What exactly does Max Easton (Mark Strong) want? He’s been plunged head-first back into a world of covert operations and assassinations he thought he’d left behind years ago, and while clearly he’s lost none of his skill when it comes to following leads and extracting information, exactly what his endgame is in all this remains a bit of a mystery. Yes, he wants to get back to his family and out of this web of lies and murder. But how?
The man who thinks he’s running Max isn’t even thinking that far ahead. George White (Alistair Petrie), MI6 middle management and the man who dragged Max back into the life of a professional assassin, thinks that simply by threatening his family Max will do whatever he’s told. He may even be right. When George calls Max in Beirut for an update, Max says he’s keeping Lelya (Karima McAdams) alive to lead him to Said (Zubin Varla) the leader of the kill team he’s been sent to eliminate.
But Lelya is on that hit list too. We know that Max knows George has been lying to him. Is that going to be enough for him to put her life above his family’s?
One of the things we do know is that Max wants to find his son and fellow spy, Harry (Joe Dempsie). In Harry’s timeline – that’s now only a day earlier and back in Tehran – he’s just survived the car bombing that knocked Lelya out and is still chasing after Ali Ardavan (Bijan Daneshmand), now travelling under the name of Darius Kazim. Ardavan is also chasing after something: a better deal. He’s convinced the Iranians are the ones who want him dead, and he’s looking to trade up to asylum in the States.
For a show that’s constantly jumping between timelines (and featuring the same characters in both) Deep State does a surprisingly good job of keeping things clear. In the present, Lelya is helping Max; in the past, she’s arguing with the rest of her kill team that finding Harry is the only way they’re going to stay alive. Her plan is clear; her motives, less so. Is she after him because they had a relationship together? Or is it more that unless they find out what he knows, London will have them killed?
Pretty much the only person in Deep State whose endgame is clear is Max’s wife Anna (Lyne Renee) – and that’s because all she wants is to stay alive. Having escaped the bungled hit at the end of last episode, she and her kids are on the run (she told the kids they had to leave because there was a giant boar in the house). The only person left she can trust is her brother Noah (Adrien Jolivet); the one thing she definitely shouldn’t trust is her phone, which is sending everything she says back to MI6.
Having failed to take care of her once, MI6 is not messing around. They figure out where she’s going to meet Noah and send their local killer to meet them. But Anna’s no dummy: she’s worked out that if they know she watched Max’s confession video, they know Noah saw it too, and there’s no going back for either of them. When the killer arrives, he finds nothing but their smashed phones.
This isn’t good news for George, especially as his CIA superior Amanda Jones (Anastasia Griffith) has finally arrived to make his life even more of a living hell.
Her idea of a cheery hello is “They still keep you in this shithole.” And she’s in no mood to sugar-coat the exact nature of their relationship: she points out the days of the UK being the heart of empire are done, and now when it comes to global power-plays “you’re lucky we include you at all” But George isn’t wearing his rose-coloured glasses either: “You mean we’re lucky you use us to keep your dirty wars at arms-length from Washington”.
It’s a scene that cuts to the heart of Deep State; this is a series about servants rather than masters. Just about everyone here is reacting to events they didn’t set in motion, because everyone here doesn’t have the power to make things happen. Even George, who’s been pulling all the strings he can until now, is revealed to be dancing to the American’s tune. Taking charge of your own destiny is a luxury nobody here has; everyone’s just trying to survive.
And when everyone’s trying to survive, trouble tends to roll downhill. A day ago Lelya and Cooper visited a fixer in Beruit to try and locate Ardavan; now Max and Lelya are on his doorstep wanting results. He runs, which isn’t that surprising considering Max was pulling out his fingernails in episode one. This time they skip the torture and go right to the intel: seems Ardavan is meeting a US-Iranian lobbyist at the Babylonian Hotel. “Do I get to keep the money?” “You get to keep your fingernails”.
Skipping over the traditional torture scene is a sign of how confident Deep State is in its storytelling; the scene where Lelya talks her way into their targets hotel room and then bugs it is equally slick. We all know how the old “oh no, he’s coming back up, get out now” scene plays out; Deep State gives us the bare bones and keeps on moving.
The pace is speeding up as everything is coming together. Ardavan is meeting his contact at an Iranian-American development conference at the hotel. Max and Lelya are listening in on their bugs inside; unbeknownst to them, Harry is waiting for Ardavan in a car outside... if he can stay awake.
But for Lelya, something doesn’t add up: if Ardavan was financing the Iranian atomic bomb program – that was the reason they were given for having to kill him in the first place – then why is he meeting a lobbyist who’s “as American as apple pie”? Max doesn’t care; he’s been keeping his head down for so long he can’t see past his next move. But she knows the only hope any of them have of surviving is of seeing the big picture: he needs to know what’s going on just as much as Harry does.
Someone who’s learning just how important it is to know all the facts is Anna. Noah took them to an old hunting lodge their father used to use, but he forgot to mention it’s on land owned by his ex – an ex who now knows they’re there. Worse, he forgot to mention his old addiction to painkillers is back, and if he doesn’t go into town to score he’s going to turn very ugly indeed. But that turns out to be a plus; when MI6 make the family connection to the lodge and send the goon squad to grab them, he’s nowhere to be found. They’re fine with leaving him behind; after all, what kind of threat is a junkie?
Back in Beruit, Ardavan is making his play for US asylum. And it looks like it’s paid off – until they change the pick-up point to an abandoned car wreckers yard. When the bullets start flying, Ardavan starts running (his contact isn’t so lucky) – and the shots are enough to bring Max, Lelya and Harry into action. With their timelines now in synch, father and son finally meet – with guns drawn.
Max has finally got what he wanted out of all this. So why doesn’t he look happy about it?
Deep State airs Wednesday nights on SBS at 9:40pm, with episodes also available at SBS On Demand: