Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell

There are many arbitrary measures for when a person officially enters adulthood.

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Age is often used as a demarcating line, as though turning 14 or 16 or 18 or 21 means a switch inside you flips and you finally understand compound interest or the importance of investing in your 401k. But there are plenty of other milestones we use to mark this occasion, be those milestones religious ceremonies, educational accomplishments, or sexual achievements.

But maybe the first steps into adulthood don’t happen when you blow out the candles on your birthday cake or rub baptismal waters from your eyes. Maybe they happen the moment you realize your parents aren’t who you thought they were, that they’re human, as flawed and horrible and wonderful as you.

Teenagers get a lot of flack for being self-involved, despite their biological hardwiring making them so, but that’s a bit of a bum rap. Late adolescence is actually the first opportunity most people get to see the world around them as it really is, as opposed to a reality constructed for them by loved ones. Paige Jennings has understood for years that something is wrong with the world that she lived in. But, like so many kids her age, she assumed the fault lay within her. She believed so fervently that there was something wrong inside of her, something that had to be made whole, that she took up with Christianity in an attempt to fix what had been broken.

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What happens to Paige in “Stingers” happens to most every child at one point or another. Most of us are raised in a world where we have a rough understanding of what our parents do all day, where they go, who they see, how they occupy all the time not dedicated solely to our care, protection, and edification. Many of us continue to operate this way well into adulthood. There are still moments where I call my retired parents to catch up, and they don’t answer the phone. I fume. How dare they not sit around the house on the off chance that I call?

When we look at our parents, we don’t always see who they are. We so often see who they are in relation to us. It’s beyond our fragile little minds, as children, and in some cases even as adults, that our parents are independent beings. When we’re very young, we lack the differentiation to understand that our parents’ minds are not our own, and those old habits can die hard.

With age, we begin to understand the difference, not only between ourselves and our parents, but between our parents and our perception of them. These people you are certain you know every secret of not only have more depth than you could possibly imagine, but also had an entire life of their own before you were born. It’s mind-boggling — and a little insulting if you’re self-involved enough. So what Paige experiences via the staggered revelations that allow her to finally learn her parents are Russian spies is universal.

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It’s everything that comes after that’s not.

Though most of us eventually realized who our parents really were, few of us had to deal with the fact that whatever we learned about them was not only still ongoing, but required our own complicity to continue. Throughout season three of The Americans, we’ve seen Paige yearn to be seen and treated as an adult, but now that she’s been granted her wish, it all seems a bit too much to bear.

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As difficult as Paige’s first lesson in adulthood is, it’s nothing compared to what she’ll have to learn next. The Americans, more than anything, is about allegiance. The topic recurs multiple times per episode, to almost comic effect occasionally. (It’s not for nothing that a major scene in the pilot involved the characters literally pledging allegiance to the flag.) The show constantly pushes the audience to ask itself if it’s possible to pledge allegiance to more than one person or entity. If you can, how do you decide who takes priority? As an adult, Paige must now decide whose allegiance comes first. In the church, much like in geopolitics, family is supposed to take a back seat to creed. Elizabeth and Philip break that rule when they realize how important it is to tell their daughter the truth, how much she needs to hear it, even if it tears their lives asunder. Notice how it’s Philip, the character most reticent to tell Paige the truth, who begins the series of revelations. Love wins out over careful long-term planning.

It’s important to choose family in the big moments, but “Stinger” was also about all the ways that choosing your family matters in the small moments as well. Philip cares for a wasted Kimmie, in a relationship that’s rapidly turning purely paternal, stepping in where her parents are not. Stan, unable to connect with his own son anymore, makes inroads with Henry via a bootlegged tape of Tron and Strat-O-Matic football. Pastor Tim continues to lobby on behalf of Paige, urging her parents to treat her like the adult he thinks she is. It’s easy to care for other people’s children because the stakes are lower, much like the expectations.

Through Pastor Tim’s oversight, Paige identifies a problem in her life that she subconsciously always knew was there. She was not alone in such a revelation this episode. As the investigation into the bug in Gaad’s office continues on, Stan finally seems to recognize Martha’s suspicious behavior for what it is—a revelation that’s been imminent since the season two finale dream sequence revealed his subconscious was already well aware of Martha’s treachery. The development makes a bad situation worse for Martha. She’s handling the truth about Philip well, considering how deep his lies run. Her choice to ally herself with love over country or work now seems a choice that will almost certainly cost her life in one fashion or another.

