‘The Americans’ Season 3: How a Teen Girl’s Dilemma Humanized a Great, Cold Show

The complexity of teenage girls is an oft-explored topic on television, though it’s usually reserved for overly hysterical teen dramas. It’s much more rare to see on a period thriller like The Americans, which concerns itself with the happenings of two KGB spies posing as a picture-perfect American family. Elizabeth and Philip have necessarily kept their life a secret from their two children, Paige and Henry, but being found out was a lingering threat that the show couldn’t possibly ignore. One of the biggest shocks this season was Paige learning the truth, providing the already-great series with even more tension.

Last season, The Americans dove deeper into Paige’s character and her newfound obsession with — and comfort in — religion (and in Pastor Tim, the Jennings’ quiet enemy). Her religious leanings directly conflicted with her parents’ beliefs, resulting in some unique parent/teen clashes (when was the last time an argument resulted in a father angrily tearing pages out of his daughter’s bible?), but Season 3 brought her even more into the spotlight. In the Season 2 finale, we learned that the Centre was interested in indoctrinating Paige, which provided the crux of Elizabeth and Philip’s Season 3 dischord: whether or not they should tell Paige the truth, and whether or not she’d be a good fit for the family business. They were basically forced into a decision on the former issue, when Paige demanded that they tell her the truth.

“Stingers” was a long time coming, an episode that has been inevitable since the very beginning. There is no way The Americans could have believably kept both children in the dark for much longer — particularly eldest daughter Paige, because she’s been aware of something in the water for a while now but hasn’t been able to quite put her finger on it; any longer and her ignorance would’ve just become ridiculous and unbelievable. When Paige confronted her parents about their secrecy and lies, they were surprisingly upfront. In a scene that I’d been both anticipating and dreading from day one — how could the series possibly pull it off? — everything was put plainly on the table, allowing Paige to take it in, digest, and attempt to figure out what the hell to do with this knowledge. The powerful scene was a masterclass in writing (this can be said for the vast majority of scenes in The Americans), with her parents gently warning her that she can’t breathe a word of this to anyone, and Paige quietly retreating to her room rather than forcing a blow-up.

The ensuing tension, both in the short remainder of “Stingers” and throughout the rest of the season as a whole, helped mold Season 3 into the best season yet, cementing it as one of the greatest series currently on the air. There were plenty of other important (and devastating) plots this season, from Stan’s attempts to save Nina to Philip-as-Clark’s relationship with Martha taking a very worrisome turn to some especially gruesome and violent scenes involving folding bodies into suitcases and intimately yanking out teeth. But it was Paige’s emotional story and the way in which the truth complicates her already complicated teenage life that resonated the most.

_C0A1719d_hires2The Americans can be a tough show to engage with; I’m comfortable joining the chorus of critics who hail it as one of television’s best, but it’s also a series that I don’t particularly enjoy watching. This has nothing to do with the quality. The Americans is just a series that hold viewers at a bit of a distance. Paige’s story is most what kept me interested in Season 3, what made me return week after week when I wasn’t entirely sure if I wanted to. Teen girls are constantly finding themselves pulled in too many directions and trying to figure out which way they want to go — if they want to follow their parents, or their friends, or the television, or even a pastor. Paige’s character is just an extreme example, one for whom following her parents could mean abandoning everything that she’s ever known but disobeying them could possibly lead to something even worse.

In last night’s season finale, “March 8, 1983,” Elizabeth takes Paige to visit her dying grandmother and learn a little bit more about her mother’s life (and past). It proves to be overwhelming for Paige, especially when they return and she stops short at the airport as if physically unable to go back to her old life after what she’s learned. “I don’t know if I can do this, Mom. I don’t think I can do it: go home and lie to Henry about everything. … To lie for the rest of my life, that’s not who I am,” she says — and Elizabeth’s response, that “everybody lies,” is hardly reassuring. It’s a major crossroads for Paige: She’s peeked too far into her parents’ lives (without even scratching the surface!) and can’t ever return to not knowing, but she doesn’t know how to continue on with this knowledge, this secret.

So Paige turns to what she knows best, and where she’s found solace for the past few months: religion and, more specifically, Pastor Tim. There’s an alarming, vivid juxtaposition at the end, of Elizabeth and Philip intently watching Reagan’s “evil empire” speech as Paige holes up in her room, crying and clutching the phone while telling Pastor Tim about her parents’ true origins. It’s a perfect representation of the two dueling worlds that are tearing Paige apart and ripping away her teenage years. And it’s a reflection of The Americans to come, when the evil empire arrives at home, in your own living room.