A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Chloramphenicol is an expensive, rarely prescribed antibiotic recommended only when safer antibiotics are not available. There are rarely, however, better options available, as both metaphorical and literal equivalents of the drug permeate the story of The Americans’s most gut-wrenching episode yet. The grim specter of death haunts over the entire episode, cutting away from literal possibilities of death to the potential severances of specific relationships. The final few seconds of the episode are seconds that have been telegraphed from the very beginning of the series, where Stan Beeman approached a young, nervous Russian woman in an American market. Stan sealed her fate at that moment but The Americans was sharp enough to ensure that the story of Nina Sergeevna Krilova was much more than that of a woman who was used by others. It was a story that, when all is said in done in this particular saga, stands out as the most tragic and the most powerful. That’s a premature statement to make in many senses, especially since it looks likely that The Americans might be wrapping up after a sixth season instead of a fifth one (or a split one like Breaking Bad in any case) but I simply can’t be as vested in any other character on this incredible series as I was in Nina. Nor Phillip, Elizabeth, or Paige created the emotional connection as the spy who was pulled into every which direction and in her final moments abandoned by everyone. Nina may, in spite of where her narrative felt ephemeral to that of other characters, be the most important of the series’s creation in her independence, in her ability to transcend the power pulls of all the men in her life to strive and become her own individual. That choice came with a price, as it always does, but in breaking those chains of patriarchy and repression, Nina achieved something that no one else on this show may walk away with: freedom.
That freedom may be something no other character may achieve out of their own volition (not that Nina asked to be shot, of course, but in regards to her making active, independent choices that went against her oppressors). Chloramphenicol begins with Elizabeth making a phone call to Paige, noting that they would be gone until Saturday. Paige immediately goes into apoplectic mode, understandably jumping to the conclusion that she somehow was responsible for her parents’s absence, that Pastor Tim or Alice jumped the gun and now her parents were actually never coming back. “Everything is fine,” says Elizabeth quietly into the phone before William disinfects and disassembles the phone and anyone is intelligent enough to know the absolute tentative nature of that statement. Elizabeth spends the hour holed up with Phillip and William in Gabriel’s apartment, whom miraculously manages to survive an episode after it seemed that he was going to be offed. Each moment that trickles by removes seemingly all options but two. Either Elizabeth and Phillip survive the glanders infection and the chloramphenicol treatment or they die, wasting away in the greatest swipe of irony within their lives. Elizabeth, ever the pragmatist, sees the specter of imminent death hanging over her and in no uncertain terms she asks Phillip to pin the deaths of Pastor Tim and Alice on her, just in case the operation actually goes through. Phillip blatantly refuses to do so, arguing that he couldn’t bear to have her memory sullied in the mind of their daughter. You see the quiet bit of relief that spreads through Elizabeth’s face. She wondered out loud if Paige knew they loved her and in spite of that, she was willing to sacrifice the last possible shred of that very love to ensure that Paige at the very least didn’t despise both of them.
Chloramphenicol is possibly the most suspenseful episode yet of the series, making its marker from the opening moments to the unforgettable final shot. Stan’s suspicions of Martha play out brilliantly in a tensely edited back and forth sequence between him searching her apartment and her dinner with Agent Aderholdt, who gives the whole Martha plot a shot despite being so dead set against it upon Stan’s initial offering. Using Gene as a point of reference to ask Martha to dinner was an awkward note to be sure, but it’s perhaps the best point of reference he could have made at that point anyhow. Their dinner is notable for what it includes and the implications are as intriguing as they are terrifying for Martha’s character. She seemed to have picked up on the notes of suspicion more acutely than I had thought from Stan’s meeting with her at the copier and it was evident that she could see through at least one semblance of the incredibly thin veil Aderholdt was wearing. To diffuse that veil, Martha confesses that she was seeing a married man (the irony here, of course, is that this lie is a lot closer to the truth than she would otherwise think), a note of info that shocks Aderholdt as much as it surprises Stan to see a Kamasutra book in Martha’s apartment. It’s a profoundly adult conversation, where Martha notes that she sticks within her relationship because it functions exactly as she wants, a relationship whose boundaries she knows, understands, and expects nothing more from. It’s vital for the series to give Martha her own agency within a relationship that has served her such a high degree of betrayal and that’s exactly what this sequence does, building upon a strong foundation to ensure that the audience knows that Martha understands exactly what situation she is within, even if the real boundaries of her circumstances are unknown to her at the moment.
