The Americans, Season 1
Why FBI man Stan Beeman is the show’s most heartbreaking character.
Photograph by Craig Blankenhorn/FX.
The Americans’ Stan Beeman, the FBI agent played with admirable restraint by Noah Emmerich, is a lonely, isolated man. Naturally gregarious, he is miserable these days. He can’t connect with his wife and teenage son. He’s eternally suspicious, even of the Jenningses, the nice family who welcomed the Beemans to their Northern Virginia neighborhood. And now he’s cheating on his wife with a hot young Russian. What brought this good man down?
Stan is a victim of his own work ethic. We still don’t know what happened during his time undercover with the white supremacists, but it clearly had a profound effect on him. He can barely make eye contact with his kind and patient wife, and worst of all, he can’t begin to heal the rift between them, because he can’t tell her what happened on his last assignment. He can’t even talk to his new partner about it. Whenever Special Agent Chris Amador brings up his time in the racist gang, Stan responds with vague non-answers. Whatever he did with the Aryans has at least earned the respect of his boss: Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas) takes full advantage of the special insights Stan gained from his undercover experience.
Unfortunately, the move from the Midwest to the nation’s capital for an assignment in counterintelligence has taken Stan out of the frying pan and into the fire. He’s arrived in D.C. just as the Cold War is heating up, he’s struggling to learn Russian, and he’s having a hard time accepting that the demands he made of Nina, the agent he recruited in the Russian Embassy, led her to sleep with her boss. How can this man of honor reconcile himself to pimping out a young woman for the sake of a few documents?
Last week, in “Duty and Honor,” a drunken Stan slept with Nina. Afterward, he looked guilty and worried—like us viewers, he’s surely wondering if he has wandered into a honey trap—but Nina assured him, “I’m not going to hurt you or use it against you.” Fat chance. In this week's episode, “Mutually Assured Destruction,” their relationship evolves from a tipsy one-off to a regular thing in their very own safe house in Eastern Market. In their first meeting in the new love nest, she’s the confident, aggressive partner, the one who makes the first move but interrupts their make-out session to bring up developments in the embassy—though let’s face it, discussions of “cable traffic back and forth to Moscow” and “diplomatic pouches” do make great dirty talk.
Before her next debriefing with Stan, Nina is called in for a meeting with Arkady, the man who became rezident after she set up the last holder of that position and got him sent back to Moscow. We saw just a few moments of their conversation, but Arkady seemed shocked and impressed by Nina’s composure. He began by bringing up the consumer goods that are a perk of a U.S. assignment, especially the profits embassy workers can make when they return to Russia. It was Nina’s habit of making money from such illicit import-exports that Stan exploited to recruit her in the first place. But she waved the topic away and told Arkady, “This assignment is a chance to really accomplish something.”
When Nina and Stan reconvene at the safe house, she lays some real talk on him. She tells Stan that his problem—both the guilt he feels about the affair and his general uneasiness about his new position in counterintelligence—is that he’s fundamentally unsuited to the kind of work he’s now being asked to perform.
“FBI. You are cops. Policemen in your hearts. … Sometimes I wonder if you understand spies. … What do want with us? One day, with Arkady and the others in the rezidentura? Do you want to put them in jail? That’s how policeman thinks. Not how spies think. We want everyone to stay right where they are and bleed everything they know out of them. Forever.”
It’s an important turning point in their relationship—the agent tutoring her handler on the fundamental principles of their craft—but it’s also a keen observation about contemporary intelligence work. Just a few years ago, branding U.S. operations in Iraq or Afghanistan a “police action” was an accusation that implied we were playing too nice and being too legalistic, while our enemies were using all the tools at their disposal to defeat us. (There’s another similar echo of the contemporary security debate earlier in the episode when Agent Gaad warns that the Russians will “keep us so busy chasing our tails, we won’t have time to chase them.”) The conversation ends with Nina telling Stan, “I cannot lie to everyone. Too dangerous.” It’s a devastating conclusion, since we know that Stan has no one to confide in. It’s also a psychologically astute way to suggest he should confide in her.
Annet Mahendru—who like her character, Nina, is taking full advantage of her first big break—is captivating, but she’s supported by a wonderful performance by Noah Emmerich, who plays the scene in a typically understated way. In the space of less than a minute he evinces uncertainty, arrogance, confusion, concern, excitement, and affection.
Earlier this year, I talked with Emmerich, and when I asked how he felt about Stan being presented less sympathetically than KGB spies Philip and Elizabeth, he rushed to his character’s defense. “I feel my pulse quicken when you question Stan’s commitment and honor,” he told me. “What do you mean I’m not sympathetic?" he asked. "I’m trying to save you. I’m sacrificing my life for my country. I’m sacrificing my marriage, and my home, and my sanity. Stan hasn’t had a chance to express his philosophy or the thinking behind his actions, so you just see him doing things without the justification or the understanding of what’s driving him. You haven’t heard me talk about it on the screen yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
Like everyone else who’s watching this show, I can’t wait to find out what’s going on inside Stan Beeman’s head.
Disclosure: The Americans was created by Joe Weisberg, brother of the Slate Group's editor-in-chief, Jacob Weisberg.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.