Sunday, June 17, 2018

REVIEW: 'Deep State' - Max Is Forced Back Into His Life as a Spy to Help Clean Up a Mess in 'Old Habits'

Epix's Deep State - Episode 1.01 "Old Habits"

Ex-spy Max Easton is brought out of retirement against his will by George White - London chief of MI6/CIA team The Section. Max's wife, Anna, with whom he has lived in the Pyrenees for the past ten years, starts an investigation into her husband's past. What she finds puts her and her young daughters in grave danger.

Obviously, there is the fear of confusion throughout this premiere because Deep State is operating within different timelines but ones that occur in close proximity to one another. There is all of the stuff happening in the present day in England, France and Beirut. And then, there is the story happening just three days prior in Iran. It's a lot to juggle in the opening hour. One that risks alienating a significant portion of the audience because it's too busy to keep track of at all times. There are so many title cards revealing where and when the story has now moved to. As such, the story itself needs to be really entertaining and personal. The premiere sure gives off that effect with Max being forced out of retirement in order to avenge his son's murder by taking down the two rogue agents responsible. But it's also abundantly clear that this is going to be a story of multiple double agents and shifty motivations. There is some sense of a conspiracy going on at the moment. But that's mostly happening on the periphery. Right now, the personal dynamics are more important. However, they are still pretty clunky here because the show also just has a lot of plot it needs to establish and get through in order for the twists to effectively land. And yet, they do manage to succeed in that regard with the big reveal at the end of this premiere. Sure, it only maintains a sense of mystery and confusion as the audience doesn't quite know what's going on or what has happened in the three days before Max has arrived in Beirut. But it also sets up a solid espionage thriller. One that is bound to be very chaotic and mysterious but also very timely and interesting. It's a nice perspective on a familiar genre while also being absolutely gorgeous and cinematic to look at.

The first sequence in particular is very striking. It makes a point in showing the similarities between Max's life in France caring for his family and a man in Iran caring for his. They are basically the same too. They both are the ones who get up early and make sure that their children are doing what they are suppose to be doing so that they can go about their normal day. They are driving to school and work. For Max, it's a completely normal day. For the man in Iran, it's crazy and he's yelling at other drivers. But that's normal too for him. But it's eery the moment that people on motorcycles show up behind both vehicles. The way that it is shot informs the audience that there is something to fear from this mysterious presence. As such, it feels like the events are going to be even more connected. It could be a signal of some kind of coordinated attack to eliminate these two targets because of some grand connection that they have. But instead, it points out that Max is paranoid that he's one move away from being forced out of retirement and into the world of spycraft that he chose to leave behind. Meanwhile, the Iranian man dies in an epic explosion because that's simply the best way to fight the war on terror nowadays. A bomb explodes in this city and it's barely news at all. Sure, the police are chasing after the people who planted the bomb and killed this man. But they are able to quickly get away. It's then revealed that they are British intelligence officers. They chose to take this action because they believed Iran was violating the terms of the nuclear deal. That makes this a very topical story. But again, the audience isn't presented with any truth in that regard. It's just these soldiers blindly following orders because of what their commander tells them to do. And that presents the great moral quandary of this story as everyone appears to have their own suspicious motives at the moment.

The mistrust and misdirection of the story mostly plays out in the events happening three days earlier in Iran. The audience knows what the outcome of that story will be. Harry is one of the agents who eliminated this target alongside the rest of his team. They are expecting to go home after this latest mission. But instead, they have one more mark to kill. They have to go after the financier who is funding this illegal operation for Iran. They have to go after him the same way that they've removed all of the other targets. But this is a story that is going to eventually lead to Harry's death. He is ultimately found with two bullets in his head. That's the emotional twist of this story because Harry means something to everyone else on the show. It appears that that fate is awaiting him after he uncovers some proof that possibly explains why someone from the team has been working for the new target all of this time. Harry and Leyla made that discovery when they first made the approach. They are aware that their covers have been blown and they have to move to a different safe house. They must act very cautiously as they await word from London about how to proceed with the mission. Their field agent Said is telling them to stay put. Harry is choosing to continue to investigate simply by digging around online. He has found the connection that will possibly explain the actions that Omar has taken to deceive the team. But once Said tells his boss at London what's going on, George White instead points out that Harry has his own past with Omar which possibly proves that the leak in the team extends far further than what they currently believe. As such, Said drives Harry out to the desert and kills him. It's a shocking moment that then fuels the story in the present day for Max.

Max is just enjoying his idyllic life in Frances when British agents make their presence known. They intimidate him at first and let him know that George White wants to talk with him again. But then, the actions actually become threatening against Max's family. He is given no choice but to travel to London to listen to what George has to say. Max doesn't appreciate what George is willing to do in the name of national security. And here, it appears that Max is only being given this mission because he has a personal connection to it. Harry is his son. It doesn't appear as if they were close because Max has been out of this life for ten years now. But Harry wanted to follow in his father's footsteps. Said wanted to do right by Harry in honor of Max. That's what makes it so heartbreaking when Said drives Harry out into the desert. It also makes it easy for Max to want to go to Beirut in order to track down the agents from this team who are still conspiring against the agency. And yet, the audience also gets the sense that none of this is really adding up. Max still has the connections to find out where Leyla and her other agent are hiding out. He needs to get to them and make them pay for what they did to Harry. And yet, that only builds to the reveal that Harry isn't dead after all. Said just staged the scene to make it look like he did. Harry is in Beirut with the rest of these officers. But now, the man that Max was chasing and fighting has died from the injuries sustained by Max. Meanwhile, Leyla has been picked up by the police which must make her target in the next episode. Moreover, the police are closing in on Max as well with the walls closing in on him. It's a very intense way to end the episode that proves that Max is about to be pulled ever deeper into this grand conspiracy that doesn't seem to make any sense right now.

In addition to all of this though, Max's wife Anna is still back in France trying to make sense of who her husband apparently is. She knows nothing about his past and the work that he used to do. As such, she is terrified when he tells her to wake their daughters and hide together in the bathroom. She doesn't know why he suddenly has to go away to London and then Beirut. She is confused and he thinks the sensible explanation is that he used to do some messy things for a bank and now the money has gone missing. She really shouldn't buy that explanation. She doesn't either. She is confused and all alone. And yet, that doesn't make her corner of the world interesting. Her story is all about finding evidence of this other life that he has lived. He has kept secrets from her and she didn't even realize it until this moment. That's a little silly. The stakes of Anna's story are just significantly lower than everything else happening in this premiere. As such, there is less patience for whatever is going to happen with her. And yet, she seems to be making a fair amount of progress with her investigation as well. She is able to find the key that unlocks the safety deposit box whose contents are to be sent to Max's first wife should anything ever happen to Max. The only item is a flash drive with a video detailing one mission that Max did for the government. It's the mission that made him realize he couldn't continue this work any longer because he was essentially sending the world to war. He knows that Olivia will know what to do with this information. But right now, Anna is the one who has it and she simply doesn't know how to process any of these big revelations about who her husband truly is.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Old Habits" was written by Matthew Parkhill and directed by Robert Connolly.
  • Said was spying on Harry long before he was asked to look at him suspiciously and as a potential leak on the team. That possibly explains why Said doesn't ultimately kill Harry as well. He understands the guy because he is getting his information from Leyla who is incredibly close with him. It just seems like a lot of secrecy in order to have a sense of confusion though. That's risky.
  • Moreover, Harry and Leyla actually have a sexual dynamic. They are able to just be together in a safe house all by themselves. That's fortunate for them. Their team is apparently all out during work to keep watch over their mark while figuring out how Omar could have possibly turned against them. But it's also just enough time for Harry and Leyla to have sex with each other too.
  • It appears as if Max has been completely estranged from both Olivia and Harry. He left London ten years ago for a reason. And yet, it was also a massive betrayal that he left his family completely in that moment as well. He was able to build this new, happy life for himself. And yet, Olivia is understandably upset when Max suddenly shows up again with the tragic news that their son has been killed. He won't even tell her the truth about his death.
  • There is a moment where Max has to torture a guy in order to get information out of him. It's a scene very familiar in this particular genre. As such, the cliches and conventions are already so apparent and annoying. The show tries to comment on them by giving Max this speech about how he doesn't like the torture he's about to do. And yet, he will still do it because the stakes are too high right now. And so, he still does it. But it doesn't feel like the show lingers or enjoys that moment either.
  • Anna chooses to call Max before watching the video on the flash drive. She wants to hear from him and see if there is any reason why she shouldn't press play. She doesn't want to. She wants to speak to him in person and understand who he is. He does answer and understands that they need to talk to one another openly now. And yet, he's still deep in the lie and can't tell her everything. As such, she watches anyway and her whole life is turned upside down.