“Able Archer” is one of those finales that demands another season, which hasn’t to my knowledge been ordered yet, so don’t forget to call your Senators. In a way, it confirms my continuing argument throughout the season that Deutschland 83 is a lot messier than it’s given credit for by the uniformly drooling critics. It’s an episode that settles its main plot, but that main plot isn’t exactly prominent. In democratic terms, it has a plurality of the screen-time but not an outright majority. All the characters are scrambling all over the map, but few make it to any clear endpoint. In the end, almost nothing is resolved except for the greater international crisis, which sounds like a big deal and is, except it only has to do with two or three of our characters directly.
The finale’s a mess, but after all that, so am I. As Anna Winger tangles the plot throughout the season finale, she wrings more and more drama out of this story. “Able Archer” has a lot to get through, but it consistently takes its time to savor moving moments, like Alexander walking into his home and spotting his father’s briefcase as the camera, crouched low, slowly pulls back through the empty house. Just about every actor is able to find the detailed reality in their personal situation, some of them doing so for the first time all year, and by the end I felt for them all.
That’s partly an effect of the chaos. Martin saves Germany from nuclear war, but there’s no tidying the story of all the people in his life. “Able Archer” frays like crazy, and as in “Bold Guard,” it only compounds the tension. Is Martin going to be okay in the East? Can Lenora do anything to help? Is Alexander sick? What does Ingrid have up her sleeve? Where does Yvonne think she’s going? If you’re not paying attention to the time, you could completely miss characters’ final scenes together.
The main story is Martin trying to save the world. He’s just left the West’s military headquarters, where he has warned them about the East, and now he’s headed to the East’s military headquarters so he can warn them about the West. The cold open is so sublimely grim—Martin, the subject of a nationwide manhunt, slumps against a tree as a searchlight pans across the forest, and in one of those elongated moments I talked about, he just looks down in futility as he realizes how difficult this will be—that it feels like a cheat when his actual border crossing is so simple, hiding in the trunk of a family car that had stopped for a picnic. At least the little girl who keeps his secret does her job (cuteness) very well. Once in his home country, his powers restored, Martin is a juggernaut. He handily evades and later concusses some surveillance man by pouncing and swinging him against a wall. He lets the mother of his child know what’s what, the first of two such “check yourself” speeches Annett will suffer before the day is through. He rescues a cowering Yvonne and delivers her to the West German embassy. And he bulldozes an East German military meeting, calling a halt to a preemptive strike. Lucky for him there’s another officer there, Fuchs, who’s already onto the NATO report redactions, so Martin has an ally in the room. Still, it’s kind of a shock when, after some other scenes, we see Martin free, alone, standing outside his house. After all this, Martin saved the country from an uncontainable nuclear war, which is exactly what motivated him to stick with espionage.
There’s a shadow story here about the impact of Martin’s intervention, a contrast between slow Western democracy and self-serving Eastern gridlock. Both sides want Martin in custody, but only one has a greater interest at heart than military dominance. It apparently takes a day, but General Edel acts on Martin’s intelligence. He tells a superior or an ally or someone what Martin said, and the guy takes particular interest in how it happened. Martin outed himself. Why would he do that unless he was telling the truth? He says he’ll pass it on to his superiors. Compare that to the jumble on the East, where Walter and Tobias ginned up a case for war through lying and intimidation, and Lenora spent the whole Able Archer fiasco bouncing between her beloved nephew and her trusted advisors. The Lenora story is one of the biggest wastes of the season. She was an excellent plot device and mystery at first, but when you consider her circumstances, pretty much everything she does at the end seems arbitrary or dumb.
Ingrid, on the other hand, makes so much more sense now than ever before. She doesn’t quite have everything as under control as she thinks—as poor Thomas is about to discover in the wild West—but she’s a damn sight more in charge of her life than Annett. She tells Annett she was in on the library, she can take care of herself, and that there’s a big fat difference between being drafted and blackmailed into service (Martin) and volunteering over petty shit (Annett). Then the kicker: Ingrid tells her that East German intelligence is using Annett in a way they could never use Ingrid or Martin, because Walter is Martin’s father. Presumably he knows it, too, which makes his confrontation with Martin all the more damning. There have been hints about Walter and Ingrid, especially earlier in the episode when they talk about resuming their affair, but it’s still a bombshell to hear it out loud. And so coldly. Ingrid has all the power I expected Lenora to have at the beginning of the season. And Annett is exactly as in over her head as she’s always seemed.
