Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Burned alive: Did 'The Americans' have to go there?

FX's "The Americans" this week became the latest drama to set a character on fire.

I remember when entire seasons would pass without my having to see a single TV character burned alive.

I wish I'd savored that time more. Because it's gone.

A couple of years ago, I didn't make it past January, by which time I'd seen characters set ablaze on "Boardwalk Empire," "Sons of Anarchy" and "The Following."

After that, I stopped counting.

FX's "The Americans" on Wednesday became the latest drama to join the grisly burned-alive club in an episode, "Divestment," in which anti-apartheid activist Reuben Ncgobo (Dwayne Alistair Thomas) placed a tire around the neck of a South African intelligence officer  named Eugene Venter (Neil Sandilands), doused him with gasoline and set him afire as spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) looked on, along with viewers.

This particular form of horror, called "necklacing," did take place in South Africa back in the 1980s (though this Wikipedia entry suggests "The Americans," which began the season in fall 1982, might be a few years ahead of the practice).

Viewers with more recent memories of the ISIS video of a Jordanian pilot being burned alive took to Twitter to note the coincidence, but just as TV shows that depict mass shootings inevitably come up against real-life incidents, there are few forms  of violence on television that don't have a real-life parallel, assuming zombies and/or vampires aren't involved.

"The Americans" is one of the best shows on television, and it's not aimed at children. It's no stranger to violence -- its characters are fighting a covert war. I get it.

There's something primal, though, about fire. It's a horror I don't want to become desensitized to, as I have, at least, to fictional gunshots. (Real ones still very much concern me.) When television goes there, as I concede it might once in a great while have to for story purposes, I'd like to think the argument for it was a compelling one.

And on Wednesday, I wasn't feeling compelled to do anything but look away.

Read more Ellen Gray on Television