Berlin Station: Epix’s Fledgling Spy Thriller

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Berlin Station Series Premiere Plot Summary:

Unbeknownst to his new colleagues, CIA agent Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage) is sent to Berlin to track down an informant who has been leaking classified information to the press.

Berlin Station, one of the two new shows in Epix’s effort to get into original programming, opens with a dramatic flash-forward, which should tell you pretty much everything you need to know. It’s not that flash-forwards are bad, or that they can’t be a useful narrative or stylistic tool. But far too often it’s a method of building cheap suspense that doesn’t actually affect the story in any meaningful way. What’s more, it’s a pretty well-worn cliché of the thriller genre that has long since lost its novelty. And after its first episode, clichés and cheap tricks definitely seem to be the primary tools at Berlin Station‘s disposal.

The main plot of the show follows CIA agent Daniel Miller as he works to uncover the identity of anonymous whistleblower Thomas Shaw. This turns out to be a poor choice, as neither Miller nor this plot are all that interesting. As a character, Miller is little more than a cipher. Other than some vague hints at a troubled childhood in Berlin, we get no real sense of his personality. He forges no meaningful connection with any other character, nor do his dialogue or actions deviate at all from what you’d expect from a stock spy character. As for the plot itself, it’s a mystery with one layer: he tails someone he suspects of being Shaw’s courier for the whole episode until something interesting happens. A compelling mystery can make up for a bland character, but so far Berlin Station fails on both counts.

Rather than developing either its main plot or its main character, the show attempts to flesh itself out by throwing on multiple subplots and topical themes, most of which don’t really work. Most of the subplots are composed of only the blandest clichés: chief of the CIA’s Berlin station Steven Frost (Richard Jenkins) having an affair with his secretary, a German intelligence officer in the pocket of the CIA betrayed by one of the leaks. Much like the main plot, none of them develop beyond this basic structure, and so never become particularly compelling. Meanwhile, any subtlety about the show’s topical themes goes out the window halfway through when fellow CIA agent Gerald Ellman (Richard Dillane) namedrops Julian Assange and Edward Snowden in his rant about how whistleblowers are irresponsible. It’s unclear if the show intends to endorse this viewpoint or merely present it as the beliefs of CIA agents, but since it is the only perspective on the issue offered in the pilot it’s hard to escape the impression that it does. Regardless of its intent, there’s very little real digging into the thornier questions of whistleblowing, so the use of it rarely goes beyond surface texture. There’s an interesting story to tell about the morality and ethics of leaking classified info, but Berlin Station doesn’t seem interested in telling it. 

That’s not to say that nothing works about the show, though. One subplot involving Daniel’s old morally dubious partner Hector DeJean (Rhys Ifans) is actually fairly interesting. One of Hector’s informants, a Middle Eastern official named Faisal (Kerem Can), has fallen in love with him, and he refuses to continue informing unless Hector reciprocates. This raises plenty of complicated questions that make fertile ground for exploring in future episodes. And when Gerald, victim to the latest leak, is abandoned by his family after they object to his forcible transfer to the US, it is at least a mildly effective demonstration of the human cost of leaks. The big surprise, however, is the very end, when the show seemingly reveals the identity of Thomas Shaw. It’s actually a pretty bold move, forcing the show to move forward instead of slowly teasing out the mystery, but it’s also a risky one, and only time can tell if it pays off.

For a freshman effort at original programming, Berlin Station really isn’t that bad. If the next nine episodes tease out the more compelling questions behind its subject matter and put more effort into developing its characters, it could even be pretty good. But in a crowded TV landscape full of great shows, “not that bad” and “has potential” don’t really cut it. Maybe in a couple months you’ll see Berlin Station on a list of surprising hits for the fall season, and if so you should check it out. Otherwise, you’re better off skipping it for now.

RATING: 5 OUT OF 10

Berlin Station Airs Sundays at 9 PM on Epix