Season 4, Episode 9: ‘The Day After’

The best scene in Wednesday night’s episode of “The Americans” on FX was a moving evocation of late-stage Cold War insecurity, as both Americans and Soviets soberly contemplated the reality of an all-out nuclear exchange. But even more powerful was its depiction of the real golden age of television — when more than 100 million people would sit down at the same time on a Sunday night to watch a really scary and depressing TV movie.

The film was “The Day After” (also the title of Wednesday’s episode), shown on Nov. 20, 1983. One after another, the show’s major characters — the Jenningses and Beemans (together, with Paige Jennings and Matthew Beeman giving each other the eye); William; Oleg and Tatiana (in bed!); Arkady; even Young-hee and Don — were seen bathed in the light of their TV sets, all tuned to the Washington ABC affiliate, WJLA Channel 7. Claudia and Gabriel apparently had better things to do.

The scene came midway through a quiet, melancholy episode. Philip and Elizabeth were energized by their “vacation” — Stan, thrashed by Philip in racquetball, asked, “You been taking vitamins or something?” But the walls continued to close in on them and their colleagues, if only psychologically.

William told Philip that the deadliest pathogen yet, a modified Lassa virus, was now being stored on the fourth floor of his lab, but he questioned whether they should even report its existence to their superiors. When Philip asked if he trusted the Americans to be the virus’s only custodians, William replied, “The threads on their containers work most of the time.” In a similar but much more serious reference to Soviet incompetence, Oleg told Tatiana about the then-secret incident in September 1983 when a false alarm nearly led to the Soviet Union’s launching its missiles against the United States. (It would have kept “The Day After” from getting on the air, but no one would have been around to appreciate the irony.)