Deep State isn’t a series that messes about. With three main storylines powering forward at a rapid rate, it can’t afford to be. That means that something new crops up out of the blue, you just have to go with it and trust things will eventually slow down long enough for the latest puzzle piece to fall into place. This week’s episode begins with a man we’ve never met leaving a mosque that turns out to be in London before he’s grabbed by immigration agents for reasons that aren’t explained; strap yourselves in, because there’s a lot more to come.
Series writer and creator Matthew Parkhill takes over the directing duties from this episode, but right from the start he knows what makes this show work: close ups of Mark Strong and plenty of them.
On a Beirut rooftop Max (Strong) has already figured out that the phone call that ended last week’s episode have boxed in him and his team – estranged son Harry (Joe Dempsie) and his partner Leyla (Karima McAdams) – and the only way out is to uncover the reasons behind the current wave of Middle Eastern assassinations before the trio become their latest victims. But they’re going to have to move fast: Max’s hostage wife Anna (Lyne Renee), her brother and her two kids are being taken to a new location after last week’s escape bid, and this one’s much less comfortable.
For them, it gets worse. Back in London, MI6 section chief George White (Alistair Petrie) has just called in Khalid Walker (Kingsley Ben-Adir), better known as the agent who ordered a hit on Anna back in episode one. George can’t go to France to take care of things himself, so he needs Khalid – who’s already proven he “has the stomach” for this kind of “distasteful” work – to use Anna and the kids to flush Max out. Khalid’s no dummy. He knows once Max is dead Harry and Lelya are next. And he’s fine with that – so long as George realises he owes him.
Soon Khalid is in France and nobody is happy to see him. Chief captor Laurence (Alexandre Willaume) has formed a bit of a bond with Anna – remember how they were discussing their families last week? – so he makes it very clear that there are some things he won’t do to small children. Which isn’t exactly reassuring considering Khalid was brought in for his willingness to do anything to anyone. Khalid promptly separates Anna from her daughters and drives her to the kind of abandoned military base you’d expect to be leased with the slogan “ideal for the professional torturer”.
So far Max and the others have been spinning their wheels. Then Max gets a call: it’s Anna, it’s a videocall, and it doesn’t end well for her. Max then calls George and expresses his displeasure using phrases such as “fucking cancerous piece of shit”. George takes it in his stride. He already knows about Max’s blackmail video and if Max tries to release it, Anna and the kids will die. Max doesn’t take this news well.
This is as grim as it gets for Max. Before, no matter what corner he was in, he always had a card to play. But it turns out he still does, as Harry sits down next to him and says “Whatever it takes, I’ll help you”. It might seem a little coincidental that when they watch the video again together Max recognises a cross in the background and figures out where it was filmed, but the real point here is that when they work together they get things done. Teamwork is the only weapon they have: when Harry calls Max “dad” for the first time to get him moving, it shows he knows they’re all in this together.
Which is why it’s tragic that their next scene together – and by Deep State standards it’s an epic scene at almost three minutes – sees the pair dredging up the past to use it to hurt each other. They’re now in France (if the bad guys can cross the continent between scenes why can’t the good guys?) with guns in hand on a hillside overlooking the old military base. At first there’s just the usual friction between them, with Harry always looking to twist the knife a little. He wants to know how Max and Anna met, he wants to know about his kids, and while Max knows what’s going on – “you really want to do this now?” – he tells Harry anyway.
Then it gets serious. “What did you used to tell people about me.”
“Oh Harry, don’t.”
“Don’t what – talk to you about something that actually matters?”
It’s a surprise Harry even bothers to carry a gun, because the insults he ends up throwing are lethal. “Is this why you came – to insult me?” Max says. “I came because I saw you watching that video,” says Harry. “You looked old, mate. Weak. I felt sorry for you. Getting to insult you is a bonus.”. If Max was a better father, he’d realise his son just wants him to find the words to take away the pain of being abandoned. But Max isn’t there yet, and his excuses for leaving – “I didn’t like the person I’d become”; “I was a fucking mess” – don’t cut it.
It’s a big scene for Harry, and Joe Dempsie does a great job of selling his anger. But there’s a reason why this series is full of close ups of Mark Strong; he might be the tough guy lead, but while his dialogue has him on the defensive his face shows us that while his son’s insults hurt, he understands why Harry has to say those things, and that he probably deserves it too. It’s not his big scene, but it’s a big moment for Max.
While the boys are getting in touch with their feelings, the women of Deep State are getting things done. Leyla’s investigating last episodes “accidental” drone strike, specifically the rumour that a young boy survived. She tracks him down, follows him into his house, wins him over with some Star Wars chat, and pays him for a copy of all the photos he took at the wedding. It’s a pretty creepy scene in a number of ways: for one, there’s no guardian in sight as she rifles through the last images he’ll ever have of his family. Deep State might be split between good spies and bad, but it never lets you forget that even the good guys aren’t all that good.
As for the bad guys, CIA mover and shaker Amanda Jones (Anastasia Griffith) has asked for and received permission to extract an Iranian scientist with vital intel about that nation’s nuclear program. But if she’s in the war room with a bunch of top-level officials watching night vision footage of an extremely convincing US raid taking place deep in Iran, what’s going on at that film set hidden in a shed in the middle of Arizona?
Remember the man at the London mosque? He’s the top scientist Jones is telling everyone they grabbed from Iran (yes, the raid was fake). She and her shady backers needs him to deliver a speech to the Iran Directorate about uranium enrichment at a power plant. And if – as he tells them – there is no enrichment going on at that power planet, well… it’s lucky they just happen to have a folder handy with everything they want him to say.
Until now the reason behind all the CIA’s skulduggery has been vague at best. They’ve wanted people dead, and when the MI6 kill team couldn’t get the job done they used drones. But in going through the wedding photos, Leyla finds a big, big piece of the puzzle. One of the people killed was the founder of one of Iran’s top construction firms who recently blocked a US take-over bid for his company. Now he’s dead, nobody is talking about it, and the US bid has been quietly accepted. “The US launched a drone strike to facilitate a corporate takeover”. All this has been about money.
Not for Max though. This fight is about family, and he’s taking the fight to the men holding his family hostage. Fans of seeing bad guys get taken out like it was nothing will enjoy Khalid getting gunned down after unwittingly leading Max back to his family; fans of big knock-down drag-out fights will enjoy what happens to Laurence after he pulls a gun on Anna and the kids and tries to use them to bargain his way out.
In the end Max has his family back, Harry has got his back (for now), and it’s time for George to be the one who gets a video call he’s not going to enjoy. And with his henchmen dead and Max free to take his revenge, this isn’t going to be his last sleepless night.
Deep State season 1 is streaming now at SBS On Demand, with episodes also airing on SBS Wednesday nights at 9:35pm: