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The Americans season 4, episode 9: "The Day After" fills the show with apocalyptic dread

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The famous TV movie serves as the centerpiece for a quieter installment.

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff, Caroline Framke, and Libby Nelson gather to talk about the latest episode of The Americans. Read our complete coverage of the show here. Spoilers, needless to say, follow.

On the history of The Day After

The Americans
With special guest star John Cullum.

Todd VanDerWerff: The Day After — the 1983 TV movie that became a water-cooler event when it first aired and lent its title to this week's episode of The Americans — might be the most significant TV movie ever made.

Don't get me wrong, it's a big ol' hunk of cheese. I like the film a lot, but if you compare it to other "nuclear war is coming, because Reagan" movies from the same period (like Testament or Threads), it pales in comparison. But it had one thing those two other films didn't: a mass American viewership.

Everybody watched that movie, at a time when TV movies were exceedingly popular. And the famous anecdote is that even Reagan was moved by it, with some speculating that he shifted his second term to focus on decreasing the world's stockpile of nuclear weapons because the film so impressed him.

That, of course, makes The Day After a natural fit for The Americans, and it digs into something the show has never gotten at quite as well as it does in "The Day After" — so many of the show's characters think the apocalypse could be just around the corner, especially Paige. (It makes sense; the evangelical Christian tradition has always had a healthy dose of doom-saying.)

And, hey, if you're Philip and Elizabeth, it very well might be. "The Day After" doesn't postulate that they're about to end the world — because we know they won't — but it sets up a bunch of mini, personal apocalypses for them to encounter, in particular Elizabeth.

I normally hate, hate, hate "characters watch a major news event on TV" episodes, but I think the Day After montage worked about as well as it could have, and gave the rest of the hour a suitably apocalyptic feel.

It also shored up the episode's underlying intention, which was to deliberately hit the pause button and give us time to adjust to The Americans' new status quo. It was pretty effective in this regard; despite the slowdown in action, I still loved it. Are you both feeling the apocalyptic gloom?

Caroline Framke: I wasn't alive in 1983, so I’ll freely admit I have no idea what life was like during the Cold War; I can't imagine the slow creep of feeling like the whole world could implode at any moment. Now, that feeling is just so pervasive.

So my favorite moments of "The Day After" were the ones that enveloped us wholly into that mindset, the better to remind us why, exactly, Philip, Elizabeth, and Stan do what they do. No matter which side they're on, they’re trying to avoid the same, horrifying outcome.

That's why, more than the actual Day After footage, I was particularly moved by episode's quieter scenes, the ones that distilled the idea of a manmade apocalypse and reduced it to something incredibly personal — and, thus, uniquely terrible. One of my favorites featured Paige and Philip pausing while washing the dishes to ponder the imminent end of the world, not least because Matthew Rhys and Holly Taylor rarely share scenes that only features the two of them, and they are wonderful together.

But when it comes to the episode as a whole, I found myself a little more disinterested in it than I wanted to be after last week’s series' high point. As Todd said, "The Day After" is a "pause" episode, and a necessary one. But part of me wishes we could have spent a little more time with the Jennings while they were "on break," even though I know that would have been impossible.

When Philip and Elizabeth realized they were about to return to spying, I felt the same way they did: reluctant, but ready. Or maybe I’m just sad that "The Day After" signals the end of Elizabeth/Patty’s friendship with Young Hee, who is the best.

So what's up with Young Hee anyway?

The Americans
In their infinite wisdom, The Americans' PR people have given us, like, 500 photos of Stan and Philip playing squash. Here is just one of them.

Libby Nelson: After the incredibly tense run of episodes we've just been through, I don’t mind taking a breath for a second.

And I thought "The Day After" was nicely done. While The Americans boasts a scrupulous commitment to period detail, it doesn’t tend to hang big plot twists on news events in the way that, say, Mad Men did; that prevents the occasional exception from feeling too gimmicky.

But the episode did have the unfortunate side effect of recasting the time jump as something the series did mostly because it needed to get to November 20, 1983, when "The Day After" aired. I don’t mind the leap, and I realize the point of it was to give Philip and Elizabeth some peace and quiet. But the result is that it doesn’t feel like much happened at all in the interim.

Given how little time has elapsed in the Jennings’ world over the past two seasons — remember, before the time jump, it had only been a couple of weeks since Paige and Elizabeth returned from Germany — seven months is a lot, and I expected to see a few more hints of how things might have changed in the meantime.

The final moments of "The Day After" made up for all that, though. I’d been confused as to what, exactly, Elizabeth’s endgame with Young Hee was. (I’ll admit that I’m still a little confused. I assume it involves blackmail?) That’s the most shaken up we’ve ever seen Elizabeth because of an operation, and I’m curious about what you both think about how it played out.

Todd: That Elizabeth has mostly become friends with Young Hee in order to get to her husband, Don, is kind of sad in and of itself — Elizabeth is making a very good friend of someone she knows will have to become collateral damage.

But the fact that Elizabeth ultimately ​didn't sleep with Don will only make this harder to bear for her, I think. She'll have to act as if she's the horrible person she knows she is, whom Young Hee never suspected her of being, even though she technically only ​seems​ to have slept with Don (though drugging him is bad enough).

That's a tricky balance to pull off, and Keri Russell does a great job with it.

Libby: I’m still a little confused by what Elizabeth was supposed to be accomplishing. Sleeping with Don (or pretending to sleep with Don) seems like a great way to blow up her friendship with Young Hee, but it doesn’t seem like it gets her any closer to what she needs from Fort Detrick.

