#BerlinStation – Last Thoughts

How strange to think that being sick may come with a bonus. There is nothing nice about being struck down by the flu – and mine really was textbook, with all the trimmings – but at least it does one thing: It forces you into bed, incapacitated to do much else but watch tacky romantic drama courtesy of Rosamunde Pilcher. After I had endured two of such rom-voms, it came to me that I could use the time better by scheduling a binge-watch of Berlin Station – and commit to a review of the show. I did not just want to kill time with this idea. I also wanted to see whether a) the show would give me the motivation to review it (which it had not really been able to do via the individual instalments) and b) the show improved if watched in one go rather than separate instalments. The answers are: “evidently”, and “so-so”. So here is, finally, my last thoughts on Berlin Station, season 1.

Berlin in its title, Berlin in every second scene – with these two angles covered, you would think there is not much that can go wrong in a spy show that has a quality cast comprising Richard Armitage, Rhys Ifans, Richard Jenkins, Michelle Forbes and Leland Orser, not to mention big name crew (cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski) and well-known author Olen Steinhauer on the writing team. In fact, after a rather well-crafted promo season and plenty of social media attention from the set of the show in late 2015/early 2016, BS had a lot of credit with me before its first episodes were released upon the unsuspecting public. Over the course of 10 weeks from October to December 2016, I could not wait to see the weekly instalment of the show – although the format proved to be a tough one for me. With plotlines deliberately peppered with complicated moves and clues, the enforced one-week-wait between every two episodes made it quite hard to keep the latest developments of the show at the forefront of my mind. The customary summary at the beginning of each episode was much-needed – although it did not always do the trick. To be blunt – I found the series tough-going. And week-for-week, the same issues kept popping up: For the supposed main character of the show, I found Daniel Miller being underused in the show, with far too few lines, while Hector de Jean seemed to be the secret star of the show. Interesting character, interesting plotline, interesting developments. And while I religiously wrote notes every time I watched an instalment of the show, most of my notes were questions.

“Episode 6: Why is Hector not at the meeting? Whose is that big Beemer Daniel is driving? Why is DM suddenly so empathic with Hector?” “Episode 8: Why does Sandra help DM? Why does Patricia not listen to her cousin’s warning? Where is the German hotel where you are still allowed to smoke?” “Episode 9: Why does it take from night until morning for Patricia to arrive at Teufelsberg? Why does DM let Hector go? Is that a dimple in his cheek?” “Episode 10: Who killed Hans Richter? Does Esther love DM? Is Clay Williams still hunting DM?”

I think that is a comment in itself – if there are more questions than answers, something must be going wrong, somewhere… Or maybe not? Maybe that is exactly what a spy show has to do? Rather than provide the answers to the questions at the end of every episode, this show seemed to carry over all the questions right until the end – when a final conclusion was somehow reached. Some of the detail questions never got answered, but the overall question – who is Thomas Shaw and why has he become a whistleblower – found its resolution in the end, and a binge-watch approach made it easier to understand the underlying theme of the show.

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From Würstchen und Kirschtorte to dirty talk – nice progression

Upon watching the show for a second time, some of my earlier criticisms were resolved, too. I remember being very critical of Armitage’s attempts at speaking German, for instance. From the perspective of a native speaker, his accent didn’t cut it. At least not when I saw it in isolated episodes, with intervals in between. In retrospect, I have to say he did a solid job. Not a magnificent job or an amazing job – no way would Daniel get away with being a native speaker – but in the wider perspective, Armitage’s German was only a minor distraction, and you could tell that it was getting better as his time on the German set progressed. By the time Daniel Miller is flirting with Esther Krug in the car, he has actually become pretty proficient. And all detail niggles aside – it can’t be that easy speaking a foreign language that one doesn’t understand at all, and act it convincingly.

