THE AMERICANS Season 4: Was Nina’s fate a harbinger of things to come?

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The Americans Season 4 definitely isn’t pulling any punches, taking more twists and turns than a couple of KGB agents evading FBI surveillance in 1980s Washington, D.C.

The world is definitely closing in for our spies, on both sides of the moral divide, and if the first few episodes of this season are any indication, the show is making good on the threats posed as far back as season 2 to some of our most beloved characters. From Nina’s stint in a Siberian gulag, to Phillip and Elizabeth’s dilemma over what to do now that their secret’s out, to Martha’s increased sense of danger in the workplace as Stan finally senses something’s afoot, it looks like no one will be left unscathed by the time the writers are done with us for another year.

However, there is one scene that will undoubtedly reverberate for the rest of the season, and that moment definitely sent shockwaves across this side of the television screen. It might have been one that was a long time coming, but that doesn’t make it any less heart-wrenching. Yet as shocking as said moment was, what really stands out, for now, is that it’s a pretty good metaphor (or harbinger) of things to come thanks to The Center, if my TV-watching experience is any indication.

[WARNING! The following post contains major spoilers for the first four episodes of The Americans this season. Enter at your own risk!]

The spy who was left out in the cold

Let’s get this out of the way: it’s been a rough few months for women on TV dramas; everyone from prestige cable drama The Walking Dead to network (supernatural) procedural Sleepy Hollow have been witness to some major character deaths, yet it’s curious that one of the most shocking this week was on a show where pretty much every character introduced becomes a legitimate target at some point.

Nina Sergeevna Krilova (Annet Mahendru), formerly of the Rezidentura in Washington, and currently (in 1983) of the Siberian gulag, finally succumbed the hands of an execution squad, her use to the KGB now perfunctory once she decided to stop informing for them. There was only one possible end to the accused traitor’s sentence — no matter which government ended up pressing charges — but the absolute sterility and efficiency with which she met her fate was truly haunting. It was such a banal end to a character who once seemed to enchant every person she met.

In my estimation, there really was no scenario in which Nina ever made it out of Siberia alive, despite the strings Oleg attempted to pull thanks to his family connections. The more egregious point is that no matter what side of the Iron Curtain she fell behind, she was destined to get screwed over, both figuratively and literally, by the patriarchy that viewed her worth almost uniquely upon her sexuality. While she is not the only person on this show to be instructed to use sex to get what the Center wants — see the flashbacks to Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip’s (Matthew Rhys) training for starters — she might be the only one whose sole existence was intrinsically dependent upon her performance for other men. From Stan’s initial blackmail, to the KGB’s final “mission” for her in seducing Anton Baklanov to get him back to work, Nina’s primary value to her handlers was always wholly dependent on her body. She was written as an object of desire, denied agency in ultimately tragic fashion.

Which is what made her decision a few episodes back to stop following orders so refreshing, if fatal. Her ethereal dreams indicated she was at peace — none more so than the one of her release in this episode — but it was her last stand, her final act of rebellion against both agencies who’d betrayed her in the name of the “greater good.” It also eliminated her captors’ need to keep her around, and the sentence that had been hanging over her head ever since her arrest at the end of season 2 was carried out, not with the interminable pageantry of a death row verdict, but with a bullet to the head in a dingy prison hallway without warning.

Even though we’ve known this moment had to be coming for the better part of two seasons now, the actual execution shocked me completely, in a way I haven’t been while watching TV in a very long time. The fact that it was so brutal and so sudden — nothing like Soviet justice to give the term “carried out shortly” a whole new meaning — and ultimately definitive was a punch in the gut. Viewers are so conditioned to final-act reprieves that part of me, at least, was wondering if Oleg’s last-ditch attempt to meet with her might help concoct a plan for her escape, legal or otherwise. Yet, one thing that’s been glaringly obvious about The Americans is that you never really get what you want, especially when your country’s very moral fiber is at stake, because justice takes a back seat to ideology in this series’ world. That Nina was allowed to live as long as she did was probably an anomaly (or artistic license), but it brought home the message that it doesn’t matter how much you repent (or don’t), or turn a new leaf, because when it comes to overarching superpowers, one human life is no match for the success of the system at large.

Come to Jesus?

Which dovetails, surprisingly, into the Jennings’ story certainly of this season, if not the series as a whole as well. Ever since they revealed their true identities to Paige (Holly Taylor) last year, their secret has been a ticking time bomb begging to go off, whether it’s thanks to Pastor Tim finding out, Stan finally smelling the roses, Martha cracking, or any combination thereof. Add in the continued battle over Paige’s future — turning her into a Soviet spy vs. Allowing her to forge her own path as an American — and the question of free will within an inherently corrupt system takes on a whole new significance. Elizabeth’s zeal to connect to her daughter through her work is misguided, but perhaps understandable, especially given the few insights we’ve received into her own relationship with her mother.

Yet, it takes her own brush with death to put things in perspective, and it may be the biggest paradigm shift we’ve seen of her character in four seasons. There have been subtle changes over the years, from viewing her marriage as a business arrangement to genuinely falling in love with Phillip, or even her decision to recruit Paige, when at the start of the show she maintained neither of the kids should ever know about their parents’ double lives. But in “Chloramphenicol” everything is put into relief. Faced with the accidental outbreak of a potentially deadly bioweapon, Elizabeth’s fever dream suddenly gives her clarity. And that revelation is that maybe The Cause doesn’t supersede everything in her life; that when faced with losing everything, she’d rather choose her family’s well-being over her country’s.

