In the last moments of the “Mad Men” sixth-season finale, Don Draper takes his children to the Pennsylvania whorehouse of his childhood. “This is where I grew up,” he says as they stand looking at the dilapidated, memory-scarred building, the strains of Judy Collins’s “Both Sides Now” seeming to pull together both of Don’s disparate sides.
It was an emotional peak and a series game-changer, largely because of the heavy eye contact between Don and his daughter, Sally. At that moment, Sally understood her father more as a human being than as an all-powerful parent. And more important, her longtime, gnawing intuition that her father had been living with a secret was confirmed. She was validated, regardless of the complex nature of the revelation.
Cut to Paige Jennings, the daughter on “The Americans,” another extraordinary TV period piece. In season three, Paige began a similar process of understanding that flourished in season four, which ended on Wednesday night. She had persistent, disturbing suspicions that her parents were frauds, and for good reason: They were totally lying to her, Russian spies pretending to be average suburban Americans. She had her eyes hurt open, and her burgeoning Christian faith challenged, as she learned about their undercover work.
This season, Paige took in enough to make her want to withdraw to an American safe house for eternity. But in a fascinating and beautifully handled twist, she was not merely turned off. Her mother and her mother’s KGB keepers may be getting what they’ve wanted for a while — to turn Paige — as she toyed with joining her parents. After watching her mother kill a mugger and envying her physical power, after managing Pastor Tim and his wife, Alice, and realizing she has a knack for psychological persuasion, Paige just might be coming onboard.
Sally Draper veered away from her parents’ narcissism and dishonesty. Like so many baby boomers, she appeared to react against her parents’ shortcomings, to try to be a good, loving caretaker, particularly during her mother’s illness. But as she begins to see through a glass darkly, Paige Jennings may become more like her parents, hoping to preserve the little lies and support the great deception, to keep the Jennings family together. “The Americans” is taking a more twisted approach to growing up, a road that leads away from the idealism and truth-telling of Sally.
In “The Americans” season finale, Paige provokes her father by drawing closer to FBI agent Stan’s son, Matthew. “Don’t do this, Paige,” Philip said. “You have no idea. No idea.” But she has ideas of her own about how to work the delicate situation. She also overrules her mother on how to respond to the birth of Pastor Tim’s daughter. Teach your children well, indeed. Finding out where Paige ends up is one of the most compelling reasons to eagerly await the FX series’ final two seasons.
There’s a rich poignancy, and a touch of tragedy, watching a child wake up to reality. Most of us have had to put away childish things, to some extent. But as TV has moved into the world of charismatic antiheroes, we have seen more teenagers coping with their parents’ warped moralities, and worse. This isn’t 15-year-old Angela Chase dealing with life lessons and romantic strains on “My So-Called Life”; this is facing shady matters involving treachery, fraud, adultery, and murder. The teens on “The Sopranos,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Breaking Bad,” “Ray Donovan,” and “Homeland” have all had to turn and face the very, very strange.
In some ways, these teens are audience surrogates. Like us, they’re torn between their attractions to their parents, who are the transgressors at the center of the show, and the knowledge of what is right and wrong. They ask their parents the basic questions that we want answered; they throw the disgusted attitude at them that we might, too.
And it helps to pull viewers in when these critical teen roles are played by extraordinary young actresses such as Kiernan Shipka on “Mad Men” and Holly Taylor on “The Americans.” Taylor has shown, but never telegraphed, each step of Paige’s journey of discovery, understanding, revulsion, and acceptance. All along, she has made Paige into a dutiful daughter and an independent thinker simultaneously, letting the contradictions sit together naturally. She has been giving one of TV’s most subtly faceted performances, young or old.