For a spy show, it’s surprising how much Deutschland 83 plays to the cheap seats. Martin always messes up something basic, like accidentally dropping the coded message in his pocket in full sight of his buddies. This is the guy we’ve seen scale a hotel, break into a room, and crack a safe with almost no training. The second Martin holds a cat, he starts sneezing. The cat screeches as he lets go. Have you ever dropped a cat? They’re pretty cool about it. The dog at the Art Deco shop sniffs out the spy and barks at him, which isn’t great customer service if you ask me. Later the dog chases Martin through the store, growling whenever he isn’t licking Martin. It’s almost like pantomime. Turn it up a little more and you could have Blackadder.
The result is a sharp decline in suspense. The basic setup of a protagonist trying to do something without being caught is a natural hook, but however things were going to turn out at the Art Deco store, we could be pretty sure Martin wasn’t going to get caught in any permanent way. The same goes for his secret rendezvous with Lenora at the Belgian border. He sure takes his sweet time getting out of the car once General Edel reappears from the bathroom, but things are going to be okay. Not that there aren’t other reasons for these scenes. For instance, sitting back in awe of the swiftness with which Lenora pounces on her nephew and sucks his blood (with a needle, allegedly for a test to see if he’s a donor match for his mother, but he already knows he isn’t, so draw your own conclusions). Or to show us once more how Martin’s going to get out of this one, not simply that he’s going to.
Still, there’s tension between what Deutschland 83 presents as the big moments and what actually stand out as the moments that make us want to keep watching. Take the ending of “Atlantic Lion,” the Dun Dun Dun revelation that there’s a stash of banned books in Ingrid’s basement. It left me wondering if I even understood what I was seeing, but there’s not much to get, right? Yet it’s played like Ingrid’s a serial killer and Thomas is helping her round up victims. Annett’s pregnancy is a sneak attack, too. Ingrid just throws it out there and Annett can’t help but admit it. Why the secrecy, especially now that she’s shacked up with her baby-grandma?
Alexander’s also in a miniature spy game. In fact both the Edel children have rebelled against their father by taking up with peace groups. “Violence just begets more violence,” de facto leader Dante says. Alexander seems unsatisfied, but isn’t that the key? Mayer insists that every simulation results in escalation. Everyone’s worried because all the bombs are going to fall on Germany first. “Even the French have their nuclear missiles aimed at West Germany, so if the Soviets cross West Germany on foot they can stop them before they march into France,” General Edel says. The solution is de-escalation, which for an activist group would mean nonviolent, non-threatening, clear, pointed demonstrations against the game of nuclear chicken. Suddenly this peace group doesn’t just look like a side story for Alexander to find himself.
But on a micro level, things are only heating up with Alexander. Tobias shows Lenora how it’s done by quietly dropping his wisecracks in Alexander’s ear in an effort to pull him toward a more radical, eastern group. At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s about 83 times more convincing than Lenora’s manipulation of Annett. Tobias makes Alexander feel special, he puts them in a mini conspiracy together, and he keeps a light touch so he can play it off.
The other character up to spy-like activities is General Edel. Martin drives him to NATO headquarters (heralded by a plane flying overhead shot through the Atomium, symbolizing arrival in Brussels) for a conference, but the most relevant thing Edel does in “Atlantic Lion,” aside from encapsulating the show by playing chess against Martin, is try to manipulate people. “If only I knew what she really wants,” he says about his runaway hippie daughter. The idea being he could entice her back into the fold if he had leverage. He also tries to profile General Jackson in a way. He asks Martin what kind of women he thinks Jackson would like. In the end, there doesn’t seem to be any ulterior motive here—it’s set-up for a scene where Martin and Linda bump into the generals and their prostitutes—but it plays like he’s trying to butter Jackson up.
The prostitutes play into the black-market theme, as if the characters are embedding themselves deeper and deeper into this shadow Europe. But as the big moments start to diminish, it’s scenes like the accidental run-in that give life to Deutschland 83. In short, what it lacks in spy drama grit, it makes up in coming-of-age drama discovery. The sequence where Martin bugs the desk isn’t all that suspenseful, but it’s exciting to see Martin figure out how to get around this telltale dog.
That’s why the best scene in “Atlantic Lion” is Martin experiencing the wonders of a Walkman. Like the final bathroom scene in “Brave Guy,” it’s all about Jonas Nay’s performance, the sight of him almost surprising himself. He starts out feeling hassled. He’s waiting for Edel to get back from a quick stop somewhere (any thoughts on that?) and some vendor walks up trying to sell him shit. Finally the guy gets a response out of Martin: “What’s a Walkman?” He’s back in a flash to put the headphones on Martin, who characteristically holds back with his reaction. And then he presses play, and Martin can’t contain himself. “This is awesome!” The man’s telling him stuff, but Martin’s lost in Duran Duran. “This is totally wicked.” By the end of the episode, “Hungry Like The Wolf” is Martin and Linda’s song, and the lyrics she types become a little gag back at the listening station as Walter talks about reading between the lines of the apparent NATO transmission. Deutschland 83 might not be able to pull much tension out of Martin’s work life anymore, but watching him learn about himself and the world around him is worth all the safe-crackings in the world.
- “Atlantic Lion” is written by Anna Winger and directed by Edward Berger. The streak abides.
- Alexander’s right about certain demonstrations not amounting to a hill of beans at NATO. His father scoffs at news of a hunger strike for peace in East Berlin. In his view, Bobby Sands just starved to death.
- Ingrid’s supposedly on the short list for a transplant now. Deutschland 83 hasn’t really earned the kind of scrutiny I’m applying to it by second-guessing everything the higher-ups say—it’s been pretty upfront about all its manipulations—but the blood test Lenora gives Martin smells fishy.
- Lenora tells Martin that his mark Linda likes cats and owns two. “I’m allergic to cats. You know that.” “No.” I guess she’s saying she didn’t know that, but it plays like a general dismissal of whatever Martin’s saying, like an “I don’t care about this. I don’t acknowledge this information.” Biggest laugh of the episode is what I’m saying.
- I just think we should all be aware Martin parked the wrong way at the gas station. Sometimes this show makes basic “mistakes” that make me think I’m just not getting it, but no, this situation is plainly contrived to get that blocking of Martin on the outside and Edel on the inside, and plenty of others are, too.
- On-The-Nose Song Of The Week: “Hungry Like The Wolf” gets off on good behavior since it’s introduced in service of selling a Walkman, not Martin seducing Linda. Later, Martin puts in a tape at Linda’s place and The Police’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger” comes pouring out of the speakers. When Lenora stresses for Martin to take his time seducing Linda, I expected it to take more than the gift and the trip to the Art Deco store, but this is Deutschland 83 after all. Runner up: When Martin takes Linda to see the great and powerful Walkman, she listens to “Just The Two Of Us.”
- Linda scoffs at the generals with their prostitutes. “And they worry about NATO secretaries falling for Soviet ‘Romeo’ spies.”