It may be obvious to most people, but for Elizabeth, it’s a complete reversal. With all the questions surrounding her mother’s recent death — about her final moments, and what she really felt —it makes her wonder if Paige would have to do the same soul-searching were she put in that position. It’s why her line to Phillip about, “Paige knows we love her, right?” has such impact, because her sense of affection and duty are so skewed due to her upbringing and her training. She may love her children, but she’s suddenly aware that her way of showing it may not be enough to comfort them.

Which leads to an even more loaded discussion about her motivation, now. In the depths of her illness, she implores Phillip to take the kids and run, philosophically if not physically, should she die from Glanders. It may be Elizabeth at her most raw, telling him that if he won’t continue the work, then he can just raise Paige and Henry (Diedrich Sellati) as Americans, as he’d always (not-so-)secretly wished. Sure, there’s a little bit of a bite in the declaration, but the surprising part is that she honestly feels like this is what would be best for the kids, without considering what this would mean for their mission. She’d want what’s best for them if she were gone, which is a far cry from the woman who refused to entertain the idea of defecting back in the pilot. This may be one of the few times in the show that both Jennings parents are on the same page, completely, about their family’s future.

Even more unexpectedly, once she’s recovered, Elizabeth tells Gabriel (Frank Langella) that they won’t kill Pastor Tim anymore, because they’d lose Paige forever, and are willing to live with the risk of trying to turn the preacher if it means keeping their daughter’s soul (and their relationship) in tact. For someone who used to be all about the efficiency, Elizabeth has softened amidst the shades of gray, the thought of their daughter ever living this life now unfathomable. I actually kind of liked that Gabriel told them he’d have to keep dangling the recruitment carrot to the Center to keep them off the Jennings’ backs in the wake of this change of plans, because not only does it keep painting them into a corner, but it continues the overall theme of the show that every action has a consequence, intentional or not, and that an ultimatum is probably not far behind this new direction.

Unlike Nina, though, they get a reprieve this time. Elizabeth isn’t actually sick, and while the family’s Disney getaway is put on hold, that doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy their time together in the present. Henry’s initial saltiness at their sudden cancelation (and disappearance for several days) might be the first time we’ve ever seen him express any sort of negative emotion towards their benign neglect of the kids while at “work,” which is fascinating, but it’s ultimately swept under the rug for a family bowling night. It’s jarring to see all four Jennings together so happy and carefree, Elizabeth — ELIZABETH — even cracking jokes about their real jobs to Paige, and this might also be the first time we see them so, well, normal. Paige’s guilt, Henry’s resentment, and their parents’ fears are all forgotten for a night of all-American fun, but much like Nina’s dreams of escape, we know this can’t be real. Sure, they may actually be hanging out like any other family, but we know that there is imminent danger unfolding, and this vignette is sure to be blown to bits within the next few episodes. Phillip and Elizabeth and Nina have all taken a moral stand, but their choices are sure to have reverberating effects to those around them.

(Is this an appropriate time to mention that I was almost relieved, at first, that Nina was the one who kicked the bucket this week, only because with all the anvils around Paige and Henry regarding the danger faced by Pastor Tim and Alice, I was convinced for about two minutes that one of the kids would end up as collateral damage in a hit gone awry, or the Center’s scare tactics? Then, of course, once I realized Nina was dead, I was devastated.)

Dangerous Liaisons

Speaking of agency again for a second, if there’s one person on the show right now who is taking control of her fate, it may in fact be Martha. Yes, we know that Phillip, via Clark, is manipulating her, but that moment where she decides to go out for dinner for Agent Aderholt, and then “reveal” her secret to him, was pure genius on her part. Like Nina choosing to stop working people for the sake of her own relative safety, and Elizabeth choosing to shield Paige from the Center, Martha’s supposed affair is a stand not only against Stan and Aderholt’s accusations, but also against Clark’s constant deception and unattainability. Martha has been played for so long, that she’s finally deciding to regain control of this game in her own way; it will likely lead to as disastrous results as Nina and Elizabeth’s choices, too, but like them, she’s fighting against a system (or systems, whether she understands it or not) which hasn’t recognized her true talents. In another life, Nina would probably have made an excellent spy herself given her ease with connecting with people, and in another life, Martha could have probably run a company (or at the very least moved up the ranks within government bureaucracy), but in this life, they’re ignored from the men who think they know best.

Despite generally disliking shock-value deaths in the TV shows I watch (see: Sleepy Hollow), Nina’s here is emblematic of the cultural war setting the stage for The Americans. Her treatment as a character is a commentary on the inherent unfairness of the establishment under whose rule she lived, both in the USSR and Stateside, and represents the consequences of viewing human life as so expendable — a lesson Elizabeth Jennings may finally be understanding all too personally. The cracks have been forming for a while — killing the elderly accountant last season may have chipped at her armor —but it seems like the fact that the Center may value her less as a person than she was led to believe when her family’s life is at stake is a fascinating, and delicious, dilemma to watch unfold. The writers are painting all of these characters into a corner, from the Jennings to their handlers to Oleg to Stan to Martha, and I can’t wait to see how they get out of this tight spot. (Or not, as the case may be.)

I may spend the rest of this season fearful of what will become of these people, but one thing’s for sure: I absolutely can’t wait to find out.

Nels
Nels knew how to operate a TV remote control before she knew how to talk. As a result, she has spent an inordinate amount of time pretending she actually lives on a soundstage. When she isn’t watching whichever show is currently capturing her heart, she is writing about how said show is currently capturing her heart. She loves pie.

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