contact with the obviously haunted Paige (his FBI-man’s Spidey-sense is tingling, maybe), and the camera, which has taken Paige’s point-of-view, pans left to settle on her parents, and we hear a knife being sharpened just out of frame.
Kondracki’s filmmaking — altogether the finest piece of episodic direction I’ve seen this year — hones all these notions visually, but subtly, through cinematographer Richard Rutkowski’s '70s-drama-style Rembrandt lighting (the kitchen scene went full Godfather — appropriately, given that both that film series and this TV show are about criminal households trying to pass as “normal”) and very slow tracking shots and zooms. The latter make it seem as though the episode itself is cognizant of just how much misery these characters are in; at certain points it feels as if the camera is trying to approach them all as cautiously as possible, so as not to cause more pain.
The intimate scope, unhurried pace, and hushed tone of Kondracki’s direction felt extreme even by The Americans’ standards, but like the script itself, it ultimately came to seem like a deepening or refinement of tendencies that were always there. In that sense, “Stinger” might bear the same relation to The Americans as “The Suitcase” does to Mad Men. It is at once characteristic and uncharacteristic of everything this series does well; watching it, you felt as though the writers, filmmakers, and actors were digging deeper than they had before, refining their themes and their voice in tandem. However long the show lasts, whenever fans make lists of the best single episodes, this one will be on it. I doubt it was a coincidence that FX announced the fourth-season renewal of this acclaimed but low-rated series on the eve of this chapter’s airing. I like to imagine network executives debating whether to fund one more year, then watching “Stingers” and thinking, “Well, after this, how could we not?”