Spy City. Available now on AMC+.
In the new AMC+ spy-thriller minseries Spy City, set in Berlin in the early 1960s, somebody always seems to be walking past a billboard for a movie called Via Mala. It's an authentic bit of set dressing—Via Mala was a German-made crime melodrama released in 1961—but it's also something of a tongue-in-cheek commentary on Spy City itself. In Via Mala, somebody kills a tyrannical old paterfamilias, and practically everybody in his family is a suspect; and in the end, nearly all of them turn out to be guilty in some degree or other. (Um, did I mention "spoiler alert"?) It's perhaps a blueprint for Spy City, in which rival teams of Cold War spies sweep across Berlin in search of moles and murderers, and when they meet the enemy, he turns out to be us.
Though the Via Mala allusion is clever, the better stylistic reference for Spy City would be the early novels of John le Carré and the films based on the themes: bitter, cynical accounts of how intelligence agencies go off the rails and wage private little wars among themselves, fraught with collateral damage, using the Cold War as an excuse to settle old scores even if they scuttle the supposed larger issues. When one spy, startled by a disclosure of misanthropic blackguardery by his boss, murmurs, "I thought we were fighting for our values," the old man doesn't even answer.
The younger spy is Fielding Scott, an officer of Great Britain's MI6 foreign intelligence service, who has been under a cloud since killing a popular MI6 colleague in a deserted Berlin public bathroom a year earlier. Scott claimed he acted in self-defense when the other officer tried to kill him, but with no other witnesses, MI6 fired him. He's gets his job back only because a potential Soviet defector, the inventor of a threatening new missile guidance system, says he'll bolt to the West only if Scott will handle the escape.
But the defection is blown when the Soviets learn of it. Now Scott must clear himself not only of the murder charge but the suspicion that he's a Soviet mole who betrayed the escape plan. The only two people who knew the details of the defection were Scott and his girlfriend, a French intelligence officer; presumably, one of them must be the mole. Meanwhile, she's given him yet another assignment—she wants his help in finding the former Nazi Gestapo officer who tortured her Resistance boyfriend to death in the waning days of World War II.
If that seems like a lot of spies per square foot, it's not at all unbelievable. The botched defection takes place in spring of 1961, on the razor's edge of Cold War tensions. The Bay of Pigs invasion, the Berlin Wall and the Cuban missile crisis are all in the offing. Berlin, governed jointly by the Soviets, the French, the British, and the Americans, was lousy with spies of every ideology and nationality. The advice Scott's boss in London gives him upon departure—"Berlin's a snakepit"—was doubtless repeated many times by spy chieftains on both sides of the Iron Curtin.
William Boyd, the creator and main screenwriter of Spy City, skillfully recreates the miasma of intelligence treachery of 1961 Berlin without pushing into high-camp James Bond territory. Though the show's body count is not insubstantial, for every scene of violence there are two or three of deductive analysis—often leavened with wit, but sometimes slow-moving, like real intelligence work. That perhaps a third of the dialogue is delivered in subtitled German adds to the occasional torpor.
So does the complexity of the plot; Spy City is not a show to be watched while helping the kids with their homework. There were moments—only a couple, but they were there—when I remembered a Mad magazine parody of the film version of le Carré's novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in which one East German border guard is wondering why they're shooting somebody who hasn't done them any harm. Another guard explains that the victim was carrying a secret canister of film: "It contained a detailed explanation of the plot! So we had to kill him! He was the only one who finally understood the movie!"
Yet Spy City can still be frenetic. In a single sequence of probably no more than five minutes—I certainly wasn't going to look away to glance at a clock—the target of a search is located by one character, murdered without warning by another, both acts surprisingly detected by ominous surveillance and countersurveillance that seems to promise more of the same. Fielding, at one point, proclaims to a colleague that "I love boring, I long for boring." But he's certainly not getting it.
Scott is played, mostly stoically but with flashes of lethal rage, by Dominic Cooper, the loopy minister in FX's Preacher. Cooper certainly has the macho elegance to play James Bond, but he wisely gives Scott the opposite reading: weary and wary and just a step or two short of burnout. He's ably paired with a superior supporting cast. The best of them is one of his operatives, a phlegmatic German photographer (Johanna Wokalek, The Baader Meinhof Complex) who lives in East Berlin, where she likes the stability, and declines his offer to help her defect. "But I'm always interested in making some money," she quickly adds. Really existing socialism, as the nomenklatura used to say.