Note: Spoilers galore ahead
There is something a little bit annoying about people who are too fixated on TV plots. Like most normal people, I get frustrated when a friend or critic can’t suspend his disbelief and feels compelled to nitpick every sliver of narrative. “Lighten up!” you want to scream. By now, we know that certain shows have airtight plots, but others will ask the viewer for heaping amounts of credulity. Breaking Bad was one of the latter, right down to the final episode, when the plot hinged on a remote-controlled machine gun popping up from the trunk of the car and functioning with sniper-like precision. But if a show is good enough, most viewers intuitively understand that the merits depend on elements beyond plot—in these cases, the nitpickers are missing the point.
In spy fiction, on the other hand, I would argue that plot is critically important, and a closer examination is justified. Without a believable, intelligent story, the entire work (book, film, TV show) falls flat, and you may as well be watching a farce. Granted, I’m a nerd when it comes to fictionalized espionage. I’m currently working my through John LeCarre’s 23 novels, I’ve read every Alan Furst book, and I grew up on Tom Clancy and Frederick Forsyth and Daniel Silva, eventually graduating to the likes of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene. If there’s a spy movie out there, I’m seeing it, from the classics like the 2011 version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to the blockbusters like Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. (And I probably don’t have to tell you that The Americans rings my bell.)
I love them all, as long as the plot passes the test, and I don’t think my standards are absurdly high. All I ask is that you don’t make me roll my eyes.
Let’s digress for a second. Pretend you’re a network executive, and I’m a writer pitching you a spy show. I enter your office, settle into a nice leather chair, and prepare to wow you. Here’s my point-by-point description of the pilot episode:
1. West Germany, early ‘80s. Ronald Reagan gives his “empire of evil” speech, which makes an east German intelligence officer believe that nuclear strikes might be imminent.
2. She hatches a plot to place an agent in close proximity to a West German general, a man who frequently meets with a powerful American general.
3. The idea is that this agent will be the aide-de-camp to the general. The problem is, that aide-de-camp is a 24-year-old officer from West Germany.
4. No problem! They’ll simply assassinate that 24-year-old on a train—in a scene that will be uncomfortably glib, as though killing innocent people is just a bit of slick Cold War fun—and slip their own guy in.
5. But who is their own guy? Glad you asked! It’s the nephew of the intelligence officer. Problem is, he doesn’t want to go!
6. No problem! They’ll just use the fact that his mother (the agent’s sister) needs a kidney transplant, and hold that over his head.
7. Well, until we abandon that point and just have them break his fingers (to disguise the fact that the original officer could play the piano—which will come in handy when the general shows regret that he can’t play a certain piece), put drugs in his coffee, and have him wake up in West Germany, where we’ll convince him to do the job.
8. When he meets the general, it will only be a matter of time before the American general comes to visit, and when he does, he’ll leave his briefcase in the office while they go to lunch.
9. Our guy will photograph the papers in the briefcase once he picks the locks, and he won’t get caught.
10. Later, at a party, the general’s sister-in-law will catch him making a phone call to his girlfriend in East Germany, but there will be one of those situations where nobody will listen to her because they’re watching his daughter sing, and eventually they’ll drug the sister-in-law before she can tell, and she’ll forget for a while, and when she remembers, everyone will be too busy to listen to her, and she’ll just sort of forget it.
11. The intelligence offer (our guy’s aunt) won’t let him leave after the photographs—which seem to show the U.S. planning a pre-emptive nuclear strike against East German targets—and she’ll threaten to take his mother (her sister) off the kidney transplant list if he doesn’t obey.
So, there’s my pitch. What would you say? I imagine you might have some questions on each point. You might say:
1. Hmmm…the “evil empire” stuff was just more rhetoric in a Cold War full of rhetoric, and the idea that a seasoned intelligence officer would be alarmed by a speech and assume something as drastic as imminent nuclear war seems a little far-fetched. But maybe we can get past that…
2. This I like! An agent on enemy turf! Just like The Americans.
3. Well, if there’s already someone in place to be the aide-de-camp, that seems like a closed avenue, right? How can you infiltrate your own guy into a position that’s already occupied?
