The State Department’s throwing its weight around, Daniel’s undercover with neo-nazis terrorising people, and me? I’m out, I think. As I keep saying, the acting is terrific, and new Station Chief Ashley Judd is a more than worthy addition, but this show is now more like homework than entertainment for me. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that it’s grim – even grimmer now we have violent right-wing hatemongers in the mix – and painstakingly slow. I admire the aims of the writers and there will be people who liked this, for perfectly understandable reasons, but I wasn’t one of them. I look forward to seeing Richard Armitage, Michelle Forbes and the rest of the cast in other things but I’m afraid I’m leaving Berlin Station behind.
Berlin Station has been officially cancelled by Epix after three seasons but, for the moment, in the UK, it lives on on More 4. Yes, a mere four months after we finished season one, season two appears on our screens tomorrow night (Thursday) at 10.05pm and I’m torn. I wanted to love season one, with its tremendous cast and its intriguing premise and its SPIES (I’m really into spies on tv) but, despite some great moments, the first season somehow ended up being slow, frustrating and significantly less than the sum of its parts. I want to love season two but, if it’s anything like season one, I don’t actually want to have to sit through it. The Richard Armitage, Michelle Forbes and Dr Dubenko triple whammy of performances is worth another shot at least, though, so I’ll review episode one and see where we go from there.
One of the principal flaws of both episode 9 and this first season of Berlin Station as a whole has been the writers’ unshakable conviction that the life, loves and regrets of one Hector DeJean are all utterly fascinating. If someone had disabused them of this notion early doors, the season might have been half as long and twice as interesting, and episode 9 itself wouldn’t have happened. Sadly, and turgidly, however it did: an hour or so wasted mostly on flashbacks lovingly but wholly unnecessarily illustrating the history of the DeJean/DeVos partnership, at a pace akin to that of a lot of UK living rooms at 9.30pm on Christmas Day. By which I mean SLOW and BORING.
Ep 9 isn’t a complete wash-out though. Michelle Forbes and Dr Dubenko start talking to each other (ok, it’s more like sniping, but still), Creepy Cheekbones takes the long way down and out of the series, and we find out who the real big bads are on all sides. Oh, and Frost is arrested, but it’s all good, since that just means everyone can work together in ep 10 – Daniel, Dr Dubenko, Michelle Forbes, Sandra, even Johnson finally gets stuff to do, bless him – to sort the whole sorry mess and expose Hans and Clay Williams for what they are. Bafflingly, while all this is going on, Hector is able to pose as a special envoy of the Director himself and spring Faisal from a Saudi jail, as opposed to being stopped as soon as he tried any of that and renditioned so hard his sunglasses break, but see above re: fascination, the writers’ etc. Anyway, ep 10 is pretty great nonetheless – properly exciting spycraft with high stakes and all the Richard Armitage super-spy stuff I tuned in for in the first place. The season overall has been glacially-paced and so obsessed with saying something profound that it didn’t really say or do anything at all, but the episodes which worked best were the ones like this, which focussed on action and thrills as opposed to flashbacks and fretting. Good episodes or dull ones, however, the cast have been uniformly fantastic, with Michelle Forbes, Leland Orser and Richard Jenkins in particular turning in stellar performances, and Richard Armitage a handsomely brooding presence at the centre of it. Would I watch a second season? If the Shaw stuff is over – which seems likely – I’d at least start it I think, but I’d have a hard time recommending it to anyone else unless it got significantly faster than this one. No official word yet as to if/when More 4 will be showing it though, so if this is where Berlin Station and I end up parting ways, das ist gut.
Since I’ve decided to start shipping Richard Armitage’s Daniel and Michelle Forbes, of course they don’t share a single scene this week, but at least they do continue to share the prima taste in office wear that’s transfixed me all season. It’s wet and cold in Scotland, so Agent Cregg would probably have gone with trousers, but Michelle’s taupe top and dark skirt suit is just the thing for the grieving but defiant secret agent with a Secret Pain, especially one who’s (a)in a place where it’s not freezing and (b)in a semi-permanent fight with New Acting Chief Dr Dubenko. The Antoinette/ Charlie Hebdo reveal is significantly less tasteful though. We really don’t need another Secret Pain at this stage of the season – Daniel’s and Hector’s are more than enough to be going on with – but if Michelle Forbes has to be similarly burdened, rather than using such a specific, recent real-life tragedy, could the writers not have made something up?
Sigh. At least Daniel and his lovely navy coat/suit/tie combo, are having a much more successful week story-wise. Not only has Herr Miller worked out who Thomas Shaw is, but he’s found Hector’s bug, Julian’s secret identity and where Everybody’s Most Wanted Steven Frost is hiding. That’s your agent of the month, right there. I’m not sure the non-linear structure of the episode adds much – the interrogation still felt like it went on for half my life – but the street-grab is undeniably effective (I jumped and squealed) and although I don’t find Hector’s incessant navel-gazing anywhere near as fascinating as the show does, at least it’s nearly over. Obviously, Cousin Patricia and her inexplicable liebe for the man are going to get in the way first – she was never going to listen to you, Daniel, don’t blame yourself – and there’s still time for German Ally McBeal to do something obnoxious and derail everything, but there’s only a double bill left in the season so, one way or another, Hector’s right: Thomas Shaw is indeed dead. The only real question is who’s going down with him.
Things go from bad to worse to completely terrible for the Berlin Station team this week with lies, politics and the small matter of someone setting Steven Frost up to take the fall making the search for Clare even harder than it already is. And it’s already kind of impossible.
Poor Steven does his best to sort things out by the book, but that’s obviously not going to work, so everyone else is going for more unorthodox methods: Dr Dubenko goes to Golda, who has her price; German Ally McBeal tracks down the Iosova rendition team in a lap dancing club; and Hector and Daniel (Richard Armitage) launch their own Lethal Weapon-style (but without the jokes) rescue mission, with Michelle Forbes being quietly fantastic in the process.
It’s fast, tense and bleak, with plenty of “adult themes” and an unapologetically unhappy ending. In short, if you’re looking for a fun time, look elsewhere. This is grim stuff. Compelling, though. And on the plus side, Daniel is definitely onto you-know-who now, I am totally going to start shipping him and Michelle Forbes (Farmitage? Vaniel?), and, somewhat surprisingly, treason seems to have made Dr Dubenko a lot nicer round the office. Every cloud, etc.
First things first: I am sehr-annoyed that I didn’t see the revelation at the end coming weeks ago. Those cheekbones were right there in front of me the whole time, but I let myself get distracted by a blond wig and some lipstick. (If you’re still watching this show, you’ll know what I mean, and if you’re not, you won’t care.) The show worked me well, but then half the cast is working the other half of it this week, so I’m hardly alone.
The Israelis are working Dr Dubenko, it being obvious that he’ll work himself up into enough of a frenzy of imagined slights and oversights to succumb by the end of the ep. Michelle Forbes – with a bit of help from Clare – is working two of Ruth’s teenage “ISIL brides” and reluctant informant/ idiot Swingset. Or trying to – she apparently doesn’t get very far with the girls (although I’m not sure what else she thought they’d get – the girls pretty much confirmed everything she thought) and, as Michelle points out, it remains to be seen which side Swingset is actually on. And speaking of choosing sides, Hector’s having a mixed week as well; working Patricia and Clare goes well for him, working Ingrid not so much, but then I don’t understand how he thought it could. He knows the CIA are in the paper’s computers and he must’ve realised they’d do something to sort the Lin problem out before he exposed it – was he banking on Ingrid publishing the story before Richard Armitage’s Daniel and co had a chance to get ahead of it? Why wasn’t he listening to Daniel’s phone to get ahead of him?
