MAJOR spoilers follow for "Chloramphenicol," the fourth episode of the fourth season of FX's The Americans.
Intellectually, fans of FX's thrilling spy drama The Americans know that just about any character could die at any time, given that Cold War espionage and all of its inherent dangers are central to the show's plot. But as the series entered its fourth season without having suffered any major casualties, it wasn't too difficult to at least consider the possibility that the entire regular cast just might make it out alive.
And then there was "Chloramphenicol."
Though most of the episode focused on Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) being quarantined in their handler's safe house to contain a possible bioweapon they'd been exposed to, The Americans closed out the hour by killing someone who wasn't even in the room with them.
Nina Sergeevna (Annet Mahendru) — who's been dodging her seemingly inescapable fate since day one — is dead.
It's so hard to say goodbye, but this outcome was always part of The Americans' plan
Nina's shocking death capped off a stunning sequence. Imprisoned in a Soviet gulag for treason since the middle of season three, the character managed to survive longer than anyone (including Nina herself) thought possible, by using her smarts to convince those in power that she could still be useful to their cause. That came to an end in "Chloramphenicol," when she was abruptly put to death for treason.
The episode gave her an idyllic dream sequence in which she finally earned her freedom — only to have her wake up to the one-two punch of a sudden death sentence and immediate execution by gunshot. It was jarring, horrifying, and absolutely gut-wrenching. In a shot that was as gorgeous as it was awful, Nina's body crumpled to the ground as she bled onto on the cold floor, discarded until she was finally rolled into a burlap sack and carried away, never to be heard from again.
Back in November, I spoke with Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, The Americans showrunners, about the scene. Praising Mahendru's work, they said they were sad to see her go but were also firm that Nina's story was always going to end with her death. Still, they were ultimately surprised by how long the character lasted on the show.
"First season, we didn’t see her about to die," said Weisberg. "Fans were predicting that about her and we were like, '….huh!' That wasn’t what we had in mind."
But as Fields clarified, the fact that Nina lived to see season two didn't mean she was safe. "The only change I’d say that’s been substantial has been where it’s fallen," he said. "That it’s taken us longer to get here. We didn’t expect her to survive as long as she did, not because we wrote more story but because it took longer for her story to unfold."
Weisberg added that audiences may have initially expected a higher body count — and thus more major character deaths — than he and Fields planned on, simply because The Americans is part of the spy genre: "Especially in the first season, people didn’t realize the show in general was going to be a slower burn, more of a character story."
Speaking about the death on a press call last week, Mahendru said she was warned about Nina's fate before the fourth season started production — and she was heartbroken, and angry, and everything in between.
So at first she scoffed at the idea that a death scene could be "everything an artist wants to do." But then it turned out, much to her surprise, to be true. "As mad as I was, as broken as I was ... it was the most intense thing I've had to do as an artist," she said. "To play death, to play dying, and that last thing of life before it goes ... afterward I was sitting in my chair, and I wanted to quit. And then I wanted to do it again."
Mostly, though, Mahendru talked about Nina as if she were mourning a dear friend.
"You think you'll be prepared for it, but you absolutely are not," she said, going on to note that learning some of Nina's backstory just a couple episodes earlier made the death sting that much more. "Everyone has been treasuring her and fighting for her." She paused, and sighed. "It's really been a fight."