Sunday, October 16, 2016

REVIEW: 'Berlin Station' - Daniel Miller is Sent to Berlin to Investigate a Whistleblower in 'Station to Station'

Epix's Berlin Station - Episode 1.01 "Station to Station"

CIA officer Daniel Miller arrives in Berlin on a clandestine mission to unearth an anonymous whistleblower and reunites with his old friend Hector DeJean. As Daniel gets closer to the truth, his quarry reacts in a murderous fashion.

Epix is the latest channel to get into original scripted programming. The industry is heading to 500 scripted series a year. This really is the age of so many options that one person can't possibly watch them all. Audiences have to be even more deliberate and precise with their viewing. Fragmentation has been good for some of these smaller channels. The debuts of Berlin Station and the Nick Nolte-led comedy Graves mark the beginning of a new chapter for Epix. They are bold original shows with some pretty impressive casts. But it's still unclear if Epix can or should be a provider of scripted content. It could easily get lost in the shuffle. These show could become the new face of "acclaimed original series that no one is watching." Of course, that's looking at all of this from the bigger picture. First of all, these shows have to be good in order to deserve that kind of attention. In Berlin Station's case, this is a strong and confident opening hour. It doesn't set out to reinvent the genre but the execution is impeccable and the acting is phenomenal.

There isn't a whole lot of original material within this opening hour of Berlin Station. It's a basic CIA espionage thriller with a group of agents working abroad for a collective goal. That's a premise that has been done before. In fact, this show skews very closely to the fifth season of Homeland. And yet, just because it's a familiar premise doesn't mean it's a bad idea. This kind of show still works. "Station to Station" is a very entertaining and compelling beginning to this story. It establishes the stakes of this world right away. It does a strong job introducing all of the characters. Plus, it features a couple of key twists that will make the audience want to see more immediately. That's basically all that any series premiere can do. Here, Berlin Station does it with ease while also establishing a tone and mood that are really intriguing. It never sets out to be a mystery fueled show. Instead, it lets the audience in on some pretty big reveals and then just sits back and watches its characters react as things go awry for all of them.

It's clear from the very first moment that these characters are on a collision course with each other. It's a story that will end with Daniel getting shot and bleeding out in the street. In media res openings like that have become so common over the last few years. There are very few shows out there that actually justify its usage as well. So, that is slightly problematic here. It raises the stakes. It shows that there is so much more to this premise than the search for a simple whistleblower trying to expose agency secrets. It's really a story with life-and-death stakes. That's a simple and effective way to raise the tension not only for the premiere but the whole season. The show has two months to get back to that point in time. It would be very wise to use that time carefully and with extreme consideration for what new meaning it will hold after the audience gets to spend more time with these specific characters. Right now, it's key that Daniel is the one searching for key piece of intel left behind. He pays for it by getting shot. But it should be even more exciting to watch once we understand all the different levels actually playing out in that moment.

Daniel Miller really is the point-of-view character for the majority of the premiere. It's through his eyes that the audience sees most everything. He's the introductory character into this world of Berlin. He returns to the city with new information and a secret agenda. He's been tasked with investigating his lead on the identity of whistleblower Thomas Shaw by himself. He has contact with his superior stateside and that's it. He's to keep a tight lid on this investigation. It's fascinating to watch. It's not exactly an isolating experience for him. It's clear that he is quite good at his job. He is able to follow his target, Claudia, without detection almost every single day. He comes to Berlin to replace another agent. That means taking on his list of contacts throughout the city. But Daniel is still largely focused on his singular mission. The CIA office is tense because the most recent leak exposed some of their secrets. And now, it's clear they'll play an even bigger importance because they are hit multiple times. Their operation is spiraling out of control which really ups the pressure for Daniel. He remains calm and composed though. He becomes bolder with his moves in the hopes of exposing the truth more quickly. But that only proves to have some pretty severe consequences.

Daniel essentially seduces Claudia in order to learn the truth about Thomas Shaw. He knows that she is the middleman between the whistleblower and the reporter. He even knows that the reporter wants her to get laid as soon as possible. It really doesn't take a whole lot of effort for Daniel to be charming either. He really does seem to be good at quite a few things. He is able to approach Claudia without any risk to his cover. It's a seduction that is really artful and subtle. In the beginning, it's clear he's making up a situation in order to talk to her. But then, he actually flips it on its head by revealing that trick to her. It creates a false sense of honesty which endears him to her. He builds that connection with her. A connection that he hopes to exploit for all the information she has on Shaw. He was already able to crack the messaging system that they use. But all he can do is warn his bosses when a new set of leaks are coming. That's great in helping them prepare for the worst. It does nothing to actually stop this from happening though. For the CIA, this needs to be stopped as well. The rest of the world sees Shaw as a hero exposing the truths of the corrupt governments around the world. But the show highlights the consequences of such an action. Lives are ruined because of the leaks. Daniel's predecessor, Gerald, isn't able to go to Budapest with his family. Meanwhile, his German counterpart is literally beaten by his own intelligence community for his betrayal.

Most importantly though, Shaw actually kills Claudia before she is able to go on a date with Daniel. That's a huge turn of events. It shows that things aren't going to rest comfortably in one dynamic for very long on this show. This premiere spends a lot of time establishing the connection between Shaw and Claudia. It's the key dynamic to cracking this case. It's the lead that gets Daniel to Berlin. He's so close to learning the truth. And then, it's just gone. She is killed and Daniel doesn't even realize that he walks past her killer. It certainly is an interesting choice not to have Shaw be this cryptic and mysterious character. He appears on the screen right away. Yes, he's still very secretive. Plus, it's not abundantly clear why he kills Claudia. Does he do it just because he sees her out with Daniel? Is he jealous of that? If so, this could be a very erratic main story. Of course, that makes it a bold and declarative statement in the end when Shaw is meeting with Daniel's old friend from the station, Hector DeJean. He may be the source Shaw is getting all of his information from. That's quite a potential bombshell to drop in this first episode. It should be fascinating to see what the ripple effects are for the rest of the season.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Station to Station" was written by Olen Steinhauer and directed by Michaël R. Roskam.
  • Steven Frost is the chief of the Berlin Station for the CIA. He's also having an affair with his secretary. That's a cliche story that really doesn't go anywhere. But it's still interesting when he's just lounging around with his wife who wonders if he should just retire already.
  • Hector also finds himself in a formulaic story about needing to sleep with an asset in order to keep getting intel from them. And yet, there's quite an inspired twist to it as well. Hector has no problem embracing the nightlife of Berlin. It sure is a party throughout the city. But when it comes to seducing this asset, it is more difficult for him to do even though he ultimately does it.
  • Gerald is thrown under the bus after the most recent Shaw leak that exposed his asset from within German intelligence. The CIA needed a high-profile name to blame. So, it's pretty devastating when he's not able to go to Budapest with his family. Instead, he'll be facing punishment back in the states even though everyone knew and supported what he was doing.
  • Gerald also has a fascinating take on what Shaw is doing. He doesn't really think it's harming the agency at all. They've been around for a long time and will continue to exist in some form no matter what. It may bring outrage and a need for more transparency but the leaks ultimately won't change much. They still need to be taken seriously though because they could expose assets in the field.
  • Seriously though, this is such an impressive cast. Richard Armitage is fantastic in the lead role. But Richard Jenkins, Rhys Ifans, Michelle Forbes, Leland Orser and Richard Dillane do strong and subtle work as well in their supporting performances.