In Wednesday night’s episode of The Americans, “Urban Transport Planning,” FBI Agent Stan Beeman finally starts to play a more central role in the final season: He once again connects with his former Soviet counterpart Oleg Burov and thereby, unbeknownst to Stan, becomes tangentially involved in spy activities that also involve Philip and Elizabeth Jennings.
It seems fair to assume that, before the drama comes to an end, Stan will inch closer to uncovering the true identities of his undercover Soviet neighbors. Noah Emmerich, the actor who plays Agent Beeman, took some time to talk to Vulture about how it feels to finally reach the conclusion of the series, how frustrating it has been for Stan to remain in the dark about the Jennings, why he was “incredibly surprised” by the way it all ends, and whether Stan is actually good at his job.
I want to talk first about the fact that the show is ending. How does that feel?
It’s a really disorienting moment. Before this job, the longest job I ever had was four months. This is six years.
Acting is an odd life in terms of that continuity and consistency and predictability. I’ve never had it. Now I’ve had it for these past six years, and it’s been really nice. I’ve acclimated to seeing the same people every October and having the semblance of a family, so it’s really hard to say good-bye to these people. I mean, I’m definitely ready to move on from playing Stan — I don’t feel conflicted at all about hanging Stan up. But saying good-bye to this crew, this cast, and this family that we assembled over the years — you know, we’ll see each other, friendships will persist, but it won’t be the same. That intimacy, it’s a special environment. I will miss it.
You said you’re ready to say good-bye to Stan. Is that because you feel like there isn’t much more to explore?
There’s always more to explore. But yes, in this Cold War dynamic, in his FBI life, in his personal life, we’ve explored quite a bit. He’s not the happiest of fellows, so it’s been a bit of a weight to be bearing his burden. I would love to do some comedy.
He does seem happy in his relationship with Renee, though. I think the thing with Stan is that he’s not a particularly expressive person, even when he is happy.
He plays it pretty close to the chest. Obviously, I never imagined playing one character for such a long period of time. One of the things that drew me to acting is the ability to explore different worlds and different points of view and different universes of the human condition. The world of counterintelligence and the FBI is fascinating, but I’ve been there long enough. Stan’s ready for a job change. Maybe he can open up a surf shop in Hawaii.
Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have said they knew the ending of the show from the beginning. Did they clue you in or was that something you didn’t know until you got your final scripts?
I didn’t know until I got the final script. I was happy not to know because once you know, you can’t unknow. It does inform your sense of character and self in a way that maybe is inappropriate. I was happy not to know. And I was incredibly surprised by the ending. It was not what I expected it to be. I had a few scenarios running around in my head of what it could be but that was not one of them. And I love it. I’m really happy with it.
Are you happy with it from a broader narrative standpoint, or in terms of how Stan’s story was resolved? Or both?
Both, really. I think the broader narrative is particularly beautiful and special and appropriate and feels organic to the show. I think Stan’s resolution is quite moving and human and feels good to me.
One of the big questions is, will Stan finally figure out what’s going on with Philip and Elizabeth? I told Joe and Joel that I really want Stan to find out because I want that confrontation to take place, particularly between him and Philip. But I don’t know that I want Philip and Elizabeth to actually be caught. What did you want to see happen?
I wanted Stan to put all the pieces together and figure it out. What he does with that and what that leads to, there’s obviously lots of possibilities. I wasn’t sure what would feel good, what would feel right. You know, it’s a tough one because you don’t want anyone to die. It seemed quite inevitable that someone probably would.
As you were doing the show, were you ever frustrated that Stan hadn’t figured this all out? From the beginning there was obviously suspicion, and then he dismissed it.
Yeah, it’s a really weird corner that we painted Stan in. At the end of the pilot, the very first hour of The Americans, Stan ends that hour snooping around their garage because he’s suspicious that they might be the people that abducted [KGB defector] Timoshev. They might be these Russian spies. He comes to that suspicion through an acute sense of intuition and an intelligence that is extraordinary. And then the question is, What do you do with that? You can’t have him be that close on their heels for five years without it being quite annoying and frustrating. You can’t have him completely out of the picture because there’s no jeopardy or sense of doom. You don’t want to make Stan into someone foolish. You want him to maintain his intelligence and his abilities at his job.
