Can Berlin Station fix the Esther and Daniel thing? [part 1] #richardarmitage

I really thought Berlin Station 2 was written or at least edited with the end of the show in mind. But since it’s been renewed, and since there’s a possibility that Richard Armitage will continue as Daniel Miller, it may be worthwhile to discuss some things that would otherwise have been moot. And it might stand as an analysis of what we saw, should he not.

I rewatched all of season 1 in the course of writing this post, which heightened my perception that the way the relationship was written in season 2 seemed either negligent or preposterous. This is a post about season 1, and G-d willing, a post about season 2 will follow soon.

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Richard Armitage as Daniel Miller and Mina Tander as Esther Krug in Berlin Station 1.10.

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Esther and Daniel’s relationship in season 1

It’s a part of the mystique of some of the most well-known twentieth- and twenty-first century screen spies: they are glamorous, damaged, promiscuous and (perhaps as a consequence) irresistible to the women who meet them. True, there are important exceptions, like George Smiley, but I can’t imagine Simon Templar (“The Saint”) or James Bond or the Spooks spies without the sexual charisma they exude so purposefully, or Jason Bourne or Jack Bauer without the attractive consequences of their casual, conventional, masculinity. Even Tom Hiddleston got a romantic plot line in The Night Manager. Sexual experiences frequently become a motivator for cooperation or a ground for blackmail (the “honey trap”) in these works.

So, when Richard Armitage was hired for this series, I assumed (because he was said to be “leading” the show) he would be somewhat damaged, and given how much more attractive he is than every other male actor in the show, some kind of sex life for his character appeared inevitable. This is a genre-typical way of setting up two important features of characters: that they have a wound or vulnerability that allows them to be affected or manipulated by others, and that they desire something in particular that allows them to steer their own actions. I also assumed that, given the glamorous spy stereotypes, there’d be some level of stylized sexual or romantic tension written in as well.

Hence I wasn’t surprised when Daniel Miller started romancing a total stranger in the first episode, giving us yet more demonstration that Armitage is fully into every screen kiss he delivers …

Proving there are men out there who still enjoy kissing: Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage) kisses Claudia (Sylvia Hoeks), as a prelude to uncovering he courier relationship to Thomas Shaw, in Berlin Station 1.

… but I was a bit bemused that the show limited his capacity for sex as an espionage tool by building in a recurring sexual partner for him: Esther Krug, played by Mina Tander. (After taking so much time to create it, the show abandoned the “Joker” plot line, but there went another lost opportunity. Ingrid Hollander would also have been an intriguing possibility; Victoria Mayer had great chemistry when arguing with Armitage.) And after watching the first season, it was clear that if Daniel has any primary emotional connection in this show at all, it’s to Hector, who holds unspecified secrets about what happened in Chechnya. The power of that connection made the Esther relationship read like a bit of a side show. At the same time, however, it seemed to have to carry one of the major hinted-at plot elements of the show: Daniel’s (family’s) troubled past in pre-1989 Berlin.

Their first meeting: Richard Armitage as Daniel Miller and Mina Tander as Esther Krug in Berlin Station 1.2.

This is what we learned.

Esther became the deputy to Hans Richter, head of Department 4 at the BfV in episode 1.3 after Dieter, his previous deputy, was exposed as a CIA mole in episode 1.1. We encounter her first in 1.2, when Daniel’s request for a meeting with whoever it is that’s tailing him brings her to the bar in the Auguststr. Embarrassingly, the script assigns her an affiliation that turns out to be a continuity error, but the point, as she seems reluctant to identify the individual in the picture he gives her, is supposed to be that she’s a hard-nosed, no-nonsense woman in full control of her work, who can be just as tough as any spy. She reinforces this impression in 1.3, where Daniel chases her while she’s out on a run to find out who the guy is and she tells him she hates predictable wit and people who bother her during her free time, and wishes him luck “chasing a ghost.” In 1.9, of course, it is revealed that she knew the identity of both Shaw and Julien de Vos from an unspecified early point, but presumably no later than the first Shaw leak in 1.1 — so it seems likely she realizes why Daniel is in Berlin. But even if she doesn’t, she’s always working him.