As for Daniel himself – well, he’s working his way into German Ally McBeal’s bed, but sadly not her affections. Bless him, he’s clearly very into her, and she’s very into using that to her advantage. I mean, she likes him enough but she likes the idea of turning him better. Poor Daniel. He doesn’t fall for it, although I think if she’d waited a bit longer before playing her hand, he might well have fallen for her. Still might, too. It’s not a ship I’m keen on though – Daniel, liebling, maybe find a girl who appreciates your company more than your security clearance, huh?
Anyway. Daniel’s love life might have stalled for a moment but, for whatever reason – sex, lies, spycraft, a strange man dancing naked to “Under Pressure” for no reason beyond weirding everyone out, you pick – this pacy, well-plotted ep seems to move a lot faster and a lot more compellingly than some of the previous ones. Gut.
If there’s a tv trope almost as ubiquitous as the Secret Pain these days, it’s the flashback explaining the Secret Pain. This week, Berlin Station joins the host of shows trotting it out, filling us in on Daniel Miller’s Secret Professional Pain, in addition to the Secret Personal one we already knew about. Is this necessary? We already know he and Hector are old friends with history. I would have said that was all we needed, but instead we now have the standard side dishes of the terrible mistake, the not-that-clever cover-up, the guilt eating away at us, and the very good chance we’re going to mess up again as a result. Sigh. Richard Armitage is more than capable of selling it, but if the next spy/ secret agent-type drama I watch could sidestep this particular cluster of cliches, I’d be much obliged.
I’d be even more obliged if every one of these shows didn’t insist on painting Muslims as either terrorists (side-eyes Bodyguard) or accidental bomb /bullet fodder in the hunt for terrorists, but that appears to be too much to hope for these days. Unless you’re watching Blindspot, that is: it’s acquired a pleasingly diverse range of wrong’uns, but Bindspot’s a topic for another day and another post.
Anyway, no doubt the makers of Belin Station would say there are plenty of non-Muslim villains in their story, and there are. Michelle Forbes may be uncovering an ISIL mail-order bride business, but Richard Armitage’s eyes are on the Shaw and Creepy Cheekbones prize, even if he has to see a lot more of Joker’s boss than he would like in the process. The “Magic Date” sequence is wildly uncomfortable and has me fretting about consent and violation and all sorts of things I think the show wants me to ignore in favour of the easy smirk, but the other aspects of that story are better: the rooftop / server room op, Daniel letting Joker go in the hope she’ll come back, and Daniel realising that there’s something suspicious about Hector being the particular highlights. Hector hitting on Daniel’s cousin, though – no, thanks.
Back at the office, meanwhile, Dr Dubenko may genuinely be trying to get Frost promoted, or he may not. Either way, they end up at a conference on Iranian/ German relations, and Frost gets into some sort of love/ revenge quadrangle business with his wife, his mistress and his arch-rival. It’s not my favourite storyline and I’m not that keen on Dr Dubenko potentially turning traitor either, but it gives Richard Jenkins plenty to do and Caroline Goodall’s Kelly shows us there’s a canny head under that perfect coiffure, so we’re good. This episode, however, while well-made and exquisitely-acted, was a bit more like homework than entertainment. If it weren’t for Herr Armitage, I’m not sure I’d be back.
Either the levels of concentration I’ve had to invest in this show so far have paid off and everything’s suddenly clicked into place in my brain, or this week’s episode of Berlin Station was much more straightforward.
Even the previouslies seem to hint at a change: they go on for ages, presumably with a view to making sure no viewer is left behind as we head into this brave new dawn. The opening scene being a dream sequence doesn’t detract from that either – Steven Frost, with an eye on Provence, sitting waiting as the drip drip drip coming down on him and his office became a flood. You don’t need to be Freud to understand that one.
Or indeed to understand the rest of the story. One, Frost and Dr Dubenko have a terrible secret. I barely have five seconds to wonder what it could be before this new clear version of the show (and Dr Dubenko) just tells me: “This is us going to jail for running fake agents and bilking Uncle Sam, for God’s sake.” Righto, thanks Dr D! Two, The Office of Security (Office of Jerks, I’ve written in my notes – they are EXCEPTIONALLY rude) from Langley descend upon Berlin Station, thanks to another leak from Herr Shaw, so Daniel’s patron Jemma Moore is unceremoniously out, the long-suffering Sandra takes the fall for Frost, and he might have a shot at Deputy Director. Okay-doke. Three, Michelle Forbes’s asset throws his lot in with losova, without realising Michelle’s watching him do it – smile, you’re on Candid Camera, dude. Got it! Four, Hector’s cracking up over Faisal, but still several steps ahead of Richard Armitage’s Daniel, who looks awesome when he pulls a snazzy spy move with a steak sandwich and throws away his Jemma-phone, only to spoil it all later by taking no care of his regular phone whatsoever. Dude. And five, in other Daniel-related news, New Asset in Witch’s Hat and German Ally McBeal are both defiantly, and kind of obnoxiously, fighting the Armitage charm (so far); Herr Miller’s cousin is rather too obviously succumbing to it (Girl. “With you, it’s like having a dad around again”? Coming on waaaay too strong there); and Frost wants to step right into Moore’s shoes.
See? Straightforward. Busy, but straightforward. And the final scene suggests that’s by design, as storm clouds gather, thunder rolls, and the rain begins to fall, drip drip drip, onto Frost’s head. Now when did we see that before? It’s not a particularly subtle callback to the first scene, and it’s an even less subtle metaphor for trouble ahead, but after a dense, sometimes opaque couple of opening episodes which asked a lot of the audience, I’m not complaining about this one doing the work for us. I enjoyed it.
I meant to say something last week about the dingy, seedy look of the Berlin of Berlin Station, but I was busy being dazzled by the crisp, modern office wear, so I thought the contrast with the location (as shot – I mean, I’ve never been to the real Berlin, it might rival the Apple Pencil for crisp modernity for all I know) would keep till this week instead. This week, however, just about everyone on the show leans into the dingy, seedy theme.
Maybe they decided to go a different way after ep 1 and have the characters look as well as feel world-weary and generally a bit dirtied by life. Maybe the budget wouldn’t stretch to more than one nice suit each. Or maybe last week’s outfits had to go back to the hire shop. Whatever the reason, suddenly everyone, with the exception of Michelle Forbes, looks a lot less sharp and fresh, and a lot more 1970s. I mean, Dr Dubenko even wears a polo neck in lieu of a shirt and tie at one point. Dude, come on. And Hector, who had enough to worry about last week what with his treason and his having sex with his asset in front of full-length windows (way to keep it on the DL, guys), now has Claudia’s mother and the imminent death of Faisal on his conscience as well. So he abandons suits entirely and spends the whole episode looking like he needs a shower. Oh, Hector. You can’t wash away guilt.
Even Michelle seems a little less put-together than usual. She wears a nice black v-neck top/suit combo on day 1 while she’s jockeying for Steven’s job, changes to a lovely slash-neck top (sans jacket) on day 2 of said jockeying, but then somehow ends up back in day 1’s outfit when her boyfriend/husband/possible spy(?) is trying to get secrets out of her. Continuity error? Or perhaps she spilled her coffee. It probably doesn’t matter but it’s probably not a great sign that, in a week where the main female character went undercover, openly went after her boss’s job and started her own op against this dude Iosova that they’re all so excited about, I was so easily distracted by her clothes.
At least Richard Armitage’s Daniel, out on his own secret mission, manages to keep the rest of the team and the cesspit dragging them down at arms length. He’s busy trying to warn Claudia’s friend Ingrid that Creepy Cheekbones might be after her, but all it gets him is a bad-tempered lecture. Shame. It’s not all bad news for Herr Miller, though. In another change from last week, someone is following him, rather than the other way round, but Danny boy is onto him – in fairness, the guy could not have been more conspicuous if he was wearing a cowbell – of course, and is having none of it. Our hero has a cousin (love interest?) and her annoying, floppy-haired son (kidnap/threat fodder for later?) to hang out with and Cowbell is not invited. So Dan the man cuts him out of the picture, sets up a meet with German intelligence’s principal Ally McBeal lookalike, and sets her onto Creepy Cheekbones for good measure. Job done.
