This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 4 Episode 4
“The sentence is death. It will be carried out shortly.”
Well, that’s one way to get the “Nina in Russia” storyline to the top of an episode review.
I’m not alone in often neglecting Nina Krilova in my online discussions and review of The Americans episodes. The Americans is the powerhouse that it is thanks to its creative spy conceit and the superb performances of its leads. Nina used to fit nicely within the undercover spies plot but since her imprisonment in Russia starting in season three, she has at times felt like a vestigial leftover from a different show.
I mentioned in my initial review of the fourth season that The Americans might be a better version of itself if it omitted scenes in Russia altogether. As modern American TV-watchers, we all have a rough idea that a near-collapse Soviet Union in the ‘80s probably isn’t a particularly fun or progressive place. But why confirm that beyond a shadow of a doubt with scenes set in a dank, depressing Soviet prison colony?
Without Nina toiling away in a squalid, awful place, Philip and Elizabeth’s crisis of American faith may seem a little more legitimate. The fact that Philip desperately wants to run from his current situation, live out in the Western United States could seem like a fit of misplaced idealism instead of an acknowledgement that the cause he’s supporting isn’t so great after all.
With that in mind, Nina’s plot for the past season and three episodes has felt more divorced from the main action than any other plot ever on The Americans. Aside from Oleg and Stan’s periodic concerns, the tragedy of Nina was just all about the tragedy of Nina while other characters tragedies were more universal.
And now, here in “Chloramphenicol” the tragedy of Nina comes to an appropriately tragic conclusion.
I’ll admit that I momentarily believed Nina’s dream of her and Anton’s rescue was real. Given her status within the Soviet Union it made no logical sense that both she and an imprisoned Israeli scientist would be granted their release into the frozen Siberian tundra simultaneously. Still, the joy on Nina’s face was so infectious that I was ready to believe.
Oh so this is where things are going! Maybe we’ll be spending more time on the streets of Russia rather than just the Rezidentura or this bleak prison camp. We did see Oleg come back to Russia and meet with his father, after all. Maybe Oleg and Nina will meet up in Moscow for a special message.
Alas, no. It was all a dream and within just a few minutes, Nina is dead from a gunshot to the back of the head. The episode then takes its time showing her body being inelegantly stuffed into a body bag and dragged off.
Deaths on television can come in two sizes. The first is a death that reflects the brutal randomness of reality. The other is a strategic offing that serves the show’s purpose creatively. The death of Nina somehow accomplishes both. It’s sudden, unfair and heartbreaking but it also closes the only loop that isn’t firing at absolutely 100% on The Americans. Nina’s death was brutal and I’ll miss her. And The Americans will somehow be even better without periodic trips back to Russia.
It’s so reassuring to realize that the writers of The Americans are self-aware enough to continue to improve a show that’s already one of the best dramas on television. Nina’s sudden demise is just one area, Philip and Elizabeth’s confinement at Gabriel’s apartment is another.
The Americans is in this sweet spot where it continues to not only make the right choices but maybe more importantly ignore the wrong ones. Going into “Chloramphenicol” from last week’s cliffhanger I was fully expected “Bottle Episode: Americans style.” That would have been fine, but what the show gives us is even better.
It immediately disabuses us of the notion of a bottle episode from the first scene where Elizabeth makes a call to cancel the scheduled hit on Pastor Tim from a payphone outside Gabriel’s place. From there, Elizabeth, Philip, William and an unconscious Gabriel spend nearly the entire episode in that one location. It just doesn’t feel like a gimmicky excuse to keep character in a single place.
First off, there is the visceral, physical horror of the glanders potentially infecting Elizabeth, William and Philip. It’s like a horror movie with an unseen monster more than a way to get characters to interact. Secondly, these Philip and Elizabeth has deceptively little to interact about. That may sound strange, as there is the ongoing question as to what to do with Pastor Tim but even when Philip and Elizabeth argue and fight on the matter, they still come to a consensus.
Instead, this close quarter situation serves more for Philip and Elizabeth to grapple with their own mortality rather than each other. “What does EST say about death?” “I don’t know,” Philip says. “It never came up. And later when Elizabeth is sick with what they eventually come to realize is just a reaction to the massive amount of antibiotics they’re taking, she tells Philip that if she dies he should run away with the kids, blame Pastor Tim’s death on her. Be Americans.
Philip and Elizabeth are a team. And when you’re this close of a team the only enemy left to be defeated is death, to quote Harry Potter (and the lesser-read work “The Bible”).
That doesn’t mean there aren’t at least some classic bottle episode-y tropes at play. Philip gets plenty of one-on-one time with William. Dylan Baker is such a tremendous actor and the dour William fits his performance style like a surgical glove. Here he actually gets to display some range as well when he expresses some jealousy and guilt for never having what Philip and Elizabeth now have. Martha’s dinner with Aderholt in which she admits to a made-up affair while Stan searches her apartment and discovers only the kama sutra is downright slapsticky and great.
“Chloramphenicol” couldn’t possibly end with a more shocking, satisfying scene. Still, the scene immediately preceding it is somehow even better. After Elizabeth has recovered from her antibiotic fever, Philip and Elizabeth realize they can never kill Pastor Tim. They can’t do that to their daughter. The only option is to try to turn him. It will mean living in a metaphorical burning building for the rest of their lives.
So they do what all American families living in burning buildings do, they go bowling. Paige quietly asks her mother if the Russians taught her to bowl after she gets yet another strike.
“Vital part of training,” Elizabeth responds in a fake thick Russian accent.
For Paige, finding out her parents have a sense of humor has to make this whole “finding out they’re undercover spies” thing worth it.