Berlin Station, episode 1, first impressions [spoilers] #richardarmitage
This isn’t going to be as detailed and lengthy as the Spooks 9 recaps I wrote, I fear, but I’ll give it a shot.
The TL;DR version is that this is excellent television. It has a high energy start, it turns expectations about spy stories on their heads, it really uses the city of Berlin as both a character in the story and a way of explaining the characters, it has a lot of very strong characters (and characterizations), and the juxtaposition of what we know is fake / spycraft with what claims to be real is truly unsettling — making me want to keep watching. The storytelling is fascinating.
And Armitage. Wow. He’s really ‘become” an American in so many ways for this role. This is crucial because as a CIA agent, he on some level represents “Americanness” much more than someone like Gary Morris did in Into the Storm.
I love how “Berlin forward” this show is. I haven’t seen whatever other show that is that Olen Steinhauer was trash-talking, but I love how Berlin shows itself in this program so far. I admit that I love and miss that city a lot, but I feel like the show gives an impression of what the city is really like (as opposed to only its showplaces). The David Bowie song under the title is also an inspired choice. In its interiors, the city is a place that I recognize. What it doesn’t give a good sense of so far in my opinion is Kiez — but it signals in that direction a few times and it may still come. However, I only lived in Berlin for a year. I would be interested to know how German readers feel about this.
Obviously, I love that Richard Armitage is really front and center.
And I’m really pleased that they chose a different beginning scene than the one that was publicized two months ago. That showed us a lot about the characters, but it was very slow. If the series is going to live up to its titles — and hang onto people’s attention — it needs to start fast. And I think showing these agents involved in some kinds of operation keeps them moving and us wondering.
Although if there were an operation like that — and someone was shot in full view in front of the Hauptbahnhof? — it would cause a lot more uproar than that.
It’s unmistakable — we’ve been talking for a long time about what’s necessary to “appear” American, not just an accent but certain ways of taking up space — and Richard Armitage has come hundreds of miles.
I thought it was particularly noticeable in the scene where Daniel Miller confronts his superior in Panama. Something about the way he twists his body and says the word, “ma’am.”
I had a certain fear that we’re going to see some Lucas North recycling, but so far it isn’t apparent despite some persistence from Lucas North’s canon of behaviors (hand to face, for example). One thing I appreciate is how much Daniel seems to slouch. He also seems more rock-like — his face, with the stubble, has a more chiseled look. Daniel appears simultaneously harder — more macho (see above about “appearing American”) — and more flexible, more hidden, more discreet.
It’s an interesting characterization. Throughout I had the sense that Daniel is a believer (in something) or maybe a patriot of some kind, but when you probe below the surface, also a rather harsh realist.
Overall, the show doesn’t spend any time explaining — it just drops us right into the action and assumes we will come along. I found this storytelling technique really effective, as it provoked me to pay close attention to every scene.
The “first scene” that we’ve already been given is located in the middle of the show — again dramatically effective as by now, we’d like more information.
I really loved this scene between Daniel and Valerie (Michelle Forbes) that followed. Guylty will point out that it’s “Kirschtorte” and not “Kirchtorte” (and I’d say — I don’t associate Kirschtorte with Frankfurt, but whatever). Really great how Valerie quizzes him and his lines are intended to deflect and deflect until she raises the question of his mother — and then we have this apparent defensive mood. Although Daniel is definitely playing his own game here.
And he’s got history with Hector — interesting facial language from Daniel as he encounters him, though he must know that Hector is there.
We learn that Hector may need to continue an affair with Faisal — following up the ISIL plotline — and then we see the chief of German intelligence (actually, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz), Hans Richter, consulting with Dieter, an important subordinate. Cultural note: Richter and his coworker are quite close colleagues — they use the informal address (“Du”) with each other, which isn’t automatic among colleagues at work, even these days. This will be important later.
In the second next scene, we learn that Dieter is really being run by the CIA, as Daniel’s predecessor is moving to Budapest and is “leaving” him to Daniel. Tension in the office, which Daniel “happens upon,” will obviously be important very shortly and even more in later episodes.
Lots of beautiful random shots of the area around Alexanderplatz as Daniel follows Claudia again and chases her to the Berliner Zeitung offices, where we briefly meet reporter Ingrid Hollander. I admire how this show uses the city as a backdrop to tell us things about the characters, not least because in my experience that is how Berlin works. It is a city of such extreme experiences — as Gerald says to Daniel, it has a reputation for “anything goes” — and significant geographical distances that where you go says quite a bit about you. This scene on a Spree canalboat serves to suggest to us that Daniel is a straight arrow. In combination with Daniel’s earlier response to Gerald’s cynicism about the hunt for Thomas Shaw, we get the sense that Daniel is truly serious.