But 1.4 is all about the Iosava plot line and Daniel’s attempt to bug the Berliner Zeitung, which exposes more of his troubled relationship with Hector, so it’s not till 1.5 that we really see him and Esther in any close encounter, verbal or physical. They are trapped together for a day by the decisions of their bosses, driving Hou-Jin Lin (Michael Paul Chan) into Poland and the hands of the Chinese in order to save Frost from exposure by Thomas Shaw. On rewatch this seems silly, since we know that Esther not only knows who Shaw is, but approves of him and if her boss, Hans Richter (Bernhard Schütz) wants to get rid of the Americans, this would be a great opportunity — but whatever. At the beginning of the episode, Richter orders her to “do whatever needs to be done” and a haze of innuendo hangs in the air as she leaves his office.

“Are you always this charming?” Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage) to Esther Krug in Berlin Station 1.5.

The snark-laden exchanges in the car (Daniel: “Where are you from?” Esther [deadpan]: “Germany”) give us the necessary background for the tension that experienced television-viewers know often leads to sex. When Hou-Jin Lin is added to the picture, his constant baiting of Esther calls forth Daniel’s defense, repeatedly, and we catch Esther looking at him: in surprise? in calculation?

Esther (Mina Tander) reacts to Daniel’s deflection of Hou-Jin Lin’s crude remark, in Berlin Station 1.5.

Hou-Jin Lin definitely reads Daniel’s chivalry as a come-on.

Is Daniel’s vulnerability the same thing? When they drop off their Chinese charge at the Polish airport, Daniel appears to take the lie that they wanted to resettled him in the U.S., along with his awareness that a return to China will not go well for the man, quite hard.

“You look like you could use a drink.” “Is that an invitation?” Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage) and Esther Krug (Mina Tander) in Berlin Station 1.5.

On the way back, Esther tells Daniel about her single foray at living outside the country (not especially credible for a German of her generation) along with a story about her father; he’s clearly not having it. He also shares a story about moving back to the U.S. and lying to new friends about his mother’s death — making himself vulnerable? Tricking her into thinking he’s vulnerable? It’s not entirely clear, and one smart aspect of this writing is the choice to make Daniel’s Achilles’ heel (his relationship to his late mother) a potential source of manipulation for him here, a pattern we will see repeated in season 2. After watching this scene several times now, though, I’m uncertain how well it’s actually executed: that is, my prejudice as a fan is to believe he’s telling the truth, and that competes with the show the possibility wants to raise that he’s telling her a sad story to manipulate her. It’s one of the interesting, and unrealized, potentials of this show that the story behind Daniel’s family could serve as a major plot element.

The use of Daniel’s vulnerability to attract Esther (even if she’s also working him at the same time) involves an inversion of the usual trope, in which the glamorous spy seduces with his aplomb and superiority. She invites him into her apartment (from which we scoped out her family background a week before the show let us know it) for a drink …

We pause for a brief screencap interruption, with Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage) drinking a healthy portion of Scotch, in Berlin Station 1.5.

And another one with the same theme.

And she lets go a tidbit: she was happy as a child gymnast —

and looks at him, again I can’t tell with vulnerability or calculation —

And they clink their glasses. I can’t believe I’m only noticing this now, but she does a sort of weird thing — as they say “prost” she glances at him briefly and then looks away. (Appropriate behavior among my German friends, anyway, was that you were supposed to look in the eyes of the other people in the round before drinking.) She seems almost shy. Flirtatious? And then she looks at him again, and then looks away, and starts to walk away from him. It’s a bit like birds doing their mating dance.

He’s holding position. He takes a look at her and lets go with another vulnerability.

“You’re different than I expected,” Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage) tells Esther Krug, in Berlin Station 1.5.

One of the weird qualities of this scene is that the camera is positioned for about a third of it so that we can’t see the top of Armitage’s head, or, at times, even his eyes — so we have a similar perspective when he tells her that he expected to despise her.

Here again, I can’t tell — but he looks more calculating than vulnerable, anyway. Richard Armitage in Berlin Station 1.5.

