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.
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.
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…
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.
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?
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…