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In the dark when it comes to Daniel’s humanity…

I wonder whether this dichotomy between American Daniel and German Daniel was something that kept the character from becoming one coherent, human figure. Daniel took a long time to become human in this show. At the beginning he seems to be a manipulator (who gets his way by sneakily pushing his agenda in front of the deputy director) and a mechanic agent who is following his prey around like a robot, with little emotion to show. Especially in the face of the tragic Claudia’s death, I felt Daniel was seriously lacking in empathy and regret – after all the woman is killed because of his meddling. Except that Daniel shows no remorse whatsoever, he simply mechanically makes a move on Ingrid Hollander to stop her acting as Shaw’s mouthpiece. The cat rescue? Too little too late, imo – and not quite believable either, that a hardened agent who shows no visible remorse over Claudia’s death, has a soft heart for a homeless cat… A plot device, which is conveniently forgotten at later stages when Daniel is out and about and apparently spends no thought on feeding his furry friend…

sneaky-daniel

What is Daniel’s game?

The humanity in the character only shows much later – and not thanks to a few hot scenes with a woman, but in his reactions to Hector and Hector’s actions. Daniel is disturbed when he realises that Hector has no qualms about torturing someone to get intel, and he is visibly shocked when Hector breaks Ruth Iosava’s neck. Why then? Why so late? And why in reaction to a man with whom he obviously has some problems of his own? Other signs of humanity felt rather unbelievable – the continuous play on the tragic assassination of his mother. Honestly? A hardened agent gets all mushy and sad when his partner-in-espionage takes him to the scene of the explosion and manipulates him into feelings? I didn’t buy that – as an agent, the man would know exactly where his weaknesses are, and he would not allow anyone to use these against him, least of all someone whom he doesn’t fully trust. Daniel’s parents are never properly explained – they are mentioned regularly enough to make them a recurring motif (the beloved West German mother who falls victim to an East German spy; the American military intelligence father who is cold and distant), but seem rather a cliché at best.

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Dark horse Daniel

It’s little bits like these that kept annoying me all through the show, and while the plot looked a bit more stringent and coherent on the marathon re-watch, the fact remained that the subplots seemed unnecessarily detailed while the development of the main characters was too superficial. I still do not really get why the whole Iosava subplot had to take up so much space and lead to Clare Itani’s death. Or rather – it seemed out of proportion that Clare had to die in order for Hector to show his true self to Daniel. The true self was there all the time, especially in Hector’s dealings with Robert Kirsch, and he could’ve been unmasked as Shaw even without risking Clare’s life. I had the impression that the show did not really know how to prioritise its plotlines – who were the important players and which were important storylines. What was the point of Steven Frost getting manipulated into action by his wife to make a bid for a promotion? What was the point of the “Joker” storyline, at the end of which Daniel sets the asset free, yet suggests she continue working with him out of her own free will.

In many ways, I had the impression that the whole first season of BS was one big prolog – sowing the seeds for plenty of plots in following seasons, but not really coming together as one whole. And while there is an end of sorts – Hector is Shaw, and he basically escapes – the show ends with plenty of questions. Daniel survives *phew*, but will he still be on the run from Clay Williams? What happens to his cousin and nephew? What exactly happens with Hector now that he has rescued Faisal? And even though the show ends on Daniel, it does not seem entirely clear to me who is going to be the focus of another season. Will it be about the effort to rebuild Berlin Station, and about Daniel’s role in it? Will we ever find out what happened in the past with Daniel’s parents? And will there be a new dynamic relationship with Esther Krug now at the helm of the BfV department?

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Spy candy always welcome – after all, we are watching for the plot…

For me, BS never found the right balance between secrecy and truth. In order for me to believe in and root for a main character, I need more than the split-second glimpses of personality in Daniel. And I need a plotline that I can totally buy into – uncovering the secret of his mother’s mysterious involvement with an East German spy could be one such plot. The hunt for Thomas Shaw without knowing anything about Daniel’s motivations for his interest in this case, certainly did not convince me. At the end of this season, though, Daniel has taken shape. We know something about his vulnerabilities, his ability to empathise, his morality and his humanity.

