The title of this episode of The Americans, “Chloramphenicol,” is the name of the antibiotic drug that is administered to Gabriel, Philip, Elizabeth, and William (by William) every few hours from Friday night to Monday morning (March 18–21, 1983). The antibiotic injections are due to Gabriel contracting glanders after being exposed to the Burkholderia mallei bacteria that William smuggled out of a US biological weapons lab three episodes ago.
Subsequently, Philip, Elizabeth, and William were exposed to the bacteria while trying to help Gabriel. Thus, all four spend nearly the entire episode confined to Gabriel’s small apartment while they wait for the antibiotic to (hopefully) do its job.
Of course, because this is an episode of The Americans, the title has thematic connotations that extend to all of the other subplots in the episode through a unifying motif. The thematic motif is not the name of this particular antibiotic; rather, it is the notion of a “broad-spectrum antibiotic” in general—as the adjective phrase broad-spectrum indicates, the antibiotic can be used against a wide variety of living organisms.
This episode contains several lethal and near-lethal attacks on a wide variety of living organisms. First, and somewhat ironically, the Chloramphenicol injections that are meant to potentially cure Gabriel and protect Philip, Elizabeth, and William from contracting glanders actually cause Elizabeth to vomit and have diarrhea—leading to potentially fatal severe dehydration.
As she attempts to recover from the effect of the Chloramphenicol injections, Elizabeth’s position on the cot in Gabriel’s apartment is mirrored by Nina Krilova on her own cot in the Soviet prison where she, too, is “ill.” Of course, Nina’s illness is due to neither a microbial infection nor an antibiotic injection; instead, she is ill with the fear of her possible execution as a traitor to the Soviet Union.
In the case of this episode’s thematic motif, a political execution is a type of “antibiotic” in the same way that all forms of killing are, by definition, “anti-biotic”: against life. Of course, this thematic analogy means that if she is awaiting the eventual antibiotic that will end her life, Nina is being viewed as a type of “disease” within the Soviet political community.
However, from her own perspective, Nina’s possible execution is the fatal outcome of the disease that is the cause of her own “illness”—Totalitarianism, a disease of Modernism, about which noted author and literary scholar Robert Langbaum stated in 1955:
In the sense that totalitarianism accompanies the movement for modernization and exploits technology and democratic idealism to exercise control, it is the specifically modern political disease.
Nina’s potential “cure” from her “fear of execution” affliction (a potential cure of which she is unaware) comes in the person of her former lover, Oleg Burov. He is in Moscow to attend the funeral of his brother who was killed in combat in Afghanistan—with war, of course, being the second broadest of all possible broad-spectrum antibiotics (the first being genocide, obviously).
While he is home, Oleg once again asks his father—a Politbyuro official whose title is “the Minister of Railways—to intervene in Nina’s situation. If he cannot manage to have her released from prison outright, then Oleg at least wants his father to ensure she will not be executed.
After much pleading, Oleg’s father agrees to intervene on Nina’s behalf on the condition that Oleg, his only remaining son, will leave his position at the Soviet Embassy in Washington and return to Moscow permanently—a condition Oleg reluctantly agrees to.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, Stan Beeman’s suspicions about Martha having a role in the planting of the electronic listening device in FBI Supervisor Gaad’s office has led him to break into her apartment while she is at a restaurant with Agent Aderholt. Without a search warrant, Stan begins illegally searching Martha’s home to try to find evidence that the KGB has been using her to spy on the FBI.
As with Elizabeth and Nina both lying on cots waiting to see what the outcome of their respective “illnesses” will be, we have another mirroring situation within this subplot. In this case, Martha is now mirroring Nina in a couple of obvious ways. First, Nina was Stan’s lover during the time he was using her to spy on the KGB through her position in the Soviet Embassy—just as Stan now suspects a KGB agent is using Martha. Second, just as Nina is a “disease” within the Soviet political community due to being a traitor who worked with the FBI, Stan views Martha as a possible disease within the FBI due to his suspicion that she is working with the KGB.
In this subplot, director Stefan Schwartz crafted an emotionally subtle-yet-powerful sequence that cuts back and forth between Stan rifling through Martha’s dresser drawers and Martha confessing to Aderholt that she has been having an affair with a married man (Philip). Martha’s monologue (mostly) to Aderholt presents a profound counterbalance to Stan’s actions—not only as a contrast to Stan rummaging through her belongings, but as a mirror opposite to Stan’s affair with Nina in which he was the “married man” who used Nina both professionally and sexually.
The entire interplay of Martha’s words and Stan’s actions in her apartment becomes even more emotionally evocative due to Dorothy Moore’s cover of “Misty Blue” that is playing in the background at the restaurant, and which we continue to hear when we cut to Stan in Martha’s apartment:
Martha: You asked me . . . if I was seeing anybody.
Aderholt: Yes, but you don’t have to answer it. You . . . you really don’t.
Martha: No, it’s okay. Uhm, I am . . . seeing someone. Uhm . . . he’s married.
Aderholt: (With raised eyebrows and a slight awkwardness in a whispered voice) Oh!
(They both take a bite of their appetizers and remain silent for several seconds as “Misty Blue” continues to play and Stan finds a handgun hidden beneath Martha’s lacy undergarments.)
Martha: I’m not embarrassed. I’m not ashamed. It’s just . . . (Stan finds unopened packs of condoms beneath Martha’s underwear) . . . I don’t think it’s something most people would understand. They’d say, “You’re a fool for seeing a married man; he must be some kind of sleaze”—but it’s not that way . . . at all! It’s simple.
(Stan finds Martha’s copy of the Kama Sutra)
Martha: Well, there are no . . . false promises . . . or lies. No . . . unrealistic expectations. He’s not going to leave his wife. (Pause.) I’m not waiting for him to . . . but we . . . provide each other with . . . comfort and companionship.
Aderholt: The sneaking around doesn’t bother you?
(Stan puts everything back the way he found it.)
Martha: No. (Pause.) I mean . . . we’re discreet but I’m not . . . wearing wigs and sneaking into motel rooms. (Chuckles slightly.) It’s grown up. It’s honest. It’s probably the most . . . honest relationship I’ve ever had.
(Martha nods. Aderholt nods in understanding. Stan leaves Martha’s apartment.)
I’m not certain what Aderholt and Stan will conclude about Martha based on their separate “examinations” of her life, but I suspect Aderholt will continue to dismiss Stan’s suspicions since the only “evidence” Stan discovered (aside from the handgun) merely revealed that Martha is having sex in her apartment—which Martha essentially admitted during dinner. However, based on his own sexual relationship with Nina, Stan is more likely to continue to suspect Martha is being played by a KGB agent with whom she is having an affair.
Regardless of what Aderholt and Stan conclude, I found Martha’s view of her affair with Philip a refreshing perspective of life in general and the relationships we form with people in our lives.
Meanwhile, back at Gabriel’s apartment, Elizabeth has a memory-dream that mirrors Martha’s words regarding “the most honest relationship I’ve ever had.” In Elizabeth’s case, the most honest relationship she ever had was probably with her mother.
I say “probably” because Elizabeth has had occasional doubts at times about the honesty of her mother’s feelings, such as when Gabriel claimed that when she died, her mother expressed how much she loved Elizabeth and Paige—a deathbed pronouncement that Elizabeth doubts actually occurred.
Yet, in her dream, Elizabeth recalls a time when her mother was severely ill—coughing up blood in fact—and Elizabeth (in her mid-teens) sat dutifully next to her mother’s bed. I’m not certain what illness the mother had, but her illness was obviously severe yet she managed to recover without the aid of antibiotics. Instead, she seems to have returned to health through the dutiful and loving attention of her daughter—thus demonstrating the power of honest human relationships as a “probiotic” rather than as an “antibiotic.”
It is in this dream-memory scene that we learn Elizabeth’s real name (I don’t recall having learned it in any episodes from the previous three seasons). Elizabeth’s given name was Nadezhda, and we discover this “honest name” while she is not only reflected in a mirror, but reflected in two mirrors next to each other—causing her image to appear fractured.
In artistic films, a mirror image symbolizes one of two things—either a character’s idealized image or fragmented ego. In The Americans series as a whole, we often see Elizabeth reflected in mirrors (three times in this episode, for instance). In each case, we are not seeing an idealized version of Elizabeth; in fact, the mirrors often reflect her in an unflattering way. Instead, the mirrors reveal Elizabeth’s fragmented ego and a sense that she lost her “true identity” years ago. Thus, it is odd that in this memory-dream that appears to show Elizabeth’s long-buried true identity of Nadezhda, the dutiful daughter, we not only see yet another mirror image of her, but a fragmented mirror image—which evokes a sense of a doubly fragmented ego.
Is Elizabeth’s dream a “valid” memory? Is it an idealized memory that is not based at all in the reality of the situation at that time in her life? Was she only pretending to be the dutiful daughter while harboring ill feelings toward her mother even at the younger time in her life?
Overall, while nothing monumental occurred during the majority of this episode, it was a gratifying viewing experience due to the motifs that not only linked the scenes together but which became linked together themselves into an interconnected leitmotif:
- The mirroring motif—a situation one character experiences is then reflected in the situation of another character in a subsequent scene, as well as how the mirror reflections of Elizabeth not only symbolize her fragmented ego but also her ongoing struggle to come to terms with who she truly is (if she even is anyone “truly”);
- The “honest relationship” motif, and the possibility that most people (Elizabeth most of all) do not have actual honest relationships at all;
- The antibiotic thematic motif—the focus on aspects of the world that are “against life” (anti-life) and “for life” (with honest relationships being a probiotic that can resolve the diseases in society without waging a deadly assault).
Finally, this emotionally evocative episode was made even more poignant with the realization that there are times when the forces working against life are victorious. Yes, the Chloramphenicol injections killed the bacteria that threatened the lives of Gabriel, Philip, Elizabeth, and William—and restored Gabriel to health; however, there are also instances when the “antibiotic solution” does not bring about a happy resolution—especially when the antibiotic is injected in the form of a bullet fired into the back of a head.