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The Americans season 5, episode 2: “Pests” forces everyone to reconsider what it means to do “the right thing”

Looks like Stan and Paige have some thinking to do.

This week, on The Americans: Elizabeth investigates some mysterious wheat.

Every week, some of Vox’s writers will gather to discuss the latest episode of FX’s spy drama The Americans. This week, Vox Culture editor Jen Trolio, staff writer Caroline Framke, and associate editor Libby Nelson are here to dissect “Pests,” the second episode of season five.

Caroline Framke: While last week’s season premiere blew out the big picture to become even bigger, “Pests” brings the show’s various threads back down to a more personal level, where you can see their frayed ends. This becomes obvious the instant the episode opens, as Philip and Elizabeth tell Gabriel that they had to kill a possibly bioweapon-infected Hans, their faces taut with the effort of trying not to grieve him.

For my money, though, the most interesting thing “Pests” does is set Stan’s growing horror with the realities of spying against Paige’s growing acceptance of the same. Stan’s been in espionage for a long time, sometimes going to horrific lengths to get what he wants. (See: his quest for revenge in season one’s hunt for the Soviet sleeper who killed his partner.) But it seems as though his boss’s request to turn Oleg may have struck a last nerve, especially once his passionate arguments for the American side showing decency fall on deaf ears. No matter which flag these spies are pledging allegiance to, there are no unequivocal “good guys,” no overarching imperative to “play by the rules.”

Right across the street from Stan, and often in his own living room, Paige is grappling with accepting these terms too. “Pests” explores the ongoing liability of Paige dating Matthew, especially as her parents realize it’s getting serious enough that she might decide to have sex — and that they need to intervene, or at least prepare her for the emotional taxation that comes with keeping a tight lid on a huge part of her life.

What did you think of “Pests”? Has it clarified for you where season five might be headed, or is watching The Americans starting to feel more like Elizabeth creeping into a greenhouse only to be ambushed by mysterious bugs?

Paige gets yet another grim sit-down talk from her trusty(?) spy parents.

Jen Trolio: I was drawn in by both Paige and Stan’s arcs in this episode. So much of Philip and Elizabeth’s worry about Paige’s relationship with Matthew obviously transcends the typical “teen daughter starts dating” concerns that many parents have. Not only do we have Stan feeling like something’s wrong in “Paigeland,” but Philip and Elizabeth are terrified that Paige is going to slip and blow their cover sooner rather than later.

Multiple times in “Pests,” the Jennings parents discuss their fear of what Paige might do by accident: when they find her sleeping in her closet after panicking that she was spending time at Matthew’s when they weren’t home late at night, and after Stan and Philip’s heart-to-heart about whether Paige is okay. Those conversations definitely left me feeling on edge about how Paige might “act out” because she just wants to be allowed to like Matthew and have a boyfriend, dammit.

Throw in the angst that Stan is feeling at work over the FBI going after Oleg, and it seems to me we have two different pressure cookers heating up in two different characters. Philip and Elizabeth know this, but there’s only so much they can control. So while I wouldn’t say “Pests” gave me a super clear idea of where the season overall might be headed, I definitely think The Americans is signaling that Paige and Stan are going to be two of its most important players.

Libby Nelson: I’m glad you brought up the greenhouse scene, Caroline, because I want, for a moment, to consider the bugs. They are, I think, part of what Gabriel fears is a plan to sabotage the USSR’s food supply, carried out in part by Soviet émigré Alexei Morozov — and to me, the agriculture plot was the weakest link in the episode. But I’ll tolerate it because Philip and Elizabeth’s interactions with Alexei and his wife, Evgheniya, are fascinating.

Alexei’s praise of the US, and his habit of running down the Soviet Union by comparison, is clearly driving both Philip and Elizabeth crazy. They might pass off their annoyance as pride or patriotism, but part of it, I’d bet, is that Alexei is a constant reminder of how assimilated they’ve become into their cushy American lifestyles. Like the bugs in the greenhouse, American culture has worked its way under their skin, to a degree.

The real star of the episode, though, is Stan, whose relationship with Paige reminds us he’s a pretty perceptive guy even if he’s socially awkward. Between Oleg and his new girlfriend Renée — who’s young and beautiful and likes beer and sports and, apparently, Stan Beeman — I worry Stan is headed for a fall. Maybe this show has taught me to see conspiracies around every corner, but are we meant to take the suggestion that Renée is “a female version of” Philip as the comedic line it appeared to be at face value, or a suggestion that Renée is more than what she seems?

Philip and Stan, racketball bros forever.

Caroline: I don't know about Renée being a spy or anything, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if she gained some more significance outside of being Stan's gym crush, if only because the scene where Philip meets her has no point besides having Philip meet her. And hey, this is The Americans; the second you start to trust that a character is what they seem is usually the second they reveal themselves to be anything but.

Even if Renée just turns out to be Stan's platonic ideal of a chill girlfriend, I understand why you’re wary of her introduction in this episode. The entire time I was watching "Pests," I was antsy, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Part of that is thanks to some canny direction by Chris Long, who uses longer, slower shots to drag out the feeling of dread in several scenes. Watching Elizabeth realize she’s standing in a greenhouse of possibly deadly bugs as the camera zooms out, and witnessing Paige's training session from an askew angle, made me feel like I was watching the first third of a horror movie.

Jen: Speaking of Long dragging out the dread, Caroline, let’s talk about sex. Leave it to The Americans to stage a typically awkward version of “the talk,” but for the most atypical of reasons. The tension of the scene at the end of the episode with Page and her parents is pretty amazing. Not only are Philip and Elizabeth incredibly, necessarily blunt, but if I were Paige, some of their dialogue — “There’s something we can show you — a technique”; “Do you want us to show you?”; "Before we start…” — would lead me to believe my parents were about to get it on right in front of me.

I’m definitely curious about the efficacy and spycraft realism of the “rub your fingers together” tip they ultimately demonstrated, while simultaneously chuckling over the fact that it basically amounts to “think of your parents if you need to kill the mood during sex.” I’m also still mulling how the scene might suggest another possible parallel between Paige’s storyline and Stan’s. Given our collective suspicions about Renée (I too immediately assumed something was up with her), it’s possible that Stan could soon need his own lesson in how to keep a lid on classified intel during sexytime fun.

Consider the conversation Stan and Philip have right before Stan introduces Renée (who’s played by The Walking Dead alum Laurie Holden, by the way). Stan’s talking about his frustration at work — something he can’t discuss with Philip, but says, “It’s just sometimes, you know, I wish I was in charge of the whole goddamn FBI.” And then a couple minutes later, he’s swooning over how he doesn’t mind a sweaty hug from his potential new squeeze. Not to mention the fact that Stan is crowing about Renée not only to Philip but to Agent Aderholt. I absolutely think the show has bigger plans for her, and they could spell doom for Stan even if she’s not a spy.

And we haven’t even talked about how Stan is possibly about to go rogue by way of an associate in the Soviet Union, a.k.a. Mr. “Stan Beeman Sent Me,” who passes a map to Oleg as the latter walks home from work.

Libby: As far-flung as the first episode of this season was, “Pests” is a reminder that our characters’ stories are as closely intertwined as they’ve ever been. (And the fact that The Americans has followed Oleg, and Nina before him, to Moscow makes it all the more glaring that it hasn’t followed Martha.) Oleg’s assignment to root out corruption is tied to the food shortages Alexei Morozov might be amplifying, while the CIA’s drive to turn him means he and Stan are still in their uneasy partnership. But I wasn’t certain if Stan really sent Mr. Stan Beeman Sent Me, or if the CIA is using his name to gain Oleg’s trust.

Caroline: My first instinct was the latter; Oleg's devastated reaction definitely signals that this meetup is the kind of surprise he desperately hoped he’d never encounter. But it’s hard to say, especially because it’s not difficult to imagine Stan veering from the path his bosses have set out for him now that he's convinced himself it’s not “the right thing.”

And that's really, as ever, what this show is all about. What Stan thinks is right is different from what Philip and Elizabeth think is right, which is probably different from what Oleg, Paige, and even Henry (hey, remember Henry?) think is right. What's notable about "Pests" — and what lays compelling groundwork for this season going forward — is that people like Stan and Paige are starting to abandon the idea that being “the good guys” means going by the book.

The Americans airs Tuesdays at 10 pm on FX. You can read our recap discussion of the season premiere here.