‘The Americans’ recap: Horror of nuclear war hits home for TV viewers

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The horrifying carnage of full-scale nuclear war seemed very real in November 1983 when 100 million Americans watched “The Day After.” Even President Reagan was stunned by the TV movie’s graphic depiction of leveled Midwestern cities and melted human flesh.

This pivotal moment in Cold War relations between the United States and the Soviet Union is revisited in Episode 409 (“The Day After”) of “The Americans” on FX.

KGB spies Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) view the sobering broadcast with their kids Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), plus neighbor/FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his son Matthew (Danny Flaherty).


“You really think it’s all gonna end like that?” Paige asks her dad in a shaky voice. “That movie was pretty real, right?”

“That’s why your mother and I do what we do,” Philip says, “to keep things like that from happening.”

But, Paige wonders, do Mom and Dad’s covert operations actually reduce the likelihood of a nuclear holocaust?

“I don’t know,” Philip somberly replies.

Also watching the broadcast are KGB officers/lovers Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) and Tatiana Evgenyevna (Vera Cherny). Afterward, Oleg shares classified intel about the Soviets’ early-warning launch-detection system.

Two months ago, this satellite-based technology indicated that the United Stated had fired five nuclear missiles at Russia. Fortunately, for all of humanity, the Soviet duty officer suspected his equipment had malfunctioned.

So in defiance of training and orders, he informed his supervisors that a false alarm occurred.


“If he hadn’t told them that, we would have counterattacked,” Oleg reveals. “It turned out it was sunlight reflected off clouds that the detection system registered as launched missiles.”

This means the Soviet technology is dangerous and “way behind” America’s, Oleg laments.

Another horrific threat in 1983 -- and today -- is bio-warfare.

William (Dylan Baker), a Soviet asset working for the U.S. Army’s biological defense program, tells Philip about a new strain of virus. Created by scientists at Ft. Detrick, this infectious agent causes a hemorrhagic fever that “liquefies your organs.”

“Nobody needs this,” emphasizes William, who’s unsure if he should notify Moscow about the discovery. After all, the Americans maintain they’re developing an antidote for the virus, not weaponizing it. Can the Soviets be trusted to do the same?

When Philip tells Elizabeth about William’s dilemma, her reaction is swift and predictable.

“They are making that poison for us. To destroy us! We have to be able to defend ourselves,” she insists. “We can’t just sit here in our comfortable house and pretend. This is why we are here!”

Elizabeth is here, she knows, to follow orders -- even when she dreads the consequences.

Her assignment is to obtain entry codes for Ft. Detrick’s most secure bio-containment lab. This involves blackmailing Don (Rob Yang), the scientist husband of Elizabeth’s only gal pal: Young Hee (Ruthie Ann Miles).


Elizabeth’s initial move is to search Don and Young Hee’s home while babysitting their three children. No incriminating materials are found, so Elizabeth launches Plan B. She’ll sexually compromise Don and pressure him into surrendering the codes.

After manipulating Don into giving her a ride to an apartment, Elizabeth invites him in for a glass of wine and slips a mickey into his glass. When Don awakens, he and Elizabeth are naked in bed.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry,” Don apologizes, mistakenly thinking he violated his marriage vows.

When Elizabeth returns home to Philip that night, she feels guilty for setting events in motion that will likely devastate Young Hee and end their friendship.

“I’m gonna miss her,” Elizabeth says, tears filling her eyes.

Sadly, Young Hee and her family seem destined to become collateral damage. And it hurts.