And then, when she asks him how it really is, he goes in for the kill kiss. Nothing gentle here: he approaches her like a starving man who hasn’t eaten in months stalks an all-you-can-eat buffet, and they engage in a bout of high performance, athletic sex.

A question we should ask ourselves before moving on with this reading: is sex the main thing holding them together? Or is it still the desire to manipulate? The impression that Daniel is sincere and should be taken at his word is enhanced in their next scene together, in which the two are enjoying a post-coital cigarette and Daniel wonders if they shouldn’t feel responsible for what they’ve done.

Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate the view of his thighs. But half this scene is shot with his head basically out of the picture. Richard Armitage and Mina Tander in Berlin Station 1.5.

Although we still don’t know what Esther’s vulnerability is, we do get a statement about what motivates her, or what she wants: she doesn’t feel guilty because she is in it to protect her country.

“What’s important to Germany is more important than my petty emotion.” Mina Tander as Esther Krug in Berlin Station 1.5. (And my full sympathies, Ms. Tander, for the script line, “It’s the job,” which is a nightmare sentence for standard German diction. At least they didn’t make you say “that’s the job.”)

Questioned by Daniel, Esther reveals that there’s nothing in it for her beyond this. Daniel expresses what sound like real qualms: Hou-Jin Lin came to them; they used and betrayed him; the system is “fucked.” Esther notes that Daniel is starting to sound like Thomas Shaw.

And then, finally, setting the last bit of our understanding of the foundation of their relationship, Esther takes Daniel to the place where his mother died, to reveal to him the identity of her mother’s lover, and the fact that he (Lucas Becker — why do they give us this name if it is never going to matter? and then later show Daniel looking at the file?) was developing her as an asset for the Stasi. Mina Tander’s got her innocent look and wide-eyed stare down pat, and the contrast between this persona and the authoritative woman who waves her cigarette and swings her hips builds a really intriguing character.

Watching this episode kind of made me want to put her on a box, except that they do this even when they’re both seated. Exasperating. Richard Armitage and Mina Tander in Berlin Station 1.5.

In this scene, I read her as calculating, and so does Daniel.

“You don’t trust me,” Esther Krug (Mina Tander) reproaches Daniel Miller, in Berlin Station 1.5.

In my first impressions of this episode, I noted this was one of the only scenes I’d seen that far that would be worth an interpretive analysis of Armitage’s acting — because finally we see (I think) that she really gets under his skin.

“You think you’re clever. You’re not. You’re transparent. Feeding my childhood secrets in hopes of what … working me?” Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage) in Berlin Station 1.5.

At first he seems incredulous; but then later, he seems shaken.

Or maybe mildly outraged. Richard Armitage as Daniel Miller in Berlin Station 1.5.

But Daniel gives as good as he gets. In 1.6, the script raises the ante by having Daniel admit after the meeting to discuss the mall operation that he’s researched Esther’s father, Victor Krug.

“But I did look up Victor Krug,” Daniel says, “Stasi colonel. Bet he was a wonderful father.” Daniel lists a lot of horrible things Victor Krug did, at home and abroad. Richard Armitage and Mina Tander in Berlin Station 1.6.

It’s not clear that Daniel has anything to hold over Esther’s head: yet.  And the script again suggests to us that there’s some ulterior motive: when Hans Richter asks for an update in the next part of the scene, she admits that she slept with him, and also that she told him a little about his mother (did she have more to say?), but that he then closed himself off. Esther notes that it’s a lot of work to turn a minor CIA agent. And Hans evades the question, even though Esther is wondering whether it’s worth it. Again, I suppose we conclude that the whole point of this is to keep tabs on Daniel’s knowledge about Thomas Shaw, but I wonder why it’s even necessary, given that the Germans are now running Hector, and Hector has Daniel’s phone bugged. It seems, anyway, like there should be some bigger reason why Hans wanted Daniel at Esther’s mercy. Presumably she could seduce him and keep tabs on him that way without including the whole story about his past in the affair.

 

Yeah. I could watch this over and over again.

