The Americans 4.09: “The Day After” Review

  The Apocalypse

A Television Review by Akash Singh


The most watched made for television film of all time aired on the night of November 20th, 1983 to a raptured audience, watching their television screens with a terrified curiosity and unenviable dread. The ABC film entitled One Day After garnered over one hundred million views, its telecast across America capitalizing on the fear that the Cold War was going to burst at any moment, either from Washington or Moscow. The likelihood of whom would shoot the first missile into the sky depended heavily upon where one’s loyalties lay, unless you were astute enough to see that either side was in danger of launching an act of aggression that would enshroud the entirety of the glove in fervent red smoke. It’s difficult for those who weren’t there, no matter how much one is steeped in the lore and realities of the Cold War, to truly understand what it was like to live under the threat of constant, assumedly imminent death (unless, of course, you live in the Middle East, for example, in which case the sun shining could mean the inevitably dropping of bombs by drones). There was no particular subtly about the film’s messaging or what it was trying to depict but with that fear being utterly palpable, astute, there was hardly any subtlety required. The Day After’s most striking shot is directly from the film itself, the camera fixating upon a screen in which a camera looks at a baby seemingly meshed into a fence as an elderly man climbs out from underneath the rubble. He clenches his mouth with a rag to cover the smell of the rotting, burned bodies decomposing in the open sun but of course the radiation cannot be stopped. It’s an intense, important bit of filmmaking that had a major impact upon the consciousness and pragmatism of the Cold War and it pushes our characters to confront that reality more forcefully than ever before.

It is, surprisingly perhaps, Oleg who makes the ostensibly terrifying note of how the world arrived at that apocalyptic horror. It was saved by a Russian man named Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov on September 26, 1983. In an anonymous defying of his training, Petrov noted that there were five inbound American ICBMs that were detected by the USSR’s early-warning satellite system. They were, however, not intercontinental ballistic missiles at all. They were, as if in the greatest trick of the darkest comedy, rays of sunlight reflecting off of clouds. Petrov’s understanding that American destruction of the Soviet Union would be much more obvious than five missiles was a gamble, but Petrov knew that in this instance, he was right. He saved the world in that one small instance. It’s a terrifying thought, the destruction of the world because the rays of the sun reflected off of clouds but it is simply one instance of many where the world miraculously didn’t descend into the post apocalyptic scenario Hollywood is so fond of these days. On a character note, I’m not too fond of Oleg and Tatiana being together at this juncture, even though sex scenes where characters are a little too loud are always unintentionally hilarious. There’s little character history between the two that would descend this route and while it’s clear the show took advantage of its seven-month long time jump to advantage here, it doesn’t work for now and it unfortunately undercuts a bit of the love Oleg felt so strongly for Nina, who died only a handful of episodes ago. But his inclusion in the montage along with William, the Jennings’s, and Stan was a nice touch in how the end of the world is tied to all of these characters, despite their standing on various sides of the Iron Curtain.

The most gut-wrenching decision comes from Elizabeth and the Young-hee arc in turn for now seems like its come to a quiet, devastating close. The universal effect that One Day After has upon the characters of The Americans is an understanding that their efforts towards solving the Cold War, towards preventing the nuclear wasteland of the film were more vital than ever. Art can have a profound effect on the world and it is often downplayed. For Elizabeth, the film’s reality ushers in a key fight within her. After all, she notes to Phillip, the Americans were the ones who dropped the atom bomb twice. It’s a singular piece of dialogue but it brings forth a geopolitical perspective that is often lost in such conversations. Elizabeth has found a true friend in Young-hee, their immigrant past alone bringing them further together than any other friend she had ever made. The urgency sets in however, and she goes to do something she’s done plenty of times before but this time, knowingly, she isn’t able to actually go through with the act. That, in the grand scheme of things, is a distinction without difference because Young-hee’s and Don’s marriage can be broken by this act of betrayal but it means something significant for Elizabeth’s character. Throughout the season, it wasn’t quite clear what her mission with Young-hee was, although when Gabriel mentioned her name nonchalantly, it established that the characters at least knew where they were going and for the meantime, that was quite enough to go on with. I’m not quite sure what Elizabeth’s exact angle of planning is here because it seems that if Don goes and confesses to Young-hee, which seems like a likelihood as he really looks like a stand-up guy, then what is she going to blackmail him with? The plot mechanics are unfortunately hazy here but the sheer personal tragedy of Elizabeth’s drugging and betrayal carries significant weight. It’s the most broken Elizabeth has ever been and despite her actions, when she notes her isolation to Phillip, it’s difficult to not feel some pangs of despair for a friendship that died in the nuclear wasteland.

Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:

+Paige learning how to drive was a nice, quiet moment that counteracts the ideas of imminent global destruction

+Young-hee and Patty bonding over their mothers was a quiet, tragic moment

+“That might be your best look yet.” I agree.

I’d like to get the right decision.

+“I don’t trust us with it.” William’s fluctuation seems like a bomb that’s about to burst, but his note that the Americans at least have decent plastic seals for their bioweapon containers is an exceedingly fair one.

+“Is anybody there?”

+“They’re not so thick. People hear everything.”

+“You don’t want to do that to her.”

+The mournful music

+“I don’t know many happy couples.”

+“You are a good person. A kind person.”

+“I’m so sorry.” Oh, Don.

+“I’m gonna miss her.”



Episode Title: The Day After

Written by: Tracey Scott Wilson

Directed by: Daniel Sackheim

Image Courtesy: KITV


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