What Made That Americans Plot Twist Such Great Television

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Annet Mahendru as Nina Krilova. Photo: Jessica Miglio/FX

Spoilers ahead for Wednesday night’s episode of The Americans.

Nina’s death on last night’s The Americans was shocking not just because it was brutal and sad but because it was inevitable — on three levels.

1. Dramatic. Nina’s execution was inevitable as a bit of dramatic housekeeping: She’d been separated from the show’s action for more than a season and could not realistically return to the United States and re-enter the lives of the show’s main characters. It’s a version of the Betty Draper problem on Mad Men — once that character was separated from the main action at the agency through divorce, it became much trickier to integrate her into the main story lines, and if not for her daughter’s connection to the show’s hero, she might have gradually faded out. Nina’s character was always thoughtfully written and respectfully presented even after she got sent back home, but there was only so much the writers could do with her story.

Her killing was cleverly staged, in accordance with historical research that you can read about in this Vulture TV Podcast interview. It was also brilliantly placed within an arc of four episodes that kept hinting at the possibility of death for any of four major characters: Nina Sergeevna Krilova (Annet Mahendru); William (Dylan Baker), the American biochemical warfare scientist turning over bio-weapons to the KGB; Gabriel (Frank Langella), a handler for Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) who got accidentally exposed to toxins; and Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin), the mentor of the Jenningses’ teenage daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), who now knows that the girl’s parents are not what they appear to be.

2. Psychological. Nina’s death was inevitable in light of the show’s fascination with morality. The gun barrel was leveled at the head of the gulag prisoner, who had been asked to befriend and spy on Jewish refusenik scientist Anton Baklanov (Michael Aronov) but ended up having real feelings for him and contriving to sneak a forbidden letter back to his son in the United States. Nina had been used and abused on the series from the very beginning, when she was caught smuggling through the Rezidentura and turned into a double agent; she carried on a long affair with FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), her handler, then became a triple agent and began sleeping with one of her supervisors, Oleg Igorevich Burov (Costa Ronin), for a while. Nina’s imprisonment wrought big changes in her, and these were eloquently conveyed by Mahendru, whose 1960s-European-fashion-model beauty sometimes eclipses her subtlety as an actress. By the time guards led her down that hallway, she was truly a changed person. Her narrative was one of redemption, an idea that The Americans, for all its cold-eyed realism about human nature, treats as real and achievable.

3. Historical. In the end, though, another kind of inevitability — historical — did her in. Given what we know about this world through the show, there’s no way she could have lived after doing what she did. She had nobody to turn to to save her, and she was already on thin ice with her handlers, who’d signed off on having her deceive others for years, but seemed uncertain about whether they could ever entirely trust her. It’s a classic spy-movie conundrum for bosses: “Can I trust this person who is constantly being commanded to lie?”

The show’s larger narrative of the Cold War is a story whose ending is known to all. No plot machinations by executive producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields can stop the Berlin Wall from falling. The show is in one sense a dark escapist one, letting us live vicariously through attractive people who get in fights and shootouts and have lots of sex. But in another sense, it’s punishingly real. Actions have consequences, not just for one or two episodes, but over the course of the rest of the series. The echoes of choices never fade.

Does this make The Americans a fundamentally unpalatable show for mass audiences? Probably. Even on shows about the most brutal criminals, viewers like to believe there’s a happy ending in store for at least some of the characters they love, that they aren’t suckers for nurturing hope. Every plot and subplot on The Americans is part of a narrative of futility — or, if you want to shade it in a slightly more heartening way, a narrative of existential despair, in which the characters feel certain that they are trapped or doomed even if they can’t articulate exactly why, yet still carry on as if things might end differently, making decisions they believe will lead to happiness, trying to make good choices and be the best person they can under the circumstances. As Soren Kierkegaard wrote in Either/Or, “Let each one learn what he can; both of us can learn that a person’s unhappiness never lies in his lack of control over external conditions, since this would only make him completely unhappy.”