When CIA analyst Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage) arrives in Berlin to plug a leak, plumbing is the last thing on anyone’s mind. Someone at the CIA’s Berlin station is passing on secrets to a mystery whistler-blower known as Thomas Shaw, and neither the Americans nor the Germans are particularly happy about it. It’s the kind of undercover mission James Bond would sort out over a martini before dinner (presumably via some kind of blimp hijack or underwater chase sequence), but this series takes its tone from a much more serious source – one that’s done as much to shape the way we see spies today as any cocktail swigging tuxedo’d superhero.
John le Carré’s spy novels were originally positioned as a reaction to the runaway fame of James Bond – you’ve enjoyed the fantasy, now take a look at the real world of international spying. Rather than guns and glamour, le Carré focused on shades of grey, where little people trapped in big systems tried to figure out if it was even possible to live with honour and do the right thing in a world where the “right thing” could change at the stroke of a pen. More interested in characters and morality than good guys versus bad, le Carré changed the way we look at spies, turning them from international playboys to people like the rest of us – only with much higher stakes.
Berlin Station creator Olen Steinhauer is a successful spy novelist (this is his first television series), who’s cited le Carré’s Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy as his favourite spy novel. It’s not hard to see the influence. Berlin Station depicts a world where espionage is both supremely important and the kind of job that wears you down fast, where everyone has at least one personal agenda underneath everything they do and trusting no-one goes without saying… though it does get said here a fair bit.
Miller’s chief in Berlin is Cold War veteran Steve Frost (Richard Jenkins), a man clearly burnt out but still hanging on for his own reasons. Frost’s deputy (Lealand Orser) is the kind of hard-to-like man who gets things done; Frost’s administrator (Michelle Forbes) is equally no-nonsense, but with her eye on the path that leads to the top job. It’s office politics as usual, only with the kind of stakes – the secrets being leaked are the kind that can get people killed – that makes every lingering stare and angry glance gripping viewing.
Part of the appeal of le Carré’s view of espionage is that there are always so many layers to what’s going on. It’s not enough that one side is spying on another, everybody involved always has their own agendas (and romances) underneath the overlapping schemes of their organisations – and if you don’t have a past coming back to haunt you, you’re not really trying. Berlin Station revels in this kind of romantic noir atmosphere. Miller’s mission to flush out the traitor might be relatively straightforward, but there are so many subplots and side missions going on that you might want to draw up a chart (or at least, take a few notes).
While there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had from seeing the web of plots and motivations unravel, Berlin Station isn’t merely a dry exercise in plotting and scheming. What le Carré brought to spy drama was the idea that all the double-crosses and betrayals have a human cost, and that living such high stakes lives will eventually wear you down even if you don’t get a bullet in the back. That’s where this series really shines – time and again we’re reminded of the human cost of all this, whether it’s people having to shut themselves down to get the job done, or realising the organisation they’ve devoted their lives to will cut them loose without looking back.
The most obvious example of this is Hector DeJean (Rhys Ifans), an old comrade of Miller’s who’s crumbling around the edges. Ifans is no stranger to going big in roles, but here he makes Hector a somewhat subdued figure, though one clearly familiar with the seedy side of his line of work. If Miller is the spy who still believes in what he’s doing, Hector is the one who’s seen it and seen through it all. Which, in its own way, is a very valuable skill for a spy to have.
Shot on location in Berlin – which is clearly the dream location for a spy drama – the city’s reputation for debauchery adds yet another layer to the characters plotting and scheming. They live in a world without fixed morals or values. In Hector’s mind at least, why not have a good time while you can? It’s not bad advice – if you’re looking for a good time with a bunch of spies over summer, Berlin Station is a secret worth sharing.
Watch Berlin Station on Wednesday nights at 10:30pm on SBS. The first two seasons of the show are streaming now at SBS On Demand.