On looking for something real — and not finding it — in Berlin Station

[ETA: linguistic infelicities corrected]

I’ve mused before about what’s wrong with Berlin Station. Last night I had the same reaction I’d described in that post — overtaken by sarcasm while writing, a jaundiced state of mind that I don’t enjoy. But I got a bit closer last night as well to what’s bugging me.

No, it wasn’t because this was all we saw of Richard Armitage last night. Not to harp on it or anything.

In my television market, Berlin Station is up against season three of Poldark, which I’d been watching the last few weeks. I don’t have access to an on-demand feature for Poldark (and I’m not generally interested enough in it to try to see it illegally), but it repeats sometime in the early morning hours on Monday, and again on Monday evening, when it’s up against our local news, before it disappears entirely. Talk about appointment TV. $150 we pay Spectrum every month and I still have to arrange my schedule like it’s 1979. Nothing about Poldark compels me so much — any prospective cheating with Aidan Turner notwithstanding — that it should really make me stay up. I need to stop watching it anyway due to the rape story in the previous season, which I didn’t see — but I admit, I haven’t made myself stop, either. Yet. I could just read the amusing Vulture recaps, which manage to be funny while avoiding sarcasm.

Howsoever it may be … last night, I watched Berlin Station at 8, jotted some notes, watched it again at 10, and then settled down to begin writing. I finished my recap shortly before 2 a.m., and thought since I was up I might as well watch Poldark 3.5. In this episode, our hero, the impetuous, altruistic Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner), has been troubled by his friend Dwight’s ongoing imprisonment in France due to the French Revolution, and has tried in a previous episode to find him. In this episode, he again takes ship for France to free him. In progress of the raid on the jail, Ross’ friend Captain Henshawe is shot and dies. They have to leave his body behind them in order to escape.

And I was so affected, by two scenes. First of all, the point at which Ross finds Dwight in the jail.

Dwight is so dumbfounded at being rescued (even if he’s not eager to abandon his men), and Ross is so overwhelmed at seeing his friend again. I love the script here, and the way emotion jumps out of the scene, even though the men are not being openly emotional.

And then at the very end, when the party has returned to Cornwall, they hold a memorial service for Captain Henshawe:

What got me in this scene was the Methodist hymn singing and the biblical text, the open grief of all the bystanders, and Ross’ sorrow and reliance on Demelza.

I cried.

Possibly I had been up too long. I am somewhat regretting this today — I have that “not enough sleep” headache — so I’m simultaneously ill-tempered and emotionally labile as I write.

I am on record — and it’s no lie — as ridiculing cheap emotion in entertainment. And there’s a lot of obvious, cheap emotion in Poldark. Turner may be charming but little about Ross’ reactions is subtle and the show invests every friendship and romantic relationship, and every stumble therein, with a grand, metaphysical weight. But I keep watching it, and last night, I realized why: because despite all of its retro potboiler qualities, there’s something real there. Ross is not really a credible character in himself — and yet Winston Graham built a vein of rectitude and kindness into the character, to which Turner lends warmth and a human face. He is a person I can imagine knowing, even if I wouldn’t want to be married to him.

Frost and Valerie’s first encounter since his firing, in Berlin Station 2.3. It could have been a scene that was really about something, except that Frost only ever behaves cynically and he spent most of the last season yelling at Valerie to get in line. The lines are too cryptic — apologizing for Clare. And Hector — what did that elliptical statement mean? It’s not like we know enough about either of them to believe what they are saying.

In contrast, as it hit me last night, everything about Berlin Station is cynical. Somehow, in rejecting the Spooks worldview (we are saving lives!) the Berlin Station creators reject any worldview. I don’t believe that MI-5 and -6 are any more virtuous than their U.S. counterparts, and it’s putting it mildly to say that I don’t admire the CIA and yet I acknowledge that real-life CIA operations are about something, no matter how twisted, revolting, disgusting, or repellent that something is.  In Spooks, too often the scripts put a shorthand in that place of meaning in order to focus on their thrills and chills plots. But at least it was there, and Spooks took time to build up characters whose motivations were front and center. As a result, I cared about the plot and what happened to those people. Even Harry Pearce, who by the end of series 10 had abandoned every lover and sold out every spy who had worked for him and had their names engraved on a wall, could occasionally provoke my sympathy. It was all about something for him. And this was the source of the feelings of betrayal in the fandom over the series 9 / John Bateman plot. We thought we knew who Lucas North was.

Frost (Richard Jenkins) and Kirsch (Leland Orser) together for drinks in Berlin Station 2.1.

You’re going to object that a spy thriller is not in the same category as a period romance, and I don’t question that. But when I think about how Berlin Station has worked for me, its failure to ever be about anything plausibly real — its regular refusal to make something meaningful at stake for any of its main characters — explains why I have such vehement reactions to some of the characters (mostly negative ones). Frost, for instance, seems to have no internal priorities of his own; he is solely involved in financing his wife’s lifestyle and picture of him, even as he regularly betrays her with his secretary. Neither does he seem to have any political priorities other than not getting in trouble with his superiors — even as he spends years embezzling money from the CIA. Jenkins’ inability to make Frost ever appear sincere — particularly in scenes where I’d like to think something is at stake, as when he’s talking to Langley in the minutes following the collapse of the mall operation and Claire’s kidnapping in season 1 — reads like a big “fuck you” to someone like me, who wants to find that piece of “real” personality that I can hold onto to understand him, even if it’s repellent. But every resort to an explanation for his behavior seems to yield only another blind angle. As a result, Frost is no one, a not very intelligent man without qualities, who feigns both decency and self-interest equally without much conviction.

(In that sense, Yates may be a worthy successor to Frost as station chief, because even after three episodes, like her enigmatic first name, she is primarily a cipher. Beyond a willingness to play the game the way the boys play, there is literally nothing there. So much for feminist characters influencing the direction of the show.)

Like — what’s up with that bathrobe??

Kirsch is a fairly similar case to me — although ameliorated because he’s often funny in a choleric way. He joins in Frost’s mistreatment and undermining of Valerie, but it’s never clear why, just as it’s never clear what she’s done that makes them feel so threatened by her. He seems ready to sell out to anyone — embezzling from the CIA, turning double agent to the Israelis. Even his relationship with his son seems infinitely negotiable. It’s a problem for me because the first step in creating a character is defining what he wants, and Kirsch doesn’t really seem to have any clearly articulated or pursued desires.

Rhys Ifans as Hector de Jean in Berlin Station 2.2. I’ve got literally nothing to write as a caption here because I honestly don’t know why Hector’s even in this episode except that I guess the producers didn’t want to write Ifans out of the show.

Similar problems apply to Hector de Jean, although it’s more complicated in that case, as Hector is supposed to have been damaged by his trauma at the black site in Morocco. In general, I understand the principle of living a double life as a CIA agent in order to continue one’s destructive whistleblowing activities (the thing that matters!) but the script is really confusing on this point, as Hector seems to have little problem undermining the Shaw plot once he gets angry. Ostensibly this anger is about how the CIA treats people, but Hector does exactly the same. It’s never clear to me until the very end exactly who Faisal is for Hector (although apparently he wasn’t whatever that was, since he has now completely disappeared from the script), not least because he seems to have a similar level of intimacy with Claire and an unclear but intense relationship with Julian. In short, all of his relationships seem equally important or not important based on the script whim of the moment. As a result, the motivations for his decisions to interfere in an operation or change his behavior to complicate a situation — the basis of his opting to create havoc — are never really clear. He seems to love and hate all in equal measure. And we never learn what exactly is at stake in his relationship with Daniel, despite the dire gestures toward the beginning of the series. I would say of Hector that we often can tell that something is at stake, but almost never quite what that something is. And all of that is gone in season 2 with the disappearance of all the characters that proved that he ever cared about anything, except the possibility that it was all about the job after all, as he doesn’t want to stay in retirement or be trapped anywhere. In the end, he is ultimately unreliable, even to the factors that are adduced as motivations for his character.

Daniel’s alive, looking out from his hospital room at a Berlin cityscape, in Berlin Station 1.10. I honestly have no idea how the character actually feels about the speech he voices over at the end. It all seems kind of cynical, and I feel kind of dumb for having spent the time to care.

In the end, the moments of Berlin Station that I have enjoyed have been those at which there was something clearly intelligible in the balance: Daniel’s feelings of betrayal or wounding as Esther Krug tries to use his past to manipulate him, or his genuine fear of what could happen to Patricia once she’s in Julian de Vos’ hands. The way that Sandra struggles to help Frost even as she has to accept what an opportunist he is and how badly she has been treated. Valerie’s partner throwing her out when she tells him the truth. Hector’s attempt to make up for the past through his partnership with Julian. In season 2, April’s eager beaver desire to succeed.

And — the story line that most deeply offended me last year — the murder of Claire. That strand made it clear that not only are such moments rare, but that when I find one to latch onto, it will be eliminated so quickly that I almost don’t have time to be angry about its disappearance. In a similar vein, note that that story line involving Daniel Miller’s Berlin “family” appears to have been eliminated entirely from season 2 and in the script so far, he has only made reference to his past in adversarial situations with the objective manipulating his interlocutor.

Valerie (Michelle Forbes) reacts to the news of Claire’s murder in Berlin Station 1.

It’s not that Berlin Station, with its complicated plot, is trying to manipulate me, despite its often clumsy indications that information I’m getting may or may not be reliable. We don’t even get that far. We don’t get to care about the characters because we rarely know who they are or what is at stake for them in their activities — why they care about what they are doing. In the end, I don’t even trust the Berlin Station writers enough to feel manipulated by them. I feel that in Poldark — that the show is trying to produce extremes of emotion in me that I don’t normally experience, and about the experience of which I have mixed feelings. In contrast, Berlin Station episodes in most cases have left me entirely detached from the events that they depict, trying to engage with radically de-centered characters like Frost and Hector but not really believing that the characters themselves think there’s anything important there to be engaged with.

Beautiful shot of Daniel Miller reacting to Hector’s snapping of Ruth Iosava’s neck.

Increasingly, watching Berlin Station leaves me feeling like I’m in a car with a malfunctioning clutch. I press the clutch but the gears never engage and I never go anywhere. This is because matters of significance, the something that is real, is either not there or so hidden from view that the characters can’t really care about it, and without that, I don’t know what I’m supposed to care about, either. Watching season 2, I know why foiling neo-Nazis is something I should care about, but I’m not sure any of the characters do (and after last week’s interview, I’m not sure Brad Winters does either).

When nothing’s at stake in the show, it’s not clear what would be at stake for me if I just changed the channel.

~ by Servetus on October 24, 2017.

29 Responses to “On looking for something real — and not finding it — in Berlin Station”

  1. Just wondering whether you would (continue) watch the show if RA wasn’t in it?

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    • Good question. If I did, it would be because it’s set in Berlin. So I’d say — 25 percent chance I’d watch it if the settings continued to be interesting.

      Would you?

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      • I have only watched episodes 1&2 of season 1 as the show is not available where I live. At the time, I thought the show looked promising: Berlin looked interesting although I thought the Daniel Miller character appeared a bit bland and not particularly compelling.
        In answer to your question, only if the plot was gripping and coherent, and more importantly, I cared enough about the lead characters to stay the course. And that is my test for viewing any TV show.
        The bottom line for me (no pun intended!) is that it is probably going to take more than just Richard Armitage’s screen presence (even with his pants down!) to make me want to invest time watching Berlin Station!

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        • I will totally watching something just b/c Armitage is in it (Ultimate Force, Hannibal) but I wonder what the line is for me. Like he wasn’t enough to get me to listen to David Copperfield.

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  2. I wouldn’t watch it if RA wasn’t in it, no question. And you have just explained quite brilliantly why, Servetus. The only other character I have a fondness for is Valerie, and I miss Sandra.

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    • Valerie is probably my favorite character at this point (other than Daniel, whom I have to like), which is interesting since I am relatively certain that Michelle Forbes and I would like oil and water IRL.

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  3. I would watch just because hope never dies… and because of Berlin.

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    • If they write him out, wouldn’t that mean hope had died? I would still want to see Hagen Bogdanski’s cinematography but I wouldn’t tune in every week and pay $16 a month (what EPIX now costs on Spectrum) to see it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I grudgingly finished the whole first season (had the episodes recorded & kept putting them off) and have no intention of watching the second. if it was playing on a free channel, then I’d probably tune in to admire Richard, physically, but not b/c of plot or character development. to me, it has no soul. it’s full of noise, but nothing that can be pieced together into a tune.

    Liked by 2 people

    • “has no soul” was a good description of 2.3.

      There were a lot of people who just enjoyed the pictures of Strike Back and never watched the show (although it was better than this), just because Armitage looked so great as Porter.

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  5. What only brings me in Berlin Station is Richard Armitage. I would love to support him in his craft and I feel he is an underrated actor, but I refused to believe that because his talents and good looks are more convincing than any other actors . I know it would come into proper places.

    Its only now I’m watching BS1 to understand the storyplots. Your reviews are truly beneficial for me . In hindsight , its all about terrorism, refugees, geo-political struggles and a CIA agent that seems to be akin to his job but somehow in recent events RA seems evolving himself more to what really CIA operations all about. I mean he is doing researches and his assignments in full context that being a British to portray an American intelligence is remarkable already.

    It also brings my interests that in every espionage thriller muslims are always involved. In Spooks, as Lucas North ( he should have won acting awards for it). He and Ashok have such intensity and story that you could feel the drama and predicament. As I was saying, you know if only Daniel Miller was paired to Claire it could have been more exciting that would give us chills, tears, full of emotions. It is more thought provoking because their struggles, our struggles as muslims are for real. Anyway, just a hitch because I feel RA is far more convincing and powerful whenever he always he tried to save somebody, be betrayed and lost someone. His grief, is our grief, his joy is our joy, he can move us in the most fascinating ways.

    If only I could rewrite the story with Olen maybe .

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    • “Richard Armitage is underappreciated” is a sort of common refrain among fans. I’m still hopeful that he is hitting his stride professionally. I think part of the issue is that he’s always looking for contrasting roles, so he hasn’t really built up a reputation for doing one thing with which to sell himself.

      Muslims are “the enemy of the moment,” which is really frustrating. Berlin Station’s portrayal of Muslims was often really frustrating — but I agree, what a great idea. If Daniel had been connected to Claire somehow, it would have increased the tension a lot and we would have seen what was at stake much more easily for him.

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  6. Juke sorry….. 😬

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  7. Wieso heißt der Chefstratege von der PfD-Schickse eigentlich “Josef”? Kein Mensch seines Jahrganges heißt in D üblicherweise so. Sollte das eine Anlehnung an einen anderen Josef sein? Augenrollundstöhn

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    • That thought had occurred to me too. (Also I think of it as a southern German name and Heino Ferch is in no way southern German, although I see he lives in Ammersee.)

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      • Er ist bestenfalls eingefärbt. Stammt aus dem Norden (Bremerhaven). Den Ole hat da sicher was anderes bewegt…..

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        • be that as it may, everytime Valerie says “Josef” it sounds very much like “Yusuf” because of the way she makes the “o” sound rather clipped – so I really burst out laughing when he flirtingly says that he likes it when she says her name 😀

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  8. I felt the same about BS season one and have not signed up for season two yet. I may just wait for it to get to platforms I already subscribe to (hulu or amazon prime) and see if I can binge it at some point.

    (I also agree with every word regarding Poldark. I expect a certain amount of schmaltz period dramas and Poldark has it in spades. I also think most of the characters are absolutely senseless. . . but then something true comes through and I learn a little more about them that keeps me coming back on the regular.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • And everyone needs a Dr Ennis in their life! 😉😉😉 and Ross is a lot like men i knew lol infuriating 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • BSt: It’s going to be a minimum of $48 for this season and so far it is not worth that.

      Poldark — every now and then it really hits something true. It seems to happen almost by accident. I honestly was hating this French Revolution plotline because it’s so awful, but then that encounter in the prison was worth all of it.

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  9. I have never watched Poldark and doubt I will.
    BS2 so far is truly boring and I agree with everything you have said about it.
    PS…..I loved Strike Back! Ok, there were lots of bad things about it, but he looked great (in my view, one of his best looks) and there was plenty of emotion in it. I actually cared about John Porter. I feel nothing for Daniel Miller, he is cardboard to me, and it’s not because Armitage is a bad actor. It’s a boring show with a weak script.

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    • Yeah, I don’t really advise anyone to watch it. I just mentioned it because it was the contrast that occurred the other night.

      I think the violence was an issue for a lot of people with SB — and also that the project was known for at least a year before it was visible, so a lot of people read the novel and the novel is really, really, really bad. Turned many people off. But I agree that it was worth seeing and the thing was, you knew why Porter was doing what he did. He had currency (family, rescuing his past) for contacting his character, which Daniel Miller does not.

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  10. I generally agree with the theme of this post, that the characters’ purposes are hidden, perhaps intentionally, and the show seems to be focused on visuals, being current, being hip, and keeping the viewers guessing. I thought the first episode in season 2 was different, more real and suspenseful, and particularly found Daniel more interesting than he ever was last season. I like Valerie a lot, and while he is often treated superficially, I find that I like scenes with Kirsch in them. Hector has some depth but is indeed an enigma. The most jarring point in Season 1 was his declaration that he loved Claire, which was really not evident until the moment he said it.

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    • I guess my issue is that we’re now 13 hours in (season one plus three episodes of season two). In season one, I kept thinking, okay, we’re going to find out what really makes these people tick. Mostly, we didn’t (slight exception — Hector); mostly that pattern is now being repeated in season two. So if they’re hiding it intentionally, then they need to start revealing. But after 13 hours I have stopped believing in the likelihood that will happen. Even in Steinhauer’s “Tourist” novels there are important personality reveals by the end of volume one.

      So did you believe that Hector loved Claire? I didn’t. There was better evidence for either Julian or Faisal in that direction, I think.

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