‘The Walking Dead’ Could Learn Something From ‘The Americans’ About Shocking Twists

This post contains spoilers from tonight’s episode of The Americans, in addition to mentions of well known deaths in Game of Thrones, The Good Wife and The Walking Dead.

Television viewers have been so conditioned in our post-Game of Thrones/The Walking Dead world to expect shocking deaths that the shock is rarely all that shocking. Surprising deaths have become almost routine, so much so that a show like The Walking Dead can actually spend most of a season building toward a “shocking” finale in which the only surprise was that the death was withheld.

Because we have been trained to expect the unexpected, it’s been a long time since we truly felt the surprise of a Red Wedding or a Ned Stark or a Will Gardner. It’s notoriously difficult in the Internet age to get away with a death that we didn’t see coming a mile away, and it’s only on a lower-rated show like The Americans or The Leftovers that surprises can still exist because they are not obsessed over and yarn-walled by people like me. Damon Lindelof managed to get away with a lot in the second season of The Leftovers that he couldn’t have on Lost, for instance, because there weren’t six million people trying to figure out all the twists.

There’s nothing to figure out on The Americans, which quietly continues to be one of the best shows on television. It’s a slow-paced character drama that’s not as interested in shocking viewers just to shock them as it is in getting into the minds of its characters. It’s the fabric of this series that made tonight’s death so stunning and unexpected.

In the final scene of tonight’s episode, Nina Krilova (played by Annet Mahendru), was executed with a gunshot to the back of the head. It was as much a surprise to the character as it was to the audience. It wasn’t a cliffhanger. There will be no resurrection. It’s unlikely that there will even be a funeral.

Nina is gone.

Her crime? Technically, it was sneaking a letter out through her estranged husband to the son of her friend, Anton, to let the son know that his father was still alive. Really, though, Nina’s crime was in her refusal to continue playing the game. She wasn’t going to be a pawn for either the KGB or the CIA anymore. Nina was done screwing over other people for the benefit of a cause she didn’t believe in.

In a traditional narrative, that moral stand would be rewarded. Nina is a survivor, after all, and we’re used to seeing Stan or Arkady or Oleg find a way to spare her life. Not this time. This time, Nina stopped doing the bidding of others and committed the crime of a selfless gesture, which is the sort of act that could get someone labeled a traitor and executed in the former USSR.

It was an unexpected death, one from which viewers may be reeling for days, but not an unnecessary one. Nina had long since exhausted her storyline (some might argue that she’d done so at the end of the second season). Her story has given away to that of Oleg Burov, the head of the KGB Directorate X Department, who will now have to sit with the fact that the country with whom he is loyal has killed both his brother and the woman with whom he was in love.

If that’s not the kind of thing that turns you into a double agent for the CIA, then I don’t know what is.