The Americans Review: Chloramphenicol

My daughter is in a very bad place because of this job. — Philip Jennings

Some moments are both breathtaking and relieving in fiction. Without sharing numerous examples, as I’m sure you could pick many from your own experiences as an entertainment consumer, tonight’s episode of The Americans presented one of the more somber events in series history. The emotions of shock and sadness — at least for me — were also accompanied with feelings of relief for the Nina Sergeevna Krilova character, and also some muted joy that we might not see as many scenes inside the Gulag.

When discussing this specific series, we anticipate the death and despair, but The Americans always manages to exceed expectations and find a way to cut the hearts right out of our collective bodies. I didn’t go into “Chloramphenicol” prepared for that final scene, but when it came, the timing seemed appropriate. Nina’s character was multi-faceted, but at times the level of hell that surrounded her was almost too much to take. Both Stan Beeman and Oleg Burov fell for her, but she failed to turn Stan into a KGB asset, and largely sealed her own fate at the precise minute those results became known.

Annet Mahendru brought a powerful vulnerability to Nina, playing her with wide eyes, a hopeful smile, but a broken spirit. As she attempted to change her life and improve herself, her final selfless decision ended up being the one that led to a gunshot to the back of her head. In her final few minutes on the series, we see a daydream fantasy of Nina and Anton Baklanov receiving news of their release, embracing and walking into the white light of freedom. She awoke to the voice of a guard telling her she was being transferred. What she couldn’t have quite known at that second was what was awaiting her before she could exit the building. She did end up moving to the white light, but in a much different way.

Because of how ugly her existence had become, her death felt like the cancer patient wasting away to nothing, unable to breathe on his or her own, in unthinkable pain. She was beyond the morphine tonight. No color was visible within her life. She lived in a world of dark blacks and shady greys, aesthetically displeasing shades and shadowy charcoals. It was hard to watch, and at times it became a bit tedious, because it was the slowest of burns to her inevitable demise.

However, when she heard that the appeal had been denied and her death sentence remained intact, watching her face shatter as she listened to the official tell her the punishment would be carried out shortly was absolutely gut-wrenching. Less than 10 seconds later, she was gone. And, in as cold a way as possible, the officers executed her and began the cleanup in the way a robot would clean up spilled milk on a wooden floor. And, the episode ended.

Whether or not some of the capillaries of the Nina story were always entertaining became increasingly irrelevant because we were still invested in her mere survival after everything went to excrement in Washington D.C. She will be missed, and Annet’s spectacular performance is one fans of the show will no doubt never forget. It was a role that enabled us to live within the Rezidentura, understand its purpose, and see the human side of the Russian operatives who were forced to do a job, with the penalty of abrupt individual extinction awaiting them if something careened off the beaten path.

Watching Oleg beg his father to find out her condition, showing his true love for this woman, was another smart way for the writers to humanize that relationship and make us root for both participants. We felt what he felt, and we knew it wasn’t simply based on sexual desire, but honest respect and companionship. I wanted the reunion between the two, and The Americans knew it. Just when they had me eating out of their hand, they snuffed Nina out and left a blood spot for me to view as the hour ended.

Nobody sane would do this work. — William

Before Nina’s execution, the episode finished the story of the aftermath of the Glanders mishap at Gabriel’s home. Elizabeth got sick, which turned out to be a negative reaction to the Chloramphenicol antibiotic, but she also began to consider the ramifications of Pastor Tim and Alice’s death on her daughter. She thought back to her own past and subsequently told her husband to blame her for the murders if she died, ensuring Paige could still live a halfway decent life and Henry could grow up without ever knowing of the atrocities with which his parents were associated.

Philip had to sit against a wall and ponder the future without his wife and in this new created universe where his daughter knew he was a Russian spy, tasked with helping to spread communism and destroy the western way of life. He watched Elizabeth’s fever rise and her condition worsen, but he couldn’t leave the residence. He couldn’t talk to anyone, other than William, who did offer an ear and a few words of advice. This was Dylan Baker’s best work to date on the show, as he never fully played William with full compassion, but did become a bit of a confidante to Philip while trying to keep Elizabeth and Gabriel  (and himself) alive.

Henry and Stan had another father-neighbor’s son scene with one another, joking about how to talk to women and discussing computer technology. Kids sometimes have no muzzle and never think of the effects of their questions, so Henry asking about Sandra was quite funny. Stan gave a matter-of-fact answer, again making it pretty clear he missed his wife and knew he screwed that situation up terribly.

With the Nina death, we needed some humor, and we got a bit of it from Dennis and his “game” with Martha. “I look forward to talking to you outside of this place,” was as stilted a line as imaginable, and neither were comfortable whatsoever in the scene. But, he did end up at dinner with her, and while he had her occupied, Stan searched her place, not discovering much outside of a book he probably could have lived without ever seeing there.

Martha tells Dennis she’s seeing a married man, using the same excuses just about every adulterer does, even if fictional. What’s interesting here is the secrecy required in such a relationship might be enough for her dinner date to tell Stan she’s not involved in Gene’s death, just cozy between the sheets with somebody’s husband. Her strange behavior might actually make sense, especially considering Stan was cheating on his wife and knows how awkward the cover-up can be. We’ll see more of this, but I’m looking forward to Dennis giving Stan the details of his non-romantic evening.

You were right. We can’t kill them. Paige would never get over it. — Elizabeth Jennings

Paige is on the verge of a complete breakdown. She’s worried about Pastor Tim and his wife, but she’s even more absorbed with feelings of regret for potentially putting her parents in dire straits and imminent danger. She acts weird in front of Stan, which is pretty horrific timing with his suspicions of Martha and the friction with Philip, and may have raised his eyebrows a bit. But, he still has no clue the Jennings matriarch and patriarch are anything more than travel agents. He might be on the verge of new conspiracy theories, but for now he’s just pissed because he thinks Philip has the hots for Sandra.

Epcot may still be in the offing, but the trip to the bowling alley gave us a chance to breathe just before Joe Weisberg choked us to death in the Gulag. Tracey Scott Wilson, who used few words to say many things, wrote “Chloramphenicol” very carefully. The way the story was structured, how it moved, where the focuses were and the manner we ended up at Nina’s execution were all handled with exactness. It was a depressing end to a depressing set of circumstances for Nina, but I was left with the feeling that she was undoubtedly better off once the gunshot ended her horror movie.

And, my thoughts drifted to who had a happier ending in the episode. Despite the bowling outing and six strikes in a row, the Jennings family remains mere inches away from a buzzsaw. Nina faced it, lost, but she’s done. Who actually won here? Do we think the Centre is simply going to allow Philip and Elizabeth to run? Of course not. Gabriel even says he has to offer them something in order to convince his superiors not to order the death of Pastor Tim and Alice.

Paige’s future still hangs in the balance, and her mother and father are still trapped in a country they both adore and despise, working for a government they both respect and fear.

All of these opposite sides of virtually every storyline that continually propagate inside The Americans are what makes it such an effective drama. As an audience, we’re always barely sitting on the show’s figurative chair, straddling our own fence, unsure of where we’re headed, what we want when we get there, and how soon we will arrive.

I’m @GuyNamedJason. And no, they did not teach me to bowl.

Written by Jason Martin