For a season filled with espionage and hallucinations, stuffed animals and imminent computer technology, secret photographs and veiled assassination attempts, the lasting moment of “Deutschland 89” might just be someone reacting to something on TV.
After two full seasons (2015’s “Deutschland 83” and 2018’s “Deutschland 86”) tracking its individual players in a logistical and ideological struggle for the heart of Berlin, this latest opening episode tracks the events of early November 1989, culminating in the free movement of East German residents into West Germany and the dismantling of the wall dividing the two halves of the city.
Beginning “Deutschland 89” at this ending is an early signal that much like “Deutschland 86,” this is a season that won’t simply continue in the vein of its predecessors. Many of the central players may be the same, but this third collection of episodes sees them all vying for a different kind of power: the ability to choose how your world ends.
Martin (Jonas Nay), who began “Deutschland 83” as a reluctant agent embedded within West German forces, has become even more a man without a country. After trying to lay low in Angola before getting drawn back into the fray, he’s closer to where he started. Physically, he’s back within the former East Germany boundaries he used to call home. And once again, he’s being courted to act as an informant.
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Martin (Sylvester Groth) is grasping for a lifeline from the dissolving intelligence apparatus he’s served for so long, while Lenora (newly-minted Emmy-winning director for “Unorthodox” Maria Schrader) bides her time in prison, waiting for an opening to reignite regional tensions once again.
Having Martin, Lenora, and Walter as the three cross-season pillars is a choice that pays off in wildly different ways. The strength of these three characters — through their wits, their desperation, and their pervasive sense of distrust — makes it so that getting them all to this drawn-out finale doesn’t feel like a contrivance. There have definitely been some lucky breaks along the way, but they’re each still alive for a reason.
In their own way, they all bear the weight of what we’ve seen them take on before the events of “Deutschland 89.” With Lenora opening this season behind bars, Schrader effectively gets across how physically taxing that time has been since 1986. Groth continues to play Walter as a master compartmentalizer, who can exemplify the terror at seeing his life’s work crumble in one second, then slip effortlessly into a new life and a new assignment armed with all his old tricks.
Nay is shouldered with the hardest task of all: wrapping up all of Martin’s failures and transgressions and his reasons for survival in someone who has a nominal chance at something close to a new, unassuming life. There’s hope at various points of the season, as he grows closer with both his son Max (Ari Kurecki) and Max’s new teacher Nicole (Svenja Jung). Yet the Martin of 1989 still sees conniving, controlling interests around every corner, even in the actions and choices of those closest to him. On a personal and national level, “Deutschland 89” asks if there’s even a chance at reinvention if the turmoil that led to it created rifts that can never fully heal.
With an ensemble drama like this, any viewer’s mileage may come down to who gets valuable screen time in this story’s waning hours. At its heart, “Deutschland 89” does try it best to track the different ways that high-ranking and high-value officers and agents try to move on from what we’ve already seen them endure. Some cling to hope that this massive geopolitical shift is more of a blip than a permanent change. Others angle for a chance to test their wares in a new private sector.
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Where “Deutschland 89” falters is in replacing some of the pieces already taken off the board. Here, there’s a certain bit of continuity tracking where former double agent Brigitte Winkelmann (Lavinia Wilson) ends up after last season’s close. The introduction of her American intelligence counterpart Hector Valdez (Raul Casso) strives to rekindle a certain blend of emotional and political complications that permeated “83” and “86.” Still, there’s not enough strength in these sections to hold their own against tracking the myriad ways that HVA alums and their past associates are trying to find their place in a post-reunification existence.
As the season hinges more and more on Brigitte and Valdez’s involvement, it goes from being a balanced thread in the show’s overall tapestry to a plot-connecting portion that sucks air from the season’s more potent parts. Some previous series mainstays get relegated to the background. There’s a coldness to how some of them are removed from the story entirely that feels true to the ruthlessness of their situation. Jettisoned with a rushed acknowledgment, some of those swift exits so also belie the careful, meticulous way that past “Deutschland” installments laid its story groundwork.
Those shortcuts and shortcomings are partly due to the demands of a continuing series like this, to capitalize on the people that viewers already know. But it’s also a representation of how all-encompassing Martin’s entanglements have become over a seven-year stretch. Everyone he cares about automatically becomes a pawn in a battle that’s splintered from a two-sided proxy war into a bloody free-for-all. There was always a sense that no one in this web was safe. Everyone now having the opportunity to exert some control over the next stage of their life is a fascinating core for “Deutschland 89,” even if not all of these narrative possibilities get the breathing room they need.
At this season’s close, the “Deutschland” trilogy ends up being a fascinating case study. If “83” found a certain sense of direction and order in the face of an impending disaster, “86” followed those ripples to battles in other parts of the world. In their wake, “89” often feels as chaotic as the historical flashpoint that sets it off, with people scrambling to take advantage of newfound possibility. Like those often caught in the crosshairs, not every choice is a successful one, but there’s always something intriguing in seeing someone trying to navigate the impossible.
“Deutschland 89” airs Thursdays at 11 p.m. on SundanceTV.