The problem with Deutschland 83 is Martin has no reason to be a good worker and a bunch of reasons not to. What, they’re gonna kill him for being bad at this? The West Germans might. The East? His own aunt? She talks a good game, but there’s a big difference between squeezing Martin, her only candidate for an urgent position, and letting him get killed or something because he “happens” not to be very good at espionage. The incentives are all screaming for Martin to take lemons and make worse lemons. Leave the bug in General Jackson’s room. Stay on the hunt for Yvonne until it’s too late to come back and complete your mission. Rely on the fact that you’ve never been trained in safe-cracking and leave this shit for someone who has. Hey, you tried. Plausible deniability is the name of the game.
So why is he trying so hard? It’s hard to tell what’s driving Martin. Is he an ideologue, in it for the good of the cause? That doesn’t seem quite right, especially with that capitalist work ethic. Is he buying all this fear-mongering about imminent nuclear war? Not that I’d blame him. Able Archer gets namechecked, and even my rudimentary brush-up reveals the doomsday clock was a little too close to midnight for comfort. Martin absorbs newscasts, he takes notes in high-level NATO defense meetings, he lives among people on both sides who are constantly talking about the threat of war on German soil. But it’s hard to tell if he’s really worried about this or just trying to collect as much information for his handlers as possible. In my international studies and political science classes, we were told that pretty much all experts agree that a nuclear strike on American soil is inevitable, and this was in the mid-2000s. But the class response to that looming threat was unanimous: a giant shrug. What are you gonna do? There’s not much to do. Martin, however, is in a position to do something. So maybe he is motivated by more than a desire to get back home.
The point is, being a good spy only makes him more valuable to the East as a spy. It puts him in more danger, keeps him apart from his loved ones longer, and generally fucks up his life plan of taking it easy with his girlfriend. Unfortunately for Martin, he’s pretty good at espionage after all. It starts with his stoicism. When he wants to be, which is pretty much whenever he’s at work, he’s a damn statue. Throw anything at him and the poker face abides, even if he does break a sweat.
The best part of “Brave Guy” is that it pokes and prods that stone face until it reacts in all kinds of ways, like an alien testing humanity on Star Trek. We see Martin embarrassed by his misunderstandings of Western amenities, curious about such wonders as hotel toiletries and Toblerone, and eventually sweaty as hell as he tries to crack a safe containing a NATO report on short-range nuclear attack data. (Short version: All roads lead to escalation.) When he gets back to his room, the hotel restaurant waitress is in his bed waiting for him. He politely declines her invitation, but he quickly learns it was a feint when she tries to slash him with her hair stick. It’s the first time we really see everything go to shit for Martin. No matter what the outcome, he’s going to have to explain some things or get airlifted out or something. It’s a completely ridiculous explanation—this superspy who got into Mayer’s safe was also inexplicably interested in General Edel’s aide?—but that’s in keeping with the show’s network-drama take on espionage. Edel buys it, or pretends to, and they all leave Martin alone for a moment, but it’s still not over. In bursts General Jackson with an old friend of the real Moritz Stamm who’s been dying to catch up with him. Remember, Martin has just been in a knock-down drag-out brawl with a KGB or Chinese operative who stole a NATO report, and he’s sitting in his room all bloody. Doesn’t Jackson have bigger fish to fry than finally getting these two together? Yes, but that’s part of the ridiculous fun. Besides, there’s a strong sense that Jackson is testing Moritz to make absolutely sure he’s on the level. He passes. That stoic genius calls the man who’s supposed to be his old friend by his name, and that’s that. Sterber, the friend, is too drunk to follow his suspicions, and they chit-chat just enough for Martin to get away with it.
Martin’s prowess goes far beyond simply holding up under interrogation. He’s got a whole resume of reasons you should hire him to be your spy. His job keeps getting more and more complicated, but he doesn’t let it defeat him. He switches the bug, he meets with contacts he didn’t even know he had, he accomplishes all his bullshit cover duties and still gets back in time to scale the hotel into Mayer’s room, break in while men are socializing on the grounds just below him, and figure out how to crack the safe and what to do with the information, all while dodging Jackson and Sterber. At any opportunity to take a coward’s out, he goes the extra mile. And what’s driving him isn’t just ideology or fear.
