'Deep State': TV Review

Not distinctive enough to set itself apart in the spy game.
6/17/2018

Epix's new international thriller has a solid lead in Mark Strong, but wastes too much time on bad domestic storylines to be better than warmed-over 'Homeland' or '24.'

In a year that has already seen the framework of the hitman/hitwoman genre expanded to include the twisted, hilarious and erotic Killing Eve and the oddball mixture of PTSD and Hollywood solipsism that is Barry, Epix has done Deep State no favors with the generally laughable tagline "Husband. Father. Assassin."

It's a tagline that verges on parody, exposes just how low on original ideas Deep State is and also isn't especially accurate, since its main character isn't even really an assassin, per se. The show also isn't about a shadow government looking to undermine Donald Trump, at least not yet.

Played by Mark Strong, Max Easton is a former MI6 agent. Might he have assassinated a few people in the line of duty? Sure, but it's a bit like describing Trump as a guy who did McDonald's commercials with Grimace.

Plus, the show puts the emphasis on "former." It's been more than 10 years since Max was in the field. In the interim, he's started an idyllic life in the French countryside with wife, Anna (Lyne Renee), and a pair of bilingual moppets with no individual character traits. Max has kept every detail of his previous life, including the nature of his service and the existence of an ex-wife (Amelia Bullmore) and son (Joe Dempsie), secret for narrative reasons. Max is enjoying a quiet life of preparing breakfast, looking out thoughtfully at his acreage and making pretty things from wood.

It's a lot like how I assume Daniel Day-Lewis' retirement would go if he never revealed to his spouse that he was once in Gangs of New York. But just as Steven Spielberg will surely one day call on Day-Lewis and just as a wife would inevitably stumble upon Age of Innocence on cable, Max's retirement and his secret won't last long.

Out of nowhere, Max's old MI6 boss George White (Alistair Petrie) calls with the news that a mission in the Middle East has gone wrong and only somebody with Max's particular set of skills can clean up the situation. It isn't just his particular set of skills, though. The mission, which involved the Iranian nuclear deal, left Max's son dead. Or maybe it didn't. It's hard to tell, especially since as Max is heading to Beirut, creators Matthew Parkhill and Simon Maxwell are weaving in the story of the botched operation, which took place three days earlier, so the son is always around, whether or not he's alive in the present. And as Max is reviving connections to sources he soured a decade earlier, his wife is poking around his villa and uncovering his secrets, because however effective a spook Max used to be, he was clumsy and obvious with distributing clues to his former life around his new home.

The peak tradition of British espionage thrillers was tied to the declining of the empire, as authors like John Le Carre and Graham Greene depicted career spies clinging to their positions in a changing world of diminishing British influence.

Since 9/11, a major new thread of British espionage thrillers has taken a different approach, one that could best be described as Crap We Got Stuck in Because of the United States. They're portraits of middle managers put in uncomfortable positions because of things the British government made them do to help maintain our so-called special relationship.

Deep State fits squarely into that new genre. The blunder that Max is called in on, like the mission that effectively ended his MI6 career, relates to American-driven international policy and has ties to American corporate interests and to the CIA. If Max is a victim of circumstances beyond his control, MI6 and Great Britain are victims of circumstances beyond their control and the ogre of American money looms (at least until a shocking revelation about Russian money that I'm only guessing about, since I've only seen two episodes).

The spy stuff is by the numbers, well below the level of a good season of Homeland or 24, but above those shows' lesser runs, probably.

You want explosions, beautifully tiled interiors and a soundscape dominated by Muslim calls to prayer? You've got 'em. The references to current events and international relations are rote, definitely less nuanced and invested than Epix's otherwise similar Berlin Station. Director Robert Connolly handles location well, stages an OK marketplace pursuit and the first episode has one solid hand-to-hand brawl.

You want a leading man who enjoys yelling at people to tell him what he wants to know, knows his way around a jury-rigged homemade bomb, and who claims to hate torture but actually is a connoisseur of nail removal and hammer-based threats? You got him! Strong's screen presence is compelling and directors and cinematographers take such pleasure in shooting light breaking around his bald head that you'd think he'd have gotten better peak TV opportunities than AMC's relentlessly murky remake of his own work in Cold Winter Son and this Jack Bauer retread. He's such an assertive leading man that you forgive his character for initially being a cold fish emotionally.

Were Deep State just Strong torturing suspects and following leads intercut with backchannel political dealings, plus the "three days earlier" time-shifting for spice, it would be a slightly above-average entry in a well-trod genre.

It's the "Husband. Father." part of the equation that falls so flat. The rush into action, while a worthy goal on a pacing level, makes Max's wife little more than some woman who Max lies to and who then starts doing stupid things that defy common sense. That makes her a far more developed character than either of the kids. Eventually Max's family will be put in serious danger and that will probably be what causes him to break down, but even that will be his fault for his combination of lame secret-keeping, lame precaution-taking and a failure of forethought from a character otherwise defined by general competency. A couple of additional scenes at the top of the pilot in which Max and his wife banter and in which the kids showed a memorable skill like juggling or violin-playing is all that would have been required to avoid some of the indifference that infects at least a quarter of the show's running time.

At this point, it's too late. Too much of Deep State is bogged down in shallow family characterization, and very few of the assortment of bureaucrats, field agents and generic Middle Easterners register as distinctive either. The only reason to watch the show is Strong, and he's an actor who keeps busy enough that I'll probably just wait to catch him in the next project.

Cast: Mark Strong, Joe Dempsie, Karima McAdams, Lyne Renee, Anastasia Griffith, Alistair Petrie

Creators: Matthew Parkhill and Simon Maxwell

Airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Epix, premiering June 17.