TV: Berlin Station (Season 2)

To put it mildly, my reaction to the first season of Berlin Station was ardent. Created and co-written by exceptional spy novelist Olen Steinhauer, the series launched with a bang and landed very high on my list of favorite seasons of spy TV. Unfortunately, while many of the elements that made it a success are still present going into season two, ultimately it doesn’t quite match up, lacking the freshness, finesse, and eloquence of its predecessor. That said, it’s not like I didn’t enjoy it: the show’s cast, complexity, and subject matter still drives right up my street.

At the center of it all remains Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage), who starts the year on a new deep-cover assignment, portraying a disgraced ex-military gunrunner whose mission is to infiltrate a German white nationalist terrorist group. The group, led by radical Otto Ganz (Thomas Kretschmann), is suspected of being in league with the PFD, Germany’s new far right political party, and their popular candidate Katherina Gerhardt (Natalia W├Ârner). This coalition is suspected of planning an act of terrorism to cement their popularity and swing the election. Daniel’s mission spirals out of control early, and in a desperate move to protect his cover, he ropes rogue agent Hector DeJean (Rhys Ifans) back into the fold. The crafty, untrustworthy Hector plays along, at first, but his own agenda bubbles along under the surface, threatening to derail everything.

Meanwhile, back at Berlin Station, the political landscape has changed. Station deputy Robert Kirsch (Leland Orser) and case officer Valerie Edwards (Michelle Forbes) still hold their jobs, but they have a new boss: BB Yates (Ashley Judd), nicknamed “the Station Whisperer.” Yates’ corporate-line reputation belies a rebellious streak, though; she’s running Daniel’s mission without authorization, which quickly wins her a place in Kirsch’s heart. Valerie, meanwhile, takes new recruit April Lewis (Keke Palmer) under her wing. Their first mission together opens another avenue of their investigation into the PFD: a potential inside man in the party, Joseph Emmerich (Heino Ferch). The efforts of Berlin Station’s officers and agents proceed independently, with more than a few obstacles and setbacks, ultimately converging in an explosive climax.

Part of the issue is one of structure and logistics. Season one started with a carefully mapped chessboard covered with strategically situated pieces, and unfolded in an organic way that drastically altered the landscape of the show. Faced with this new landscape, season two must go to extreme lengths to maneuver key returning players into position, while replacing others. Thus, the narrative reach of bringing Hector back to the side of the angels, as well as a sadly limited role for ousted station chief Steven Frost (Richard Jenkins), now working the private sector. Frost does eventually work himself back into the mix thanks to an interesting subplot involving the new Trump administration ambassador (a smartly cast John Doman). But Jenkins, one step removed from the thick of things, is sorely missed when offstage; he shines in this role, improving every scene in which he appears.

There’s also something of a drop-off in writing quality. Season one had Steinhauer’s fingerprints all over it, but he seems to have been less involved this time around. The story unfolds entertainingly enough, but the dialogue’s more expositional and the politics a smidge more strident. Occasionally, the tradecraft decisions of the characters feel more directed by dramatic needs than operational logic. For all Armitage’s competence, his character is something of a hole in the middle, and the new ones played by Judd and Palmer are only modestly successful.

But this shouldn’t feel like such a pan review, really; it’s only because season one was so outstanding that season two feels like a let-down. At worst, Berlin Station remains a bracing, addictive spy series, a worthy successor to MI-5, or perhaps even a larger-budget descendant of The Sandbaggers. A new strength this year: the show spreads its wings, providing memorable setpiece episodes in Spain and Norway. The latter, an unforgettable “road trip” episode featuring Frost and Kirsch, provides spectacular scenery and gives Jenkins some of his showier moments. This is also the first time I’ve seen a spy series confront the frightening reality of the Trump presidency in its fictional scenario, and there’s something to be said for the bold way this series continues to critique American foreign policy. For all my analysis, Berlin Station remains perhaps the preeminent series of modern spy television, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing where it goes next season.

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