The Americans reserves the death of Nina Seergevna Krilova (Annet Mahendru) for the final moments of “Chloramphenicol,” but in retrospect her precipitous passage from cell to sentence to execution is central to the episode, and to the still-unfurling fourth season. Interrupting her dream of freedom with Anton Baklanov (Michael Aronov), cast in angelic white light, Nina’s abrupt “transfer” to a fluorescent corridor is a reminder of the show’s condensed, even claustrophobic timeline of late, made explicit by the recitation of the charges against her. The Soviet authorities put a bullet in Nina’s head on March 18, 1983, a mere 10 days after President Reagan declared her homeland an “evil empire.”
Though The Americans has rarely gone in for the chronological leaps familiar from Mad Men, Masters of Sex, and Halt and Catch Fire (its longest, by my reckoning, is the four months between seasons two and three), this noticeable compression of events would seem to mark a new stage in the show’s evolution. As the F.B.I. closes in on Martha (Alison Wright), Paige (Holly Taylor) worries about what her parents’ work entails, and Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) wrangle over what to do with Pastor Tim, Nina’s death signals a contraction of time and space, and an intensification of consequences. No one is safe. It’s as if the characters are locked in a room with a ticking bomb, and indeed they are: In “Chloramphenicol,” the weapon is biological, but the dangers of espionage are more incendiary than ever.
William (Dylan Baker) suggests as much when he says, of the stricken Gabriel (Frank Langella), “If we believed in God, I’d say pray,” and though he assesses the quartet’s exposure to glanders with his usual embittered flair (“I think it’s hilarious”), it’s telling that the ordeal softens his manner with Philip and Elizabeth. Even for the prickliest operative, a brush with mortality can be an eye-opening experience; for the Jenningses, whose familial affections are in full flower during “Chloramphenicol,” it’s enough the change the course of their lives. For instance, as Elizabeth wonders aloud whether Paige knows she’s loved, chastises Philip for forgetting Henry’s (Keidrich Sellati) biology test, and faces the prospect that she’s been infected, her moral calculus changes, culminating in that sallow flashback of her suffering mother.
The episode tightens the vise around the characters as if to test their instincts.
By the time day breaks, and with it her fever, Elizabeth has come to understand that the assassination of Tim and Alice would be at least as dire for her relationship with her daughter as being turned in to U.S. officials. She convinces Philip to “work” the pastor and his wife rather than resort to fight or flight, already absorbing it into their hectic routine (“It’s one more thing”), and it thus falls to William, of all people, to vocalize the lesson the Jenningses learn in the course of the episode. “You’re so lucky,” he tells Philip wistfully. “You don’t know what it’s like to do this job and not having anybody to talk about it except a series of handlers who don’t give a shit.”
“Chloramphenicol” thus tightens the vise around the characters as if to test their instincts: Grave circumstances are its foremost truth serum. Though Martha’s dinner with Dennis Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden) might be construed as incidental to the more dramatic events in Gabriel’s apartment and the Soviet Union, The Americans recognizes that the meal’s false pretenses don’t preclude a certain kind of candor, and in the process discovers the season’s most heartbreaking moment. Set to the strains of “Misty Blue,” the resulting montage, shifting from the co-workers’ conversation to Stan’s (Noah Emmerich) search of Martha’s apartment, is so masterful it deserves a recap of its own; there’s meaning in every cut. As Stan finds the pistol in her dresser, Dorothy Moore sings, “Deep in my heart, I know I’ve lied.” As Stan lifts an illustrated Kama Sutra from another drawer, she acknowledges that an ignorant observer might wrongly assume she’s “some kind of sleaze.” And as he returns Martha’s furnishings to their proper places, she explains her relationship with Clark to Aderholt as though he were her closest confidant:
“It’s simple,” she says. “There are no false promises, or lies. No unrealistic expectations. He’s not going to leave his wife. I’m not waiting for him to…It’s grown up. It’s honest. It’s probably the most honest relationship I’ve ever had.”
That every sentence of this is at once true (to Martha’s sentiments) and false (to Philip’s strategic use of her) is at the very heart of what The Americans achieves week in and week out: In “Chloramphenicol,” as in the rest of the series, the weapon is biological because the ticking bomb is a human one, and no amount of training can ever prepare you to diffuse it.
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