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‘The Americans’ Star on Uncovering the Truth: ‘I Just Don’t Know What There Was for Stan to See’

With only one episode left for “The Americans,” there are still a couple of key questions lingering — namely how Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) could be good at covering their spy tracks day-to-day but overlook the importance of loading dummy information into a government system.

After all, when FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) hoped he’d lay his suspicions about his best friends and neighbors to rest and typed their names into his FBI database, what he found not only cause him anxiety but also caused the audience the same.

Is the jig finally up for FX’s favorite covert Russian ops?

Ahead of the series finale, Emmerich talks with Variety about his character’s role in the Jenningses’ predicament, weighs in on the Russian who is currently in Stan’s clutches (Costa Ronin’s Oleg) and reflects on some other characters in the Jennings-Beeman orbit who may not have faired so well over the years.

Stan’s had a hunch about the Jenningses since the pilot when he broke into their garage late at night after a Soviet defector goes missing and a car like theirs was spotted near the crime scene. Why do you think he dropped it for so long?

Part of it is that it seems too obvious and possible: How could his neighbors next door be these people? It would make so little sense. Even though his Spidey-sense was tingling enough to break and enter their garage and search their car at the end of the pilot, that came up nothing and he thought, “I must be crazy.” The odds of it being the people across the street are a billion to one and they seem like a nice family and their kids are great and there’s nothing else suspicious about them whatsoever. …Although, like in life, once that seed has been planted, even if you bury it — it continues to grow somewhat depending on how much water and sunlight it gets. So I think there were some little things percolating along the way that may have stimulated that sense but not enough to convert into action until we find him doing so. I wondered how they were going to write out of that. It so alarmed me because OK, we’re at the end of hour one of hopefully a long show. What are you going to do with this character who’s become suspicious? Either he’s going to become inanely incompetent or he’s going to have to die really soon or the show’s going to end really soon — none of which sounded like good options. I think they did a terrifically elegant job of navigating that in a believable way [throughout the series].

You have said that you did not want to know what happened to Stan until you got the scripts. Why was that?

It does sort of flavor and inform your sense of the character and your sense of the story. Knowing the future is a weird thing. I think if we knew the future, we’d have miserable lives. In a weird way for an actor, it depends on the medium. In a film, if you’re doing an hour-and-a-half or two-hour story, you need to know the arch of your character because it’s important for the shape of the performance from the beginning to the end. In a show like this, which runs for six years, it’s impossible to do that. It’s not actually set in stone; it’s a living, breathing entity that changes with time. It surprised me because I generally like to know everything. I came into this show saying tell me everything. Over the course of a season or two, I said it’s actually better for me not to know and it’ll make my job easier to be in the moment that Stan’s in and not know where he’s going.

Lots of fans say “how could Stan not see this”? But how much of this is because he needed a friend? He’s a workaholic who got divorced during this show. Maybe he needed Philip.

I take issue with how could Stan not see this. How could Stan not see what? The audience is watching everything from behind closed doors. They’re watching the Jenningses at home and in their basement and in their car doing all these things. All Stan sees is a neighbor across the street inviting him over for a beer. The only thing he can point to is that they left at odd hours. But so did Stan. I don’t know how many times Stan just happened to be looking out the window and saw Philip and Elizabeth leave at midnight or one in the morning. I totally understand that you’re watching it on TV and [going] “Wait a minute! They’re right next door and they’re arguing about Mother Russia!” [But] they have two normal American children and they live a normal American life. They share Thanksgiving and family holidays and the occasional beer and some racquetball — I just don’t know what there was for Stan to see.

Stan doesn’t look up their names or travel agency that they supposedly run in the agency’s database until the penultimate episode.

Right. Well, nowadays it would be much more different story because there is Google. But why would Stan look up his neighbor’s name unless he really, really suspected? But I think that’s also what we gain from that pilot episode: It was almost embarrassing for Stan to suspect that it would have been that easy.

Part of this is that Stan has no idea how close he’s been on the Jenningses’ trail this entire time. Among the overlaps, Philip flipped FBI secretary Martha [Alison Wright] after a long con and shipped her off to Russia. He also killed Stan’s partner, Chris Amador [Maximiliano Hernández]. Which of these two incidents do you think would upset Stan more?

Oh, they’re both devastatingly upsetting. I guess Chris is final and there’s no redemption from that. Killing someone is the worst it can be. Martha, at least, is alive unbeknownst to Stan.

To Philip’s credit, he and Chris got in a scuffle when they both were outside Martha’s apartment. It wasn’t premeditated.

This is because we love these characters and they’re portrayed so beautifully by such amazing actors, but the reality is that they’re cold-blooded killers that have decimated a large percentage of the American population in the name of [Mother Russia]. I’m happy that you’re defending Philip, who has murdered a perfectly innocent FBI agent who has given his life to protecting the country. It speaks well to the writers and to Matthew Rhys’ performance that you’re defending the murder of Amador.

How does that feel to you that I’m doing this? In all normal scenarios, Stan is the hero.

I think that’s the beauty of the show. It’s not about good guys versus bad guys, it’s about people. In the real world, every bad guy has a mother and a father and potentially children. There’s no such thing as a bad guy from one [person’s] point of view. People do bad things, but what makes us good or bad? Where humanity ends is a territory this show has explored. We all have those capabilities. I don’t mean to be naïve, but it forces us to look at the show with a greater complexity and understanding.

Is that also why you think Stan didn’t bug the house when he broke in a few weeks ago in the episode “Harvest”?

I don’t think it was a planned break in. That might have been his next move. I think it was a spontaneous decision in that moment. It wasn’t a Watergate moment. But bugging the house is a great idea for episode 11. Editor’s note: This final season only has 10 episodes.

Stan’s also now arrested Oleg, who is asking for help with one important piece of information. They still aren’t sure if they can trust one another and the last time a Russian asked Stan to commit treason it didn’t go so well for that Russian.

I think Stan did everything he could to protect Nina [the aforementioned Russian played by Annet Mahendru, who had a fateful ending in season 4] and [now] to protect Oleg. With Oleg, he went so far as to jeopardize his career by refusing to cooperate and insisting that they take certain actions to protect Oleg. It was part of his journey away from counter-intelligence and away from the spy game. [Stan decided] that the cost of humanity and the fruits of labor did not justify the means, which is why we find him at the beginning of this year having left counter-intelligence and now working in the criminal justice department of the FBI.

In terms of Oleg, he’s grown to respect Oleg as a human being and a person and as a man who places the world’s health above his political agenda — as he does when he shares with Stan some piece of information at the end of season 4 that is traitorous for Oleg. I think they respect each other and have an understanding of each other.

Did you keep any souvenirs from the show?

You know, I did not. There was no particular object that had continuous resonance for me. I kept my chair back, which I always keep from all my work. I left the rest to memory.

Your next project is a Netflix project that is quite literally called “The Spy.” It’s from Gideon Raff, the guy who created “Prisoners of War,” the Israeli show that inspired the Showtime spy drama “Homeland.” Are you worried about getting typecast?

No. Not really. It’s another spy show, that’s for sure, but the characters are very different and have nothing to do with Stan. It might be a genre that I get stuck in, but this will be it. I really wasn’t planning on doing a spy genre at all, but this came along and it’s a great piece.

The Americans” series finale airs Wednesday, May 30 on FX.

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