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Perhaps this is the sea change that Stan needs. As the divorce with Sandy moves forward and he continues to feel distant from his son, the world of meaningless sex offers little reprieve for his head. So sick at heart is he that he continues to plot with Oleg, calculating actions that would almost certainly be seen as treasonous in order to get Nina back in the country. Outing Martha’s actions would surely set him on a path that would take him through the end of the series, but for this episode, we observe him in a shattered home, full of things nobody wants, fathering a son that isn’t his.

In Henry, Stan sees someone accessible and open, someone so unlike his own son with all his grudges and emotions. Dealing with the Jennings’ son is a balm for Stan, parenting without the burden of parenting. Henry, on the other hand, is likely just grateful for the attention. Henry suffers from typical drama series second child syndrome, in which no one is quite sure what to do with the character. The Americans uses that to its advantage in this episode, showing exactly how that child would fit into a family where there’s not quite enough time or room for him. Henry is independent, growing up largely unfettered, a child of video games, movies, television, and glimpses of half-naked women ripped from wherever he can find them. A child of the internet, born a decade too early, Henry raises himself and is the better for it. Unlike Paige, he doesn’t seem flustered by his parents’ busy schedule and takes it upon himself to keep them up to date on all of the best SNL skits, unbothered by their disinterest. His loyalty is broad and open, happy to take whatever is given to him and ask for little more.

Loyalties may be shifting in Russia as well, with Nina still working to soften up Anton in exchange for her freedom. After realizing that sugar and sex appeal was getting her nowhere, she’s turned to using English as a way to build a bond with a man who aches to return to an environment where English is the rule, not the exception. Nina has been out, free, in a way, and now that Anton knows it, he’s much more interested in what she has to say and what she has to offer. Where that leads the two of them ultimately, remains to be seen.

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But that’s what could be said of every relationship by episode’s end, in most cases thanks to a single conversation between a teen girl and her parents. Paige’s plea for the truth is heart-rending, if only because the request she makes is, on its face, so simple, while simultaneously being the biggest thing she could possibly ask her parents for. When Elizabeth and Philip look at each other, wordlessly, and begin to speak, it feels like the series cracks directly in two, as if this single moment will serve as the dividing line between what was and what is. Philip takes the lead, meaningfully, because he needs to bring his daughter with him, no matter where the future might lead, and to lie to her in this moment would be insurmountable. But the truth is a tricky thing. It can seem small, when it actually contains oceans, and it can seem safe, when in fact, it is poison.

Philip and Elizabeth warn Paige of this as they conclude their talk, telling her that indiscretion would lead to them being put in jail forever, which is a version of the truth if anything. This haunts Paige as she reaches out to Pastor Tim to tell him the results of her talk, even as she demurs when it comes to specifics, informing him only that it happened.

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No matter what happens when all is said and done, the facts remain the same. The only thing that comes from people learning the truth about Elizabeth and Philip Jennings is death and destruction. (Remember that poor old woman who died last week? She seems placed there directly as a warning for what’s to come.) The two shielded their daughter from this unpleasant reality as long as they could, but adulthood comes for us all, one way or another. If Philip sharpening his knife while his daughter eyes the federal agent in their kitchen is any indication, coming of age takes no prisoners.

Stray observations:

  • I’m not actually Erik Adams, surprised though you may be. I was graciously allowed to fill in for what may be the GREATEST EPISODE EVER, though, so don’t be surprised if Erik never leaves town again.
  • How great was Henry this episode? Seeing a suburban white kid awkwardly perform “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” is the most true to life event I’ve ever seen the show tackle.
  • Also, he really needs to hide his spank bank better. It’s the “clearing the browser history” of the ‘80s.
  • I didn’t get a chance to talk about the Russian defector/double agent stuff, but it’s definitely interesting. I’m intrigued as to where this was going, even as this episode mostly spun its wheels in that regard.
  • Elizabeth speaking Russian. *single tear*

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