After the Berlin Station marathon #richardarmitage
Perhaps against what would have been advisable, I watched the Berlin Station marathon yesterday (from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. non-stop). Might have been better to start the new year off writing and I have so much of that to do, but anyway, I re-watched the whole thing.
The only new thing I learned was at the very end: Berlin Station returns Fall 2017. So it’s going to be a very tight shooting schedule, I suspect, if they start in April. Hopefully Richard Armitage’s emails to the writers have already started.
Arguably, Berlin Station is better and makes more sense if you watch it one straight shot, although I already knew the plot and had thought about it extensively before I saw it, so it’s hard to say. It may just be like hearing a symphony all the way through after rehearsing it for ten weeks. The symphony isn’t necessarily any better, you’ve just learned what to listen for and how to fit the pieces together. The whole envelope of the show, however, is not put together anything like a symphony. There’s no real curve building. I enjoyed the first two episodes and had a very hard time with episode four, as the internal racism and sexism are hard to take, then found episode 5 with its characterization attempts a highlight, despite the nasty stereotypes at the center of it — and then found my attention fading during episode six, as I didn’t find any of it plausible, with seven and eight not doing much to improve that. Things picked up at nine and ten, with the gradual revelations of the solution, but not enough to make up for the doldrums and stupidity in the middle of the series.
That would be my biggest suggestion for the series — slow burn here or there (and in contrast to some of my fellow fans, I didn’t mind at all the pacing of the initial episodes), there must be a progression from episode to episode that keeps us wanting to tune in every week, and that feeling at the end is a very different sentiment than one has to have simply to keep watching a marathon on a day when one has nothing pressing to do anyway. This is elementary narrative theory as explained to seventh graders. Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that after Claudia’s murder at the beginning (and it’s impossible to get emotionally invested in a character we only see for ten minutes, no matter how cute the meet cute was or how gripping the kiss at the end of it), we don’t have any larger reason to want to know who Thomas Shaw is, because despite the publicity, this is not a show about the problem of whistle-blowing. For eight episodes, it’s really a show about office politics — and the fact that Hector seems to have a hard-on for everyone — that happens to take place in the CIA’s Berlin outpost. Only after 80 percent of the show is over does it get around to explaining why Hector is sabotaging everything. And a personal grievance does not a whistle-blower make, but rather a revanchist. Berlin Station has nothing to do with Snowden and it’s a stretch to relate it to Assange or even Chelsea Manning. If I were able to care about the victims, perhaps I’d be more concerned about the personal consequences of whistle-blowing, but the only main character who aroused much sympathy from me was Robert Kirsch, and it took more than half the show to get me there. In the end, if we talk about the “too many victims” of Thomas Shaw, I have a twinge for Claudia and Gerald, and somewhat more sympathy for Julian (although that question, too, was under-examined), but I don’t care about Dieter Klaus, Houjin Lin, Steven and Kellie, Steven and Sandra’s affair, or Valerie. I’m sad about Claire but she wasn’t really a victim of Shaw as much as of Hector. But if that’s it — if the only people I can feel sorry for are secondary characters — then the show isn’t taking much of a risk, either in terms of letting us develop allegiances to the characters or burning them no matter the consequences. (Spooks was better at both of these.)
A good show about leaks would be something, but Berlin Station doesn’t ever really get around to that. The most boring part of the show — the episodes in the middle, which are mostly about alleged terrorism connected to Muslims that borders on Muslim-baiting, particularly once we learn that it wasn’t very real anyway — only tangentially touches on the Thomas Shaw question. If the puzzle we’re solving is Thomas Shaw, the show really needs to make that its number one priority all through the writing. If not (which would be fine, because Berlin Station has nothing of interest to say about whistle-blowing), then it needs to find some other compelling story, which was not, in my opinion, either the Iosavas and their child export scheme or Langley’s mistake over the “eyewash” plot. It’s hard to get invested in the former because we’ve seen it done before and better, and there is nothing at all sympathetic about Ruth Iosava (imagine that, an American tv show trying to undermine a conservative religious position) and it’s impossible to get invested in the latter, because the only Langley representatives we see are either Gemma Moore (who seems legit, but is torched by episode 3), and the Machiavellian Clay Williams.
I should have kept a list while I was watching, because the number of characters and sub-plots abandoned or never concluded threatens to drown the ones they do complete:
- Why was Daniel in Panama? What’s the deal with the flash drives in the jungle?
- All the time spent on Gerald and his family — never goes anywhere. Only purpose is to say something about Valerie?
- Who is that guy Hector meets in the vegetable shop anyway?
- Joker, the computer programmer — disappears. This is all in aid of putting a bug in the computer security of the Berliner Zeitung. Did we really need another character and this much screen time to accomplish this, if she was never coming back?
- What about Daniel’s parents? All that just to establish that he’s (supposed to be) a fluent German speaker?
- What about Esther’s father? Why did we even need to know that her father was a Stasi prominent?
- What actually did happen in Chechnya? If we saw everything that happened, why is Daniel so horrified by his sight of Hector again, and so insistent that Patricia stay away from him? Based on what we saw, I’d think Daniel would be happy to be reunited with such a supportive friend.
- Robert’s statement to Golda that he wanted a false operation in order to look good — left dangling?
- The whole “Steven wants a promotion” plot — went on and on for no apparent reason other than to explain why Steven and Robert were so eager to jump on the Iosava pretext?
- All that screen time for “brown bear” — just to demonstrate they had access to illegal weapons?
- Daniel has to drive all the way out to Wannsee and see the torture victim — for what? Not that I didn’t enjoy every minute he spent on screen with Ingrid Hollander; I really liked that character.
- Where did Alexandre Iosava actually end up? What about Bora Osman / “Swingset”?
- Why was the Mossad so interested in Valerie? What was the deal with “Antoinette,” other than to mess up Valerie’s relationship with the bar owner? To increase Robert’s distrust of her? (in which case, he never read the file, did he?)
- What happened to Patricia after episode 9?
If I were writing an instruction to the writers, after (1) pick a theme for the show and make sure all the subplots really support it, the next would be (2) ask if you really need all these characters and milieux. I get the fascination with Berlin — it was probably the thing that (apart from Richard Armitage) most kept me watching the show — but you are spending too much time on minor characters that feed subplots that could be accomplished more quickly, or on showing particular spaces (that lengthy sermon in the mosque; the scene in the Turkish bath; all of the surfing through the Berlin sex clubs) when you should be spending the time either on making us care about the characters or on adding a dimension to the show that really makes us care about the resolution of the main plot.
So. Apart from that, I wanted to mention that it’s interesting, during the rewatch, how aggressively Valerie keeps pushing the Iosava thing, how much support on that she gets from Gemma Moore, and how resistant she is to the idea of asking Mossad for information (which — had it happened — might have led to a decisive conversation much earlier that would have forestalled most of the chaos of episodes six, seven and eight). And then all of a sudden she backs off at the beginning of the operation. At the time I just thought, oh, she’s a moralistic character and now she has qualms. But it would completely fit a backstory in which she were somehow aware of or participating in the whole Langley / eyewash strand of the plot. And Gemma Moore was the person who wants to try to stop Thomas Shaw.
Anyway, goodbye till the summer publicity begins, I suppose, along with any photos or info we catch from the participants in the next shoot in April.