The whole world is on the brink of mutually assured destruction, as far as anyone knows. All it takes to wipe out both of the world's great superpowers is one mistake, something that was at least in the back of everyone's minds on "The Americans" but comes to the forefront in "The Day After," named after the TV movie that glued everyone to their sets in 1983. Last week's episode ended with Frank Gaad giving parting words to Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich): "You can't lose sight of who these people are." That quote echoes throughout "The Day After," in which what one side believes the other is capable of (and how well they'll deal with it) spurs them to decisions that might be catastrophic.
Before the film airs, everyone seems to have settled into a less dangerous mindset since the time jump at the end of the last episode. Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) is teaching teenage Paige (Holly Taylor) how to drive in the clunky family car ("get the Camaro out of your mind"), and it's very tentative going. Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), as "Betty," is still working Young Hee (Ruthie Ann Miles), trying to find any way to get to her husband, Don (Rob Yang), who can apparently provide the Level 4 access that KGB mole William (Dylan Baker) needs to get a new pathogen. Stan broke up with his girlfriend and is dealing with a particularly finicky new boss (to whom we haven't been introduced yet). But the situation get more urgent when Philip meets with William (without Gabriel signaling it, for whatever reason), who tells him the new pathogen is the worst thing he's ever seen, something that liquefies organs and makes blood come through your skin. William, never the most reassuring agent in the best of times, informs Philip that he doesn't trust anyone, including their side, with this. "It's never enough for them...[and] the threads on [the Americans'] containers work most of the time."
William sees potential Armageddon, and Philip sees it in his eyes. We see it in everyone's eyes that night as "The Day After" plays, with director Daniel Sackheim alternating between every remaining major character watching it — the Jennings and Beemans together, William alone, Young Hee and Don, Oleg and Tatiana, Arkady — and selections of the film itself, sometimes filling the whole screen, sucking us in, and sometimes framed by the televisions themselves, communicating the relationship between the image and the people watching them. William seems more exhausted than usual. Matthew Beeman and Paige exchange terrified glances. On TV, we hear frantic radio signals: "Hello, is anybody there? Anybody at all?" Jason Robards walks dazed through a nuclear wasteland, and everyone can picture themselves in the same situation.
"The Day After" lingers in everyone's minds afterwards. Philip sees it as reason to break from protocol: "What if this time, this one time, we don't report back." Elizabeth, on the other hand, is resolved to find something, anything in Don and Young Hee's place to blackmail Don. "They are making that poison for us. To destroy us. These are the people who dropped the atom bomb...twice." Oleg (Costa Ronin) and Tatiana (Vera Cherny), now sleeping together, discuss the very real possibility of their technology undoing them, with Oleg telling the story of how sun reflecting on clouds was mistaken for Americans launching missiles, and that the only thing that prevented retaliation (and full-scale nuclear war) was one Russian commander going against his training and assuming that the Americans couldn't possibly have been that suicidal. Oleg keeps wondering "What I would have done if it were me," while William remarks on Philip's "big decision to make on your own." Decisions are at the heart of this episode, and none of the options are good.
Much of the rest of the episode separates Philip and Elizabeth as the former handles domestic duty and the latter makes big decisions on her own. Two sequences, both set to music, stand as highlights in an already great season. In the first, Philip and Paige wash dishes and talk frankly about nuclear war, with Philip admitting that while he does what he does to keep things like that from happening, he doesn't know if it does any good. This is cross-cut with Elizabeth as "Betty" housesitting for Young Hee and Don, looking through their home for anything compromising that might be used against Don, to no avail. His desk is clean, there's nothing secret, even his porn (hidden behind VHS's of "Sophie's Choice" and "Giant") is pretty plain. The melancholy Yazoo song "Winter Kills" plays as Elizabeth works away until the sun comes up, finding nothing, and Paige admits that she hopes when "it" happens, it happens quickly and wipes everyone out, rather than letting the Jennings family succumb to a slow sickness. Any idealism and hope Paige had has been crushed by the abstract threat of nuclear annihilation and the concrete threat of her family being caught and destroyed; Elizabeth's failure only reinforces that sense of despair.
