The Americans: The Day After Review
A network television movie reminds everyone that this nuclear weapon business may not have a happy ending.
This The Americans review contains spoilers
The Americans Season 4 Episode 9
Midway through “The Day After,” Oleg shares a nice bedtime story with Tatiana (it turns out they’re boning, by the way!) It involves a nuclear arsenal that can wipe out the world, sunlight reflecting off the clouds and a Soviet security officer in desperate need of a raise.
Oleg tells Tatiana he heard from his father that back in September, the Soviet Union’s missile detection system reported five nuclear missiles were on route to Russia from the United States. The duty officer instead of trusting the technology went with his gut feeling that the attack was a false alarm. So the military didn’t order a counterstrike. It turns out that the missiles detected were really just sunlight reflecting off of clouds.
The story Oleg tells Tatiana is a true one. It really happened. Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov was in command at Serpukhov-15, a bunker where the Soviets monitor their satellites on September 26 when he received a notification that the United States had started a nuclear war. This incident was completely unknown to the public at large until after the war had ended. That means in late September of 1983, all that was between humanity and nuclear annihilation was one dude in a bunker’s good sense of intuition.
Season four of The Americans feels as close to a final season of a TV show that isn’t actually a final season as I can remember and “The Day After” fits in this paradigm perfectly. Season four in many ways feels like it’s nearing the end of the show’s run because the real life circumstances that the characters are experiencing are legitimately apocalyptic. Of course every episode could be a series finale because the circumstances at play could theoretically lead to humanity’s metaphorical series finale.
Philip, Elizabeth, Gabriel, Stan and everyone else involved in this perverse game of tag between superpowers are nearing a point where they can no longer ignore the stakes. The nature of Philip and Elizabeth’s work means acting as normal as possible at all times while having insider knowledge that the state of the world and really, the human condition, itself, is beyond repair.
Oleg’s grave story to Tatiana comes shortly after every character on the show watches the titular TV movie event. The Day After aired on ABC on November 20 and graphically depicts the consequences of an all-out nuclear war between NATO and the U.S.S.R. Oleg watches it with Nina. William watches it at home, alone. The Jennings and the male Beemans even have a little viewing party to watch it.
The importance of media and entertainment arguably becomes more important every passing second of real time as human capacity to entertain and communicate with one another constantly expands. The Americans has charted this importance remarkably well. So many important emotional pressure points have been delivered through the family room television this season.
It began in the season three finale when Ronald Reagan’s famous “Evil Empire” speech underscored Philip’s own devastation at having to kill an innocent person yet again. Then the Jennings watched the symbolism-drenched disappearance and reappearance of the Statue of Liberty at the moment it looked like the family could have a happy ending after all. Now, The Day After pulls back the Iron Curtain on this whole conflict to show just how dangerous it’s all been beyond just the wigs and recording devices.
Shortly after the airing, Paige asks her father if he has any inside information, because of his work, as to how the world is really going to end. He promises he doesn’t and that everything will be fine.
“Do you think (your work) really makes a difference?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” Philip responds.
“I just hope we’re all together when it happens.”
The Americans is always at its best when it’s at its most personal. It’s why it’s been on fire lately and why “The Magic of David Copperfield V” in particular was among the series’ all time great episodes. The geopolitical conflict between two warring superpowers was all distilled down to the very personal experience of a married couple and the consequences of that global struggle on them. The haunted look on Philip’s face and the desperation in Elizabeth’s voice speak volumes more than any five nukes could – sunlight reflecting off clouds or no.
Still, that sense of global scale is important to come back to, and “The Day After” has the rather thankless job of reminding us all of what those entail. That alone holds the episode back from the streak of greatness the show has been on lately but “The Day After” finds plenty of wins where it can.
While the apocalyptic edge the world finds itself on is important to the series as a whole, unsurprisingly it’s when “The Day After” is allowed to focus on the personal that it’s at its best. Philip presents an interesting case of “when you give a mouse a cookie” syndrome (let’s call it “when you give a commie a vacation”) when emboldened by his recently won “vacation,” he tries to convince Elizabeth not to tell the Center about William’s latest disease from Level 4. William doesn’t think the Rezidentura can be trusted with such a dangerous weapon and Philip is inclined to agree. Elizabeth, however rattled as she may have been by The Day After isn’t ready to go that far in rebelling against her superiors. Therefore it’s decided that William needs to get into Level 4 at all costs, which means escalating her plans with Young-Hee and her husband, Don.
The Americans does a great job of not being too explicit with what its spies or doing. We rarely get to see Philip or Elizabeth receive marching orders about who to trail and why. So when Elizabeth approached a Korean-American Mary Kay saleswoman named Young-Hee at the beginning of the season, we didn’t have much more insight to Elizabeth’s (or Patty’s) intentions than Young-Hee did.
Granted, we the viewer, know that there is some ulterior motive at play and as time has gone on it’s become clearer and clearer that it will involve getting to Young-Hee’s husband, Don to somehow get William his Level 4 clearance. But we were also just ignorant enough to sit back and enjoy the blossoming of what appeared to be a somewhat legitimate cross-cultural (in many, intertwined ways) friendship.
Now, in “The Day After,” Elizabeth has to pull the ripcord on that friendship and escalate her plans to get to Don and it’s heartbreaking. Elizabeth as Patty calls Don and says she needs help being picked up outside a restaurant after being embarrassingly dumped by a man there. Then she invites him up for a drink. Since Don is by all appearances a good guy and seems more interested in helping Patty regain her self-esteem rather than succumbing to her obvious advances, Elizabeth has to drug his wine.
The following scene of Elizabeth dragging Don’s lifeless body into bed and removing his clothes with great difficulty once again removes all the romance that we traditionally associate with espionage and spying. I don’t remember James Bond ever having to squirt some lubricant into his hand and then applying it on a poor innocent man’s dick. It’s brutal. It’s lonely. It’s sad. It’s also somehow one of the more brutal scenes the show has ever done…and this is a show that once systematically broke a dead lady’s bones to fit her inside of a suitcase.
Elizabeth returns home to the home, perhaps finally understanding more than ever what Philip saw in all the things she once scoffed at: EST, Martha, hockey, etc. “I’m gonna miss her,” she says as she begins to cry.
The Americans is a great show because in the same episode that it shows that the end of the world is a possible consequence of Elizabeth not doing her job … we desperately want her to not do her job. A desolate world filled with nothing but radioactive ash seems preferable to what happens to poor Don and Young-Hee.