When Max Easton (Mark Strong) wakes up early in his gorgeous French farm house, it’s not just his worried expression that lets us know something isn’t right. This is Mark Strong we’re looking at, an actor who manages to combine intensity and understatement in such a way that he can seem like a coolly efficient killing machine just by brushing his teeth while also somehow struggling through life under a burden of sadness so heavy he could make a kitten cry with a glance. He’s a man with a lot going on; having him making breakfast for his wife Anna (Lyne Renee) and kids (Indica Watson & Cara Bossom) is clearly just the calm before the storm.
It’d be silly to say that Strong is Deep State’s secret weapon, because there’s nothing secret about him; he’s front and centre from that very first scene. But as this spy drama kicks off, it’s the way he underplays everything that makes these early scenes work. There’s a sequence early on where Easton’s morning drive with his kids is paralleled with an assassination in Iran: both involve motorbikes coming up behind cars while the cars are stuck (in Iran, it’s traffic; in the French countryside, it’s sheep). While the Iranian version is the more obviously thrilling – a bomb is planted, the bomb goes off, the bike riders have to flee the police and only barely manage to escape – Strong’s performance makes his side of things just as tense even though he does nothing but watch as his motorcyclist simply rides away.
It turns out the Iranian assassination (which happened three days ago; this first episode is constantly shifting between the two timelines) was conducted by a British intelligence unit working to slow down the Iranian’s secret atomic bomb plans. After their most recent close shave, the four members – Cooper (Mel Raido), Leyla (Karima McAdams) and Harry (Joe Dempsie) and local liaison Omar (Tom Reed) – want to wrap things up. But their leader Said (Zubin Varla), reveals there’s one more target to go: a major financier of the weapons program. This shouldn’t take long.
Meanwhile, Easton is… okay, he’s making a table and bringing his wife a coffee. Anyone who’s ever watched a television show knows that these two storylines are going to converge; you don’t hire Mark Strong for his carpentry skills. But it’s his ability to project unease simply with a look that makes these scenes compelling rather than just fiddly business before the good stuff. It’s almost disappointing when he gets a mysterious phone message right after his power is equally mysteriously cut off.
In Iran too, things are heating up. The murder mission was curtailed when Harry and Lelya saw Omar with the target, and while Cooper – who just happens to be American – wants to bring Omar in for “enhanced interrogation”, Said wants to wait for orders from London. Doesn’t he realise that waiting around in spy dramas is what gets you killed?
All the hijinks around Easton’s house (which include someone standing outside Anna’s bedroom window, filming her getting undressed, then sending Easton the video; he does not take this well) turn out to be the way his former boss George White (Alistair Petrie) asks him to come back to work. This kind of plot-line can often feel superfluous; obviously Easton is going to go back to being a spy, there wouldn’t be a show otherwise. But the scene where Strong tells Anna – who clearly has no idea about his past life – that all this craziness is “the banks” way of summoning him is excellent: you can literally see Strong thinking up his excuses as he makes them, while his cover story – he worked at a shady bank and now some shady people want their money back – is just plausible enough to work.
It doesn’t work, of course. He says “I just need one week. And then we go back to normal.” She says “Don’t touch me.”
And then it turns out all the crazy stalking stuff wasn’t really even about getting Easton back to work. Once he arrives back at his former HQ, George reveals that Said has gone “Colonel Kurtz”, Cooper and Leyla have surfaced in Lebanon, and Harry – who, by the way, is Easton’s son – is dead, murdered by Said. So why not just tell him that up front? Because we need to know George is a sneaky sleaze who we shouldn’t trust – and if Easton wasn’t overwhelmed by grief, he’d know that too.
Three days in the past, the Iran team are getting fidgety. There’s only so much going through papers and wondering what Omar’s up to that Harry and Leyla can do before they need some kind of release.
That’ll do it.
In the present, Easton has arrived in Beirut, met up with his old spy buddy Gabriel (Fares Fares), and rapidly found his way back into the swing of things, promptly grabbing a gun and a bag of plastic-wrapped cash to bribe a lowlife down at the docks into telling them where Cooper and Leyla are. Of course, he doesn’t know – but he might know a “fixer” who does. They grab the fixer, he doesn’t want to talk and then it’s torture time. “I don’t know if I’ve got this in me anymore but it’s time to find out,” says Easton before effortlessly pulling out the fixer’s fingernail; guess torture is just like riding a bike. It’s not lingered on either; after 15-odd years of spy shows where torture is just another information-gathering option, it’s Strong’s efficient, matter-of-fact performance that makes the biggest impression. Well, that and going for the fingernails; it’s always the smallest kinds of torture that seem the nastiest.
For most spy shows all of this would be plenty to go on with, especially as the Iranian timeline is piling on some twists of its own: Harry has discovered a link between Omar and a Washington DC law firm, only when Said takes this information to George he promptly dismisses it. He says that Harry and Omar are old school buddies so obviously he’s the real leak and the only way to plug it is with a bullet. But Deep State has another twist up its sleeve. Anna didn’t buy her husband’s bank story for a second, and the second her husband left she (and her brother) started snooping around.
It seems when Easton dies, a strongbox full of secrets is to be sent to a UK journalist who specialises in political scandals. To open the box, they need the key; to get the key, first they have to open a safe. But eventually they manage it, and all they find is… a USB. Anna plugs it into a computer and finds a video of her husband – so of course, she calls him. Unfortunately, he’s otherwise occupied:
Having managed to persuade the fixer to invite Leyla and Cooper to a public meeting place, Easton is waiting from a vantage point all set to avenge his son’s death. So a call from his wife while his finger’s on the trigger isn’t exactly welcome: “Can it wait,” he says, “I’ve got… a couple of people waiting for me”. But hanging up on her isn’t the smartest move either, because then she plays the clip – and hears a shaky Easton confessing to murdering a top-level British scientist involved in the lead-up to the Iraq war.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because something very similar happened in real life with the mysterious death of David Kelly, which many still believe wasn’t a suicide. Will Easton’s past come back to haunt him? Well, obviously, as now his wife knows he’s a professional killer and she’s not exactly happy about it. But it gets worse: he also incriminates his commanding officer at the time – one George White.
Then things really start to ramp up. We see Harry get taken out into the desert and shot by Said; before Easton can gun down Leyla and Cooper the police come gunning for them and they scatter. Lelya is caught; Cooper gets away – only to find Easton coming for him. Australian director Robert Connolly (Balibo, Paper Planes) has done an excellent job throughout this episode, but this fight scene is a definite highlight: it’s nasty, drawn out, and involves someone getting stabbed with a radio aerial. But there’s one more twist to come: it seems Harry isn’t dead – Said just shot at him through the windshield.
But why fake his death? And what will Easton do now that he knows he was brought back into all this by a lie? Mark Strong’s underplaying days may just have come to an abrupt end.
Deep State airs every Wednesday night at 9:30pm. You can also watch the show with new episodes added weekly at SBS On Demand: