clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Americans season 4, episode 4: "Chloramphenicol" is one of the show's darkest — and best — episodes yet

New, 13 comments

Major, major, major spoilers follow.

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff, Caroline Framke, and Libby Nelson gather to talk about the latest episode of The Americans. Spoilers, needless to say, follow. And they're really, really big ones this week. Keep reading at your own risk.

So, uh, let's talk about that scene

Ha ha, Paige had nothing to do with it. This is a photo meant to throw off the spoilerphobes.

Todd VanDerWerff: There's a pretty obvious starting point when it comes to discussing "Chloramphenicol," and that is clearly the family going bowling.

Elizabeth's form is so perfect that her daughter suspects it might have been a vital part of her spy training. When Elizabeth made that little joke to Paige, it was the first time The Americans has ever made me think, "Hey, these crazy kids might make it out just fine!"

But alas, it's obvious that they won't, because they're all going to be shot in the head in a Soviet gulag.

Caroline Framke: TODD.

Todd: Yes, the obvious starting point this week is the sad fate of Nina, which is devastating but inevitable. How about that last shot? The long, grim pullback from her corpse suggested we've entered some new territory.

Caroline: Nina’s death is one of the most inevitable moments to occur on this show, and it still took my breath away in one horrifying, stark second. Her fate is yet another example of how The Americans loves to remind you that nothing in this world is easy — or even all that useful.

A couple weeks ago, I talked about how the worst aspect of the awful things people have to do on this show is that sometimes, they're for naught. Philip strangled a curious airline employee to protect an asset, only to have that asset run away without completing the assignment. William (Dylan Baker) has been undercover in America for decades to gather intel on bioweapons, and nothing has come of it so far. (No wonder he’s always so annoyed.)

In "Chloramphenicol," we see the futility of Nina’s attempts to be a good person, to help someone in a tiny way, and to maybe, just maybe find a way out of the increasingly claustrophobic predicament she landed in all the way back in season one, when Stan blackmailed her at a fruit stand.

Nina was never going to get out of this situation alive. I’m shocked she made it as long as she did. But her extraordinary ability to dodge death — and Annet Mahendru’s consistently gorgeous performance — makes this episode hard to swallow. Nina was my favorite, and I’m going to miss her so, so much.

Libby Nelson: If The Americans has a single, tiny flaw, it’s that it takes a lot to convince me that Philip and Elizabeth are in real danger.

The characters and their partnership are so clearly the heart of the show, to the point that, in addition to the years I spent incorrectly predicting Martha’s imminent, grisly demise, I ended up lulled into a false sense of security. I might be stressed out ​all the time while watching this show, but I'd started to believe that, whatever horrors might visit our protagonists, death was not among them, and they’d live to stress us out another day.

Well, that’s over now. Even though the end of Nina’s story felt inevitable, part of me believed the show would never really do it — and that makes it even more devastating.

I could spend the next five hours talking about nothing but Nina (and I do want to come back to that joke in the bowling scene!), but I’ll just mention one point to start, which is how she embodied something I really appreciate about The Americans: its rich and complex women.

The show is so lavishly praised in general that I rarely see critics note how well it tells stories about what it’s like to be a woman in this, or any, era. But it’s something The Americans does quietly, and very well, in part by deepening a role that could be an archetype (the double agent femme fatale, in Nina’s case) and into something far more complex.

Yes, but how did Nina fit into the grand tapestry of The Americans?

Nina is out.
Goodbye, Nina. We loved you most of all.

Caroline: Absolutely. The moment that first sold me on Nina was when Stan ​suggested​ she use her powers of persuasion on Visily, and then dared to act shocked when she came back and reported that she'd fulfilled the assignment by giving him a blow job.

Nina wasn’t having his ruse. She knew what he was implying — even if he worded it carefully enough to shrug off any blame — and she also knew how to do it.

