“To think they once had a Lincoln. Now a Reagan.”
Contextually, Gabriel was talking about American presidents in general when he made the haunting comment above, and he only cited the two Republicans specifically because of their common origins in Illinois. But the ending to a telling, larger-than-life discussion about the inhuman capabilities of human beings felt pointed, as if we’d flash forward and see Gabriel finish the thought in 2017: “To think they once had a Reagan. Now a Trump.”
Of course, “The Americans” would never do that, and — while that insinuation makes for one helluva burn on the Republican party — this series isn’t about to let anyone off the hook. Just as the American electorate shares responsibility for our leadership history, so, too, do Philip and Elizabeth share blame for their past actions.
Between Elizabeth’s destruction of Young Hee’s life and Philip’s relationship with Martha, they’ve done some nasty things that the other side found shocking, all in service to their country. Philip’s aghast “I thought there were things they wouldn’t do” was aptly met with silent skepticism. Elizabeth and Gabriel know what they’ve done, and Philip does, too — he just wrestles with the guilt longer. Right now, these parents are seeing the world with their daughter in mind, and it’s changing the way they think about everything.
Speaking of Paige, Episode 2, “Pests,” ran us through the emotional gamut: We felt empathy when seeing Paige asleep in a closet, an unsettling choice to deal with her traumatic mugging; curiosity when she learned a trick to keep her emotions in check at episode’s end; and utter joy when she got the sex talk during a fighting lesson with mom. “Are you having sex?” Elizabeth bellowed at her daughter, much to the chagrin of Paige, who stared daggers at her mother while slapping the bag firmly.
A similar excitement was felt when we got an update on Stan’s dating life. Following up on his resolution to go to the gym more, Stan described his new romantic partner as the “female version” of Philip, and, after a weird look from his platonic buddy, Stan elaborated on the dating experience: “It was fun. Easy.” How this happiness (/distraction) affects Philip (and the Jennings) in the long run is, as usual, unclear, but Stan’s romantic bliss is mirrored by his son’s — or at least encouraged by it. It’s keeping him from being overly suspicious or worried about Paige, and Philip needs that concern to remain relegated until Paige gets herself together. A curious neighbor is bad for business, and Stan is curious enough already. When you’re in love, you love other people who are in love, and when you’re not….well, we’ll see if that comes into play.
The Jennings themselves aren’t in exactly the same mindset. They’re looking past the present and remain very concerned with what Paige’s feelings for an FBI agent’s son will do to her down the road. “How long’s it going to be before she slips, Philip?” Elizabeth asked after her sex talk with Paige. “I don’t know,” Philip replied. “But she’s over there all the time, and he’s already picking up on something.”
By episode’s end, they’d had enough. “I’m tired of treating her as a goddamn child,” Elizabeth said, right before the parents had a sit-down with their first-born. While the finger-rubbing technique wasn’t exactly what I expected to happen next, especially after the buildup surrounding the key piece of tradecraft, so much of what makes “The Americans” addictive exists in the unexpected. These kind of closing teases are as commonplace as they are regularly unexpected, and how Paige incorporates her lesson — and when — in coming weeks should prove enlightening, exciting, and progressive. It always has before.
We stand now at the precipice of another mission, another risk, and another choice for the Jennings. Knowing what they’ve gone through before, how exposed they are presently, and with Paige serving as the wild card that could be played at any moment, “Pests” continued to amp up the tension while allowing much-needed comedic relief. The Jennings are adjusting to their new vision of the world, and Paige’s lens has a strong focus. Like Gabriel’s opening speech, there’s more meaning in every scene than can possibly be uncovered succinctly, and whatever interpretation sticks leaves a mark — even if you’re thinking about 2017.
“The Americans” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.