Review: On ‘The Americans,’ will ‘The Day After’ make Elizabeth do something awful?

A review of tonight's The Americans coming up just as soon as I promise you it'll be better if you blink…

“This is why we're here.” -Elizabeth

At 10, I was too young to watch The Day After when ABC aired it in the fall of 1983, but I knew all about it. The marketing for it was inescapable, making it into the kind of event that the Jennings and Beeman families would watch together (and that even the agents of the rezidentura would want to check out). I didn't even need to see the thing to have nightmares about it, and about the larger peril of global thermonuclear annihilation that hung over us every damn day back then. More than once as a kid, I had to ask one of my parents to reassure me at bedtime that the world wouldn't blow up while I was asleep, and we know from hindsight that this came perilously close to happening a few times, like the nightmare scenario Oleg describes to Tatiana. The Day After didn't create those fears, but it gave us visuals of them (even those who only saw the commercials while watching That's Incredible! or The Fall Guy) and only hardened the sense that we could all cease to exist in the blink of an eye – or, worse, that we might survive the initial wave of missiles and die a far slower and more painful death from the radioactive fallout.

Tonight's Americans takes its sweet time getting to the moment where all its characters watch the TV-movie for which it's named, helping to further situate us in the post-time jump status quo: Stan and Tori have broken up, Paige is dealing with Pastor Tim surveillance duty, Elizabeth is still slow-playing things with Young-Hee, etc. There's a telling moment early on when Elizabeth tells Philip about the signal from William, and she flashes the faintest of smiles. The two of them very badly needed the break that Gabriel gave them, but she missed the action.

Watching The Day After shakes Elizabeth, as it does everyone else, but it also reaffirms her belief in the importance of their mission, and no doubt plays a role in the decision she makes afterwards to drug, molest, and blackmail Young-Hee's husband Don to get William the necessary security clearance to obtain another virus sample.

On a life or death scale, Elizabeth has done worse things. Just last week, we saw her murder Lisa, which in turn reminded me of the poor bastard who got a car dropped on him because Elizabeth needed Lisa to take his job. But this feels different. Elizabeth had genuine feelings for Young-Hee, who, despite all the lies at the foundation of their relationship, appears to be the first adult friend she's ever had. She likes spending time with her. She in many ways envies her marriage to Don, and the boisterous and open vibe of that entire family.

“I don't know many happy couples,” she tells Don. “It's kind of amazing what you have.”

Now, Keri Russell is so great that you can see Elizabeth peering out from under Patty's wig and eyeshadow as she says this. This isn't just something she's saying for the sake of the operation; she believes it. 

But she's saying it to him even as she's serving him drugged wine as part of a plot that she knows will ultimately destroy that happy couple.

Elizabeth has always been the more hardcore half of the spy partnership, ready and willing to do awful things that give Philip serious pause. What makes her gambit with Don hit so hard isn't just that he and Young-Hee seem so nice and happy, but that Elizabeth has changed enough from the woman we first met that she now has misgivings about it, too. To a degree, her lament to Philip at the episode's end that she's going to miss Young-Hee is probably worthy of a “Poor you!” from Livia Soprano, but it's hard not to feel at least a little sympathy for her. The show has exhaustively told us about her childhood, her mother, and her training. We know exactly how and why the Centre was able to shape her into the remorseless weapon she became. But we've also seen her grow and evolve over time. She's not as soft as Philip, but nor is she as ruthless as she used to be. She scorned est after attending a seminar, but she's definitely become more introspective and self-aware than she used to be. This is emotional progress, and it comes at the worst possible time for her, as she has to ruin the life of her new best friend to get what the Centre wants.

And yet, having just watched The Day After, and knowing the relative military strengths of her home country from the one she pretends to be from, Elizabeth still has enough of a sense of mission and patriotic duty to commit this despicable act for what she thinks is the greater good.

Of course, it's possible to come out of watching that movie thinking something completely different. Early in the hour, William commends Philip on his decision to pull Martha before the FBI could catch up to her, and compares it to his reluctance to tell Gabriel and the Centre about the new virus: “It was the right decision. I'd like to make the right decision.” Later, after they've been horrified by the film, Elizabeth's resolve has been renewed, but a shaken Philip says, “After watching that, I think maybe William's right.”

We know that the world didn't end in a giant mushroom cloud, and that neither side unleashed a monstrous biological agent against the other. But we also have 33 years of hindsight on these characters. They're in the moment, with limited information and so many reasons to be terrified. In that context, you can understand, if in no way condone or forgive, where Elizabeth was coming from when she made the stomach-churning choice she did.

Damn, this show is tough. And great.

Some other thoughts:

* This review is mainly focusing on Elizabeth's reaction to The Day After, but the episode did an excellent job of illustrating how the film made so many of the characters – Paige in particular – feel a deep personal stake in preventing it: Almost an “Only you can prevent atomic fires!” sort of thing.  

* Here, by the way, is the full intro to the film featuring actor (and future Northern Exposure castmember) John Cullum:

* Alison Wright is out of the opening credits, and thus apparently off the show full-time. I wouldn't be shocked if we eventually see what Martha's life in Russia is like, but like I said last week, it's more powerful if we, like Philip, never see her again.

* The season has, thus far, done a good job of hiding Keri Russell's pregnancy. Elizabeth wears more coats, jumpsuits, and other clothing designed to mask the expanding size of her belly, but '80s clothing was frequently boxy in that way, and if the bedsheet is artfully draped over her front as she waits for Don to wake up, there's enough misdirection by leaving her backside revealed. Overall, it's the kind of thing I notice because I know to look for it, but it's not calling attention to itself the way many other shows with pregnant actresses have.

* Over the seven-month gap, Oleg and Tatiana went from comrades to lovers. In hindsight, the show's been steering this way for a while, between their banter while working together and the way the hair and makeup team has softened Tatiana's look this year, but Oleg's feelings for Nina – and our proximity to Nina's stay in Russia and its tragic end – made it harder to recognize. With the time jump, it makes more sense.

* I'm not sure if I entirely agree with William's meta comment – “Might be your best look yet” – about Philip's new disguise with the sideburns and mustache, but that's only because I've seen many more looks than William has. For my money, the best one was the long hair and beard he wore when dealing with the cancer patient played by Zeljko Ivanek a few seasons back.

* One week after the season's first mention of Kimmy, her favorite band returns to the soundtrack, as Yaz's “Winter Kills” plays during the sequence where Elizabeth searches Young-Hee's house for blackmail material. Meanwhile, the episode's other notable musical selection, Peter Schilling's “Major Tom,” is both timely – the English version reached the States only a few weeks before this episode takes place – and powerful, but is one of the few times in the run of the series where a song choice made me think of another film or movie, since another show about a communist operative working undercover in the early '80s west, Sundance's Deutschland 83, uses “Major Tom” as its theme song:

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at