I really believe that Nina had the hardest job of anyone on this show. As a double, sometimes triple agent, all she had were her words, her body, herself. She wielded them like a weapon, and she was so good that it took much longer than it should have to bring her down. I love(d) Nina because she took the clichés people assigned to her and made them work for her.

Todd: Here is where I'll say I've never been all that interested in Nina's story.

This has been especially true since she went to the Soviet Union and sort of felt like a weird plot point The Americans had to check in on every so often. Logistically, I understood what the show was doing, and thematically, that story sort of linked up. Still, I found it hard to recalibrate myself for her story every time we dropped in on her.

But — and this is a huge but — literally every woman I know is deeply invested in what's up with Nina, whereas I find that The Americans' male viewers tend to be slightly more interested in the Martha storyline when it comes to "women on the show who have been forced into terrible, untenable situations by men." (Obviously, this will not be true for all people of all genders. I'm just noting general trends I've noticed in my own life.)

And the more I observe Nina's journey through the eyes of the women I know, it makes sense why I've had trouble connecting. She's been manipulated and exploited at every turn by men who don't really have her best interests at heart and primarily see her as a sex object.

And the ending of her story, paradoxically, made me much more appreciative of the rest of it. It's not just important for the show structurally — though it is that — it's also the ultimate statement of how this world uses people up, especially women, and then discards them.

Caroline: That’s fascinating, Todd. At least for me, I have to say it’s important that Nina was the subject of many a manipulation, but she would usually throw it right back. She was far more in control than most people realized. That’s certainly not the case with Martha.

Libby: I’m going through a Mad Men rewatch, and not to stretch too hard to connect two prestige dramas, but I actually think it’s has a lot of thematic similarities to The Americans — particularly surrounding women — and one of the strongest parallels is between Nina and Joan, for the reasons Caroline just mentioned.

One of the things I like about The Americans is that it dares to have many women you can invest in, for various and diverse reasons. Martha’s story feels more real to me; it’s easier to imagine being Martha than Nina. But Nina has undergone the biggest personal transformation, which is one of the reasons I find her compelling.

I’m so much less interested in anything happening at the Rezidentura now that she’s gone, to the point where I’m not sure the show will even continue with those storylines. I guess Stan and Oleg have to find out eventually.

Todd: Yeah, the Rezidentura doesn't quite have the pull that it did when Nina was there, though I liked the scene between Arkady and Gaad last season. I'd love to see more "parallel lives" crossovers like that.

But I do agree that one of The Americans' real strengths is its deep roster of women who have full, rich lives. In addition to Mad Men, it also reminds me of Halt and Catch Fire, which takes place in roughly the same time period. Both Halt and Catch Fire and The Americans are about the increased visibility of women in 1980s workplaces, and how uncomfortable their presence made many men.

Libby: One thing that’s interesting about The Americans is how little it addresses that dynamic head-on, aside from that time when "Clark" stitched together audio tape of men in the office talking about whether they’d sleep with Martha.

But other than, say, the type of things Philip and Elizabeth are asked to do (he kills more people, she has way more uncomfortable sex), being an undercover agent seems pretty okay as far as gender equity in the workplace is concerned.

And the effect is that the women of The Americans don’t feel quite as bound to the stereotypes of their era as Mad Men's Peggy, Betty, and Joan did (even though Joan, in particular, ended up transcending them). Elizabeth, Nina, Paige, and Claudia feel nearly impossible to pigeonhole.

Todd: I think you don't have to push the Elizabeth Jennings character too hard, however, to see that she's sort of an extension of '80s thoughts about whether women could really have it all. Her central conflict is how much her work life affects her family life! It's just sold in genre trappings, so we accept it more readily than we would on, say, Parenthood.

The Americans is also the most motherhood-obsessed drama of its caliber in the current TV canon, by far. Most shows of this ilk are dominated by father issues. The Americans is much more interested in what we take from our mothers, and in how to be a good mother.

Oh, right, other stuff happened in the episode, too

Elizabeth on The Americans
Elizabeth cannily considers her next move. (It's going bowling.)

Caroline: Paige and Elizabeth’s relationship is fascinating to me right now, because neither of them understand the other, but they’re both at least ​trying​ harder than they ever have.

Libby: The moment when Elizabeth asks Philip if Paige knows they love her was devastating — it felt so specific to the situation, but universal, because I suspect all stressed-out parents of teenagers end up wondering that at some point.

Caroline: It also made this episode's particular disaster of the week so much more personal. Though a potential loose bioweapon is so much bigger than anything Philip and Elizabeth have encountered before, being trapped together while waiting it out brings everything back down to a personal scale and makes it feel much more intimate.

That point was underlined even more by William looking at the two of them almost wistfully. I’m sure we’ll get the story behind his former partner — "didn’t work out" seems too vague to be a closed case — but in that moment, he was so clearly, unbearably lonely.

Libby: The show is really hammering on the bioweapon-as-toxic-secret metaphor, isn't it? All Philip and Elizabeth can do with Paige and Pastor Tim, really, is wait it out. Todd, given your critique last week, I’m wondering if you still think Glanders on the loose is too convenient.

Todd: This storyline also takes place within the realm of Gabriel's influence, and what I'm always struck by when we check in on the lives of other Russian spies is just how lonely they all seem. Remember when we got a little glimpse of Claudia's home life in season one?

And one of the things The Americans understands is that a marriage often feels like a country unto itself. Philip and Elizabeth are a unit completely separate from their cause, or their children, or their job. The show is very smart about how the way they genuinely fell in love has been both the best and worst thing that ever could have happened to them.

I still think releasing the Glanders this early was a mild mistake, but it was probably worth it for this tension-filled episode, which managed to create some incredibly moving, momentous moments (like that flashback to Elizabeth's childhood — The Americans is not skimping on those this season) even before that ending.

Caroline: The best thing "Chloramphenicol" did was sell the awful sudden randomness of Nina’s death, which was over in no time at all. From the moment she learned that she was still going to die, Nina only had about three seconds left to live; just like that, she went from Nina Sergeevna to a crumpled corpse.

The way that wide shot revealed that no one was looking at Nina after she died was heartbreaking, because it’s not that they ​wouldn't​ look at her. It was that they didn’t care enough to bother seeing her anymore. She became anonymous — just another casualty to clean up, as everyone else went about their business.

Todd: So anyway, about that bowling scene…

Libby: That final shot was indelible — maybe the most memorable single image I can think of from The Americans' entire run so far. It’s almost a shame that it wiped out what was really an incredible episode for the 40-odd minutes beforehand, too.

I'm glad you brought up the bowling scene, Todd, because, joking aside, I found it to be a kind of affecting moment. It was actually funny — Elizabeth apparently has not only a fake-real-fake Russian accent up her sleeve, but some actual comic timing on a show where characters are rarely funny on purpose.

More than that, though, it felt real because it felt like it came way too soon; the gulf between a shocking development that upends your life, and realizing that this new, weird thing is just your life now, is so much narrower than most people want to believe.

Todd: I love that observation, Libby. Theoretically, these characters' lives should be shattered. But we know, from our own lives, that it takes a lot to completely destroy someone.

Paige's life hasn't changed THAT much. It's just in a new context. She still has her parents. They still love her. There's still time for dumb family outings. And new inside jokes.

But the ending of "Chloramphenicol" is like a giant weight hanging over everything else. This, too, shall come to everybody on the show. The Americans has been expertly paralleling Nina, Martha, and Paige for several seasons now, and now one of them is dead. How long can it be before the other two find themselves destroyed as well?

Programming note: Comments are open below! I (Todd) will be dropping in throughout the day to chat about this episode with you. Please join our fun!

Read our thoughts on last week's episode.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.