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

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

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?

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

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

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.


Hey, everyone! Please chat away about the episode! I will do my best to pop in, though it can be tough to remember!

The AV Club pointed out that the USSR shot down that Korean airliner during the Jennings’ break – surely that was a dinner-table subject?? Maybe they’ll circle back to it.

& yeah, The Day After was huge.

Although the Jennings might not have know about it, the other major occurrence was the Able-Archer 83 NATO war games in Europe, which simulated an escalating conflict in Europe which culminates in a nuclear exchange. (1)

The USSR’s Operation RyAN obtained intelligence that a US first strike could be imminent; Able-Archer seemed to confirm this to the more paranoid people in the Kremlin.

Time line:

!979 NATO announces plans to deploy Pershing II missiles in Western Europe.
February 17, 1983- The KGB assigns agents to watch for indicators of a first strike.
March 23, 1983- Reagan announces the Strategic Defense Initiative in a televised speech
Summer and Fall 1983- there are protests all over Western Europe as NATO gears up to deploy the Pershing II later that year.
September 1, 1983- The USSR shoots down Korean Airlines Flight 007
September 26, 1983- Soviet Oko satellite system falsely reports five ICBM "launches" from the US. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov prevents nuclear war by not passing on the warning.
November 2, 1983- Able-Archer 83 war games begin. The simulation involves heads of state, radio silence and new forms of coded communication. NATO simulates moving from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 1. All of these trigger KGB intelligence alarms of a possible NATO first strike.
November 8, 1983- The USSR readies its nuclear forces. NATO decides NOT to put its forces on actual increased alert.
November 11, 1983- Able-Archer 83 war games conclude and tensions ease.
November 20, 1983- "The Day After" airs on ABC. Ironically, the escalation to war is similar to the Able-Archer ’83 scenario.

This was probably the closest we came to WW III since October 1983.


What an amazing, tight and tense little episode of television. Even the "pause"-episodes of this show feels like a slow-moving tragedy, with its characters making awful decisions with terrible implications left and right.

My question is, where is this all headed? I was so sure, before the past three episodes, that the show would put Martha in Nina’s role, with the FBI running her as a double agent (and maybe her telling Clark), which eventually would lead to Stan finding out about the Jennings. Now, though… I have no idea where this is headed. Maybe Pastor Tim will be a bigger part of the endgame than what I’d originally thought…

Not that it matters when the show is this good every week. I do wonder if we’ll see Martha again though… I hope so. But, again, I have very little idea of what the show is up to after the last few episodes. Only one thing is certain; I can’t wait to see it.

I could see Martha coming back in the final season for a one-off. They also might use her as a way for the show to finally introduce Philip’s son (if he exists). She could also go the way of Sal on Mad Men.

I rewatched the entire series recently, and one of the things I noticed is how quietly but significantly Elizabeth’s rape trauma resurfaces for her throughout the show (e.g., when she’s seducing that, I think, marine it’s difficult for her because she’s playing the role of a rape survivor, or when she asks Phillip to "be like Clark" with her in bed it quickly becomes too rough for her). I wonder if Elizabeth’s sadness about the Don thing is also in part because of her having to pretend that she has drugged and raped him. The Americans is so concerned with non consensual sex, sex without full disclosure, deception, etc, and I think there’s a strong link between Elizabeth’s trauma and the promiscuous, deceptive sex that the Jennings engage in, although I’m not quite sure what that connection is specifically, yet. (speaking of sex, Reagan and big 80’s moments, I would love to see this show do something on the AIDS crisis. Surely, as agents that engage in ‘dangerous’ sex all the time, the Jennings would be wary of this epidemic? Although I suppose it may still be a bit early in the 80’s for that).

Elizabeth really did drug Don, there’s no "pretending" about that. And I believe Don is supposed to think he had consensual sex with her that he just doesn’t remember.

Barry Marshall won a Nobel prize for showing that ulcers are caused by bacteria rather than stress.

. In 1982, they performed the initial culture of H. pylori and developed their hypothesis related to the bacterial cause of peptic ulcer and gastric cancer

Overall a very good episode. I remember watching "The Day After." I was a senior in high school and lived just 30 miles from Oak Ridge, TN. The TV movie was big news in the area since it was assumed the Oak Ridge nuclear facilities would be a prime Soviet target. However, the show missed an opportunity by ignoring the Soviet shoot down of Korean flight 007, which was September 1, 1983. I guess this is only really glaring to those of us who remember that event well, but with Young Hee and Don being Korean-American and Young Hee commenting about her mother-in-law flying back to South Korea once a year, that event should have at least been mentioned. The Soviet Union would have been enemy number one in Korean households in the fall of 1983 and having Young Hee spew hatred towards the Soviets would have made the relationship between her and Elizabeth even more dramatic. It would have also given the show a chance to have Phillip and Elizabeth question the Soviet Union a bit since that action gave Reagan and the West a major propaganda tool against the Soviets, who seemed to confirm Reagan’s observation of them as an "evil empire." 1983 is rich with Cold War stories, and as it would turn out, was really the last year that the world seemed on the brink. Gorbachev is only twp years away, and then the end. I hope the show lasts long enough to reach 1989 and shows the family watching the Berlin Wall fall and can’t wait until the scene in 1991 when Phillip and Elizabeth watch the Soviet flag come down for the last time.