Another season is on the cards. If Armitage is still on board, I would tune in again, especially if BS builds on season 1 and now properly delves into what motivates the various players in BS to work in their chosen jobs. It would be interesting to see where Daniel goes from now – uncovering his parents’ past would allow for some interesting flashbacks into 1980s, cold war Berlin (Deutschland 83 anyone???), with Valerie’s relationship on the rocks, it could be interesting to find out how she as a woman negotiates the fine line between being a career spy and maintaining a trustful relationship with an outsider. I’d also like to see how Robert Kirsch comes into his own, possibly taking on the responsibility of leading Berlin Station. Last but not least, I think it could be really interesting to explore how the relations between the two opposing agencies fare, now that a young woman has taken over the helm of the German intelligence unit (Esther Krug). A definite confirmation of Armitage’s involvement in the next season of BS is still missing, though. And frankly, if he isn’t in it, I am not sure whether I will continue to watch for the plot…

34 thoughts on “#BerlinStation – Last Thoughts

  1. I dunno, plenty of people I know are kinder to animals than they are to people. But I wondered what happened to the cat after episode 3. I agree with most of this, except that I think the criticisms you apply to Daniel about the character (and his “humanity”) were also evident to me about Hector. The character didn’t make sense, the explanation we got was too little, too late, I found nothing likeable or interesting about him and that meant I lost interest in the main plotline(s) very quickly. Combined with the racism …

    Well, Berlin is beautiful.

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    • Agree – Hector’s motivation wasn’t explored particularly deeply (or believably), either. It all looked weirdly superficial to me, as if the whole show just didn’t really know how to prioritise the various characters and plotlines. Or as if too many cooks had meddled with the sauce.
      Yeah, Berlin is pretty interesting. But as you know, I wasn’t too fond of how they characterised Berlin in the show, either, so that was not a major attraction for me, apart from the fun of spotting places that I recognised…

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  2. Interesting observations. I’m still waiting for it to be shown over here, when I will watch it (despite having read all the comments) for the ‘plot’ and because I really want to see Rhys Ifans’ Hector.

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      • Sorry, I meant I had avidly read the plot elsewhere – picking up as much as I could from Tumblr. That was a conscious decision, having seen the first two episodes I realised it wouldn’t be the sort of programme I was bothered about staying unspoilered for (unlike Hannibal). So my watching (if it makes it here) will mostly be for glimpses of Daniel (all of Daniel!) and Hector.

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  3. I have STILL only seen the first 4 episodes. I’d hoped during our long holiday weekend, I would be able to finish it, but… nope.

    I figured out who Shaw was episode 3. To me it’s obvious. And where you have issues with Richard’s German accent, I have issues with his American one. Gary was better.

    And no, you haven’t spoiled me. I’ve fallen into a rut as of late and have been guessing what I’m looking for and flipping to the end. Books and apparently television series. Except the current book. The current book…. whoot!

    Either or, I’m trying to decide when I’m going to finish up Berlin Station. If Richard is in Season 2, yeah I’ll get around to watching it. If not, nope. I’m not into the spy genre… which is a real set back for me as a well-wisher. Of course, if they filmed Lexi Blake’s books…. he’d make a GREAT Damien… or better if they decide Simon ISN”T a blonde… yeah oh yeah. I’ll play Chelsea. I can fake a great limp.

    Excellent observations. Hope you’re feeling better.

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    • Yeah, they gave away who Shaw was, early on. Interesting approach, although I would probably prefer an old-fashioned who-dunnit more…
      The American accent occasionally threw me, too – because I sometimes found it very hard to understand what Daniel was saying at all. But well, when binge-watching, my ears attuned to that a bit better than when watching the episodes week-by-week.
      I really wonder where BS is going from here. And whether Armitage is in it. If not, I don’t see myself jumping through hoops again to see the thing.

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      • I’m the other way around. I tried to watch The Golden Hour and couldn’t understand 2/3rd of it. Same with Between the Sheets. It sounds garbled to these Southern American ears.

        I need to sit down and watch the rest of it. Like I said – I’ve only seen 4 Episodes… and the last 10 minutes of the the last one. (Wanted to make sure I didn’t invest if he died.) I’ve not watched much of anything. Been writing a blue streak and actually trying to get back into the habit of reading. I’ve picked up a Sophie Oak – the Fairae Trilogy…. yum….

        Oh. And work. Yup. Work.

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  4. Now, you did a very proper job here!!! Service recommended! All-encompassing! Still have the last 2 episodes to watch….. It’s somehow nice to have some titbits left for Richie deprivation!! 😉

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  5. I agree with your wrap up review of BS. I could not believe Hector was Thomas Shaw because he was revealed so early. The promos (the two guys (director and writer?) chatting at the end, and Richard himself, kept saying “nothing is as it seems” and highlighting the complicated plot as some kind of brain twister. And it wasn’t that at all. Even at end I could not believe Hector was Thomas Shaw because they made it clear so soon. I thought, no it can’t be him because that is too obvious. I thought it was a trick. But afraid not. Glad you are feeling better.

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  6. The one shirtless/cigarette pic makes up for a multitude of sins.
    Now, I am disappointed to hear that the Rosamund Pilcher adaptations are “rom voms.” I gladly confess to enjoying her books, especially “The Shell Seekers.” When I am sick, I read this light but comforting fare and it works wonders (together with Georgette Heyer and P. G. Wodehouse).

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    • Well, maybe “rom vom” was a bit unfair. The light Pilcher stories are comforting, easy-to-read fare, as you said. As such, they are predictable and not particularly original. The ideal reading/viewing matter when sick, as you say, although I don’t find them particularly “satisfying” – because they rarely challenge my expectations…

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      • I find them satisfying (as sick fare, at any rate) precisely because they don’t! I do love a happy ending 🙂 But I don’t permit myself a steady diet of genre books. As you say, they can become cloying if not spiced with more piquant and unexpected flavors!

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  7. Nodding along 😊 glad you got to write as it made me revisit a d sort of confirmed my impressions too. I still don’t think DM made fully sense as a character. His human side a bit at the end but professionally? Not at all the constant ping pong between professional incompetence like his shocked reactions to Hector (can’t believe with history in checnya and elsewhere he is surprised by torture and such) and too much competence ie like he handled Claudia and later the Joker. He simply can’t be both. I think it’s tge result of incoherent scripting which forced him into playing it scene bu scene. And he can make each version believable but the characters can’t be both as a spy. I leaned towards much more experienced than he led on and the confusion/ rookyness moments to be just an act. But that’s not what they intended as they repeatedly pointed out he’s not a superspy of sorts. And i was as split and confused about plot lines as you. Found subplots often more interesting than the ones which turned out to be main ones. If he’s still in it i hope they do better… otherwise more watching for the plot as esther seems to enjoy the regular exercise.

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    • I think you have a point there – the scripting was inconsistent as to Daniel’s experience and approach to being an agent. Maybe Steinhauer made it too difficult for himself in that respect – he wanted Miller to appear like a desk analyst, but then that didn’t quite chime with his Chechnya experiences or his Panama activities. Hopefully those inconsistencies will be ironed out IF Daniel also appears in season 2.
      LOL “Esther enjoys they regular exercise”… Indeed, she seemed to be quite charmed by Daniel. I actually thought their relationship – although initially a bit clichéd – was quite interesting; and could be interesting going forward, as she now is at the helm of the German operations. What would that mean for their – even if only casual – thrysts?