The haunting consequences of the choices people make have permeated through every scene on The Americans, from the infamous opening to the Fleetwood Mac great “Tusk” to the ones that have landed our protagonists within the confines of a quarantine. Elizabeth’s vomiting, a response to the antibiotic, carries the significant narrative weight of both her and Phillip potentially dying. In those confines, more than ever, there’s the question of whether or not the work they do is worth all of the pain and suffering they manage to acquire and simultaneously leave in their wake. The answer, as the two are suffering in those confines, seems to be a resounding no. Elizabeth ruefully mentions that if Phillip frames her for the murders of Pastor Tim and Alice, then Phillip would get to live in America with the kids, just like he’s always wanted. Phillip’s attachment to the States was a defining division between the two and it’s a mark of the dire circumstances that Elizabeth gives any sort of consideration towards that end, let alone a serious one. Both of them, as it is, reminisce behind their eyes of what their lives would have been like if they had picked lives that were simpler, kinder. Paige is undergoing the same questioning, albeit at a different level. Stan comes around, asking questions about where her parents had gone suddenly and Paige finds herself to be more adept at lying than she would have imagined. But Paige right now has a choice and perhaps it escapes her mind during the happiest The Americans has ever been – the bowling trip of House Jennings. There for a moment the universe seems kind, germane to some semblance of joy.
Then the sequence pivots towards Nina, told that she would be transferred to a new cell. In her last effort towards exercising some sense of individual freedom puts on her shoes and quietly walks towards an empty hallway. There’s a mop and a bucket in a dark corner but Nina doesn’t notice. She walks simply towards a mid-level bureaucrat, who tells her in no uncertain terms that her appeal was denied. Nina nods her head in a depressed, knowing way, understanding that her appeal to humanity in sending a letter to Anton’s son might have had that consequence. She expected, perhaps, that she would be kept in the gulag indefinitely, in solitary perhaps. But I don’t know if she ever expected to be told that she was going to be executed right there, shortly. Nina’s face crumbles in despair and she buckles towards the ground and that expression on Nina’s face is an expression I can never forget. A sudden bullet from a Red Army soldier pierces the back of her head and she falls to the ground. A doctor comes in to check her pulse before two soldiers come in with a burlap sack, place her body on it, and carry it quietly away as the bureaucrat signs the official paperwork. The camera stays there, on what might be the most powerful shot of The Americans, before the screen fades to black. In the gulags, Nina was faced with better choices under the rarest of circumstances but those better choices weren’t always the right ones. She made the right choice and what remained of her was a pool of red blood on the floor. She was, nevertheless, much more than that, a pawn of men who grew beyond them to become her own individual and reclaim the only thing that she could, her soul. In that damp, never-ending darkness, that meant a lot. That meant everything. Rest in peace, Nina. You were always much better than the world around you.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+“Sleeping. That’s all she does now.” Talk about eerie foreshadowing.
+“What does EST say about death?”
+“I’m not as entertaining as TV, but there will be wine.”
+“The sneaking around doesn’t bother you?”
+The flashback of a young Nadezhda with her ill mother was beautifully poignant
+The edit from a shot of Nina trying to peer through the walls to freedom to a shot of chess pieces moving across the board is even more poignant that it was in that moment itself
+“You would be living in a burning house.”
+“When I was younger, I was afraid, all the time.”
+The light bathing Nina through the door
+The piano as Nina walks through a dreamlike, quiet haze and out into the frigid horizon; I love how everything looks real until she steps out into the snow
+The authenticity of the Soviet execution was brilliantly done.
Note: This looks to be the final appearance of Annet Mahendru on the series. She has left behind an indelible mark on the television landscape and has through her incredible performance crafted a character who deserves every accolade in existence. I greatly look forward to her next projects.
Episode Title: Chloramphenicol
Written by: Tracey Scott Wilson
Directed by: Stefan Schwartz
Image Courtesy: Vox