It seems nigh impossible now, but when ABC aired The Day After on November 20, 1983, it attracted more than 100 million viewers—including, in tonight’s episode of The Americans, the Jennings family. Imagining the apocalyptic consequences of a nuclear conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries, director Nicholas Meyer’s TV movie premiered at a moment of near-crisis in the late Cold War, yet FX’s sterling drama isn’t content simply to suggest the heightened geopolitical stakes. For a series in which the “evil empire,” the Strategic Defense Initiative, The Today Show, and David Copperfield come to the characters via vacuum tubes and radio waves, “The Day After” is also, fittingly enough, a tribute to the power of television: the foremost medium through which we enjoy, or endure, the experience of being alone together.
To this end, the recurring motif that began with Elizabeth (Keri Russell) assimilating Reagan’s address to the National Association of Evangelicals in “March 8, 1983” culminates in the first-rate montage that reproduces the debut of The Day After, a sequence fraught with the fear, as Paige (Holly Taylor) wonders aloud to Philip (Matthew Rhys), that the film’s subject is more science than fiction. Stretched to almost four minutes, the interlude typifies The Americans’s treatment of television not as mere chronological marker, but as cultural hearth, worthy of examination in its own right.
What’s most striking, as “The Day After” toggles between the characters and the events unspooling on screen, is this construction of the TV set as a kind of common ground: Stan (Noah Emmerich) and his son, Matthew (Danny Flaherty), join the Jenningses to tune in; William (Dylan Baker) and Arkady (Lev Gorn) watch from their respective homes; Oleg (Costa Ronin) and Tatiana (Vera Cherny) curl up together in the bluish glow much like Young Hee (Ruthie Ann Miles) and her husband, Don (Rob Yang). Despite the personal and political fractures that inhere in The Americans, tonight’s episode stitches the characters together through the depiction of destruction, mutual and perhaps assured.
The Americans’s approach to the medium thus recalls Mad Men’s, in particular the moon landing of the nostalgic, immaculate “Waterloo”—in which, as in “The Day After,” the camera shifts perspectives from seer to seen, from TV as mirror to TV as window on the world. Here, of course, the effect is bleaker, more warning than valediction; against Bert Cooper’s “Bravo!” and Harry Crane’s salute, The Americans offers only silence, stillness.
But the sense of communion remains, in Matthew’s tentative glance toward Paige or Elizabeth’s wary look at Philip, in the very fact that Soviet spies and F.B.I. agents, consular officials and immigrant families, all have skin in this game. Accelerating alongside the unnerving images of The Day After, with its mushroom clouds, flashes of light, and piles of rubble, the sequence is terse, tense, as wide-eyed as the characters, but it also nods at the notion that everyone’s fates are inextricably linked.
As Oleg remarks to Tatiana, this isn’t a theoretical notion: The Soviets’ inferior technology recently interpreted the reflection of sunlight off clouds as a fusillade of incoming missiles, and one officer’s willingness to defy protocol is all that stood between misinformation and annihilation. William expresses similar concerns. “I don’t trust us with it,” he says to Philip of the Lhasa virus stored at Fort Detrick, arguing that the intelligence should be kept from the Centre.
In essence, “The Day After” reexamines the distinctions we draw between offense and defense, between the necessary evil and the greater good, and arguably comes down on the side of shared understandings, renewed détentes. “Do you think it really makes a difference?” Paige asks about her parents’ work, her hopeful mien now “burdened,” to use Pastor Tim’s (Kelly AuCoin) term, by the requirements of tradecraft. “I don’t know,” Philip replies, but given the gravity of what he’s done in the service of his once-high ideals, this is no answer at all.
By contrast, Elizabeth, so insistent that procuring the hemorrhagic fever is a form of self-protection, searches Don and Young Hee’s house to the bitter whisper of Yaz’s “Winter Kills,” and ultimately sacrifices the one friendship she’s forged in the course of four seasons. Whatever difference Elizabeth’s staging of a drunken tryst with Don may make to the Cold War’s wider calculus, her actions wound her as surely as they will Young Hee: “I’m gonna miss her,” she confesses to Philip, verbalizing the tearful grimace that crosses her face as Don flees Patty’s apartment.
In the context of The Day After, with its reminder that the “shield” of nuclear proliferation is in fact the tip of the spear, The Americans thus questions Elizabeth’s apparent belief that the conflict at hand is a zero-sum game. After all, the chorus of the song that accompanies her betrayal of Young Hee, Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home),” steps back to see “Earth below us/Drifting, falling,” and what’s left the day after the war’s “won” by force is universal desolation. “Hello? Is anybody there?” a voice in the film cries out as the episode cuts from Stan to Paige, and then, finally, to Elizabeth. “Anybody at all?”
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