Berlin Station, episode 5, thoughts [spoilers]
[Epidode 4 is here.]
Below follows a detailed recap with commentary. If I have three things to say for the TL;DR crowd, they would be:
- This episode was a great improvement on the last because we actually learned something about the depths of the characters. It wasn’t just event after event after event. I think I felt, watching this episode, that there’s too much to say. The show has one, perhaps two, too many characters.
- I said earlier, and still feel, that I appreciate the fact that the U.S. is not presented as the heroic force here (vs. Spooks and its belief that the UK could do no wrong), and I do like the inclusion of enough nations that the show doesn’t feel so bipolar. However, the show definitely loses out to Spooks in terms of characterization and depth of the roles — it’s not the actors’ fault; the script has simply given them almost no material, until this episode. It’s very weird to get halfway through a season of a show and still have so much about the main characters left unexplored, but somehow this show managed that. Let’s hope that we get a few more episodes like this. I’m doubtful insofar as the plot is so complicated I’m not sure how it can be wound up in only five more hours.
- If there was a theme in this episode, it’s that the act of spying is a fundamental technique for these people of deriving meaning — at least for Daniel, Hector, Robert and possibly Valerie. Steven’s problem seems to be that he no longer derives meaning from it. The others are confounded or at least unsettled when they don’t find this connection to what they are doing. In other words: spying is a calling. This is also an idea that would be worth further exploration.
Episode 5’s title is “Unter Druck” (German = Under Pressure). It opens in Julian de Vos’ bathroom with my favorite David Bowie song and drug paraphernalia. This moment was really well constructed — says something about the character, about what’s going on in the story, and also about Berlin bathrooms. I love it when Julia begins jamming out to Bowie.
And I like how the shot shows the effects of the drug (crack?):
Hector and Julian meet up at the Glienecke Bridge, another storied location (it was an East / West border crossing point and a prisoner / spy exchange location. Shades of Lucas being brought back to the West and warned in favor of or against broccoli). They have a conversation about behavior on bridges (Hector is tempted to jump when he’s on such a structure) and Julian gets the next piece of the Thomas Shaw intelligence — this time targeting Berlin Station’s resettlement of Hou-Jin Lin. Julian is worried about involving the Chinese; for Hector, getting absolutely everyone afraid of him is part of the attraction.
Back in Berlin, Ingrid Hollander gets the next Shaw leak while eating breakfast.
So Daniel appears at the Frost apartment, and seems a little surprised that Kellie is opening the door.
Armitage catches the self-consciousness just right here (and the huskiness in Daniel’s voice). Daniel informs Steven that the next Shaw leak regards the decision to resettle Hou-Jin Lin, including a paper trail of all of the Chinese general’s atrocities. Steven then expostulates that if it comes out, his career is over (and Robert’s, who “ran point”). Now. I’ve been reading in various places that Richard Jenkins is “overacting.” I actually think this is part of his character’s MO. When something goes wrong, Steven gets all upset and everyone rushes to support him. We’ve seen Steven run this game on Sandra and Robert already, and, I think, also on his wife. So why shouldn’t Daniel fall in with Steven’s suggestion to move Hou-jin Lin out of Berlin and thus discredit Shaw’s information?
Which he apparently does, although he asks for info on the black site that Julian escaped from; Steven tells him that Hou-jin Lin takes priority.
UNANSWERED QUESTION: HOW DOES HECTOR NOT OVERHEAR THIS CONVERSATION?
Nice scene here for the Daniel / Steven relationship — Steven following his usual tantrum-oriented way of getting what he wants and Daniel realizing, no, I can’t trust that this guy really wants to unmask Shaw. This underlines the general perception I had about the episode, which is that finally we get some plot advances that tell us something about the characters and their motivations and relationships (in contrast to the previous week, which was just plot point after plot point).
Back at the office, Hector proposes a date at the Deutsche Oper — this moment intends to indicate his boredom with his camouflage function as “assistant cultural attaché” — too bad, I’d go, the Deutsche Oper is famous — and then endlessly refreshes the homepage of the Berliner Zeitung, apparently looking for a story based on the Shaw leak. Hans Richter and Steven meet at Kaffeehaus Einstein in Charlottenburg (don’t ask me why, it’s convenient to neither of their offices, but this is another one of those Berlin locations that have such a complicated history that it’s interesting on its own merits). They agree that they have to “relocate” Lin.
Steven goes back to the embassy where he seeks reassurance from Robert that they are “good.” Robert says he was able to pacify the Israelis, and that they are fine personally (no normal spectator would believe him) and Steven asks him to join a meeting with Valerie about the Iosova surveillance. Next, we see Hector and Claire shooting in an abandoned factory with a lot of graffiti. Hector wins their game and says, rather lightly in my opinion, “I still love you,” to her. She picks up on it and mocks him.
Then, at the BFV offices, Hans Richter calls Esther Krug into his office to tell her about the leak, assert that it needs to be discredited in advance, and inform her that she and Daniel will need to take Lin to Poland. (This is because it’s very easy to drive across the Polish border from Berlin and presumably, they won’t be noticed as they would at any airport in Berlin.) Finally, he says, Dann bin ich sicher, daß du alles Nötige veranlassen wirst. The English translation (I know you’ll do whatever needs to be done) is basically accurate (veranlassen = to arrange for, to take the necessary steps to, to cause) and doesn’t signal anything that the German doesn’t (this was a question that some fans had in light of things that happen later in the episode).
Daniel is biking when Esther finds him in a parking garage and tells him what they’ll be doing. He’s learned his lesson from Claudia’s murder and doesn’t pause to lock the bike, but he does give an appraising eye to Esther’s wheels before approaching her to see what’s up. So begins a mutual journey of discovery as they are stuck in that car for a long time together and have time to ask questions. This strategy is really helpful to the show as it again rescues it from simply being a long chain of plot points.
I often think that although Daniel’s German might be expected to be better, he does express a few attitudes that are quintessentially (West) German — one of them being that there’s no sunshine in Germany. (I used to have this conversation with German friends all the time, who didn’t understand that the German summer is a selling point for visitors — it’s not sunny enough for them.) He finds out in the course of this conversation that Esther grew up in the GDR. Given the rest of this script, this is a surprisingly subtle conversation and I found myself wondering whether the actors fiddled with it.
Meanwhile, back at the embassy, Steven, Robert and Valerie are trying to figure out what to do with the information that Ruth Iosava has purchased tickets for two young women to go to Syria. Of course they don’t agree: Robert wants to check with Mossad, Valerie wants to hold off, Steven takes Valerie’s side, and Robert takes Steven’s decision personally. I think there’s a tendency to get caught up in this scene over the plot, but what I like about it is what it ends up telling us about Robert — that he really is tired of playing Tonto to Steven.
Next, Robert and the Mossad agent from the previous episode at the synagogue. I discussed which synagogue here, and how that complicates our understanding of Robert’s backstory. Robert gets to tell us the last time he was in shul was when he was thirteen and had a crush on a girl who made his voice squeak. He also reports that he doesn’t want to work for the Israelis just because he’s Jewish (even though they are pushing on the loyalty button really hard), and the Mossad agent says what he wants to hear — that he’s one of the most valuable intelligence officers in Europe.
Daniel and Esther show up at Lin’s apartment — and here’s another one of those German attitude moments for Daniel — he walks into the room and the first thing he says is “it smells like ass in here.” It may, but I can’t tell you how often in my life I’ve observed Germans walk into a room with closed windows, make some kind of remark about the odor in the room, and open a window. It’s not considered rude. Highlight memory: staying in a multi-bed room in a hostel on an excursion in conjunction with a seminar course and having the professor of the course walk into the room at 6 a.m., proclaim, “hier stinkt es nach armen Leute,” and rip the windows open in below-freezing weather. Anyway.
Daniel and Esther inform Lin that they are relocating him to the U.S. because it’s not safe for him in Germany any longer. He doesn’t want to go. Various insults ensue. Daniel tells him to listen to Esther or he’ll publish Chan’s location and he’ll be dead in two hours. Esther hits Chan in the genitals. Chan says, “Nazi bitch” — being called Nazis being one of the consequences Germans everywhere in the world have to deal with.
Detour: I don’t know how to feel about this, because on the one hand I am amused by the portrayal of Lin by Paul Michael Chan and on the other I’m horribly afraid that I’m smirking at a cultural or ethnic stereotype and just don’t watch enough bad television, or good television with Asian characters, to realize what I’m doing. In any case, Chan (who has a lengthy career as a character actor and a prestigious past as a theater founder) is punching well below the weight of what he’s capable of in this show. The show already took a big hyper-stereotypical swipe at Asians the previous week so Steinhauer seems totally prepared to do that. Somehow I am guessing that someone guilty of testing nuclear radiation on his own people shouldn’t seem like quite such a simpleton. I don’t know. I apologize for not grasping quite what is going on here.]
Cut to Valerie, who appears to be interrogating Bora / “Swingset” in an abandoned restaurant space. Shot in an interesting way, insofas we see both of them at times in a slightly distorted mirror. They have a conversation about whether it’s legitimate for Bora to give money to the Iosavas — Bora points out quite reasonably that refugees need money, non-White people are under suspicion, and so on.
Valerie informs him what his donation is really being used for (sending girls to Syria) and asks him whose side he’s really on.
Now — on to a scene in a German department store that I found really funny. I suppose this raises questions again about cultural stereotypes and under which circumstances they are funny, but the cultural stereotype that is being brought to expression here is “fresh, mouthy, inappropriate Berlin shopgirl.” The young ladies (Daayna and Sabina) are shopping casually in the lingerie department of a store when they are approached by Claire, who’s the salesperson. She tries to fish for some information, but when they don’t want to give it to her, she gives a fool-proof suggestion for attractiveness during oral sex. I’d never heard this tip before but it makes total sense.
Claire may be graduating to “favorite character apart from Daniel Miller” for me. I know a lot of this is writing but the actor, Zahra Ahmadi, has a great deal of energy and verve (that sort of appealingly compensates for her haphazard German pronunciation).
Back in the car, Lin wants to urinate but obviously the spooks won’t let him out of the car. Daniel drains a water bottle and offers it to Lin. Lin says it’s not big enough. Daniel is obdurate.
And then one of the funniest exchanges ever.
And Daniel gets this fantastic line:
It’s partially funny because the “sexy” way to refer to what he’s talking about in German is to insert an English phrase, dirty talk — although a German would make a point of pronouncing it in a particularly German way; partially because he’s punning on what she just said (“versaut,” the participle of the verb Esther uses in the previous line, does not only mean “filthy” in a literal sense, but also in a figurative one; a sense of humor can be “versaut” as well); and partially because no German Daniel’s age would normally use the word “Fräulein” to refer to an adult woman these days, so it sounds a bit like he’s making a facetious remark about a sexual role play. Then there’s that arch, sly look out of the corner of his eyes. Anyway.
At the shopping center, Claire passes on what she’s learned about Sabina and Daayna, and tells her that Hector is in love with her. (I do not get why everyone is so thrilled about Hector. Rat-faced, skinny weasel. Claire, I thought you didn’t believe him!) Robert in his apartment tries to skype with his son, and we learn from his backstory that his wife left him and took their son back to the U.S. In the car, Daniel defends Esther against another crude remark from Lin. Esther looks at Daniel appraisingly.
