On The Americans‘ season finale, Paige breaking her parents’ confidence was one of the series’ most damning depictions of the American project in series so far. And yes, I do remember the episodes on CIA in Central America, but this time the series opened up space for critically reflecting on what American culture–not just its military industrial complex–yields and what we found is not heartening.
As Paige dialed that phone to call Pastor Tim, the show again played on one of its most interesting features: the tension for viewers about who, after all, we are rooting for. Initially the show took hits from critics who felt that by making the Jennings our protagonists producers encouraged viewers to root against America in the Cold War. Fans of the program are likely to find things far more complicated than that, however. There’s no doubt that we come to care about Philip and Elizabeth, that we root for their marriage and cringe during shoot-outs in hopes of their survival. But we’re likely to prefer Philip–at least in season one–as it becomes clear that he has come to enjoy and internalize certain parts of America far more than his wife.
Paige’s indiscretion about her parents true vocation is a step toward American victory in the silent war being fought with KGB “Illegals” on American soil. It is also the sympathetic, literal cry for help of an average teenage girl–perhaps a better than average one–faced with too much adult responsibility, too much moral quandary, and too many lies to handle on her own. We get it, Paige. We do.
And yet we don’t. Or at least I don’t. Watching Paige pick up that receiver, I felt something in me recoil from her (and a tinge of disappointment that the writers went this slightly more predictable path with her character). My disgust with Paige wasn’t triggered by any pinko leanings; no amount of Putin Olympic agitprop nor episodes in the confidence of the Jennings has produced sympathy for the Communist cause. It was activated by the sense that Paige, the born-and-bred American, ultimately operated in a world of thinner choices, of too clean edges, of too much desire for simplicity to handle herself in the high-risk, consequence-laden world her parents brought her into.
I’m not saying I need her to join the KGB. But if she was going to go Judas Iscariot on her own family, I’d have liked her to be savvy enough to own when she was doing it. In that final scene, she was not so much the child of Phillip and Elizabeth, as she was the child of the American realm.
Season three was full of insightful and interesting commentary on parents and children–Philip’s estranged son in Afghanistan, his refusal to seduce a source his daughter’s age, Elizabeth’s reflections on her own mother, her bonding with Paige through shared attraction to social justice activism. It was a season for turning over questions like: what traits do we pass on by blood? By example? How do social entities like the church or political climate reinforce or compete with parents’ influence?
Elizabeth and her mother parted ways when she was just a teenager because they both earnestly believed, as Elizabeth’s mother put it at their reunion, “Everything was at stake.” The high stakes of international conflict, USSR national interests, communist philosophy, and the draconian tactics of the Soviet state are also why Philip has never met his first child, a son conceived before he was assigned to his marriage to Elizabeth and a young man–named Misha after Philip’s Russian given name–who like his father, also risks his life for the Soviet cause (though as a soldier in Afghanistan).
These are parent-child relationships forged in deep loyalty to principles beyond the nuclear family and its comforts. They are relationships, in fact, defined in shared discomfort, in shared burden or shared sacrifice, and a shared sense of higher purpose.
And then there’s Paige. Paige is much like her grandmother, says Elizabeth, a girl who knows her own mind, and who has a passionate, idealist streak much like her mother. She has a sense of integrity and a desire to better the world.
But she also has no sense of what is at stake.
It is as though raised in the picturesque suburbs of Northern Virginia, where her own activism takes shape at letter-stuffing tables and peaceful rallies, Paige is unable to conceive of the broader world of forces that have made her life possible–as either an affluent young American or as the child of undercover agents of a foreign power.
Said differently, I did not find her naïveté a virtue. I suppose, in my view, Elizabeth’s fears have come true: It’s as though growing up in American culture has produced in Paige someone who can not fathom who her parents are, nor the outcomes of her own actions.
I’m not yet convinced that this overwhelmed teen has made up her mind that she wants to turn in her parents to the authorities, but she also can’t see her way clear to operating carefully in the new world she’s been thrust into.
Paige’s jet-lagged phone call to her youth pastor and her breach of her parent’s trust illustrated that she was so insulated from discomfort that–even having just seen more evidence of her mother’s sacrifices and needed secrecy on their trip–her first priority was to unburden herself, to protect herself from feeling like a liar even at the risk of seeing her parents jailed, killed, or otherwise separated from her for the rest of her life.
Paige asked Elizabeth how her grandmother could have done that long ago in Russia, how she could agree to give up her daughter to the KGB and never see her again for a cause. Hours later, however, Paige gave up her parents’ identities to an outsider for no greater cause than her own peace of mind.
Paige is a child of America, of American religious practice, American material privilege (ah, the phone in her room!), and the American call to come of age by first and foremost being true to one’s self.
For all the ways that characterization led her to endanger her own family rather than find a way to shoulder her part of their burden, American culture seemed–for the first time since season one–to be as dangerous as Elizabeth has always said it was, not only to foreign agents, but to our citizens’ mettle.