“There’s a leak in the CIA. We need you in Berlin. No one can know why you’re there – not the chief, not his deputy, not a soul.”
When CIA operative Valerie Edwards (Michelle Forbes) summons former CIA analyst Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage) to go undercover in Berlin to investigate the true identity of the Snowden-esque Thomas Shaw, a whistleblower leaking top secret information, the tone is set for the thrilling Berlin Station, now on SBS On Demand.
“Who am I looking at?” Daniel asks.
The response: “Everyone.”
That includes station chief Steven Frost (Richard Jenkins), deputy Robert Kirsch (Leland Orser), agent Hector DeJean (Rhys Ifans), and Valerie and Daniel themselves.
If you’re a fan of espionage thrillers like Homeland and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, you’re in for a treat. Get set for clandestine meetings, betrayals, and many a twist and turn.
“I think we really throw down the gauntlet,” says Armitage. “It’s a smart television show, and you really have to have your brain switched on in order to watch it and follow it.”
The storyline is all too real
With its ripped-from-the-headlines veracity, there’s an urgency to Berlin Station reflecting the ever-present threat of terrorism, breaches of national security by the likes of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and loss of faith in intelligence agencies.
“It’s happening in front of us. As we sit and watch CNN today, we’re seeing cyber-hacking and national security threats, and that’s very much what our show is about,” Armitage told Collider. “It’s about the steps that these professionals take, who are very ordinary patriots placed in the position of stemming the flow of national secrets, and at the same time, they are pulled in to question their own agency and government.”
The show’s accuracy also comes from its depiction of the long-held presence of the CIA in Berlin and in the context of the city’s history as a hot bed of espionage. Forbes says the string of terrorism events around the world that occurred during filming in Berlin hit home hard that this is the “new normal”.
“We went through the Brussels, Istanbul, Paris, Orlando and Baghdad bombings as we were there,” she says. “Along with all this loss and sorrow, and being what felt like right in the middle of it, there was just a really deep and devastating understanding that this is normal for us now, all of these bombings.”
It’s old school spy games
While there’s plenty of high-stakes action, Berlin Station, like a good John Le Carré thriller, makes its focus old school, in-the-field human intelligence, in what Armitage calls “a kind of post-technology drama”. It’s the very human face of spying, with complex, flawed characters now so synonymous with peak TV.
Berlin Station creator Olen Steinhauer has spent his career as a novelist delving into the morally murky world of espionage and the duplicity that defines it.
“What’s fascinating to me is that, for these people, it’s their job to go out and seduce others through lies and manipulation. Knowing that, I’ve always wondered how that affects how they feel about themselves,” he says. “That’s a major theme of the series – identity.”
“These guys are not superheroes; these guys are not James or Jane Bond," Orser told Deadline. "They’re broken, damaged people whose personal lives are a shambles. The CIA exacts an enormous toll on the people that work for it.”
To get an understanding of that toll, Forbes met with Valerie Plame, the CIA agent famously outed by the Bush Administration in 2003.
“It really helped me to understand what it’s like for a woman to be undercover and to sacrifice so much of your personal life in order to do this job,” says Forbes.
Don’t call it Homeland
Homeland is the obvious comparison to the show, especially since it was set in Berlin in season five, but Steinhauer says a key departure from the hit Showtime series is that Berlin Station represents the true collaborative nature of espionage.
"The one crucial difference is that, in Homeland, you're following Carrie (Claire Danes). She's the fulcrum of everything – it's her drive that gets things done. But that's not how intelligence works," he says. "How did they find Bin Laden? It was not one person who was driven to extremes. This show is supposed to show how normal people with an abnormal job have to work tougher. They are not superheroes. This is an ensemble [show] because intelligence is an ensemble."
A cast to die for
Between them, Berlin Station’s cast has a stellar resume of iconic TV shows and movies you may have caught them in. Armitage is best known as Thorin in The Hobbit trilogy and has starred in Hannibal, Spooks and Strike Back. Jenkins’ breakthrough role was as Fisher family patriarch and funeral director Nathaniel in HBO’s acclaimed drama Six Feet Under, and he was nominated for an Academy award for The Visitor.
Forbes has been a regular fixture on iconic TV series for some 20 years, starring in the likes of Homicide: Life on the Street, 24, True Blood, Battlestar Galactica, Prison Break and The Killing. Ifans, of course, made a name for himself as the scene-stealing Spike in Notting Hill, and has racked up star turns in the likes of Snowden, Elementary, The Amazing Spider-Man and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. And Orser was a recurring player in ER, Ray Donovan and the Taken trilogy, and played serial killer Richard Thompson opposite Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie in The Bone Collector.
Fittingly, Forbes rates the cast with this atypical gush: “I love them to bits. I’d take a bullet for them.”
Watch Berlin Station on Wednesday 13 December at 10:30pm on SBS. The first two seasons of the show are streaming at SBS On Demand from 14 December.