TV Time: The Americans 4.04

The Americans 404


Greetings, comrades! I decided to slightly change the format for this week’s post in order to start by talking about the first thing on everyone’s mind. I couldn’t possibly call that scene my favorite, so I needed to add a separate section to talk about it the way I wanted to. With all that being said, you will see MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THIS EPISODE…shortly.

Title: Chloramphenicol

Most Important Scene: Nina’s death
There’s been a trend over the last few years of trying to shock viewers into thinking they’re watching good television. However, shock value doesn’t always equal strong storytelling. I think so many shows have been killing off and teasing about killing off major characters at this point that it’s easy to become desensitized to death on television. After a while, it all starts to feel like a big, gratuitous pile of bodies offered up at the altar of televised drama.

But Nina Sergeevna Krilova isn’t just another character to add to that pile. Her death was shocking in some ways and completely inevitable in others. But the important thing to remember is that it mattered. It mattered for her character, and it mattered for the show.

As Nina’s story became more isolated following her imprisonment in Russia, it became clear that one of two things had to happen: Nina would somehow make it back to America, or Nina was going to die. I should have seen her death coming—between the symbolism of her dream that looked like it was taking place in a funeral parlor with all the flowers and the sheer fact that getting Nina back to America would take a kind of suspension of disbelief that this show never calls for. There was no other way for Nina’s story to end, but that didn’t stop me from hoping—especially in this episode—that she would be spared. It didn’t help my sense of irrational hope that this episode focused on Oleg’s quest to free her, and I always connected more with his relationship with Nina than her relationship with Stan. I thought if anyone could get her out, Oleg might have a chance.

And I kept hoping until the last possible moment. I knew Nina’s dream was just a dream from its gorgeous lighting, but it still messed with my mind—because my thought as Nina was being sentenced was that she was going to wake up, and this would be the nightmare to contrast her good dream. However, the team behind this episode left no cheeky tease about her possibly surviving. There was no cliffhanger with whether or not she actually died. We saw the blood pool around her head. We saw the man check her pulse. We saw the guards wrap her lifeless body in burlap. Nina is dead, and I’m glad they left us with no doubts about that. The drama comes not from wondering if she’s really dead but from what her death will mean for the show and its characters going forward.

And what will it mean? In terms of the plot, I’m left wondering if this is going to be the literal turning point for Oleg. He already likes America, and he loved Nina. Hearing about her execution right on the heels of his brother’s death might make it easy for Stan to turn him like he wants to. And if Oleg changes sides while Stan is investigating Martha, how long will it take for all the connections to be made concerning Philip and Elizabeth?

(I’ve heard some theories that Oleg’s dad could have sped up the process for Nina’s execution to keep Oleg from being involved with a known traitor. I could see that happening, but wouldn’t he know all that would do is drive his son away? While I’m still not sure that’s going to turn out to be true, it does sound like a parallel to Philip/Elizabeth/Paige/Pastor Tim, and I actually really like that.)

But the immediate impact of Nina’s death on the plot is the way it raised the stakes for every character. This episode did an incredible job of lulling us into a false sense of security because a group of characters faced their own brush with death, and they all came out of it relatively unscathed. That’s how it’s felt on The Americans from the start: The main characters are safe. But that’s no longer true. If it seems like the only plausible option is for them to die, they could actually die; the show isn’t going to shirk realism in favor of saving a fan-favorite.

Ultimately, Nina’s death meant more to me for what it said about the themes of this show than what it did or will do for its plot. Nina had the chance to be spared by working Anton and forming a relationship with him on her superior’s orders. Somewhere along the way, that relationship became real for Nina—real enough that she lost her chance to be free by trying to get a message to his son. In the world of The Americans, finding real connections in situations that should have been fake is dangerous. Emotions are dangerous. As the message from the FBI said, the bureau does not feel—and neither does the KGB. But The Americans deals not with impersonal agencies but with the human beings involved with them, and human beings feel. Every character on this show has weaknesses because they have emotional connections, and Nina’s fate proves that the organizations they’re working for won’t see those connections as strengths; they’ll see them as reasons for execution.