When at least he’s alone for good, his mission basically complete, his cover basically intact, he seals himself in the inner sanctum of his bathroom and can’t help but burst into laughter. He can’t believe he got away with it, but that’s coupled with another feeling. It’s the moment the whole episode’s been building to. Notice that he’s looking down when he laughs. People on-screen are always looking themselves in the eye in bathrooms, but Martin isn’t performing his delight. To look himself in the eyes would be self-conscious, but this is a private moment of discovery. Martin learned something today. He fucking loves his job.
And then he looks up, sees his bloody face, and remembers the danger he’s in.
- “Brave Guy” is written by Steve Bailie and Anna Winger and directed by Edward Berger.
- It’s late July now, so it’s been about four months since the premiere. And still no progress on Frau Rauch’s transplant.
- On-The-Nose Song Of The Week: Deutschland 83 isn’t shaping up to be as humorous as I’d hoped, but I burst out laughing when Tobias Tischbier hands Alexander Edel his business card as Debbie Harry wails, “Call me!” faintly in the background. Sure, we all love a cool, know-it-all soundtrack, but the guilelessness of the Deutschland 83 playlist is, to use Tobias’ word, disarming.
- The visuals, on the other hand, could use some discipline. It’s the editing that’s distracting primarily, although the hesitant, aimless handheld camerawork doesn’t inspire much confidence, either. But take the bit where Lenora tells Annett to read Martin’s letter. We cut to a dramatic extreme wide shot of the enormous empty room, slowly pushing in. Then we cut to a close-up of Annett’s first reactions on reading the letter. And then we go back to that dramatic extreme wide shot. It felt like a record skipped, which is not the feeling you want the audience to have during such a meaningful moment. The final scene is similarly discombobulated, with about five different takes on the exact same situation, which is a slow melting of the ice between Martin and apparent new love interest Linda Seiler as David Bowie sings, “Modern Love.” Each new shot tells us very little new information. Once you’ve got one dramatic composition of these two bodies angled away from each other somewhat outside the party, the story is entirely in the performances.
- The other new character is a comrade in Bonn who uses the alias Petra. Why would the writers use her when we already know Karl Kramer? For that matter, why would East German intelligence use Martin when there’s already a better trained spy on site?
- What’s up with Alexander? “Brave Guy” pulls him in too many directions for him to come out seeming remotely human, but the weirdest is his attendance at a peace rally and his awkward chat with Tobias afterward. I guess he’s some kind of military son forced to follow in his father’s footsteps, but he’s never felt more real than when he says he doesn’t know what he really wants. It shows.
- Tobias’ reaction to the Alexander meeting: “If only all military men were so disarming.” Hmm.
- What’s up with Yvonne? She’s run off with a Hindu commune, but she also bursts into tears pretty much immediately when Martin tells her her mother is worried about her. I don’t know if that’s clunky writing or foreshadowing, but I’m pretty sure there are some dramatic shortcuts involved.
- Annett update: She has a new friend, a strapping, mustachioed young man she takes skinny dipping, among other things. (I don’t think anything was meant by it, but at first I took the cut to Martin chowing down on a Toblerone and his mom furiously plunging the sink as sexual metaphors, given where we leave Annett and her new man.) Also Lenora manipulates her into moving in with Frau Rauch in by far the worst, most unbelievable scene of the show so far. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what Lenora was implying. As soon as she pushed back against Annett’s offer, Annett should have taken the money and run. “Yeah, you’re right. We’ll find someone else to take care of her.”
- The undercover missions remain blunt as a two-by-four, but it sure gets the heart racing. Every time Martin touches a lamp, where he’s trying to plant a bug, someone who is otherwise preoccupied suddenly becomes very interested in Martin and the lamp. And it happens four times.
- Hotel manager: “Gentlemen, this is one of our best rooms. Hitler slept here. The Führer loved this room.”