NEW YORK (AP) - “The Americans” puts its audience on the spot.
Who to root for?
Do we throw our support behind Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), the sexy, all-American-seeming couple who in truth are Russian-born KGB spies working to bring down the United States from within?
Or do we side with Stan Beeman, their neighbor in a Washington suburb, who happens to be an FBI agent in this circa-1980s phase of the Cold War? Stan (played by Noah Emmerich) is sworn to flush out these enemies of the state, but, despite his smarts and dogged commitment, he is constantly frustrated in his mission while undermined by personal demons.
As “The Americans” returns for its second season (Wednesday at 10 p.m. EST on FX), the continuing obligation for its fans will be to reconcile divided loyalties and cheer for both parties, never mind that they’re working in deadly opposition.
As before, viewers will likely thrill at the death-defying dedication of Elizabeth and Philip, but will identify with Stan. In Emmerich’s performance, he sticks to a fine line between being a hero and being a dupe. He’s a straight arrow bending under the pressures of his job, including the isolation it imposes: He has lately fallen into an affair with a beautiful Russian informant as his job keeps him from home.
“You don’t know what he knows,” says Emmerich. “You don’t know what he’s thinking.”
Stan’s early-on suspicion of Elizabeth and Philip seems to have relaxed into acceptance of them as the ordinary couple they pretend to be. In a future episode, he even meets Philip at a bar for a sodden heart-to-heart about his extramarital affair.
“I haven’t told anybody,” he tells Philip in a near-whisper. “So you can’t.”
Has he let down his guard beyond the point of return?
“Is he naive? Or is he (messing) with them?” poses Emmerich, who himself isn’t always sure what Stan is up to. “There have been times when I interpreted things in a certain way and played it that way, then mentioned it in passing to a writer, only to find out we had different opinions of what Stan does and doesn’t know.”
“I worry about him a lot, I really do,” says Emmerich over a bowl of lentil soup in a Greenwich Village restaurant. It’s a day off from filming the series (whose New York locations prove indistinguishable doubling as Reagan-era Washington), but Stan, as usual, is on Emmerich’s mind.
“Stan’s so squeezed!” he says sympathetically. “Stan gets very little respite from the pain and arduousness of his job and his strained relationships. I take it really personally. The things that the character is going through, I go through as an actor. But that’s what the work is, and the joy of it. It’s precarious, because your internal life is being written by someone else.”