Nina’s death was tragic for many reasons, but it was also heroic. On a show where many characters are like Gabriel was as a child—doing what they’re told because they think it’ll help them survive—Nina defied orders because she found something worth risking her life for. She spent so much of the time we knew her as a pawn, being used by men and caring only about self-preservation. But when she finally found a purely emotional connection instead of a sexual one, she risked everything for it. In refusing to play nice with her captors any longer and in trying to help preserve Anton’s relationship with his son, Nina heroically asserted her agency. When her back was against the wall, this time she didn’t sink to her knees to save herself. Instead, she stood on her own two feet—even though she knew it wouldn’t end well.

In the end, what will matter for many of these characters won’t be whether they live or die but how they choose to live or die. And Nina chose to stop being a pawn in order to help someone she came to care for, which is the most heroic thing any of these characters could do. She found hope that she could be more than just a tool used by others. That hope may have ended in death, but perhaps that’s the happiest ending the characters in this dark world can hope for: knowing that they died doing something good for someone else—not something good for an impersonal cause, but something good for another human being.

Looking back, Nina’s death was transcendent in the way it wove important themes together. But in the moment, I wasn’t thinking about its thematic resonance or its plot significance. I was simply in shock. I’ve had visceral reactions to deaths on television before, but this one was different. I didn’t cry until the scene was done, but the moment she was shot, I backed away from my television as if it was on fire. My hands immediately came up to my face, and I just kept shaking my head, trying to will Nina to wake up from what I really wanted to believe was a nightmare. For a show to bring that kind of reaction out of me for a character whose death was written on the wall is impressive. For that same show to then make me cry upon thinking about all that character had been through and why her death was both a moment of horror and a moment of hope is more than I expected—even from a show of this caliber.

Episode M.V.P.: Matthew Rhys
This episode presented a new challenge for Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell: For most of it, they couldn’t touch because their characters needed to keep physical distance to avoid contaminating each other if they were sick. That wouldn’t seem to be much of an issue since Philip and Elizabeth aren’t exactly big on PDA, but it’s amazing how much additional work needs to be done with vocal inflection, body language, and facial expressions when actors can’t touch each other—no holding hands, no comforting hand on a shoulder, no brushing hair back, none of the little bits of casually intimate contact that have made this relationship feel so real over time.

In addition to that challenge, Rhys also had to work with the idea that Philip wasn’t going to have a big emotional breakdown in front of other people. He also wasn’t going to let Elizabeth (or anyone else) see him panic, because that meant he was accepting that Elizabeth was dying. Instead, he had to play the part of a man who might be watching his wife die but couldn’t let himself act like that was actually the case. This played to Rhys’s strengths: keeping his emotions just under the surface and showing them in the smallest ways—a widening of his eyes in fear when Elizabeth forced him to listen to her make plans in case she dies, a slight crack in his voice when he told William they’ve been married for over 20 years, the way he kept nervously flexing his fingers when he stood over her bedside…All those nuances painted a picture of a man desperately trying to be strong and hold on to hope while watching the person he loves suffer without even being able to touch her.

Favorite Scene: Philip and Elizabeth talk about what he should do if…
Even without Nina’s death, “Chloramphenicol” would still have been the best episode of this season so far. And so much of its brilliance hinged on one conversation: Elizabeth instructing Philip about how to handle things with their kids if she were to die. As is typical on this show, this conversation has surely happened between parents who aren’t spies: What will you and the kids do if I die? Here’s what I’d want you to do. But on The Americans, this conversation isn’t hypothetical—no matter how much Philip wants it to be.

I have to give Russell so much credit for making be believe that Elizabeth was sick. It’s one thing for the hair and makeup team to make her look sweaty and exhausted and for the lighting department to make her look pallid—it’s another thing for her to make Elizabeth’s vomiting and the aftermath feel upsetting real, with her slowly gathering herself and cleaning herself up, trying to hold on to what might be left of her dignity if she really is dying. Because what mattered in that scene wasn’t that we all knew Elizabeth was going to pull through; it’s that we believed Elizabeth didn’t know that. This is the weakest we’ve ever seen her physically, and in order for that to resonate with both the audience and Philip, Russell had to sell it—and she did.

And, as always, Russell had Rhys as her rock by her side in this scene, giving her just as much as she was giving him with his heartbreaking reactions. Rhys is a great actor because he’s a great reactor, and never was that more apparent than in this scene. It started from the moment we saw him struggling to form the words to tell her they don’t know if she’s really sick yet. The panic evident in the silent opening and closing of his mouth and the widening of his eyes took me back to the moment in Season One’s “The Colonel” when he wore that same expression upon discovering Elizabeth had been shot. It was a devastating piece of performance continuity. And as Elizabeth continued to talk, I couldn’t stop watching his face, as if he was trying to forcibly shut down any thoughts of her dying.