Elizabeth deliberately pretended to sleep with Don so her friendship with Young Hee (which Elizabeth genuinely enjoyed) would end, thus putting an end to any attempt to use Don as a way in to Level 4 of the biological weapons lab, meaning that the Soviets wouldn’t be able to get their hands on the latest US bio-weapon. This was a decision taken by Philip and Elizabeth as a reaction to watching The Day After, and the title of the episode cleverly plays on the destruction caused by the war imagined in that TV movie to highlight the destruction to their lives caused by the real (at least within the series!) war that they’re involved in, including the destruction of Elizabeth’s relationship with Young Hee, caused by her decision to use the nuclear option (faking having slept with Don) to end their friendship in an attempt to prevent what she and Philip ultimately decided would be a greater evil – the spread of biological weapons to the USSR. It would be great if the series features Operation Able Archer (features in Deutschland 83) which caused panic in the Soviet ranks before they realised it was just a military operation. Able Archer took place in November 1983, so I’m surprised it wasn’t directly featured more heavily in this episode. Also skipping the shooting down of the Korean airliner was a big mistake in terms of presenting the historical background to the show, not to mention the dramatic possibilities it would have presented.

"1983 is rich with Cold War stories, and as it would turn out, was really the last year that the world seemed on the brink. Gorbachev is only twp years away, and then the end. I hope the show lasts long enough to reach 1989 and shows the family watching the Berlin Wall fall and can’t wait until the scene in 1991 when Phillip and Elizabeth watch the Soviet flag come down for the last time."

That’s exactly what I’m hoping for, although I can’t see Paige not cracking up before then!

I love this idea, and it would be an exciting switcheroo to see Philip and Elizabeth deliberately tank a mission because it is too distasteful/dangerous for them—but tank it in a way that it could look plausible that Don would confess to his wife and the relationship would be severed.

However, why bother to case the house to look for dirt on Don? Arguably she could have been looking for information to help her set up her quasi-seduction, but it really did look much more like she was looking for blackmail information. She was upset because her only "in" turned out to be what she hoped to avoid: his love of wine and his entry-level erotic video featuring a blonde. She was hoping to find financials, secrets, some other dirt—anything to keep from doing the thing that she knew would for sure kill her friendship with Young Hee, and possibly also kill her friend’s happy marriage.

I’m enjoying the discussion. One quibble: if the family name is Jennings, they are the Jenningses, not the Jennings.

Think, "Keeping up with the Joneses." Same principle.

Yeah, I’m that guy. Feel free to ignore me.

An aside: not sure if this was on purpose or not, but the inclusion of Peter Schilling’s "Major Tom" in this episode’s soundtrack seemed like a wonderful little homage to Deutschland 83!

How do we know that Don has anything to do with Fort Detrick? I totally missed that, and was waiting to see why Don and Young-hee are targets.

If JohnQToland is right that Elizabeth deliberately sabotaged her mission to avoid the outcome of William getting Level 4 clearance and access to Lassa, then that’s huge. I do not know how the Don and Young-hee subplot will play out, but I do not think that interpretation is correct.

William’s incredulous/sarcastic comment, "We get breaks?!" was hilarious.

People we need to get a grip. I luvvvv this show, but a high securitylevel Korean immigrant not getting the bad vibe once that bottle of wine was offered? Puleeze. Young Hee was also way more chatty/loud/outgoing than what is standard to Asian culture, at least for most of the Asian immigrants I’ve met, which have been plenty having lived in major immigrant heavy cities – San Francisco/LA to begin. I almost believed the actress was hoping her overplaying the part would mean Elizabeth would stay her BFF so that the character would continue, unlike poor Lisa. And what was with Oleg and Tatiana? Nina already a distant memory? Poor Stan, he’s my favorite but he remains clueless. I say bring back John Boy as an FBI freelancer and have him investigate the Jenningses – they have grown on us but they are evil!!

I can’t believe no one has mentioned the single most important hanging question (imo) of the series: When and how will Stan find out the truth about the Jennings? I am sure it will happen. The only question is when and how.

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