Elizabeth's scenes with Young Hee this season have been among the lightest in the show's history: Miles is delightful in the role, and even if Elizabeth is playing a role, she does seem to brighten around her friend. That's why the big decision she does make is such a painful one: Young Hee and Don have a great marriage. They clearly love each other, and Elizabeth, for once, seems genuinely reluctant to damage that. But she's also dedicated to her job, and when "Betty" is left behind at a diner with no ride on a date, she calls Don when she knows Young Hee won't be home, asking for a ride. Russell is an actress of rare skill, someone who knows how to play a scene as Elizabeth convincingly in character while giving just enough information to viewers to spot Elizabeth acting: when Don drops her off, she asks for help moving something in her apartment, playing up her own reluctance to ask for help in a way that's easy to spot if you know she's lying but invisible to those oblivious, giving her request a stop-start "I'm so sorry for asking this" rhythm, shifting her eyes and body to communicate bashfulness. We see her briefly break character as she's out of Don's eyesight, knowing what she's about to do is going to work and giving a mix of cold determination and...maybe not fear, but at least silent acknowledgement that it's going to permanently damage something.
"Betty" serves up some fine wine to ask Don his opinion, drugging his and coming onto him as he's starting to feel the effect, enough to let him remember the initiation (him touching her shoulder reassuringly, her reciprocating by putting her hand on his thigh) before he passes out. Philip and Paige, meanwhile, go out for a test drive in Philip's beloved Camaro, dangerous in its own low-stakes way ("If you put one scratch on it, I will ground you for life"). Peter Schilling's synthpop hit "Major Tom (Coming Home)" starts up as Sackheim cuts back and forth between Philip playing reassuring father, telling Paige to breathe easy and blink while she drives while Elizabeth undresses Don and herself in bed. "Nothing left to chance/always working," Schilling sings as we see Don nude from overhead, cut to Paige cruising nervously on the street.
Everything goes fine: Philip and Paige pull back in, dad giving his daughter a high-five for doing so well. Don wakes up, dazed, seeing "Betty" nude next to him, and scrambles to put his clothes back on, guilty for something he doesn't remember. As far as Elizabeth knows, it's the only decision she could've made. But as she arrives home, she goes to bed early with a "headache," Philip going upstairs to tend to her, Paige recognizing something is wrong, Henry carrying on blissfully unaware. After a major blowout in Philip and Elizabeth's relationship last week, it's nice to see him know how to comfort her as he sits by her side on the bed, taking her hand and rubbing it with his thumb. But she's still haunted by that decision. "I'm gonna miss her," she says, as the camera cuts outside, the two divided by the cross in the window pane. They're here for each other, but they're ultimately going to have to make decisions on their own, and not all of them are going to be the right ones.
-This is the second Yazoo song (off the same album, "Upstairs at Eric's," no less) after the use of "Only You" during Philip's flirtation with a military man's teenage daughter. I wonder if they're going to make their way to "Don't Go."
-Additionally, "Winter Kills" is the title of a terrific conspiracy thriller starring Jeff Bridges, a darkly comic one concerning a Kennedy-esque assassination.
-Pastor Tim wants to meet with the Jennings together for something. Philip plays it off well, with a warm "sure...sure," but Rhys' eyes show someone who's getting nervous about him.
-The Paige and Philip driving scenes are great because they show how even an extraordinarily patient, encouraging parent makes a teenage driver nervous. Philip tries to touch the wheel to tell Paige not to grip it so tightly, causing her to slam on the breaks. No sudden movements, dad!
-Dylan Baker's bone-dry line readings are still the best. Upon seeing Philip's ridiculous wig and mustache combo, which makes him look vaguely like Sean Penn's greaser-redneck death row inmate in 1995's "Dead Man Walking": "Might be your best look yet." Additionally, upon hearing that Philip and Elizabeth have been away: "A break? We get breaks?"