Review: Why ‘The Americans’ had no choice about tonight’s very dark turn

A review of tonight's The Americans coming up just as soon as I vandalize a payphone for the greater good…

“The sentence of death will remain unchanged. It will be carried out shortly.” -Soviet administrator

Let's start off with a transcript of every single conversation I had with other TV critics after one of us had just finished watching tonight's episode. If the phrasing wasn't identical from one conversation to the next, it was pretty damn close:

Other critic: “NINA SERGEEVNA!!!!!!!”
Other critic: “Those bastards!”
Me: “Fields and Weisberg are inhuman monsters!”
Other critic: “I can't believe they killed her off! Nina is the best!”
(long pause)
Me: “But they had to do it.”
Other critic: “Oh, absolutely.”

We make a pact with our dramas – particularly the profoundly serious, ambitious ones like The Americans – where ask them to fully commit to the implications of their stories, and where we in turn have to accept when those implications don't turn out well for characters we like. Sometimes, shows back away from the obvious consequences because a character (say, Brody on Homeland, or Gemma on Sons of Anarchy) is too popular to kill off or banish, and those series inevitably suffer for the contrivances necessary to keep those figures on the board. Better to eliminate a character too soon and make the audience miss them than to have them linger and become a drag on everything else that's happening. There are probably ways (12-year-old spoilers coming) The Wire could have kept Stringer in play much longer than it did, for instance, but the story dictated that he had to go when he did, and both the series and Stringer as a character were greatly elevated as a result of that decision.

With Nina, The Americans had no choice in the matter. She was thousands of miles away from every other character, and for all that Stan, Oleg, and Arkady cared for her, her story's only relevance to them at this point was in illustrating the consequences of their respective actions. Finding a way to return her to America would have been ludicrous – in an interview with the showrunners about this episode, they said that while the idea was discussed, no one in the room could ever find a way to make it the least bit plausible – and while Annet Mahendru has given a wonderful performance, her show-within-a-show was becoming less essential by the week. More to the point, we know how the Soviet Union operated in these days, we know what crimes Nina had committed against the state, and we know that she had blown multiple chances at forgiveness in the past. For the show to not kill her off – in the kind of swift, brutal, bureaucratic method demonstrated here in that prison basement (inspired by real-life accounts) – would have undercut everything the series has done in establishing stakes and realism. Nina survives this only if she's a beloved TV show character; not if she's a KGB agent caught working for the other side, and then caught trying to smuggle information back to America about a high-level KGB asset. They would absolutely put a bullet in the back of her head, roll her up in a sheet, and dispose of the body as swiftly and unceremoniously as possible.

It's like Gabriel says earlier in “Chloramphenicol,” when he's recalling his life during some of the Soviet Union's darkest days: “Every day, I'd think, 'Is it today? Is it gonna be me? Is it my turn?' That's not an easy way to live.” By this point, it was definitely Nina's turn, and good on the series for not only understanding it, but presenting it in such a horrifyingly mundane fashion. A less committed show might have found a way to make Nina's dream of being set free with Anton Baklanov into a reality; this one presented it as the fantasy it so obviously was(*), then got down to real business.

(*) In that way, Nina's dream avoids being just a copy of a move The Sopranos used in the classic “Long-Term Parking” episode. There, it was misdirection and false hope about the hit that was coming; here, it was so blatantly bogus (not just the plausibility of it, but even the visual style) that it could never be mistaken for what was actually about to happen.

And here's the thing: even if Nina's death had been held for a different episode, and “Chloramphenicol” had ended with Jennings family bowling night, it still would have been one of the series' best episodes. That's how powerful everything is for the show stateside right now – how perpetually on the verge of death, discovery, or both Elizabeth and Philip seem to be – and how strong the execution continues to be in terms of acting, writing, and directing. That Nina dies at the end only adds more weight to what everyone is going through physically and emotionally in Gabriel's apartment – her fate is one that could be suffered at any moment by any of them, or by Paige if the Centre insists on bringing her into the family business – but the near-death experience with Glanders and William's super-antibiotic was plenty effective in its own right.

In particular, there's that amazing scene where Elizabeth, fearing that she's about to die, not only offers to take post-mortem blame for the murders of Pastor Tim and his wife – finally accepting the idea that she may be the bad guy in this particular part of the story (or, at least, willing to let Paige think that of her after she's gone) – but suggests that Philip should do what he's long wanted and leave the Centre behind to raise the kids as Americans. This is a huge thing for her to openly acknowledge about her husband, let alone to endorse. A lot of that's just a reflection of her physical condition and belief that she may not be long for this Cold War, but it also reflects a deeper understanding between the two partners over time. She hates this country, but loves her husband and children enough to recognize that going native is exactly what they would all want without her. What a great scene, and what great performances from both actors. (Look, for instance, at the way that the entire shape of Matthew Rhys's jaw changes as Philip considers a life without Elizabeth.)

In the end, the antibiotic runs its course, everyone gets to go home, and the lost weekend even makes the Jenningses reconsider the Pastor Tim plan and commit to the idea of making him like them so much that he could never even think of turning them in. That's an incredibly dangerous plan, with many potential pitfalls, but they're also right to realize that killing him would create enormous problems, too. (I imagine the guilt would eat away at Paige until she went to the authorities on her own.)

But if things reach a point where killing Pastor Tim is the only way forward, I imagine Philip and Elizabeth won't hesitate to do it. After all, look what the show they're on did to Nina Sergeevna tonight.

Some other thoughts:

* Again, I did a long interview with Fields and Weisberg about killing off Nina, and about where things stand at the moment for Philip, Elizabeth, Martha, Pastor Tim, and the series itself. Worth it if for no other reason than the anecdote at the end about how one of their Russian technical advisers responded to Nina's death.

* It's a testament to how dark and tense the rest of the episode is that I haven't even talked yet about Stan, Martha, and Aderholt. The show has done a remarkable job (so much so that other showrunners are amazed that they've done it) in not making Stan seem like an idiot for not realizing that his best friend is also the deep cover operative he's been chasing for years, but right now his antennae are up about both his neighbors (canceling an Epcot trip at the last minute is super-fishy, and also something that I imagine Henry wouldn't shrug off so lightly) and poor Martha. Martha's awkward dinner with Aderholt demonstrates that, either on her own or with a lot of coaching from Clark, she has become a very good liar, and the story of the married man she's having an affair with is laced with enough truth for her to really sell it.

* You'll note that while Stan finds Martha's copy of the Kama Sutra and her pistol, he doesn't see her wedding photo. That's because Philip moved it to Clark's apartment a while back, which works out very well for him.

* Also reflective of growing relationships: Elizabeth and Paige are at a point now in their new honesty where Elizabeth can put on her real accent (or, at least, an exaggerated one that sounds a bit like Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle) and make a joke about how the KGB trained her and Philip to be master bowlers, and Paige will laugh at it.

* Notable songs this week: “Misty Blue” by Dorothy Moore (Stan searches Martha's place) and “Lucky Number” by Lene Lovich (the Jennings family bowls together).

* This week in Alan Wants a Web Series: Gabriel's Apartment, where we see what Gabriel gets up to when he he's not handling Philip and Elizabeth, or any other local assets. The guy has to find something to fill his days, and he's sure not doing it decorating that very Soviet-style apartment, so what's he up to? Mainly, I'd just like to get a bigger showcase for Frank Langella than the series can always offer, though he was fantastic delivering the monologue about those bad old days in the USSR.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at