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One of the most satisfying moments on this season of The Americans came when someone pulled a trigger. Nina Sergeevna Krilova (Annet Mahendru) met her end in the depths of a Soviet prison. The scene itself was ignominious: There’s the sudden shock of a bullet; Nina has no time to prepare. But as television, it was masterfully done — both respectful of the character and true to history, it underscores a severe truth about the show: There’s no way out of the Gulag.
Most TV characters don’t get a death as moving as Nina’s, but many die, often for the sake of shock value, and especially this year. In one study, Caroline Framke at Vox found that 236 characters shuffled off the television coil in the 2015–2016 season. On TV, as in life, death is always shocking. But in a scripted medium, there’s a choice behind every decision, and therefore someone to blame: an actor for leaving the show, or, more often, the writers for fumbling the execution. A well-deployed character death can heighten the stakes of a series, or push characters into fertile emotional territory. A poorly handled one is just a waste.
Fans don’t get to have a say in show’s narrative, but they do watch the same narratives play out over and over again. Most notably, earlier this season on The 100, Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey), a fan-favorite character, died suddenly, just moments after consummating her relationship with another woman. Of course, characters on The 100 die all the time, and Debnam-Carey had gotten a role on Fear the Walking Dead, so her exit wasn’t unexpected. But Lexa was also a rare, fully developed lesbian character on a show that touted its queer representation, and the creators found themselves at odds with fans, who expected the character to be better served in her exit. At Variety, Maureen Ryan noted that many of the afflicted were women, LGBT characters, and people of color, and Vox reports that of the hundreds of deaths on TV this season, fully 10 percent were LGBTQ women, a gross overrepresentation of an underrepresented minority. In addition to The 100, major queer female characters have died on The Walking Dead, Empire, and recently, Person of Interest. (Women of color don’t fare much better: Sleepy Hollow recently had Nicole Beharie, one of its two leads, sacrifice her life for the sake of her white male partner.)
In the past year, death has also been used as a gimmick, from Game of Thrones’ yearlong insistence that Jon Snow was, in fact, dead to The Walking Dead’s weeks-long Glenn charade. What often sticks out about these deaths (and near-deaths) is that they feel like plot devices, used to gin up ratings or sloppily deal with a cast member’s exit, rather than an organic decision for the show. Which brings us back to The Americans, a show that began with a death the creators aren’t all that proud of: Chris Amador, FBI agent and Stan Beeman’s partner, met his death in the first season. Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields still aren’t sure that they earned it. “Even if we were to do exactly that same story line again,” Fields said. “We would’ve taken much more time getting to know that character and building to that story than we did.”
Nina’s death, then, is a major course correction. A victim of both sides of the Cold War, Nina could have died at nearly any point in nearly any season. But the writers treated her with dignity, and importantly, made the death hang over the characters. After Nina’s demise, her Russian lover Oleg doubts his commitment to the cause, and Stan, too, wonders about the efficacy of his own work. If anything, it complicates the show’s plot, rather than moving it forward.
Amid a year of mishandled character deaths, many people have pointed to Nina’s death as the exception that proves the rule. As true as that is, it misses the larger accomplishment of this season of The Americans, which hasn’t just proven it’s possible to kill a character effectively — it has made death a thematic core of the show. No one’s been stuffed in a suitcase, but there has been an uptick in major deaths this season: Nina, William, who bleeds out in the finale, and Agent Gaad, who dies in a freak accident in a Thai motel room.
A perverse marketing slogan might tease this season as “the bloodiest yet.” As the series ticks toward a conclusion, which is set for two years from now, it seems increasingly clear that hardly anyone is getting out alive. It’s almost more shocking that one or two characters have escaped — Martha, for instance, seemed doomed from the start of the show, until she wasn’t. Where so much TV makes death seem predictable, this show gives it urgency and surprise, even if the end result is inevitable. Death is never just another twist: Everyone in The Americans lives in a structure that could crumble, whether it’s a marriage, a nation, or simply a body.
There’s a scene in the third to last episode where Paige watches her mother kill a man. He’s trying to mug them, but Elizabeth acts quickly. He’s put in a choke hold, stabbed, and thrown to the ground, his throat bloody. In any other spy show, this would just be another expendable body, a fight-scene prop to make the stakes real. But then, we see Elizabeth’s daughter, Paige, who’s watching in horror. She’s not about to forget this moment.