Feature photo by James Minchin/FX
The following preview is based on the first three episodes of the fifth season and contains spoilers.
FX’s Cold War-era drama The Americans has, despite a bizarre disinterest from the awards cognoscenti, quietly established itself as one of the best shows on TV, with critics lauding its moral complexity and depth of character. There’s also its leads: As Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are nothing short of stunning, navigating the tricky space between parenting and patriotism while cycling through identities. Throughout the show’s first four seasons, however, something much subtler was unfolding, a bit of revolutionary storytelling that’s easy to overlook. It involves Elizabeth and Philip’s teenage daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor).
Near the end of that fourth season, Paige locks lips with her neighbor, Matthew, the son of FBI agent Stan Beeman. Their mutual attraction was hinted at in the early seasons, but sent to the backburner as Paige investigated her parents’ odd behavior, cultivated her Christian faith, and eventually discovered (and grappled with) the truth behind Elizabeth and Philip’s double lives. When she kissed Matthew, it was both surprising and inevitable — inevitable because she was bound to explore her sexuality eventually, but surprising because it took this long.
And this is where one realizes just how intricately drawn Paige has been as a character and how her evolution throughout the show is a rare one in entertainment. How often, after all, do we see a teenage girl — as a lead or a supporting character — with story lines that don’t revolve around crushes or romance? There’s nothing wrong with that, obviously, but by developing Paige as a character for whom family, values, and spirituality matter more than boys, The Americans has given this teenage romance a genuine sense of resonance, not to mention astronomical stakes.
See, Stan, Matthew’s dad, is an FBI agent whose beat primarily centers around finding Russian moles and spies. That makes the Jennings’ relationship with Stan a dangerous one, but also valuable — a source of carefully sourced intel. Naturally, Elizabeth and Philip don’t want Paige making out with Stan’s son; that complicates things by bringing heightened emotions into a relationship that needs to be cradled like a cracked egg.
The stakes are there on a purely practical level, but what makes it so lovely is that the stakes are there for Paige, too. When Elizabeth and Philip romance sources to get intel, they do so while drawing upon training that ostensibly keeps emotions divorced from their actions. You see, however, how difficult that is even for them. Remember Elizabeth’s tryst with the sad, doe-eyed soldier from season two? Or, hell, look where Philip sat with Martha before sending her away on a plane. Emotions are dangerous, even for adults. For a teenager? They’re downright unpredictable. And Paige’s feelings for Matthew are sweet, but volatile. She’s spent the last year feeling smothered by secrets and expending love on a deity that can’t offer it in any kind of tangible return. Now, she’s found in Matthew an outside source, a touch that carries with it no baggage, no history.
But it can’t be that easy. Even if he weren’t Stan’s son, if she were dating somebody completely divorced from their community, Elizabeth and Philip would be just as worried. Love is about openness, but Paige can’t ever be fully open. Not with what she knows.
This struggle is perhaps the most potent of the many that The Americans confronts us with in these first three episodes of its fifth season. Much of that can be attributed to the impact of Paige’s new relationship, but what also resonates is the sharper glimpse we get into that emotional side of Elizabeth and Philip’s training, the part that helps them stay in control in moments of deep vulnerability. If Paige wants to keep seeing Matthew, they reason, then it’s best she learn some of those tricks.
And there’s an inherent tragedy here. As an audience, we want to see her clumsily stumble into romance, to navigate his tics and discover the intricacies of her desire. We want to see her learn heartbreak, to get a grip on emotions the same way we all do: through a combination of pure bliss and utter devastation. Instead, she’s taught a truth that most people only come to through time, pain, and disappointment. She’s taught to hide within herself, to sidestep vulnerability. “Being in a relationship is hard,” Elizabeth says. “You don’t share everything. You hold back what you need to. Everyone does.”
In so many ways, this is true. But to tell this to a teenager on the verge of her first love is to hobble the magic, to strip it of its innocence. Because, for ever after, every love will inevitably be compared to your first. Elizabeth and Philip are hardening her, just as they were hardened. It was cruel when it happened to them, and it’s cruel for them to inflict it back on Paige.
Where she goes this season is unclear, but a reckoning is coming. By developing Paige outside of her attractions, The Americans has adequately helped establish the teenage romance as something both meaningful and influential. Then they imbued it with stakes appropriate to the heightened emotions that accompany our first loves. Our first loves change us; they help us develop into who we are as people. If these first three episodes are any indication, this season of The Americans is about to show us just what kind of person Paige is going to choose to be.