The best scene of the week is the last one, though: Hector, literally shouting his guilt from a rooftop; Daniel, wrapped up in his own Secret Pain, but beginning to connect the dots; and me, wondering why the eff there is no wall or at least some sort of barrier to stop people falling to their deaths. (COULD THIS BE IMPORTANT LATER? Hm.) But here I go getting distracted again. It’s easily done since, changes in aesthetics aside, this is another slow-paced, fairly dense episode requiring quite a lot of patience and not offering a massive amount in return, as yet. I was intrigued last week but I’m getting a little antsy now: two eps in, the old-school spycraft (the cobbler!) is fun, and the cast is tremendous, but the story is missing a spark. Unless it finds it soon, it’s going to be a very long season.
After this first episode of Berlin Station, I feel like the two main things you need for good spycraft are a nice hoodie (muted colours, no logos to draw the attention please, we’re not amateurs) and a pair of comfortable shoes. After all, most of your time will be spent following people, with a carefully casual look on your face belied by the watchful look in your eyes.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that a whole lot of this series-opener involves Richard Armitage walking round tailing people in highly serious and choreographed fashion. In fact, we first meet his Daniel Miller (quiet, handsome, Secret Pain – you know the drill) in a lift, looking wary and just about to embark on another choreographed walk. Start as you mean to go on, I suppose. Although this particular one is different for a number of reasons, the main one being that half the cast is involved, and it’s more a ballet than a solo dance. And he gets shot at the end of it. NOOOOOOO!
Because the show can’t just kill off its lead and end before it begins, though, we then jump back two months to find out our man’s a smart, sensitive but slightly maverick (natürlich) CIA operative who’s transferred from Panama to the titular Berlin Station to find and stop “Thomas Shaw”, Herr Shaw being the CIA’s own personal version of Wikileaks. Berlin Station itself is run by very professional, very experienced intelligence people, all of whom you will recognise from Other Things. (Dr Dubenko! That guy from Four Weddings! etc) and all of whom are wearing very well-cut suits. Michelle Forbes’s Valerie, in particular, sports the kind of understated, beautifully-tailored office look I have been aiming for my entire working life without even coming close, WHAT IS YOUR SECRET, MICHELLE? HELP ME.
Immaculately dressed and highly-skilled though the Berlin team are, though, since Herr Shaw could derail the entire enterprise and start World War III any minute, they’re all a bit tense. Daniel is obviously on it – secretly – but he’d better be schnell about it because Shaw’s stepped up the pace and every leak means another spy or asset being plucked off the streets/out of their shiny offices at Deutsche Bank, the only questions being which spy/asset and whether the Americans get there in time to do the plucking first.
It’s all very high-stakes but also realistically downbeat, unglamorous and measured in pace. (I mean, as far as I know. I’ve never actually worked in the field of international intelligence.) All of which means it’s not an easy watch: there’s a great deal of information to absorb and plenty of characters to place in this first instalment, so, after a long day at work, I don’t think I fully grasped who everyone was or why they were important. At one point, for instance, Michelle said “Let’s get Gerald to a safe house!” and it took me several minutes and quite a few scenes to work out a) why? and b) who on earth is Gerald?
But I liked the cast and the story so far more than enough to keep watching and concentrating anyway, although I did wonder if the random topless women in the various club/party scenes were there to hang onto viewers who might not have wanted to put the work in otherwise. No doubt the writers would tell you the aim was to show the seediness of the Berlin spy nightlife, but it really wasn’t necessary and trying to redress the balance by sticking in a similarly gratuitous shot of Richard Armitage naked didn’t change that, appreciated though it may have been by certain corners of the internet.
Nudity or not, though, Berlin Station hasn’t quite knocked my socks off yet. On the strength of this first outing, however, it seems like a solid, thoughtful and grown-up spy drama with something a bit different from your usual running and shooting. And I don’t mean just the walking. I’m intrigued. And I’m on board.