In season 1, the relationship doesn’t move on very far from here. Daniel and Esther don’t meet again until 1.8, where they screw in a hotel room and Daniel bugs her phone, yielding the knowledge that she’s meeting Hans later that afternoon. The conversation implies that their affair is ongoing; that is, there are some hotel rooms exploited in the interval that we haven’t been privileged to see into. They again have sex at near-balletic levels and Daniel remarks that Esther is always wearing a mask and that he’d be interested in learning about her vulnerabilities. (Thanks, Daniel, for pointing out that characterization hole.) They were working each other, he says, “but now I think you might actually like me.”

The problems in this scene point to strong writing and plotting issues. It’s not clear why he’s there. The information Daniel gets is a red herring — it goes nowhere in the plot. If it’s supposed to lead to the next scene, it’s utterly confusing, because if Frost were having a secret meeting with Hans, it wouldn’t be in the office planner (which is what this seems to be, on closer inspection, if it’s not Esther’s calendar, where it certainly wouldn’t be), and their meeting isn’t taking place in the Märkische Allee anyway (unless this is another stupid continuity error — that bookstore is in the Karl-Marx-Allee, but as discussed, the bath is probably in Neu-Kölln). But the whole thing feels like a filler, with frighteningly stilted words. It includes the awful line, “I already came once today,” which no woman would say anywhere outside of a Bond film made in 1962. But the dialogue points out that there’s no compelling reason for this scene anyway. It’s almost as if someone told them what has to be in a sex scene so a writer wrote it, but they didn’t bother to think about who the characters have been up till then, or why they were there in the first place.

They don’t meet in 1.9, and then in 1.10, she tries to warn him that he’s to be killed (just as he’s realized that himself), and then there’s this scene:

Daniel points out that it would have behooved her not interfere in his assassination, and she reaffirms that Germany’s interests are more important than her own. He seems wryly frustrated that “they almost had something,” and she seems both to care about him more than she admitted, and to be offended when he kisses her in order to obtain more information about Hector. And at the very end, when all the action is over, we see Hans being assassinated (I assume by the CIA) and her moving into Hans’ office at the BfV.

More crackle in the dialogue than in the relationship?

So in season 1, we have established what seem like they will be the fundamental parameters of their characters as they fit into this relationship.

  • Daniel’s basic personality is conforming (as he will tell Hector later on, he’s mature enough to accept that institutions are imperfect), but he has lawful ethics.
  • Daniel’s vulnerability lies his past / his curiosity about what the “real story” with his mother was.
  • What Daniel wants (in season 1): to identify and neutralize Thomas Shaw as quickly as possible.
  • Esther’s basic personality is conforming, with apparently no questions about the importance of fulfilling her role, although she may show some reluctance in the end because it’s Daniel, i.e., not for ethical reasons.
  • Esther’s vulnerability is [? — unclear at this point anyway, although season 2 will draw it into sharper relief]
  • What Esther wants: to protect her country [and in this setting, presumably to follow her boss’ directions and, extrapolating from the end of the series, prevent Daniel from finding Shaw].
  • Their mutual attraction is certainly sexual — anything beyond that is hard to define.
  • Their mutual conflicts lie in two areas — the potential collision of their professional goals as spies for two different countries, and Esther’s apparent access to knowledge about Daniel’s mother, particularly the circumstances around her death.
  • Also re: conflict, in season 1, it’s important that he’s trying to uncover Thomas Shaw and she’s actually defending Shaw’s cover, but that latter fact is not even slightly apparent to the viewer until Iosava is kidnapped, and not fully apparent until probably 1.9.

As I’ve observed before offhandedly, given all of this, I never thought their relationship outside of the framework was potentially all that interesting. (Note that I am not saying Armitage and Tander don’t have good chemistry — I think they do; nor that Mina Tander is a poor actor — I think she’s a great actor, German critics tend to agree, I enjoy watching her, and I find the character of Esther in season 1 reasonably intriguing.) But ultimately, I found their worldviews simply too similar for them ever to be surprised by each other’s actions. They have very similar jobs, even if Esther’s position is more equivalent hierarchically to Robert’s, and very similar ideas about what kinds of actions are appropriate (even if Daniel sometimes has reservations about them), and indeed, we regularly see them cooperating in ways that suggest that they have no fundamental conflict that can’t simply be attributed to their differing national allegiances. Like any spies from different countries.