4. Wait…you’re going to kill the West German officer? Don’t you, uh…don’t you think somebody might notice? Don’t you think that after he fails to call home for a while, his parents and friends might be a little concerned? And that when they check in with his command post and find out that he’s supposedly at his job, they might raise the prickly issue of how he hasn’t been in communication with them? And that the army might follow up and realize, holy shit, this 24-year-old officer is someone completely different, and probably a spy! And when the west discovers that the East Germans have conducted an assassination of convenience on their soil, it will probably inspire WW3, all for a dubious subterfuge that’s bound to fail? And wait, if someone is going to be that close to an important general, isn’t there a more thorough vetting process he’d have to go through? Isn’t this a huge, gaping plot hole that no amount of justification will cover, and that would never, in a million years, have been conceived of by a national intelligence agency?
5. And your agent is the nephew of the East German intelligence officer? Hold on a second, you’re going to make her one of those cartoonishly evil villain types with no basis in reality, and then rationalize her by saying, “she’s just really committed to her job!!”, aren’t you?
7. What happens when his fingers aren’t broken anymore? The general will conveniently forget that he once wanted him to play piano, and you’ll never bring it up again? Fantastic!
8. Question: Are all of your plot points this convenient? And when I say “convenient,” I mean ridiculous.
9. Of course he won’t get caught…
10. So the general will have a family member telling him that there’s clear evidence that his aide is an East German spy, and they’ll all just ignore her? Great.
11. Hey, it’s cartoonishly evil aunt! Glad to see her again.
In other words, if you cared about story at all, you’d be skeptical. You would probably not greenlight this project. Unfortunately, as you’ve likely guessed, I just described the pilot episode of Deutschland 83, a show that utterly fails the believability test over its first two episodes.
As an espionage genre nerd, I got very excited when I heard about this German-language show that premiered in the U.S. on Sundance TV this past summer. The Able Archer NATO exercise of 1983 is fertile ground for a great spy story—in terms of almost starting a nuclear war, it rivals the Cuban Missile Crisis—and shows like The Americans proved how well the spies-in-enemy-land formula can work. Life kept me from watching for a little while, but I always had it in the back of my mind.
Now that I’ve watched, I’m severely disappointed. I made it through two episodes—the second is even worse than the first—and it felt less like a spy thriller and more like one of those hacky old sitcoms where the main character is trying to date two women at the same in the same restaurant, relying on a series of increasingly unbelievable circumstances to keep the farce alive. (The assassination of the 24-year-old army underling is particularly ludicrous, and the moment that I realized this show wasn’t just going to insult my intelligence, but trample on it repeatedly.) The rhythm of Deutschland 83 is frustrating and predictable, in that extraordinary good luck for the East Germans triumphs over incompetence, as though Cold War espionage were simply a matter of blindly stumbling into the right room while everyone that matters looks in the other direction. Watching it unfold, I could only cringe at the writers’ lack of sophistication.
I wondered, maybe, if it would improve over the course of the first season. With faint optimism, I turned to the critics, and found Emily Nussbaum’s take at The New Yorker. Two lines stuck out:
Like “Halt and Catch Fire,” “Deutschland 83” works as a simplified conduit for historical events that have dimmed in memory, even for those who lived through them. For the first few episodes, it treats these issues with relative sophistication, as Martin is deputized to steal state secrets.
Umm…relative to what? Crayon drawings?
The longer the series goes on, unfortunately, the more absurd its twists become, landing Moritz at the center of world-historical events, like some Zelig of mutually assured destruction.
IT GETS WORSE?!
Needless to say, I’m out. My spy nerd siren is blaring at an uncomfortable volume, and I’m giving the remaining six episodes a hard pass. Nussbaum goes on to say that the absurdity “isn’t a dealbreaker” for her—she likes the soundtrack and the stylized cinematography, and doesn’t so much mind that “it might have been a bit more chewy if it had taken fewer shortcuts.” And I suppose if you’re in it for the soap operatic melodrama or the pretty young faces or the (admittedly) cool credits or “99 Luftballoons,” these are arguments in its favor. There’s even a manic pixie dream girl—the general’s daughter—who gives two lovely singing performances in the first two episodes, and runs away crying after each. I guess that’s her “move.”
But if you care about plot, as I do, save yourself a couple hours and skip Deutschland 83. It may disguise itself as a product of history, but it sacrifices depth and believability at every turn, tangling itself in knots and then pretending the knots don’t exist. Real life doesn’t work this way, and thank God—if the actual Cold War combatants were this stupid, we’d have nuked ourselves to extinction years ago.