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      • Mhmm i doubt they would be able to stay away from each other. Their jobs are dangerous and stressful so why pass up on a bit of relaxation. And there are obvsly some feelings too. I really liked her 😊

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        • I thought she was a strong female character that did not follow the clichéd “mother of the group” kind of characterisation. I liked her coolness and distance at the beginning, and thought she was genuinely concerned for DM when she tried to warn him in episode 9. So yeah, lots of scope for development there.
          I wonder when they will confirm the cast for season 2 of BS. It’s 2 months since they announced it was going into a second season…

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          • i guess they must start prepping and well Steinhauer needs to get writing , the sooner the better as this will hopefully give them more time to refine storylines and characters. I think somebody said air date Nov or so? At last it is not another winter shoot 🙂 It could be another few months and in any case they may still not want to confirm characters until air date to keep the surprise 🙂 Take GoT, you almost never know who’s still in it by the end LOL. Tbh i hope he may be still in it for a little while and then get’s killed off 🙂 I think he’s given them enough time and could move on to other stuff, i don’t see this going to many series. Also apart from very few the tendency these days in TV is for shorter series and less rounds.

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            • The fact that RA has not reacted to the news of a second season particularly enthusiastically makes me wonder whether he is not on for it either way. As you said – another season would be great (especially as there are no news of any other substantial new projects), but if his casting in O8 is any indication, he may still be looking for his Hollywood career – despite what he said in the Israeli interview.
              Good point re. writing. Although I would’ve thought that Steinhauer has been on it since November and thus should have a general idea who is going to be in this. But well, even the more vocal participants in the show (Forbes, Orser) have been quiet on that front…
              I am not opposed to long series, though. I would love for RA to be a major character in a British-made series again, something where he feels totally at home, both in terms of shooting on home turf, as well as a character that is not quite as “out there” as a serial killing psychopath or fraught with a foreign accent. I am even beginning to get on board with the young Dumbledore idea…

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              • I wouldn’t mind that but that would just be another big screen thing for the next installment of Fantastic Beasts of whatever it is called (haven’t seen it). But yes i wouldn’t mind him doing a series round here either 🙂 Plenty of stuff happening, i am having a hard time squashing hopes for the Les Mis adaptation and there are plenty other things coming through the pipeline, at least some have the potential for 2-3 series. As far as i’m concerned, apart from Poldark (which unlike what people say i don’t think would have fitted him) i have seen plenty of stuff where he would have easily fit in perfectly, Peaky Blinders, Ripper Street, Taboo, Dr Foster etc etc etc i mean the list of possibilities goes on and on and on…
                But film world is hilarious and odd, guess who is playing an Englishman in a film shooting in Scotland? LP 🙂 Go figure 🙂 (but he’s shared screen before with the director who is also one of my favourite Dr Who companions :-))
                But yes, plenty of good telly on at the moment, i’m hooked on a few and am really looking forward to the drama this year. And the next J le Carre adaptation has been great news!

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  8. Thanks for this! I still have the last 4 episodes waiting to be watched, somehow can’t bring myself to do it. But when you say that DM shows a little more humanity later on and he survives… well, I guess I will try to watch sooner rather than later now…

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  9. Interesting discussion, though I guess I’ll have to wait for the DVDs to form an opinion. 😦 Spoilers are fine, however, I’ll take what I can get.

    I do a bit of family history now and then, so when i saw an email from one of my lists stating that a Margaret someoneorother married a Thomas Shaw in Cheshire in 1827, I had a bit of a giggle. Could Hector have gone back in time to cover his tracks?

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  10. Very interesting to read your thoughts lots to agree with. I am watching all 10 episodes nightly , a friend made of copy for me, previously only watched via YOUTUBE it is better on repeat . Initially I had not thought DM had much screen time but he is there but as an observer he is overlooked I suppose that was the role but disappointing for me, I would have liked him to roll across a few car bonnets lol

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    • I had a similar impression, Yve. When I watched it week by week, BS looked as if its protagonist was not really getting much screen time. On second viewing, he seemed more present. Not sure whether that was because I was less concentrating on *understanding the plot* anymore, but had more opportunity to watch for Daniel? In any case, it’s never enough *coughs*.

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  11. Pingback: #BerlinStation Season 2, Episode 1 – Everything’s ALL-Right [Review/Spoilers] | Guylty Pleasure

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