Female spies on our big and small screens are finally changing the image of female espionage agents.
By
Cat Woods

19 Feb 2019 - 2:47 PM  UPDATED 19 Feb 2019 - 2:47 PM

In the spy genre, we’re used to seeing women as James Bond-era props in tight skirts and sky-high heels with a few witty lines to deliver before being dispatched by enemy sniper. Remember Honey Ryder in a white bikini carrying an enormous hunting knife emerging from the ocean to confront Bond? Or Pussy Galore, who was really just a puppet for Goldfinger’s malevolent plotting?

Berlin Station, a modern-day spy drama set in the CIA’s Berlin outpost, exemplifies the long overdue repositioning of women in this genre. From merely playing “femme fatales who heartlessly deploy their womanly charms to coax state secrets from their lovers”, women are finally being put forward as dynamic, intelligent professionals.

Alongside Valerie Edwards (Michelle Forbes) and BB Yates (Ashley Judd) in Berlin Station, fellow small-screen agents Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) in Homeland, Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) in The Americans and Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) in the film Red Sparrow genuinely reflect the role women have played as spies throughout recorded (and unrecorded) history.

What stands out in Berlin Station, especially in a genre that often plays out like a Boys’ Own Adventure in the spirit of a John Le Carré novel, is the willingness of producers and writers to enable women of various ethnicities, ages and sexualities to represent the vital roles of spies during wartime.

Berlin Station starts by following the story of CIA agent Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage) in his mission to uncover the source of a leak to infamous whistle-blower, Thomas Shaw. Michelle Forbes plays Valerie Edwards, Internal Branch Chief, and in season 2, Ashley Judd plays Yates, Berlin’s Chief of Station. Season 3 introduces Keke Palmer as case officer April Lewis.

The women of Berlin Station are hardly eyesores, but they’ve got plenty of political nous, and they’re tough, as they need to be in a highly political and dangerous work environment. They display vulnerability, self-doubt and fear, too, none of which detracts from their leadership and professionalism. Sexy with substance would accurately define the women of Berlin Station, as diverse as they are in appearance, personality and professional role.

Internal Branch Chief, Valerie Edwards

Valerie Edwards is definitely #spygoals in her smart wrap-dresses and high heels as she foils Estonian coup plots or takes emergency calls from agents in Russia. While Bond’s women may have purely used their sexuality to mastermind plots or tricks, Edwards and her team of expert CIA agents have worked their way into and through Berlin Station’s ranks through sheer intelligence, dedication and talent.

Forbes, as Edwards, is inquisitive, observant and astute. She has been elevated to Internal Branch Chief, without the usual intimations of having slept with colleagues or bosses to attain her position. In her take-no-prisoners, poker-faced style, Edwards can appear ice queen-like in her demeanour, yet her interactions with Miller are gentler than the steely approach she takes with some of the older, less trustworthy agents and chiefs of staff, such as Steven Frost (Richard Jenkins).

Chief of Berlin Station, BB Yates

In the second season, Edwards was joined by BB Yates – another no-bullshit woman in charge. Played by the indomitable Ashley Judd, Yates was introduced to run Berlin Station as Chief. It was hard not to think of Judd’s very public denouncement of Harvey Weinstein and her initiation of the #MeToo movement when watching her glare down anyone who entered her office. The sense that she knows what it’s like to be domineered and manipulated and to have won her resolve and thick skin through perseverance and sheer determination is borne out in her every scene.

Yates is not just a hard-ass with a politically correct message to convey. She is tender in her relationship with long-time colleague and sometime lover, Nick Fischer (Scott William Winters) – never subservient, but nuanced in her emotions. Judd has said of her character, “I loved that BB Yates is such a leader. I really feel like my character is the type of woman that the world needs now, and to have the station chief of the CIA in Germany… was a wonderful opportunity, and having that person be female is way overdue.”

Case officer, April Lewis

Keke Palmer also arrives in season 2. Whereas both Yates and Edwards have already worked their way to chief roles, Palmer plays entry-level case officer April Lewis. Her work as Miller’s handler helps her develop her own badass resilience and resourcefulness. Less prone to rookie errors, she begins to reflect the qualities of her superiors – for the better.

Lewis’s initial cockiness made it a challenge to relate to her, but the interplay between the old and new guard within the CIA provides plenty of tension and fodder for plotlines that could carry through another two seasons at least. Palmer has said of her role, “As an African American it’s amazing to have the opportunity to be doing things that I don’t often see people that look like me doing.”

While the outcome of their varied investigative leads and the future of Germany, the USA and Russia is as yet unknown, what’s certain is that the clever, at times complex, plotlines will continue to give the women of Berlin Station ample opportunity to prove their depth as political power-players, leaders and spies.

In season 3 Edwards, overlooked for the top job as Chief of Station in the previous seasons, finally gets the role she’s coveted and earned. There are the usual personal and office politics that create tension as the men of the station have to accept their one-time colleague now taking charge of their missions, though as German spy and Miller’s lover, Esther Krug (Mina Tander) comments to Edwards in the first episode of season 3: “It suits you… being in charge.”

It suits all the women of Berlin Station to be leaders and professionals and do justice to the many real-life female agents who have reflected the dual roles women play as sexual beings, conflicted humans and professionals with a job to do –  their nation depends on it.

Berlin Station airs on Wednesday nights from 10.35pm on SBS. Missed the last episode? Watch it now at SBS On Demand, where you'll also find seasons 1 and 2 in full:

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