I’ve been shouting Olen Steinhauer’s name from the rooftops for years now, so it should surprise no one that his first foray in episodic television, Berlin Station (Epix, 2016), met with my fervid enthusiasm. Happily, my excitement was rewarded; playing out like one of the author’s intricately plotted novels, Berlin Station’s first ten episodes comprise one of the best seasons of spy television ever produced.
Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage) is a CIA analyst who, after ten years behind a desk, returns to the field as a man with a mission: uncovering the identity of “Thomas Shaw,” an anonymous whistleblower who’s been causing chaos by strategically leaking the agency’s dirty secrets. Having identified who he thinks is Shaw’s press courier, Miller is assigned to Berlin Station to investigate the lead. Outwardly it’s a routine posting, but he soon finds himself ensnared in the complex station politics of its principal officers. The station chief, Steven Frost (Richard Jenkins), is a cagey forty-year veteran of the service whose faith in the mission is starting to waver. His deputy, Robert Kirsch (Leland Orser), is a fiery, foul-mouthed patriot. Then there are the case officers: the steely Valerie Edwards (Michelle Forbes) and the shifty, haunted Hector DeJean (Rhys Ifans), with whom Miller shares a storied past. Miller’s arrival portends a tumultuous turn of events at the station, as his investigation interfaces awkwardly with the many schemes and motives of the players, turning Berlin into a hotbed of American foreign-policy controversy.
Sometimes the weight of expectation leads to disappointment, but Berlin Station delivers on nearly every level. Steinhauer’s densely woven storytelling sensibility works just as effectively onscreen as it does on the page, and indeed the author’s scripts are standouts, from the gripping intrigue of the pilot to the miraculously tight resolution of the finale. The cast is a treasure trove of talent, led unsurprisingly by the sensational Richard Jenkins, who perfectly mixes world-weary cynicism with exhausted emotional turmoil in an awardworthy turn. Armitage, who proved his mettle in a similar role during his MI-5 stint, makes for a dependable central presence, while Forbes and Orser provide fiery, convincing support as high-ranking officers. Meanwhile, Ifans’ Hector DeJean is a riveting, scene-stealing figure whose grim, callous outlook gradually achieves a richly imagined, heart-breaking backstory. In unsure hands, the kind of detailed, complicated story-telling Steinhauer favors can come across as torturous and mechanistic, but there’s so much humanity to the characters and urgency to the scenario that no such problem befalls Berlin Station. Indeed, the performances inject that little something extra to make the drama special.
This is also a potently political show, and fearlessly so, in a manner that will probably be off-putting to the militantly right wing, but makes for wrenching, scathing critique for the rest of us. In a genre where the heroes often labor in support of a safe, conventional status quo, Berlin Station makes for a fierce, angry counterpoint, savaging not just the methods of the spy business, but the cruel political systems that prop it up. The finale manages, with astonishing success, to thread together the many characters and subplots into a conclusion both structurally and thematically satisfying. It mercilessly — but also beautifully — turns a mirror on the viewer for their complicity with the world’s systemic injustice.
Only a few nitpicks mar the season, and just barely. David Bowie notwithstanding, the credit sequence lyrics are rather on-the-nose. A couple of key side characters meet disappointingly expected, and sociopolitically unfortunate, fates. And a handful of predictable TV tropes, especially common to the spy genre, make unwelcome appearances. These blemishes are surrounded, however, by so many sparkling moments, and integrated into such a robust, thoroughly thought-out scenario, that it’s hard to take the show to task for them. Ultimately, Berlin Station is a near-masterpiece of the genre, in my view ranking alongside The Honourable Woman, season six of MI-5, and Rubicon as one of spy TV’s best seasons of all time.