‘The Americans’ 4×09 Recap: Sunlight Reflecting Off Clouds

On friendships, marriages, viruses, art, and the apocalypse

Noah Emmerich and Matthew Rhys in The Americans.

Noah Emmerich and Matthew Rhys in The Americans. Patrick Harbron/FX

“I keep wondering what I’d have done if that were me.” Oleg is in bed with Tatiana, smoking and still sweaty from sex in an apartment with walls far more soundproof than the thin barriers that separated her and her teenage boyfriend from the multiple families she once shared an apartment with. He’s talking about an officer who, just a few months ago, saw multiple American nuclear missiles flying toward the Soviet Union. Convinced it was a glitch in their outmoded system, he simply ignored it—rather than doing what he was supposed to do, which would immediately initiate a counterstrike. This would have been a first strike, as it turns out, because the man was right. There were no missiles. The Russian radar, Oleg explains to Tatyana, had mistaken “sunlight reflected off clouds” for the start of World War III. Billions lived because one guy risked the right decision in a system designed to steer him wrong. Oleg doesn’t know if he’d have done the same.

As viewers of The Americans this season, we too know what it’s like to fly blind. Until tonight’s episode, the dearth of information we had about Elizabeth’s assignment with Young-Hee grew more striking by the week. Nearly every other operation has been explained either beforehand or immediately after the first outing; the audience is a fly on the wall as the Jennings either receive instructions from their handlers or discuss those instructions among themselves. In this case, however, beyond what we could intuit from Young-Hee’s South Korean origins, we were eight-plus hours deep into the season before we had so much as an inkling as to the endgame.

In the interim, the two women formed a friendship more real than feigned on Elizabeth’s part; she went there for dinner, hung out for drinks, even called her up to go to the movies when she was having a bad day with Philip. Her new companion’s sarcastic, pretension-puncturing, laugh-out-loud funny sense of humor, her adorable children, and her life as an immigrant making a large and fractious extended family work in the suburbs might have landed her a sitcom development deal in another life. Instead, it leaves her at the mercy of an operative who babysits her kids one week, then drugs and assaults her husband Don (“You always undervalue yourself,” he tells her while the roofie she’s using to ruin his life takes effect; “You are a good person, a kind person”) in order to make it seem they’d had consensual sex the next. Elizabeth feels bad about it. She should. She knows she shouldn’t have done it, and she did it anyway.

A similar choice confronts the Jennings when William signals them—not Gabriel, not the Centre—about a new biological agent his lab has received. The scientist says it’s a weaponized version of the Lassa virus, a hemorrhagic fever that “liquifies your organs, makes your blood come out through your skin—it’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” To the amazement of Philip, decked out in an incongruously rugged, vaguely Tom Selleckian black wig and gray mustache that William accurately says “might be your best look yet,” he wants to keep the information a secret from the KGB, whom he now distrusts on both moral and logistical grounds. “You pulled your agent out when the Centre didn’t want you to,” he explains. “It was the right decision. I’d like to make the right decision.”

This, it turns out, is why he alerted Philip and Elizabeth at all, rather than simply keeping shtum: He wanted their help in figuring out what to do. “Big decision to make on your own,” he says, after he receives the news from Philip that they’re going to go ahead with the transfer of the agent after all. (They’ll give William the chance to tell Gabriel himself, of course, so that he’s not punished for going around the usual channels.) But it seems as if he already knew what he ought to do: As he explained to Philip earlier, the sample was only intended for the development of a vaccine should the Soviets deploy the virus first. Given his security clearance, this isn’t mere wishful thinking or credulity, either. It’s as if he reached out to people he at least subconsciously expected would force him to play by the rules, to avoid the burden of breaking them.

The centerpiece of the episode, the sequence that gives it its title (the second in a row to be named after a television special), is a group viewing of the real-world dramatization of nuclear war called The Day After. The Jennings and Beemans watch it together as families and neighbors. Oleg and Tatyana watch it together as lovers. Young-Hee and Don watch it as spouses. William and Arkady from the Rezidentura each watches it alone. Russians, Americans, Koreans, officers, agents, double agents, civilians, a teenage girl balancing driving lessons with being forced to spy on her pastor and his pregnant wife for her parents—all of them sit riveted as frightened men trigger the end of the world, as terrified people scream and run and fall and die during it, as two old people clutch each other in the rubble afterwards. They’re as moved as you or I are, as shaken, as convinced that this is a horror that must be avoided at all costs. And despite the misgivings the movie gives them, they change nothing. Philip and Elizabeth talk about their doubts regarding the virus, regarding Young-Hee’s husband, and then dutifully ignore them.

I cried during this sequence. The antiwar message of the film the characters watched, the sense of colossal, avoidable loss and waste and tragedy, covered my brain like ashes. The power of art to communicate the awful truth was palpable. But art can only influence, not dictate, human behavior. It reflects that behavior like sunlight off clouds and has no more control over how that reflection is interpreted than do the clouds themselves.

‘The Americans’ 4×09 Recap: Sunlight Reflecting Off Clouds