So it was my basic perception that they have two axes of conflict and power struggle: (a) Daniel’s past and (b) Thomas Shaw. Shaw was over after season 1, so that removed one potential axis of tension. If, as they did, they dropped the story about Daniel’s mother as an axis of power in their relationship, the relationship immediately loses steam. There was no indication in the first season that that was going to happen, though; indeed, the move to mention Esther’s father’s crimes suggested that the potential could lie there for much more cutthroat storytelling as more became known about Daniel’s mother.

So, in short — I’m going to argue in the next piece that the writers systematically defused most of what made the Esther / Daniel relationship either interesting (in the sense that they were locked in a power struggle that militated against their reaction), or believable (in the sense that the season 2 relationship seemed to proceed from assumptions that were not really there in season 1).

I’ll end part 1 here with 3,500 words and continue with season 2, soon.

~ by Servetus on January 2, 2018.

7 Responses to “Can Berlin Station fix the Esther and Daniel thing? [part 1] #richardarmitage”

  1. My take in Season 1 was that they were using each other both for professional reasons and because there was a physical attraction. It is a simplification I suppose of what you have written above. I have to agree that there wasn’t a lot of depth to whatever was happening between them. Their sex scenes felt somewhat gratuitous, like Daniel’s shower scene in one of the early shows, to satisfy ladies in the audience who might be watching because of Richard. At the end of the season, after the depths of how Daniel was being used became obvious to him, I thought there was no way their relationship could continue into Season 2.

    What changed in Season 2 was Esther. She became more of a partner to the Americans (Daniel and Ashley Judd character), partially we are told to protect herself from right wing elements under her command. Daniel and Esther’s relationship made more sense to me, other than one really implausible scene. I’ll have more to say about this once you post about Season 2. I look forward to reading your perspective.

    Not having gone back and watched Season 1, I forgot all the stuff about Daniel’s mother and Esther’s father. My take from what you wrote is that it is like there might have been a plan with this plot line, but then Season 2 started over as a clean slate. Although I thought Richard had more compelling scenes in Season 2, the Daniel character was even more lacking in depth than in Season 1.

    The more we discuss Berlin Station, I feel like all the weaknesses with the show could be fixed by better writing (and maybe fewer characters).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed reading your thoughts about this relationship. I love the Daniel/Esther pairing – I like Mina Tander and I think she and Richard have very good chemistry. Shallow viewer me will take a chaRActer romance even if it’s not well written or consistent! 😉 (same with gratuitous Daniel shower scenes ha!) I love a happy, romantic ending, but the last scene with Daniel and Esther walking off into the sunset hand in hand felt like a convenient wrap up to me, so I’m curious as to what the writers do next with these two. Personally I’d like further exploration of their parents’ relationship and how it impacts on their’s, but I won’t be holding my breath.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoyed the series but Season 2 is ok but I thought Season 1 was better. I am not sure of the Daniel/Esther relationship/partnership though. I am not sure what it is but it felt a bit forced. Don’t get me wrong, their pairing is ok but it didn’t convince me beyond that.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting analysis. Almost makes me want to watch it again. To me, their relationship (as such) in season 1 was really consistent with the idea that they were both (TV) spies — hot sex and cold mining for information. And of course some potential feelings underneath by both of them. Daniel very coldly turned away from her after getting info in the end. So, to me, the season 2 Daniel was not acting consistently with his spy personality shown in S1. I suppose you could argue that the S2 circumstances were different in terms of need for info, but the need for comfort was new.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. […] Can Berlin Station fix the Daniel and Esther thing? [part one] (published January 2, 2018). And I never wrote a part two, although there’s a draft outline […]

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  6. The storyline of S1 was bugging me but I couldn’t articulate why. You’ve just dissected it – thank you! 👍😎

    Liked by 1 person

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