I’ve re-watched this scene several times, so when Elizabeth told Philip to blame her for Pastor Tim in order for his relationship with Paige to stay in tact should she die, I was struck by the parallel to Nina sacrificing so much for Anton’s relationship with his child. And then Elizabeth delivered the most heartbreaking confession imaginable: If she died, she wanted Philip to raise Paige and Henry as Americans because that’s what Philip always wanted. That line reading could have come across as bitter or angry, but instead Russell said it with such sincerity laced with sadness, her voice sounding impossibly small and frail. And in that moment it became clear to me that Elizabeth believed her death might be able to free her family, which is now more important to her than her family continuing to serve her cause.

And with that revelation, Philip understood that Elizabeth believed she was actually going to die. This woman whose strength he’s loved and admired for more than 20 years believed she was going to die away from her children and unable to touch him again. And as that realization dawned on him, so did another. Elizabeth might have thought her plan is what Philip always wanted, but it was missing one crucial part: her. As Philip admitted to William later, he wants to live a normal life, but he wants that life with Elizabeth. And imagining a life without her almost breaks him. I was nearly moved to tears myself watching Rhys try to control his emotions, betraying his fear and his pain in just the slightest increase in the speed of his blinks and the twitching of the corners of his mouth. On a less subtle show, Philip would have given Elizabeth some big speech about how he can’t lose her. But on The Americans, just a pair of haunted eyes and a shake of his head is enough to put us right in that tiny bathroom with them as they struggle to process an “if” that’s not what either of them want.

Extra Thoughts:
• The lack of physical contact between Elizabeth and Philip made the times they touched at the end of the episode all the more affecting, especially the barely noticeable detail of him holding her hand as she rested after her fever broke.
• Once again, Holly Taylor was brilliant—first in Paige’s phone conversation with Elizabeth (She made me feel every bit of Paige’s panic and guilt.) and again when Paige had to lie to Stan.
• This was also a great episode for Alison Wright. The moment when Martha caught herself on the phone (because it could be bugged) was perfect, as was the way she told that story to Agent Aderholt. I thought it was fascinating to see her talk so boldly about having no shame in her relationship. And it also broke my heart to hear her say that it’s the most honest relationship she’s ever had, knowing as we do that so much of her relationship with “Clark” is still based on lies.
• Stan snooping through Martha’s underwear drawer was creepy, but it led to something important: I have a feeling Chekov’s gun is coming back into play after I thought it had been forgotten.
• Can we give Guest Actor Emmys to both Frank Langella and Dylan Baker? Langella’s delivery of Gabriel’s “I was afraid all the time” speech was so powerful, and Baker did such a great job of giving a character who seemed to be there for dark comedy a deep sense of loneliness that I wasn’t expecting.
• I thought this was an amazing episode for Elizabeth in terms of her relationship with her daughter. She wants Paige to have the certainty of her love for her in a way she never had with her own mother, and the way she asked Philip if Paige knows they love her was incredibly vulnerable for that character. By placing her relationship with Paige above the mission (through choosing not to kill Pastor Tim and Alice), Elizabeth chose family over the cause in a way she hadn’t before. And even though Philip still wanted to run, he stood beside her, because this episode showed us again that the life he wants is a life where she is by his side.
• I loved the simple joy of the bowling scene at the end. And with Elizabeth and Paige being able to joke about her identity now (How adorable were Russell and Taylor in that moment?) it has me wondering what the further implications of these two growing closer (and Elizabeth softening to the point of breaking rules by talking about her training—even as a joke—in a public place) are going to be.
• Elizabeth worrying about Henry’s biology test almost made me cry because it reminded me of the way people worry about seemingly mundane things when they’re facing terminal illnesses or another life-threatening situation.
• As a final note, I want to show some appreciation for Annet Mahendru’s beautiful and haunting work as Nina over the last four seasons of this show. She added such depth to a character who could have easily been a stereotype, and it was a pleasure to get to watch and write about her work.