Although, if she uses Don's apparent infidelity to blackmail him to get what she needs by threatening to tell his wife, she’ll have to maintain her friendship with Young Hee to make the threat seem plausible, right?

I’m so delighted by Young Hee and her family that I’ve mostly overlooked the fact that this plot can be a little hard to comprehend, but I think I’m missing something here.

Todd: My guess is that Elizabeth will ask Don to help William get clearance in exchange for saying nothing to Young Hee and exiting both of their lives forever.

But the alternate scenario is that Don tells Young Hee, and the whole plan blows up, which is what I predict will happen.

A season all about relationships

The Americans
Elizabeth seems incredulous.

Caroline: I agree with Libby; Young Hee’s role in all this has been hazy, I think mostly on purpose, but now that the operation is approaching its end, I realize just how little I knew/cared about her role.

But I also agree with Todd; there’s no way things will be this easy. The Soviets won't get Level 4 clearance because of blackmailing with one "indiscretion." In fact, Philip and Elizabeth assuming as much feels uncharacteristically narrow of them.

Sure, they can usually depend on people’s fears to get sensitive information, but I’d assumed that given the incredibly dangerous work Don does on Level 4, he would be prepped in case of blackmail situations, and/or know better than to play fast and loose with that information.

Todd: A lot of Young Hee's place in the overall operation has been predicated on the payoff, which is dangerous. But I think she's less important as a plot device than as a sign of Elizabeth's need to have someone to talk to — and a symbol of how willing Elizabeth is to sacrifice even a close friendship in the name of the cause.

In short, she's an escalation character. If Elizabeth is willing to betray Young Hee, what happens when it's Paige who needs to be "dealt with"?

Caroline: Absolutely. Which is why now that Young Hee is important to the plot, I’ve completely lost sight of why she was part of the story in the first place.

Libby: After years of seeing Philip develop his relationship with Martha and his friendship with Stan, I’m glad we got to see Elizabeth have a significant interaction with someone she isn’t related to — if only to refute accusations that her only mode is ferocious. (I’ve always thought Elizabeth was a fantastic, nuanced character, but comments from The Americans’ showrunners suggest that at least part of the audience views her as an unfeeling Soviet machine.)

And if the bioweapons plot seems a little far-fetched (it does), it at least seems in service of a bigger theme: The cracks in the USSR are starting to show, driven home by Oleg’s comment about how only one man’s good judgment averted nuclear holocaust and William’s uncertainty over whether he should even mention the new, Ebola-like threat.

Big-picture national politics haven’t been a major theme of The Americans, thankfully — even the previous Rezidentura storylines mostly concerned lower-level intrigue — but this season, between the acid commentary on the war in Afghanistan and the bioweapons plot, it’s becoming clear that something is rotten in Moscow.

It’s reminded me that, although Philip and Elizabeth might be loyal Soviet patriots, they’re very removed from the country itself; the USSR is represented almost solely by Gabriel. Philip and Elizabeth can’t necessarily see how much things are breaking down in the background.

The difference between nuclear and biological weapons

The Americans
Paige Jennings is not so sure about this nuclear war stuff.

Todd: I did like the gravity of this latest bioweapon, which ​liquefies your organs (best if said in a horrified, hushed tone). I'm not sure if it will work as metaphor as well as glanders did, but it nicely captures the apocalyptic mood of 1983.

And the comment from William that he didn't really trust the Americans, but did trust their containers to not leak, was telling. In his eyes, neither country's hands are clean. But at least one of them has good soap to wash with.

Caroline: I’ve loved William side-eying the Jennings all season, always with some mixture of disdain, respect, and jealousy. His expression when Philip told him he and Elizabeth had been on "a break" was priceless, if devastating, given what we know of his sad, sterile life.

Todd: It's interesting that this episode built up that Paige/Philip relationship so much with the utterly charming driving scenes. Paige is increasingly giving herself an ulcer, and there may come a point where it's too much for her, and then her dad. The season's doing a lot to develop each parent's relationship with Paige individually — that has to be leading somewhere.

But, also, the conclusions of the Martha and Young Hee storylines suggest the different ways Philip and Elizabeth handle assets, which the season is also subtly driving toward.

Caroline: This whole ​season​ has been about assets and collateral damage, both emotional and physical. It’s hard not to see the constant allusions to all-out nuclear and biological warfare in season four as incredibly ominous.

Libby: I see nuclear and biological warfare as two very different symbols.

Nuclear war is total, impersonal, all-out destruction; biological warfare is less flashy, wreaking havoc by exploiting what makes us human: our connections, physical and emotional, with each other.

Everyone in this episode was worried about the blunt-force terror of a nuclear bomb — whether in a literal sense, as in The Day After, or through whatever misstep could eventually turn the FBI onto the Jennings once and for all. But this season has shown how the subtle threat of human connection is arguably more devastating, in part because it’s harder to control.

Todd: The common theme that unites all of these storylines is right there in the title of the movie that inspires the episode — aftermath.

Philip and Elizabeth have been through nuclear war on a personal scale this season, but now that they're seven months past it, they're still living amid the rubble. And both Stan and Paige are trapped by that rubble, unable to escape decisions from their past, no matter how hard they try.

Or, put another way, we frequently use the phrase "the end of the world," but what we really mean is the end of us. And even then, there will probably be other humans left. What do you do when everything stops, but the world keeps turning? The Americans is about to find out.

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.