The Magic Of David Copperfield V: The Statue Of Liberty Disappears was watched by “every single person” Henry Jennings knows. It’s teenage hyperbole, but he could’ve said the same thing about The Day After: ABC Theater’s presentation of the nuclear holocaust parable pulled in 100 million viewers, more than any other made-for-TV movie to date. But unlike “The Magic Of David Copperfield V: The Statue Of Liberty Disappears,” “The Day After” beams its namesake broadcast into houses that aren’t the Jennings’. In his hermetically sealed apartment, William watches the McCoy family argue about the severity of the Soviet threat. In a bedroom across town, Tatiana and Oleg see Dr. Russell Oakes weaving through traffic on a crowded highway.
But something changes before the scene switches to the Rezidentura. The American bomber taking flight isn’t constrained by the borders of a circa 1983 TV. The bomber’s taking off on our TVs. The panic, the drama, the alarmism of The Day After is mingling with the reality of The Americans. Seven months ago, the Jennings tuned in to see the future Mr. Claudia Schiffer pretend to erase the Statue Of Liberty from the night’s sky. On November 20th, every single person we know on The Americans watches the dramatization of a catastrophe in which they could all feasibly be complicit.
But only Oleg knows how close they all came to living the events of The Day After. After letting his privilege hang out in front of Tatiana, Oleg shares a bit of privileged information with her: On September 26, 1983, five inbound American ICBMs were detected by the USSR’s early-warning satellites. Our fraternizing Soviet diplomats are still alive because those nukes were properly identified as a false alarm. Because the officer on duty defied his training, “sunlight reflected off clouds” failed to start World War III. Today we know that officer’s name (Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov) and his reasons for ignoring the warning (if the United States intended to wipe the Soviet Union off the map, it would’ve done so with more than five missiles), but in the fall of 1983, he was merely the subject of questionably appropriate pillow talk. He was just one unknown person, doing what he knew to be right.
The morality of The Americans is rarely black-and-white, but the specter of mutually assured destruction has a way of rendering complicated issues into absolutes. After tasting freedom (“Free? I can’t remember—what’s that feel like?”—William) for more than half a year, The Day After brings the psychological toll of the Jennings’ work crashing down on Elizabeth. That, and the creeping suspicion that the Young-hee operation is approaching its own point of no return. While the break has significantly improved Philip’s relationship with Paige, Elizabeth has found herself a true chum in Young-hee. But when she fails to dig up sufficient dirt on Young-hee’s husband—Don’s such a straight arrow, even his porn stash is vanilla—she must decide between friendship and duty. It’s only right that she pulls the dirty movie out from behind Sophie’s Choice.
The seduction that follows is The Americans’ most gut-wrenching depiction of spy procedure since the suitcase scene in “Baggage.” Conveying the weight of Elizabeth’s decision, “The Day After” goes through the process step-by-step, beginning with the POV shot of the telephone booth. We’re in Elizabeth’s headspace as she contemplates the call, and a shift in vantage point illustrates her reluctance to dial the phone. It’s a lot like the Day After progression from earlier in the episode: For a split second, we are there, so the actions Elizabeth takes after she picks up the phone have an impact on us, too. She’s going through the motions, and regretting it every step of the way, with a hitch, a pause, a sigh—stepping out of the car, moving from the couch, applying the incriminating lubrication to Don’s bathing-suit area. The English recording of Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home)” is a clever soundtrack choice here, its launchpad checklist echoing Elizabeth’s meticulous technique, its ersatz David Bowie vibe differentiating this scene from the “Under Pressure” sequence in “Clark’s Place.”
It also pairs well with Paige’s driving lesson, a relatively mundane exercise that probably feels like piloting a space craft to our spy-in-training. (The “Paige, honey, you need to blink” part just killed me. With the period soundtrack, it felt like something from a John Hughes movie.) Her time behind the wheel is one of several signs of the post-time-jump status quo, like Henry’s new hairdo (aping surrogate big brother Matthew Beeman?) or Stan defining what a “typical Webster munchkin” is. (And here I was hoping next week’s episode title was a Dunkin’ Donuts reference.)
But the connection between Philip and Paige in these scenes also demonstrates the normalcy that’s flourished during the Jennings’ hiatus. At the start of “The Day After,” typical American father and typical American daughter are enjoying a typical American coming-of-age milestone, with no thought given to international espionage. But by the end of “The Day After,” the spy stuff starts encroaching on the new normal: Paige’s Camaro excursion must split a montage with Elizabeth and Don. And there’s the thought that maybe, just maybe, Philip handed her the keys because Pastor Tim wants to talk after he returns from Ethiopia.
He’s not the only one who needs a minute of the Jennings’ time. Circumventing Gabriel, William alerts Philip and Elizabeth to a new shipment from Fort Detrick: lassa, a nasty little bug that “liquifies your organs” and “makes your blood come out from your skin.” Aftermath and consequences are major factors in “The Day After,” and William’s attitude this week shows the repercussions of sending Martha to Moscow. Inspired by Philip’s minor mutiny, and embodying the spirit of Stanislav Petrov, William doesn’t want to tell The Centre about the Americans’ modified lassa, lest he stoke the flame of the microscopic arms race. The screen is engulfed in flames in “The Day After,” but Dylan Baker continues to make bioweapons sound a hell of a lot scarier than any bomb.
William thinks he has a choice in the matter, and he turns to Philip because not telling The Centre was “a big decision to make on your own,” but he’s fooling himself. Bioweapons escalation, the Young-hee operation—this isn’t choosing to watch or not watch The Day After. These are “no other choice” situations. “The Day After” marks the end of the travel agents’ vacation. Seems like it was nice while it lasted.
- The Americans Wig Report: Season Four, Week Nine: A. Love the new looks for Philip and Elizabeth in the park—anybody else get a whiff of Walter White from Philip? And don’t hide that bob under that beret, Elizabeth! (Extra credit for the resiliency of Patti’s wig in the face of portentous winds.)
- The Americans Soundtrack Report: Season Four, Week Nine: A-. Yaz returns with “Winter Kills,” a moody accompaniment for Elizabeth’s fruitless sweep of Don and Young-hee’s place. And as right “Major Tom” feels in the montage, I have to say: That song pretty much belongs to Breaking Bad now. (Maybe that’s why Philip’s disguise looks so much like Walt.)
- Was there any Mail Robot? “We’re standing by / There’s no reply”
- The time jump bypasses one of the major causes for increased U.S.-USSR tensions in 1983: On September 1, a Korean Air Lines flight en route to Seoul from Anchorage, Alaska entered restricted airspace and was shot down by a Soviet jet fighter. Soviet officials initially denied their involvement, the White House called it “an act of barbarism, born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life,” and a hairy year of the Cold War grew hairier.
- If William is under surveillance so often, why doesn’t he ever wear a disguise? Is it because he’s under surveillance so often he can’t risk going to the store for some spirit gum? Or maybe all the antibiotics have rendered him allergic to wig fibers?
- In that pastel apartment, in her purple dress and heavy eye shadow, Elizabeth-as-Patti appears to be a Patrick Nagel print come to life. (So, a Moonbeam City character, then?)
- Smart, smart, smart writing: When Philip returns to the travel agency, and Elizabeth tells him she’ll be home late, “The Day After” feels no need to spell out what they’re talking about: Elizabeth sleeping with Don, and blackmailing her way to whatever The Centre needs from him. “I don’t know if there is another way in” says everything we need to know about the episode, the operation, and how Elizabeth’s feeling.