11 thoughts on “TV Time: The Americans 4.04

  1. Katie, what a great review! This episode really had an incredible amount of depth to it.

    “In the end, what will matter for many of these characters won’t be whether they live or die but how they choose to live or die.” I really enjoy the focus this season on everyone questioning their loyalties. For a show that easily could have been one dimensional and focus solely on the leads getting caught, this show has never been one dimensional. They have managed to find new ways each season to keep things interesting and focus on a new aspect of their very unique situation, and I have been consistently impressed.

    Nina’s story had felt distant and fractured from the rest of the stories all season, but I think this episode did a great job tying her back in. One of the great ways they did that was through the scientist. I think him and Nina both created great contrast to Phillip and Elizabeth. Two lone agents vs. the pair.

    I also saw Nina’s death coming, but it was still a shock to see it happen. Somehow it managed to feel slow and fast all at once. All that waiting not knowing and then barely having time to process once you do. I loved that moment before she was called to her death when she was sitting in that room looking across at the cot where she betrayed her cellmate when she first arrived. How things had changed. The quickness of her death was also heightened by the slowness of what was happening with Elizabeth. Both women unsure of if they were going to die, with two very different outcomes. Nina having no business she needed to settle, her only belongings shoved into a bag. Elizabeth trying to make sure her family would be safe and happy. I thought structurally it was quite perfect.

    Speaking of great parallels, seeing both Paige and Martha having to lie without the help/support of the professionals was interesting to see. Martha is really digging herself in. It was interesting to see her go from panicked on the phone to the almost professional cool collected liar at dinner. Perhaps it was simply because there was truth behind what she was saying. How much truth I assume she still does not know. Although, her cover story was pretty much the smartest thing she could have come up with, especially to explain why she has been going to a strange apartment.

    I think Stan definitely is starting to get suspicious again that something it up again with the Jennings. I am really curious to see what happens with Henry and Stan in the future. I have a feeling something disastrous is going to come from it. Philip and Elizabeth are so focused on Paige and Pastor Tim and his wife right now, they have no idea what is going on with Henry. Henry could easily let something slip unknowingly.

    And YES to Rhys acting in this episode. Really just YES to everyone’s acting. I cant get over how great everyone on this show is. But Rhys especially this season is doing so much with every scene he is in. Give all these people an Emmy already!

    • Thanks, Shauna!

      I loved that you described Nina’s death as being too slow and too fast. That’s exactly how it felt to me, too. And I read an interview with the creators where they said they staged it the way they did based on a first-person account of someone with experience in Russian prisons at this time. Apparently they felt it was more humane not to make them wait for an execution.

      I’m also so happy I’m not the only one who thinks Henry and Stan’s relationship is going to become a problem really soon. I think it’s going to come down to the computer. Henry has already mentioned it to Stan, and the KGB gave it to the family. I have to wonder if somehow Stan is going to realize something is up with the computer. It’s nice to see that Stan’s instincts are still good, but that’s disastrous for Philip and Elizabeth. Why must this show make me care about everyone?!

  2. I honestly don’t have much to say because I don’t know how to put words to this episode, but I have to praise your abilities as a writer because seriously Katie, you’re something else. This is AMAZING. It’s never easy to write about episodes like this, but you’ve done so most eloquently. I’m in complete awe of your abilities as a writer for many reasons, but a huge one is how you’re able to break down episodes someone like me would run away from. It’s admirable and honestly takes so much skill. Kudos, babe. Kudos. But again, just so heartbroken about Nina, I wanted so much more for her, but this really ups the stakes. The KGB is no joke and neither is the CIA. These agencies I feel are sometimes made to be less brutal on TV shows, but with The Americans, they don’t mess around. You betray your country, and you’re likely to die. It’s scary, but it also makes for such exceptional TV because you know it’s not just done for shock value. Anyway, excellent job as per usual and especially on the Philip/Elizabeth scene. I know we all want our favorites to get Emmys and there are lots of exceptional actors but seriously I think the biggest shock to me next to Tatiana Maslany is Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell. WHAT ON EARTH ARE THEY WAITING FOR!?!!?

    • Thank you so much, Giss! It really means a lot to me to read such kind words from a writer I love. ❤ I'm not going to lie: Sometimes I want to run away from these posts because this show challenges me like no other. But I've come to love the challenge. Writing about this show has made me a better writer, and I think a lot of that comes from the fact that I've learned to write even when I'm terrified that my words won't be able to do an episode or a performance justice. Sometimes it's good to do things that scare you, and deciding to write about this show was certainly one of those things.

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