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.