Then we see Daniel’s apartment. I can’t not include this:
And then — Dieter is unmasked as a CIA spy, he is taken to the local safe house, and Berlin Station begins a massive shredding action.
I really like — as an aside — all these strong female characters (in both episodes). Michelle Forbes is really great in her role so far. Interesting teaser from the station chief about how people should tell him if they’re hanging on to something damaging. Then Valerie goes to the safe house — she is the one who has to tell Gerald that he doesn’t get to move to Budapest with his family. (Neat technique of reminding us of Ingrid Hollander here — seeing her in a Berliner Zeitung vid on a smart phone). The scene offers us a great opportunity to see Armitage doing something he’s the best at: reacting to bad news.
It turns out that the station chief has bad news himself: an affair with his secretary. Plus points for showing us another one of those quirky Berlin interiors. It’s absolutely not a cookie-cutter city, and Sandra’s apartment proves it.
Time for some old fashioned skycraft — Der Spiegel with a picture of Thomas Shaw on it (German’s main center-left news magazine), a crossword puzzle magazine, a record store, and Ingrid pressuring Claudia to continue with the accelerated pace as Thomas Shaw’s courier, as Daniel records their conversation with his smart phone. Ingrid wants Claudia to get laid.
Hector pursues his running of Faisal.
And then one of those moments of German life I enjoy so much — a spying operation conducted through free postcards (these are ubiquitous, or used to be, and they can be very funny. I used to collect them). Daniel, chewing gum (this moment is neat!) sees it all.
The scene in the bar, where Daniel first encounters Claudia face to face, is SO well done. This script was obviously written by someone who’s very familiar with the way that Europeans tend to see hapless Americans behaving — down to the slight, self-important rudeness, the random friendliness, and the haphazard attempts at communication never pursued with much energy. Armitage gets this just right, down to saying “Entschuldigung” in a less than convincing way. I really feel my compatriots (painfully) observed in his performance.
Another thing that’s interesting to me is the way in which Berlin Station conforms (or rejects) conventions for filming Berlin stories, which have a long tradition by now. For instance, there’s this moment where the camera shifts to the background and we see Faisal, lurking in the background, and the bar, which has seemed relatively friendly till now, takes on a bit the icy cast that’s a trope for filming Berlin bars since at least Cabaret — the common trope of sickly-ness of the Weimar era atmosphere is reflected here. It’s so brief that I can’t pause to think about whether it’s a cliché; it’s a citation or acknowledgement more than the execution of a pattern, and I am glad.
Too, the conversation with Claudia has the same sort of informal vibe that we’ll see in the second episode with the Berlin transit worker — it’s not played by the actors so much as observed by the camera. (This is very Michael Röskam — the other movies of his I’ve seen are all into observations of the quotidian.) This scene — and the one slightly later, after we learn that Steven’s wife would like him to quit, when “Kevin” (Daniel’s alias) confesses that he hasn’t been stood up for a date — feel like they just sat down and filmed a date. Except, of course, for the fact that we know Daniel is playing Claudia like a fish. The unsettling effect this strategy has on me as a viewer augments my awareness of the ominous background the shot above signals. It’s a hugely subtle way of setting up the feeling that nothing in reality is as it appears. Additionally — the matter of whose parents would protest whose (Claudia’s parents possibly having been lefties who would have protested the American military presence in Germany, an ongoing activity in the 1980s) points out to the sense of quickly changing time. These things that were so real in the past are now: just history. 1989 meant the U.S. Army mostly left Germany and the city, like Germany, is reunited.
Daniel doesn’t get laid (despite Ingrid’s advice to Claudia) but Hector has, and for it he gets details about someone who’s money laundering to ISIL through gas stations. As he approaches Deputy Chief Robert Kirsch for assistance in following up the detail, the show signals that it is going to reference another sort of key question of the post-Wall Berlin story: What does the city, and the games played in it and around it, mean that there is no longer a binary superpower conflict?
Another gratuitous Berlin shot I can’t leave out: Tegel airport, my favorite Berlin airport, which is scheduled for demolition soon:
Gemma Moore (who’s responsible for sending Daniel to Berlin) is on her way to Berlin Station. After a scene where the sense of personal betrayal on both sides between Hans and Dieter is visceral, Gemma tells Daniel that he needs to hurry up and find Shaw.
But the date is not to come to pass.
Claudia is murdered, and in the closing scene of the episode we learn that Hector knows about it.
In short — this is a strong episode and it held my attention all along to its brutal end. It feels like it has the potential to be appointment TV. Now: we just have to make sure that people see it.