Silver Screen Feds returns this week with an in-depth look at a major character from this year’s best new TV show: the Cold War spy drama “The Americans.” I’ve enjoyed watching the gifted, flawed FBI counterintelligence agent Stan Beeman unfold over this show’s premiere season. And after watching its May Day finale, I decided that Beeman is too complicated to shoehorn into a narrow “best” or “worst” category, so I’m going to examine both sides of his character. MAJOR SPOILERS for the first season follow.
“The Americans” primarily focuses on Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, two KGB agents who have been living undercover in Northern Virginia for decades, posing as husband and wife and raising two children while spying for the Soviet Union. As the show begins, right after President Reagan’s 1981 inauguration, Beeman and his estranged family move in next door to the Jenningses.
Beeman (played by Noah Emmerich, who we previously profiled as the CDC scientist in “The Walking Dead”) is extraordinarily good at the spy game, often thinking three moves ahead of his adversaries. Early on, he catches a Soviet embassy clerk named Nina selling Russian caviar to the black market, and uses that information to turn her into a double agent. Beeman’s new mole begins feeding him valuable information on what is going on inside the rezidentura, allowing him to identify hidden Soviet spies and a sleeper cell of collaborating Americans.
And in one of the shows’ most thrilling sequences, Beeman quickly sets up a complex, multi-part scheme to help Nina frame the rezident — the Soviet equivalent of a CIA station chief — when the Russians figure out they have a mole:
* First, Beeman gives the panicking Nina a small camera and tells her to photograph classified documents — any documents will do. When she protests that she won’t be able to get the camera out of the rezidentura, he reassures her by saying she won’t need to.
* Meanwhile, when the rezident heads to his usual shop to buy his favorite tea, an FBI agent posing as a cashier secretly slips something into his bag.
* Beeman then starts calling the Soviet embassy — at one point, routing his call through a phone booth outside FBI headquarters — asking for the rezident and leaving cryptic messages from “Theo” referencing tea.
* The KGB, now suspicious of the rezident, sends a senior officer to question him. The officer pours out the tea bag and — to the rezident’s surprise — finds several diamonds the FBI planted there. The KGB does a deeper search of the rezident’s office, and finds Beeman’s camera hidden in a clock. “Diamonds for information,” the senior KGB officer says. The rezident scoffs at the evidence as planted, and says he’s been set up. “Remarkably well, wouldn’t you say?” the KGB officer says, and the rezident’s face falls as he realizes he will be sent back to the USSR and executed for treason.
In one fell swoop, Beeman eliminated a major foe of the United States and ensured the safety of his most valuable informant. His tenacity, creativity and patriotism combine to make him a powerfully effective FBI agent, and a remarkable federal employee.
However, those positive attributes feed directly into his flaws in ways that undermine him — and may eventually cause his downfall.
His home life is extraordinarily troubled. Before becoming a counterintelligence agent, Beeman was undercover with a gang of white supremacists, and it is strongly hinted that some bad stuff went down during his investigation. He barely saw his wife and teenage son during that period, and his strained attempts at reconciling with them do not go well — particularly because he refuses to talk to his wife about the stress he is under, and continues to neglect his family by working long hours.
One evening, Beeman’s womanizing partner suggests he pick up a woman in a bar for a one-night-stand to relieve his stress. Instead, Beeman makes probably the worst decision he can — he begins an affair with his sexy informant, Nina, opening himself up to the dangerous honeypot, or sexual espionage, trap.
Meanwhile, the Jenningses end up accidentally kidnapping and killing Beeman’s partner, and an enraged Beeman becomes involved with an off-the-books FBI operation to assassinate the KGB’s new rezident as revenge. But when the rezident doesn’t show up where the FBI expects he will, Beeman makes a bad snap decision to instead kidnap a low-ranking KGB officer named Vlad. After the FBI finds Beeman’s partner’s body, Beeman returns to a safehouse and coldly shoots Vlad dead.
At this point, Beeman’s two bad decisions start to intertwine. Nina is brokenhearted that her friend Vlad was murdered. Beeman lies to her, claiming he had nothing to do with it and pledging to catch Vlad’s killer. Nina doesn’t believe him and begins to hate him — though she keeps sleeping with him — and soon admits her betrayal to the KGB’s new rezident. The KBG grants Nina a chance to redeem herself to Mother Russia by becoming a triple agent and doublecrossing Beeman. As the first season draws to a close, Nina’s assignment is to eventually force Beeman to betray the United States and begin spying for Russia.
And, of course, there’s also the fact that Beeman doesn’t realize he lives right next door to the very spies he’s working day and night to hunt down. One has to wonder how observant Beeman is when he looks at several (admittedly bad) composite sketches of his targets, and doesn’t realize he’s invited them to his home several times. (I call it Hank Schrader syndrome — the inability to see what is right under your nose.)
Stan Beeman, the jury is still out on you. But I’ll keep watching to see what happens next, and whether you redeem yourself.