There’s a key exchange in “Pests” when Stan crosses the street to chat with Philip about dating a woman he met at the gym. Stan says he told her about his job and she gave him a weird look.
Philip: “You’re an FBI agent, Stan. Women love that stuff!”
Stan: “Maybe when we were chasing Capone and Dillinger. It’s 1984, Philip.”
For the Jennings, Stan, and Oleg, life in the spy game has eroded their spirit, as the initial sense of patriotic duty has curdled bit by bit into disillusionment. Keep in mind that this conversation takes place early in the episode, before Stan gets briefed on the CIA’s plans to exploit Oleg, now that he’s back working for the KGB in Russia. As Stan futilely attempts to explain to his superiors, Oleg’s betrayal of his country was a one-time arrangement built on trust between adversaries, meant to relieve his conscience over a bioweapons project that he could not abide. Now Stan’s word is rendered meaningless, and Oleg’s extraordinary courage will likely be rewarded by his death and perhaps the deaths of his family members, too. He will be punished for doing the right thing.
Whenever The Americans reaches the crucial moment in which Stan finds out the truth about the Jennings, that same feeling of betrayal, humiliation, and powerlessness will grip him again, and whatever idealistic motives he once had about joining the intelligence community will be rendered a distant memory. What “Pests” emphasizes in that driveway exchange and throughout the rest of the episode is that Stan and Philip are in the same boat, even though only Philip knows it right now. They’ve both been on the job long enough to know that nothing is as morally clear-cut as “chasing Capone and Dillinger”; the environment is such that even ordinary people, such as that attractive woman at the gym, are inclined to back away slowly.
Of the two sides, “Pests” takes a particularly grim view of American intelligence agencies and the lengths they’re willing to go to notch a victory in the Cold War. When Gabriel meets Philip and Elizabeth in the opening scene, he makes a point of noting that their new mission will take them to “the land of Lincoln,” just so he can lament the decline of a country that now has Ronald Reagan in charge. The possibility that Americans are deliberately sabotaging Soviet grains to stoke the country’s hunger problems is too much even for Philip to fathom. “Going after people’s food? I thought there were things they wouldn’t do,” he says.
In the Department of Contemporary Relevance, this week’s episode dovetails with a fascinating real-life conversation between former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor and Michael McFaul, President Obama’s former ambassador to Russia, on Vietor’s excellent new podcast, “Pod Save the World.” McFaul talks about Obama’s attempts to reset diplomatic relations with Russia and his desire for “win-win” outcomes between parties that were otherwise adversarial. This explains how the United States and Russia were able to negotiate the New START treaty to reduce nuclear warheads in both countries while Dmitry Medvedev was president of Russia. The relationship soured, however, when Vladimir Putin asserted himself, and win-win outcomes were scrapped in favor of politics as a zero-sum game.
On The Americans, the win-win of Stan and Oleg’s partnership on bioweapons has now been sacrificed for the zero-sum game of winning the Cold War. Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields were likely not thinking about America’s current relationship with Russia when they wrote “Pests,” but they’re hip to the tragic disparity between agendas. Stan has had many low moments with the FBI, but the move on Oleg nonetheless shakes him to the core. “We have to play by the rules,” he pleads to the deputy attorney general. If the FBI can’t respect Oleg’s decency in preventing people from getting hurt, Stan says, “I don’t know what kind of organization we are in punishing him for that.” It’s the type of speech a person makes before tendering his resignation — but Stan, like Philip, Elizabeth, and Oleg — is used to bearing additional burdens on his soul.
Meanwhile, Philip and Elizabeth return to the dreadful work of preparing Paige for her own life in espionage — or least containing the serious threat that a scared, moody, independent-minded teenager poses for the entire family. Elizabeth often plays the role of chief enforcer and she does so again in “Pests,” during another training session in which she reiterates their concerns about Paige seeing Matthew. But the expression on Keri Russell’s face after they find Paige sleeping in the closet is utterly heartbreaking, and it’s a small masterstroke for the episode’s director, Chris Long, to hang on that expression right before the cut into the opening credits. The shift in Philip and Elizabeth’s thinking is startling: They go from frantically worrying about Paige staying at Matthew’s and a scenario in which they’re not home to answer Stan’s call in the middle of the night, to finding their first-born child at her most vulnerable.
The fretting continues as Paige waves Matthew past first base, and her parents have to figure out how to approach a particularly complicated version of The Talk. Elizabeth’s insight into sex is universal in the first part, specifically troubling in the second: “You’re going to feel and say things to Matthew that you’ve never felt or said before. How are you going to handle things then?” Philip and Elizabeth know by their own example how intimacy and love can complicate a partnership, but Elizabeth’s solution for Paige is unexpected and wise. Rather than “treating her like a child,” which will stoke her rebelliousness and raise more suspicions from Stan about her happiness, Paige is granted the freedom and respect she’s been craving.
All parents have to let go of their children at some point, trusting that they’ll make good decisions on their own. The only difference here is the life-or-death stakes.
Hammers and Sickles
• Last week, I didn’t give proper respect to Hans, who Elizabeth had to kill in the operation to collect samples from William’s body. Hans was an anti-apartheid South African who became a KGB informant out of disgust with American foreign policy. He trained and surveilled under the Jennings’ guidance and was looking forward to seeing his sister in a couple of weeks. RIP Hans.
• Tuan’s militancy in private with Philip and Elizabeth makes a striking contrast to their world-weariness. The scene at Bennigan’s is hilarious, in the intense yet wordless hostility that greets Alexei’s endless ranting about America as a land of plenty, but it seems like Tuan is the angriest of everyone — not just with Alexei, but also with poor, suffering Pasha. “My whole family died back home,” he says. “I was out with my grandma when they bombed the village … These kids have no idea. Family, more food than they can eat, all these clothes. I can get Pasha to do anything I want. He’s weak.”
• Are the Jennings having The Talk a day or two late? I took Paige sliding her hand up Matthew’s pant leg as a suggestion that the green light was on, but she’s cagey with her parents about whether she’s done it yet or not.
• Tonight’s fun period detail: When Stan’s new squeeze meets Philip at the gym, she’s wearing a big scrunchie on her wrist à la Debbie Gibson.
• The code to the FBI situation room is 9331. If you’re ever sent back to 1984 and want the unofficial tour of FBI headquarters, that information will come in handy.