It's strange we didn't see this coming.
Oh, sure, it's been clear for some time now that Nina was not long for this world. She's been away from the main action for so long, and her situation in Russia just kept getting worse and worse. Any outcome other than the inevitable would seem like a bit of a cheat. And last week's episode telegraphed pretty strongly that Nina didn't have much chance of — or interest in — avoiding her "exceptional punishment."
But damn if that last scene didn't make me gasp-scream, followed by several stunned minutes spent staring into the middle distance as the credits to "Chloramphenicol" rolled. This is the first time The Americans, a show with no shortage of blood on its hands, has killed off a character as major as Nina, who's been around more or less since the beginning. (The only deaths I can think of that come close are Annelise's last season, and Chris Amador's and Gregory's in the first, but none of them got a fraction of the screen time Nina did.)
Though fans of the show have long predicted Martha's demise, she's held in season after season as "poor Martha," the show's most obviously doomed character. And somewhere along the line, Nina overtook Martha in the top spot of The Americans Death Pool. Unlike Martha, who still has an emotional and physical connection to Philip/Clark, Nina's lifelines — to Stan, Arkady, and the Rezidentura — have gradually frayed and snapped. (Her last hope, Oleg, comes heartbreakingly close to saving her, brokering an agreement to stay in Russia in exchange for his father's assistance in helping to free Nina. I'm already crying about how Oleg will react once he discovers he was too late.)
"Chloramphenicol" makes the inevitable feel legitimately shocking, and that's almost entirely attributable to the way its final sequence is staged. A sharp contrast exists between the prelude to Nina's sentence and its aftermath, underlining the stark brutality of her death. Back in her gray cell, she dreams of a wildly improbable happy ending: an acquittal, redemption in the eyes of her countrymen, and two tickets for her and Anton back to the States. The two of them walk off into the snow-set, bathed in bright white light of forgiveness and redemption. The scene is far too dreamlike to function as a fake-out, and its heightened feel emphasizes the brutal, clinical violence of what comes next. Nina gets a literal rude awakening and is marched to a bland, neutral-toned room, where she's informed in a few terse words that her appeal has been denied. She barely has time to eke out a sob before a bullet to the head extinguishes the bright white hope of just a few moments earlier. A couple of guards methodically go about wrapping up her body, sans emotion or ceremony. It's over. Nina's gone.
And that was just the last five minutes of the episode! Working backward, the preceding incidents of "Chloramphenicol" help facilitate the shocking nature of its final moments. Whereas "Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow" left us hanging when it came to the Jenningses' fate, this episode gives them — and us — a semblance of relief, however temporary. Thanks to William's grouchy assistance, Philip, Elizabeth, and Gabriel emerge from their Glanders scare more or less unscathed. The Jenningses return home to a relieved Paige, a petulant Henry, and a temporary reprieve from imminent doom. Elizabeth's brush with death has brought her around on the Pastor Tim situation, so she and Philip convince Gabriel that they can work Tim and Alice rather than carry out the Epcot plan. For the first time since this season began, Elizabeth and Philip are on the same page about Paige; the sword of Damocles has finally lifted a few inches, giving the Jenningses some much-needed breathing room. That sounds like an excuse for a celebratory family bowling trip if I ever heard one.
Sequestering Philip and Elizabeth together for an episode is a brilliant move — and a necessary one, it would seem. The rift between the two has grown wider in the wake of Paige's discovery, and the amount of time they've spent on solo missions has only deepened it. Weirdly, the Glanders scare functions almost like a marriage retreat, giving Philip and Elizabeth a momentary break from daily spy-life to realign their relationship and their family unit. Even weirder, William functions as a marriage counselor of sorts, a neutral party with whom they can be open and frank. He's not exactly sympathetic, but his presence allows Philip to vocalize the overwhelming toll of the job, and admit that Elizabeth is the only reason he's still in the game.
In her fevered state, Elizabeth seems to realize this as well. She tells Philip that if she dies, he can blame her for Tim and Alice's death, then take the kids and run, raising them as Americans like he's always wanted. Her death could give her family the opportunity to survive and grow healthy without her. But it's a future Philip just can't bring himself to hope for. He tells William that, given the right opportunity, he'd like to "be normal" — but only with Elizabeth. He doesn't quite get his wish after she recovers, but Elizabeth's near-death experience spurs the change of heart necessary to repair what's broken between them. Elizabeth's fever dreams about her own mother seem to reaffirm her bond with Paige, and bring her around to the idea that there might be a way to protect her family without devastating her daughter. She suggests trying it Philip's way, however difficult it may be. "It's not an easy way to live," Gabriel warns them, strongly hinting that they've signed up for a death sentence of their own. But in the warm afterglow of a disaster averted, it feels right.
Meanwhile, over at a nice restaurant downtown, Martha's feeling a warm glow of her own. Hers is inspired by a little too much wine and not quite enough discretion when it comes to the sweet-natured Agent Aderholt. (Who, let's remember, offered to take Martha out to dinner so that Stan could snoop on her, so he's not that sweet.) The montage that intercuts Martha and Aderholt's dinner with Stan rummaging through her apartment is breathtaking in both form and function. After trying and failing to get Clark on the phone for guidance on the situation — something she realizes may have incriminated her — Martha goes rogue, spilling a safe(ish) version of the truth to Aderholt: She's dating a married man, she knows he's not going to leave his wife, and their relationship is based in companionship and trust (and lots of wild sex, but Martha's too classy to say that outright).
The line between truth and fiction in Martha's speech is incredibly blurry, and Alison Wright plays this scene in a beautiful way, juggling bravado with sadness with shrewdness. (The Americans never gets enough awards love, but Emmy voters should take note of this scene in particular.) It's unclear just how much of this Martha really believes. Is it possible she knows more about Clark's double life than she's letting on, or is she just using coded language? How much of her talk about their "grown-up" relationship is a put-on for Aderholt's benefit? How much of her lack of shame is genuine, and how much is her simply trying to convince herself? (Side note: I love that these lines are intercut with Stan's discovering her "goodie drawer," where the condoms and Kama Sutra live.) In revealing this half-truth — more like a quarter-truth, really — she's validated Stan's suspicions about her behavior while throwing him off her scent. How brilliant would it be if in the same episode where one of The Americans' shrewdest characters succumbs to tragedy, the series' most tragic character reveals herself to be a master manipulator?
This isn't the end of Martha's troubles, of course. Not by a long shot. But Stan's inability to gather any real dirt on her, combined with her speech to Aderholt — which she managed without Clark's assistance — feels like a much-needed victory for our "poor Martha." As one sentence is carried out in Russia, another is suspended in D.C.