‘The Americans’ is one of the most beautiful shows on TV

Noah Emmerich as Stan Beeman in “The Americans.”
Noah Emmerich as Stan Beeman in “The Americans.”

Noah Emmerich, who plays FBI agent Stan Beeman in “The Americans,” FX’s Cold War drama about deep-cover FBI agents, made his directorial debut with the March 11 episode, “Walter Taffet.”

In addition to moving the show’s tense plots forward, Emmerich has also produced a strikingly beautiful, formally composed hour of television.

“The Americans” is a show about secrets and the thin membranes that protect them from discovery, so it’s always been a show obsessed with thresholds, with doors and with what lies behind them. The first season of the show ended with Paige (Holly Taylor) headed down to the basement to check her mother Elizabeth’s (Keri Russell) fishy-sounding story about doing the laundry in the middle of the night. No horror movie could have made her descent down those stairs and into the shadows feel so portentous.

“Walter Taffet” is full of moments when characters are close together, yet separated. Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) walks down the hall to the ominously closed door to Paige’s room, only to find her reading Richard Hofstadter in bed. Elizabeth and Philip tensely observe each other from across the divide created by the door from their bedroom into their master bathroom. Martha (Alison Wright), who normally is separated from Gaad’s office only by a pane of glass, finds herself shut out when Aderholt pulls the blinds so he can investigate the bug in Gaad’s pen.

When Martha flees to the bathroom to try to destroy the recorder, she discovers that she can’t find enough privacy: All the hard surfaces echo terribly, and the stall doors that don’t extend all the way to the floor seem to reveal all too much. As Sandra Beeman (Susan Misner) tells Stan their marriage is over, she does so at the threshold of Stan’s door. And the episode ends with Philip and Elizabeth in the same physical and emotional place, facing each other and having a difficult but loving conversation in their bed.

“For me, that’s kind of evocative of the spy genre, of the privilege the audience has, going in and out through the thresholds. That’s a point of view no one else can have,” Emmerich explained when I asked him about this motif. “It is very simpatico to the tonality and the genre of the show. People go through the doors, doors that some people can see through that other people can’t.”

In Martha’s storyline, the use of space communicates her transition from functionary to prey, even if the predators don’t yet know that she’s their target. “She couldn’t really be in more danger. And there is no safe space to retreat to. Everything is permeable, everything can be seen through,” Emmerich told me. “That’s what these people do for a living, they see through walls.”

Stan is a character defined by his emotional restraint – honed undercover while infiltrating white supremacist groups – and by the moments when he lets go, particularly during his affair with Nina (Annet Mahendru). And so in two important scenes during the episode, physical space serves to say what Stan cannot.

“I always thought geography can be a character in this scene as much as the characters,” Emmerich said. In the scene where Sandra asks to finalize their divorce, “Stan starts to come into the house and he thinks she’s going to follow him in. But she doesn’t. … And she won’t do it. But she’s subtle enough and gentle enough and empathic enough to come, but not to come in all the way. It’s a gray area.”

After playing Stan for 21/2 seasons, it was nice to see Emmerich get to direct a episode so important for the character. Not only does Stan reach a breaking point in his marriage with Sandra, but his conversations with Aderholt bring us ever so slightly closer to understanding just what happened to Stan during his time undercover.

The series is a striking illustration of the idea that you don’t have to abstract violence to make it both powerful and palatable. It’s proof quiet moments can be just as stunning as grand spectacle.