The Cold War takes its toll on “The Americans”

Imagine waiting for years on the date of one’s official execution by the state. The date approaches then, with much ceremony and folderol by your captors, you are led in shackles toward the electric chair. After five rounds of electric shocks, smoke rising from your head, you finally die. This was the fate of Ethel Rosenberg, condemned in 1953 by the U.S. on a charge of spying for the Soviet Union (a charge later placed much in doubt).

This is an execution, committed in a painfully drawn out process.

Fictional traitor Nina has appeared this season in haunting vignettes where her dreams of being rescued are dashed by cold reality. She, too, meets the ultimate fate when she walks into a barren room to learn if her sentence has been overturned. Alas, such is not to be the case. The officer reads out the decree, but before she can react, a guard swiftly fires a bullet in the back of her head.

This is an execution, yet with a strangely humanitarian bent. [The show’s makers say this scene is based on standard Soviet practice which discouraged causing the condemned to suffer.]

And thus we see how high the stakes are for those on both sides of the Cold War, which in the early ’80s was especially bitter as Soviet soldiers continue to die in Afghanistan at the hands of U.S. trained and supplied mujahideen.

But when “Chloramphenicol” opens, the battle has become far more personal for undercover soldiers Philip and Elizabeth Jennings-they’re stuck in a safe house with a desperately ill Gabriel, who is their fatherly handler, and dissident American scientist, the ever acerbic William.

William is pumping all of them full of antibiotic shots to counter their potential exposure to the U.S.-made pathogen sample Gabriel accidentally leaked upon himself.

Elizabeth, accompanied by William, goes across the street during the night to call the Soviet covert operator. Call off the Centre’s proposed hit on Pastor Tim and his wife, she says in code and hopes that this works.

Her next call is to a worried Paige. “Dad and I have to work,” she tells her daughter and tries to calm her down. “Take care of Henry. Paige, did you hear me? We’re going to be home soon.”

A distraught Elizabeth hangs up the receiver, unsure whether these will be the last words she speaks to Paige. William clips off the receiver and takes it with them to ensure the bioweapon’s contagion will be limited to the (un)safe house.

Meanwhile, poor Martha, an FBI assistant who is Philip/Clark’s wife, wishes her husband would pick up the phone since Agent Aderholt-at Agent Stan Beeman’s behest-is asking her out. No answer from Clark, so off she goes on a wine and dine with Aderholt, who seems genial enough. Finally, to forestall any potential overtures, she tells him she’s seeing a married man.

“We’re not sneaking into motel rooms,” she says defiantly. “It’s grownup. It’s probably the most honest relationship I’ve ever had.”

While Martha is laying down her relationship boundaries, Beeman is violating her personal space by snooping in her apartment. He finds nothing incriminating but does find time to ogle her copy of the Kama Sutra.

Always getting up into other people’s business even when at home, Beeman questions a visiting Henry about his parents’ absences. He then continues the exploration with Paige, who shuts Beeman down with a smooth, believable lie about a big client her parents need to woo in New York City.

Nicely done for someone who a couple of episodes back made a fuss about the Christian importance of honesty. Paige’s concrete loyalty to her family has a stronger hold on her than an abstract virtue.

But back at the impromptu quarantine ward, Elizabeth’s health is worsening. She throws up, she’s feverish, and may be the bioweapon’s second victim, or the treatment-chloramphenicol-may be causing the symptoms.

She tells Philip, “If something happens to them, you blame me for Pastor Tim and Alice,” (referring to the hopefully called off hits) then adds that in case she dies, “Stay here, let the kids stay here to be Americans. Henry doesn’t even have to know. It’s what you want.”

A thoughtful William witnesses the couple’s loving interactions and concerns about their children. As Elizabeth sleeps, her fever now broken and the bad drug reaction diminished, he tells Philip, “You don’t know what it’s like to do this job and not have someone to talk with but a series of handlers who don’t give a shit.”

Philip talks about the stress being placed on his daughter, and that the work is meaningful to him because he’s doing it with his wife.

The storm has passed. A wan Gabriel is sitting up and drinking fluids, far from well but on the mend.

Elizabeth now agrees with her husband that they can’t allow the killings of Paige’s pastor and his wife, for Paige would never get over it.

“You want to run,” Philip surmises.

“No, we work them, Tim and Alice. It’s one more thing.”

“It’s a hell of a thing,” Gabriel interjects, but the couple convinces him to intercede with the Centre so that Philip and Elizabeth can try to minimize the threat from Pastor Tim, who knows too much about their true line of work.

Gabriel’s help comes with the necessary price that they continue to work with Paige on recruiting. “I’ll have to offer [the Centre] something.”

Bargaining of another sort happens in Moscow, although too late to help its target. Handsome Oleg is home from the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC, visiting his grieving parents. His brother has died in the Afghanistan war and his mother is inconsolable.

Oleg asks his father, who has political connections, to intercede on Nina’s behalf. Her father is reluctant, but says, “If I find a way to help her, would you do something for me? Come home. Your mother’s broken.”

They make the deal, but Nina is already dead. When Oleg finds out, his fury will be redoubled at Stan Beeman, who failed to save Nina when she was still on American soil. Beeman, an agent for the government that paid for and possibly even trained the very men who killed Oleg’s brother.

There’s nothing cold about the war between these two men. But in a Washington suburb, four family members are reunited. Philip and Elizabeth hug their daughter and apologize for their absence. Henry is more concerned about the trip to Epcot being called off.

How about going bowling instead? The episode ends with smiles and strikes. Paige whispers to her mother, “Did ‘they’ teach you to bowl?”

Elizabeth whispers back in an exaggerated Russian accent, “Vital part of training.” Mother and daughter dissolve in laughter.

A welcome break from matters of war and an uneasy peace. Tune in next week for another episode of The Americans.

Photo: Annet Mahendru, Nina.




Carole Avalon
Carole Avalon

Texan Carole Avalon is a writer and reviewer.