One of the most powerful moments in the episode echoes another in the scene prior, the two scenes starring those characters paralleled to such great effect at the end of “Cold Fire”: Annett and Alexander. The first is after Martin finds Yvonne in his mother’s bedroom. Since he’s taking her to safety, which means out of Walter’s reach, he has to do so by making sure Walter’s newest henchwoman won’t frustrate his plans, so he ties Annett to the kitchen chair. She protests that she’s carrying his child, and she’s not trying to manipulate him. She really is just a dumb baby who made some bad choices, and she’s hurt that Martin would treat her like this. When he leaves, the camera lingers on Annett in her moment of solitude, and she breaks down in tears. For once, Annett’s helplessness is genuinely pitiable, if not sympathetic. Then we cut to Alexander’s interrogation at the hands of whomever was assigned to investigate Martin’s time in Daun. Alexander reports that Martin is everything he himself is not, and for the first time it isn’t just admiration we see, but love. Alexander realizes how much Martin means to him as a brother, how much he’s done for him over the year. Then the guy tells him Martin’s a mole. He played Alexander. And the poor, lost kid just breaks down in his kitchen chair, a kindred spirit to that other person crying over Martin a country away, both moments heightened by a camera that refuses to look away.
As if that’s not enough, either Alexander or his father kills himself, probably. There’s room for doubt because nothing’s shown in that Stannis sort of way, but the implication is that, first, Thomas is about to get murdered by Tobias unless he can get away, and second, there’s a gunshot during a view of an empty Edel home, and Ursula’s gone to her sister’s. Wolfgang gets home first, and again we just watch a character absorbing his circumstances—such as his wife abandoning him—in silence, the camera pulling back from the giant window through the space of the living room. Then Alexander gets home after a morbid blood test and sees the briefcase. Finally comes the long, slow shot of the empty house from the empty yard, accompanied by the gunshot. A guessing game of who committed suicide is a little cheap considering the tragedy and the massive guilt that will surely ensue, but it’s painful enough just knowing either of the Edel men could plausibly opt out of life right about now.
What’s on the horizon for Martin is equally unclear. I guess they can’t jail him for breaking some orders to save the world; or they could, but they don’t. So he shows up at home and has no interest in seeing Annett just yet. He hugs his mother and tells her he’ll join them inside in a moment. Instead, he just stands there in his yard staring into the fire as “Under Pressure” starts playing. He’s earned a moment of solitude at the end of “Able Archer.” He’s back to where he started, a surprise visit to his own backyard, only this time there’s no party, only fire.
- “Able Archer” is written by Anna Winger and directed by Samira Radsi.
- Blame AMC networks for not providing new photos for the last few episodes, but blame me for deciding to leave the season on Martin’s glorious red Puma shirt.
- The devil’s in the details: The West German bulletin says Martin is 25, because Moritz would have been 25 then.
- “Sophisticated communication is a clear sign of war.” Again, the East takes no news as absolute proof of news.
- Annett: “You can travel the world over, but you still have to deal with yourself.” Mark it down, everyone. Annett displays wisdom for the first time in her life.
- Right after the East Germans agree to listen to Martin, the usual news footage cuts in, but it plays in reverse. Soldiers march backward, missiles unfire, and the like. It could be cheesy, but thanks to the show’s regular use of news footage and embrace of a certain amount of ‘80s schlock, the effect is perfect for Deutschland 83.
- On-The-Nose Song Of The Week: “Under Pressure,” which I regret to report is awkwardly edited into the mix. The scene is just Martin staring at the fire for a bit before the credits, and the song is trying to snowball, to build pressure as it were, but the soundtrack forces it to wimp out at the end.
- No news on season two, but it sounds like critics love it, and apparently it hasn’t even aired in Germany yet, so there’s still hope. What should we mail Sundance, paper German flags?