In Berlin, Sabina and Daayna are outside the Berlin Mosque (in Wilmersdorf; this is a bit weird as it appears to be more of an Indian institution, a group representative of a particular sect, so this is using a façade to represent something it doesn’t represent, just like with the synagogue, apparently. If I were going to look for a mosque in Berlin with hidden Salafis, I’d probably look in Neu-Kölln first), where Claire photographs them talking to Ruth Iosava.
Back at the car, Esther is gassing up, Lin is still tense about his bathroom situation, and Daniel finally says that when he starts something, he will finish it.
Now it’s nighttime. In Berlin, apparently Julia is shadowing Patricia, allowing Daniel to show up at the restaurant where Patricia is having dinner (they give the address as Knaackstr 110, which isn’t a real address, but it is close to one of the neater “scene” areas of Berlin, the Kulturbrauerei in Pankow). He plays up to Patricia, who explains her own dilemma (middle aged single mom — he apparently knows just how to get under her skin, blerg, WOMEN ARE NOT REALLY THIS STUPID). Servetus still fails to understand the attractions of Hector. At the embassy, Valerie, Steven and Robert are arguing about what to do about the girls. Steven again decides to follow Valerie’s plan (stop the girls before they fly to Istanbul), at which Robert flies into a rage. Watching Valerie watch the guys, it’s hard to escape the ide that she is trying to play them off against each other in her own interest. I think there can be a tendency to get lost in the information Robert recites here (Armitage remarked, “These are SMART PEOPLE”), but to me the real point is we see how closer Robert is getting to the edge of his ability to tolerate the power relationships in Berlin in light of his own need for family and validation. He almost hyperventilates here, and it’s really convincing. This was the first point at which I actually started to like the Robert character.
Nighttime in Poland — Daniel, Esther and Lin have arrived at their destination, upon which it is revealed that Lin is going not to the U.S., but to Beijing, where he sketches a list of likely negative consequences to him that Esther finds too optimistic. She offers Daniel a drink. The scene is shot in so much shadow that we can’t really see the expression on Daniel’s face, but he’s clearly troubled by the deception.
In the car on the way back, Esther begins telling Daniel a personal story, admitting that she has been outside of Germany once. Daniel indicates that he doesn’t believe the entire story is true, and Esther concedes. Daniel then admits that he told stories as a child about how his mother died. Esther asks if he didn’t know the answers to the questions (!) but Daniel says that he couldn’t deal with the kinds of questions people would have asked.
And then we get to the two moments that are probably the most memorable for the Richard Armitage fan in the series. Esther gives Daniel a drink, and Daniel and Esther do it. Those both probably have earned a lengthier comment in a separate post. For now, I’ll just note some things that I liked in these scenes.
First, the pictures on Esther’s mantel: behind the picture Daniel looks at and to our left, is a photo of a girl in the uniform of the Junge Pioniere, the East German state youth organization for younger children (sort of like Communist scouting). The Babelsberg studio has a reputation for really accurate scene dressing and it definitely helps convince people like me.
Second, hearing Daniel say “Prost.” Armitage really has the German “r” down. Sometimes he exaggerates it a bit, but here, it’s lovely.
Third, I really love how he rolls the drink in his mouth. I’m sure they were not drinking whiskey when they filmed the scene, but you’d never know.
I can’t decide in this scene (nor in the previous one, where he’s telling her about his childhood) how sincere he’s being. I don’t think she is being entirely sincere (especially not if her boss’ parting shot to her was an implication that she should try to get closer to Miller for operational reasons — although that’s nothing more than implication and probably much less than that). My instinct is that Daniel is letting her see something true, but out of ulterior motives (if that makes any sense). I know that Armitage seems to want to insist on his naiveté, but I don’t think his character can really be that naive. She, on the other hand, looks calculating — it always seems like she’s trying to judge his reaction to her — but I also think that she’s genuinely interested in him. She definitely is enjoying his physical attention.
