“The Americans”: Nuclear winter of the heart

The Americans, Season 4/Episode 9: The Day After

Many American novels and movies depicted the supposed threat posed by the Soviet Union prior to its downfall.

In a television film called The Day After, nuclear war impacts a Kansas city. It being the 1980s, desolation reigned with no real explanation given for why the nuclear exchange occurred.

Who pressed the button first? While China, Great Britain, Israel and a handful of other nations possessed atomic weapons, the only plausible adversaries considered in popular media back then were the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

So it is that we and the dramatized audience of the time see the dreadful results of maximum war play out on the screen with only stateside victims depicted.

The Jennings family is at home, along with FBI agent/friend Stan Beeman and his son, Matthew, watching the movie. They’re not the only ones. Soviet embassy operatives Oleg and Tatiana are in bed, riveted by the film, as well as elsewhere, Elizabeth’s (spy project) friend Young-Hee and her husband, Don.

Basic map reading tells one that the Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw Pact faced off against American nuclear-tipped missiles-and NATO allies in-Western Europe, as well as in open waters around the world, where the U.S. possessed a strong strategic advantage given its numerous military ports.

Western and Russian nuclear submarines restlessly kept track of one another, yet the Cold War was never a contest of true equals, when one considers the actual disparity of weaponry between foes and not the numbers which U.S. propaganda trumpeted.

For Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (real-life couple Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), who are Soviet spies, war’s desolation is not theoretical. They each grew up in a Russia badly damaged by the repulsed Nazi invasion.

Their adulthood has largely been spent in a rich land where the prime lesson from American media and government leaders is that the homeland is inherently good. Good people of a virtuous nation don’t kill others without reason.

We have since then learned about torture and other evils committed in America’s name during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Only a naïve person would assume the U.S. is an amateur at state-sponsored aggression.

These days, with the Soviet Union erased as an enemy, fictional apocalypses tend to be framed around fascist regimes, corporate dystopias, global warming, and/or deadly viruses.

For people living in the ’80s, however, the prospect of nuclear war felt real, even as civilians continued to be told who would be to blame should nuclear winter descend.

Paige (Holly Taylor) is troubled by the movie and wonders what her father thinks about the prospect of war. “That’s why your mother and I do what we do,” he explains, “to keep things like that from happening.”

“Will you be able to stop it?” she asks.

He decides against false assurances. “I don’t know.”

As for a more personal challenge, Paige is still having to report on Pastor Tim and his wife, still having to pretend to be a church-loving teen. Paige may be on the fence about religion and her parents’ true occupation, but she is most definitely a teenager, which means she’s well stoked for driving lessons offered by Philip. During which, Paige mentions she’d liked for her parents to attend a church function, for the pastor “likes to see us together. It makes him think we’re more normal.”

Freed up from the tougher parts of their jobs, Philip and Elizabeth are enjoying just being travel agents, even though we do witness how hard she comes down on a mistake-prone foil via phone. Elizabeth may not be slicing and dicing targets these days but she’ll never be Miss Nice when it comes to work.

Given the sole task for befriending a Korean national named Young-Hee (played by the ebullient Ruthie Ann Miles), Elizabeth is now faced with the next phase of her mission: babysitting.

That’s right: the world’s most rules-oriented mom is filling in for Young-Hee while she’s at a convention. Patty aka Elizabeth takes advantage of the mission while kids are asleep to look for anything compromising but all she can find is a generic porn video. Nothing kinky, nothing gay (the latter being a criminal offense in almost all U.S. jurisdictions at the time).

Elizabeth’s mission has finally been made clear to viewers, for it turns out Young-Hee’s husband, Don, is a bioweapons scientist with a higher security classification than the Centre’s planted agent, William.

Her search for blackmail bait coming up empty, Elizabeth knows she’ll have to use her tried and true weapon of sex.

While she prepares to make a drugged Don (Rob Yang) think he’s committed adultery with her, Philip is meeting with William, who’s a bit rattled from watching The Day After. But before they get down to business, Philip updates him on the status of Martha. She’s alive and free in Moscow.

“Free,” William (Dylan Baker) muses. “I can’t remember what that feels like.”

He’s typically acerbic about the fact that Philip had been enjoying an extended break from spycraft, but chief among his concerns is the latest killer bioweapon being tweaked by his military employer.

He calls symptoms caused by Lassa virus the “worst things I’ve ever seen,” and is reluctant to send a sample back home, given how the container for the last pathogen leaked, causing their handler, Gabriel, to almost die.

Back home, and in bed with his wife, Philip discusses what to do. “What if this time, we don’t report to the Centre [about Lassa]?”

The virus “liquefies your organs,” he says, but Elizabeth points out, “They’re making that poison to destroy us. These are people that dropped the atom bomb twice.”

Philip reluctantly agrees to contact the Centre, probably hoping this mission goes much better than the last time.

Elizabeth in her Patty disguise is equally unenthusiastic about her role in the mission. She inveigles Don into giving her a ride to her apartment then invites him in for a (spiked) drink. While he’s out of it, she undresses both of them and sets the scene. When he awakes, he’s shocked by what he thinks has happened, stammers out an apology and leaves.

She returns to her real home and in the quiet of their bedroom, grieves over blowing up Young-Hee’s trust in her. Elizabeth rarely lets people past her emotional defences.

Philip holds her hand as she says, “I’m going to miss her.”

This was a quieter episode, all told, yet it contains clues of explosions to come. Paige’s troublesome pastor is planning a trip to Ethiopia. When he comes back, he wants to revisit with Philip that troublesome issue of Paige’s parents being Soviet spies.

Something tells me the minister may not make it back to U.S. soil. Check in with The Americans to see if a death watch is warranted.

Photo: Screen capture from The Morning After. YouTube.



Carole Avalon
Carole Avalon

Texan Carole Avalon is a writer and reviewer.