More often than not, today’s action heroes are reactive: when the bad guys get up to something it’s the good guys job to stop them. Whether it’s down to the lingering effects of 9/11 or the rise of the superhero – a genre firmly devoted to maintaining the status quo – the result is a whole lot of stories where the good guys deep down want nothing more than to be left alone.
Deep State doesn’t have time for any of this. Even the shady scheme that’s set the events of the entire series in motion is proactive: rather than waiting to see if Iran sticks to the terms of a recent nuclear non-proliferation treaty, MI6 has sent a murder squad to Tehran to kill off their top scientists and money men to ensure their weapons program remains stillborn. Only it’s increasingly looking like they were sent in for another reason entirely; why else would MI6 chief George White (Alistair Petrie) want one of his own team killed simply for asking questions?
This all-action approach extends to the cast. Murder team boss Said (Zubin Varla) refuses to execute the question-asking Harry (Joe Dempsie) on George’s orders, instead taking matters into his own hands by faking Harry’s death and telling him to disappear. Harry heads out into the desert, but his passive acceptance is a ruse; by the episode’s halfway point he’s back in Tehran and back asking questions – only this time, he’s backing them up with a gun.
In fact, for most of this episode the difference between the good guys and the bad is that the good guys are the ones who get things done. Last episode George merely seemed extremely suspicious; this episode sees him putting in a grovelling call to the CIA, where power player Amanda Jones (Anastasia Griffith) tells him that merely having one of his team killed isn’t going to cut it; what if they talked to each other? Later we see her in a high-level meeting being told off for being too-proactive, as her superiors would much rather she gathered information than corpses. No wonder she wants George to wipe out his entire team and she doesn’t care who does it: “just make sure he’s reliable, and that you can control him”.
Well, at least George got the first part right.
In the present, George’s chosen executioner Max Easton (Mark Strong) has learnt his son (and fellow spy) Harry is still alive, blown up an apartment using a microwave oven, and still had time to put in a call to his wife Anna (Lyne Renee). At this stage we only really know two things about Easton: he’s a man who gets things done, and he’s a man who loves his family. So the stilted conversation he has here is especially painful to watch, as this is the one situation where he can’t take charge. Anna didn’t trust him when he suddenly up and left her and their daughters, and over the phone there’s nothing he can do to regain her trust.
And things are a lot worse with his family than he realises. Last episode Anna found his insurance policy; a recorded admission to having committed murder on George’s orders. She’s watching it again when Easton calls, but now there’s a twist – someone outside is listening (and recording) everything that’s happening in their house. Which means they now know about Easton’s confession, and that Anna knows about it too.
Time for the bad guys to show they can be proactive too. Back at MI6, George’s underling Walker (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is the agent overseeing the surveillance on Easton’s house, which means he’s the one who finds out that Anna – and soon, her brother Noah (Adrien Jolivet) – knows about Easton’s murderous past. But instead of bothering his boss, he decides to take matters into his own hands. “You’re going to need a strong stomach for this one,” he tells the surveillance officer, whose job is about to get a lot more hands on.
While all this is happening, Easton is seemingly still doing the job he was sent to do: kill Said and the surviving members of his team. But now that he knows Harry is still alive, his efforts to extract team member Leyla (Karima McAdams) from the clutches of the Beirut police take on a new urgency.
Not that you’d know it from Strong’s performance: the big advantage in having him play a character constantly in motion is that he doesn’t need big scenes to show off his emotions. Deep State loves focusing in on his face during the brief moments when he’s not striding through the series pushing things forward – after waking from a flashback-filled dream, or waiting for a contact who almost certainly is going to try and kill him – and every time it’s a shot worth framing.
The only way for him to get Leyla back is to deal with Salim Baraket (Igal Naor), a former spymaster who told Easton he’d have him killed if he ever returned to Beruit. It’s no idle threat either; no sooner have they met down the docks than Easton is knocked out and taken to what looks like a fish market, where Baraket seems ready to put a very large fish hook into him.
But under-estimating Easton is never a smart move, especially when he knows you helped have your own Prime Minister assassinated, and soon Easton is sitting across from Leyla in a police station that she’s understandably reluctant to leave. Time for Easton to deploy his ultimate weapon when it comes to persuading her he’d much rather find Harry than kill her: a wedding ring.
Turns out she knows Harry is still alive because a few days ago she nearly killed him. Harry was back in Tehran to track down former comrade Omar (Tom Reed) to find out why asking questions nearly got him killed; meanwhile Said and Leyla were also after Omar, only they wanted to blow him up. It wasn’t until after Leyla stuck a bomb on the side of Omar’s car that she realised Harry was also inside torturing Omar (it really wasn’t his day); she saved him but got caught in the blast, and he escaped while the police grabbed her.
But she knows who Harry is looking for: asking questions about a man named Ali Ardavan was what put him on the kill list. And now Easton knows that his old mate George is the one who ordered Harry’s death.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only death MI6 has been ordering. There’s a killer sneaking through Anna’s house; if her older daughter wasn’t convinced her parents were about to get divorced – and wants to confront her mother about it – they’d all be dead in their beds. As it stands, they manage to escape while back in London George is ramming Walker’s head into a desk for ordering murders without running them by him first. Now Anna is on the run, and she knows George is mixed up in her husband’s shady past.
That’s the downside of being proactive; if it doesn’t work out, somebody else – in this case, Amanda Jones – has to come in and clean your mess up.
No wonder George needs a stiff drink.
Deep State airs on SBS every Wednesday night at 9:40pm, with episodes added to SBS On Demand: