‘The Americans’ v. The State (SPOILERS)

Annet Mahendru, aka Nina Sergeevna (AP)

Plot points from Wednesday, April 6th's episode of The Americans will be discussed below. Consider this your spoiler warning.

Unless I'm very mistaken, FX's The Americans, now in its fourth season, had never killed off a major character, a relative rarity in this golden age of television. Oh, it had killed lots of people—good guys, bad guys, random guys, what have you—but never someone who has been with the show since the beginning. So it was a bit of a shock last night when Nina Sergeevna (Annet Mahendru)—Soviet agent turned American spy turned Soviet double agent turned exiled traitor—took a bullet to the back of the head in the basement killing floor of some far-flung corner of the gulag.

But only a bit of a surprise, really. Nina was, after all, a traitor. There were only two ways this could go for her: she could submit to the evil empire fully—win the victory over herself and love Big Brother—or die. And her desire to aid Anton Baklanov (Michael Aronov) in his efforts to reach his wife and children showed that she was never going to submit.

I've always admired The Americans‘ willingness to wallow in the despicable, ugly nature of the USSR. Thinking about Nina last night, I was reminded of Natan Sharansky's writing on the power of freedom and the ability of the state to crush it in The Case for Democracy.

"Dissidents understood the power of freedom because it had already transformed our own lives," he wrote. "It liberated us the day we stopped living in a world where ‘truth' and ‘falsehood' were, like everything else, the property of the State." It's in the USSR's treatment of Nina and Anton that we see the truly soul-crushing horror of the power of the state: the ability to make you an unperson, to take you from family and friends with no warning and no word of what happened. The inability of Anton to let his family know he survives is reflected in the inability of Nina's friend, Oleg (Costa Ronin), to ascertain or influence her fate, despite his family's connections. Nina's refusal to accept this state of affairs—her refusal to simply give the state what it wants, her refusal to stop literally dreaming of freedom—meant she had to die.

The ownership of the individual by the state has been the central quandary of The Americans from the get-go, of course. Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) have struggled with the motherland's demand that they turn their children over to "The Center" for recruitment as spies. Elizabeth is open to the idea but Philip knows it will destroy them, tear their family asunder. Are Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) property of the state, weapons to be pointed at America? Or are they Elizabeth and Henry's children, souls to be nurtured and raised within the family confines?

The great thing about The Americans is that I have hope these antiheroes will see the light and make the right choice.

As we saw with Nina last night, however, a little bit of hope can be a dangerous thing.