I think some people are very frustrated by Stan’s inability to put the pieces together. I’ve argued over the years with friends or people that watch the show [that] just because you live next door to someone doesn’t give you any particular insight into what they’re doing inside their house. The proximity is not necessarily that illuminating. For the audience, it is like, They’re right there! How can you not see that? But we don’t know our neighbors at all, do we, really, in life?
Do you feel Stan is good at his job?
Yeah, I think he’s good at his job. I mean, it’s hard because I have a myopic point of view on this whole thing. I’m inside of it. I think his intuition and his instincts have been great. He’s usually pretty close to right. And then he’s dissuaded himself — at the end of the pilot, he thought, “What am I doing? This is crazy. These are my neighbors.” His Spidey sense was tingling, but as I think is often true in life, we talk ourselves out of intuition. We tend to shoot down those feelings or those instincts because it just seems too implausible. From a logical standpoint, you wouldn’t think that spies would be right across the street from an FBI agent. It’s kind of the smartest thing that ever happened to Philip and Elizabeth that they are located where they are. Because it just seems too ridiculous.
Someone at FX told me the two of you have a running argument about whether or not Stan Beeman is a good person. What’s your side of that argument?
I think he’s dedicated his life at great personal cost to serving his country and to making the world a better place. He sacrificed tremendously. The cheating on his wife element is a very divisive issue that, I think, cost Stan a lot of female fans who really hold it against him. And I understand that. When I read it in the script, I was like, Wait a minute, what? I thought he had a happy marriage. It was very surprising to me. But I also understand the loneliness and the secrets, you know, the notion that he really did lose his connection to his wife in those years undercover. It’s quite upsetting, but I don’t think it makes him a bad person.
Obviously, the worst thing he did was killing [KGB agent] Vlad in that first season. But, you know, [Stan’s] partner was murdered. He kidnapped a Soviet spy and said, “If you don’t help me with my partner, he’s going to die.” This was literally the enemy. I think he sees him as fair game in a way, but it definitely crossed a line.
It’s funny, no one thinks that Philip and Elizabeth are bad people, right? They’re killing all kinds of completely innocent people, completely innocent bystanders, but we know that they’re just doing the job they have to do. The weird thing about Stan killing Vlad is it’s not part of the job. But funnily enough, I don’t see Vlad as an innocent person. He’s a Russian spy on American soil working to bring down the United States, so that’s not exactly 100 percent an innocent person. But I get it. The vibe was like, Wow, you’re a murderer. It is interesting how we couch things, how we contextualize them or not, and that really changes our tolerance of those acts.
Sometimes I think, what if you were reading The Americans as a news story? People would definitely see Stan as a hero and they would not see the good in Philip and Elizabeth.
Of course not. That’s one of the great points of the show, I think, peeling back the onion and looking at the humanity inside the news. I bet you 99 percent of Americans would want [the Jennings] to get the electric chair because they’re foreign agents that came here and slaughtered a bunch of Americans. How could you possibly be rooting for them? But that’s one of the great aspirations of the show, to illuminate the humanity inside of every human being.
Obviously the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth is most important, but I think the relationship between Stan and Philip is really important, too. This season, it feels like they’re on parallel tracks.
I’ve always seen them as mirror images of each other. Like they’re doing similar things, oddly.
What do you think they like about each other? And what have you liked about working with Matthew Rhys?
Oh, well, those are totally different questions. I think there’s some intuitive connection between the two of them. They have similar secrets and lies. It’s not conscious on Stan’s part – Philip is just the man and a compassionate ear and a supportive friend. Maybe there’s some under-the-surface unconscious recognition of fraternity between the two of them.
As far as Matthew and my relationship, Matthew is a wonderful man. He’s wonderful to work with, he’s generous and kind and talented and funny and just a pleasure to be around. I just have a deep affection for him and think he’s a wonderful dance partner to work with as an actor. I always look forward to our scenes.
And sometimes you get to play racquetball.
Exactly. We get to have a little sport too. They pay us to have fun. That’s pretty great.
This interview has been edited and condensed.