I used to get criticized a lot for saying that sex scenes were figurative or metaphorical; luckily that contingent of the fandom seems to have quieted over the years. But this scene is a nice demonstration of what I mean. Yes, they are both mostly naked and having sex (and I’m not sure that I believe BFV agents normally wear thigh highs to work) and the scene is intended to titillate and I personally find it arousing to watch. But I think it also indicates something about their mutual attraction, their personal and their professional needs, their interactions and their personalities. I never had a lot of patience for the crowd that felt we should never see Armitage naked or acting out an intimate scene and after hearing that discussion at least three times now, I have even less. I think Daniel is both attracted to her and aware that sex can be manipulative. I think he knows the effect that that sort of explosive desire has on a woman (just as he knew how Claudia might be receptive to his urgent but gentle kisses). I think that he realizes what a demonstration of masculinity in this way can accomplish. And I think he is into it.
Cut to the waiting room at Schönefeld Airport (unfortunately Michelle Forbes pronounces it approximately three different ways), where some friendly policemen pick up Daayna and Sabina and tell them they have to undergo a new security protocol or not fly. They end up being questioned by Valerie and Claire, who can’t get much out of them. They were right that Daayna was the radical and Sabina was just along for the ride (and susceptible to male flattery). Daayna is American / German, so she can be questioned in English, while Claire interviews Sabina in German.
Meanwhile, Daniel and Esther are sharing a very early cigarette and Daniel is confessing a certain amount of guilt over the Lin affair — but Esther won’t admit to guilt at all. Daniel is disturbed that they don’t care what’s wrong anymore, they just don’t want to be caught doing it; Esther thinks that sounds like Thomas Shaw. At the airport, the interrogation continues; Daayna denies any serious connection to Ruth Iosava. And then, at Robert’s apartment, we see this:
This is sort of the last straw for Robert; he is being serviced by a Romanian sex worker and when he tries to be nice to her afterwards, she takes the money and runs (I don’t know what she says and there are no subtitles and Robert doesn’t understand her either). So again, as with Lin: there are two really big stereotypes operating in this scene (Jewish men are expressive at sex; sex is an important part of the male search for meaning) AND somehow it’s kind of funny as well as being sad. It turns out that Robert also says “fuck” when he comes, but in a much less percussive tone.
Cut to Daniel and Esther in bed, watching the news, in which Ingrid is being interviewed because the Chinese claim to have had custody of Lin the whole time, thus discrediting the latest Thomas Shaw leak. So they’ve accomplished their mission. While I watching this, I found myself wondering idly if Ingrid is somehow based on Anne Will (yes, I know Will was not a print journalist. Something about her speech and the way she speaks reminds me of Will, faintly). Hector is watching, too. Why did he not overhear anything that was going on with Daniel this whole time?
At the airport, Valerie admits they can’t charge the girls with anything that will stick. Daayna appears to gloat (although she can’t know what’s going on). Valerie goes back to Bora with the accusation that he paid for the girls to go to Syria, and holds it over his head to keep him spying on Iosava. Robert goes to shul (same one as last time, but we’re not sure which one) and agrees to spy for Israel, but not for money — the episode seems to suggest, in order to regain meaning in his life.
Esther, meanwhile, has driven Daniel to the place where his mother died, and feeds him a chunk of information about what was going on. Daniel accuses her of being transparent and manipulative, and says he doesn’t trust her. This is a beautiful scene, and it also deserves a further break-down someday.
Generally speaking, one thing I’ve really appreciated about this show is the way that it captures the light in Berlin — particularly these shots in the morning gloaming. I don’t know, exactly, if it’s that it lasts especially long in Germany or if there’s something qualitatively different about it there than here due to latitude, but the way the light falls is a definite piece of the whole experience of Germany.
Finally, Shirley Pimple, the transvestite, knocks on Hector’s door. They’ve been beaten up. Hector helps them clean up and (in case you didn’t notice this several episodes ago) Julian de Vos is also Shirley.
Whew. Less than 24 hours to go before the next episode.