Spoilers for Wednesday night’s episode of The Americans below.
When we first met Nina Sergeevna Krilova (Annet Mahendru), in the second episode of the first season of The Americans, she was an attaché at the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., trading caviar for fancy stereos to sell back home on the black market. Over the next four seasons, Nina became a double agent for the Americans, a triple agent for the Russians, and then punished as a traitor, shipped back home and sentenced to a decade in Siberia, where she has been for over a season.
Mahendru, with her limpid eyes and tiny frame, has been excellent as Nina, a vulnerable woman made of the strongest stuff, resilient and adaptable, and like all characters on The Americans, morally flexible in the extreme, and yet emanating some intrinsic decency. In Siberia, she encountered a man of actual decency, abducted scientist Anton Baklanov (Michael Aronov). Tasked with informing on him, Nina finally ceased to do that which was canny, and, unprompted, tried do that which was kind, right, and more than a little reckless: Get news to Baklanov’s son that his father was alive. And so in last night’s episode, in an anonymous room in an anonymous bureaucratic building, she was shot in the head.
The episode itself was a bit of sleight of hand, a misdirection that nudged audiences to worry about the mortality of everyone except the person they should really be worried about. As it began, Philip (Matthew Rhys), Elizabeth (Keri Russell), their handler Gabriel (Frank Langella), and their fellow agent and infectious disease specialist William (Dylan Baker) were holed up in a very sick Gabriel’s apartment, waiting to see if they would all die from exposure to a virulent infectious disease.* (The antibiotic they took in hopes of warding it off, Chloramphenicol, gave the episode its title.)
Elizabeth falls ill and, shivering and vomiting, tells Philip what to do with their children should she die: They should just become American, like Philip has always wanted. Looming over their claustrophobic quarantine was the unsettling possibility that the assassination of pastor Tim and his wife, who so recently learned that Elizabeth and Philip are spies, was going ahead as planned, even though Elizabeth had canceled it. All she did to call it off was make an urgent phone call. It seemed less than foolproof: Messages go missing all the time.
Juxtaposed against all this tension and possible death were seemingly more upbeat events in Russia. Nina’s former lover and colleague, Oleg, back home in Moscow to attend his younger brother’s funeral, prevails on his politically powerful father to intervene on Nina’s behalf. His father agrees to try. We see Nina in her cell, taken away from the relatively open confinement she had been in until recently, somehow still soulfully staring at the walls.
But the show then reverses course: Elizabeth recovers, as does Gabriel. Elizabeth’s brush with death shows her how deeply she cares how Paige will remember her. She tells Philip they can’t kill pastor Tim; they have to work him instead. Death avoided, the Jennings go bowling. Elizabeth even cracks a spy joke to Paige. The show then returns to Nina, in the middle of wonderful dream, a fantasy, that she is permitted to leave Siberia with Baklanov, plane tickets to America in their hands.
Nina is woken from that dream by a guard, who packs her few belongings in a bag, and escorts her out: Has Oleg’s father been so effective so fast? Nina is brought to an innocuous looking room and told that her appeal has been denied. She has been sentenced to death, a sentence that will be carried out “shortly.” She begins to gasp, and then, almost as unexpected to the audience as it is to her, she is executed, with a shot to the back of the head.
One of the central tensions of The Americans has always been the extent to which Philip and Elizabeth, the protagonists, are heroes: They spy for the USSR, they want to destroy America, they manipulate and murder and fold people into suitcases, but we are so involved in their life and their marriage and their noble intentions that we feel for them. But there is a huge space between the values of the country they—and particularly Elizabeth—believe they are working for and that actual country, a place where a woman can be murdered in a cold tiled room for trying to help a good man who was kidnapped by the KGB let his only son know that he is alive.
Nina knew that helping Baklanov was risky, and she did it with a kind of blissed-out, even blithe, faith: What could happen to her that hadn’t already happened? She had survived so much. This was so right. But Nina’s gasp—literally, her last—upon hearing her sentence was the sound of someone who had not expected such an end. She had imagined forgiveness and freedom and plane tickets and America. Instead, she is dead, carried away so hastily that only a small puddle of blood could seep out of her head onto the floor, and next to which two apparatchiks calmy filled out the paperwork wrapping up her life.
Disclosure: The Americans was created by Joe Weisberg, brother of the Slate Group's editor-in-chief, Jacob Weisberg.
*Correction, April 7, 2016: This post originally misspelled Frank Langella's last name.