If the news doesn’t have you worried enough about the actual state of the world and the ethics of the people supposedly running it, here is another thriller about spies and spooks and the capitalists who ultimately control them to help keep you fretful.
“Deep State,” which begins Sunday on Epix, is the latest in what seems like an accelerating parade of international thrillers (“Condor,” “Killing Eve” and the upcoming “Next of Kin”) to play with this theme. The titular term, which has been around for a long time, is not specifically related here to its current American usage, either as a hard-right meme or a go-to synonym for “fake news” from the Tweeter in Chief, but more generally, to steal a description from Greg Grandin, writing in the Nation, “any venue in which powerful individuals, either alone or collectively, might try to use the state to fulfill their private ambitions, to get richer and obtain more power.” Which of course is not without a certain contemporary local resonance.
To set the premise will require some minor spoilers. Our hero is Max Easton (Mark Strong), who has been living for a decade as a house-husband and recreational carpenter in the French Pyrenees with his wife, Anna (Lyne Renee), and their daughters. Anna believes that Max used to be a banker, but as we will shortly learn, and as some surprisingly sloppy filing on Max’s part will soon lead her to understand, he was a spy, part of an ultra-covert MI5-meets-CIA team called “The Section.”
He is recalled to service, under duress, by his old boss George White (Alistair Petrie), who shows Max a picture of his son Harry (Joe Dempsie), from an earlier relationship, looking very dead. Unbeknown to Max, Harry has been following in his old footsteps, and there has been some trouble in the Middle East — the opening episodes are set largely in Beirut and Tehran — that requires housecleaning. (A reference is made to Col. Kurtz, whom you will remember from “Apocalypse Now,” if not its original, “Heart of Darkness.”)
There’s not much to fault in the execution that isn’t nit-picking — the show can go a little heavy on parallel cutting between story lines and a reliance on the sort of cliffhangers and misdirection your ancestors might have enjoyed in a Buck Rogers or Gene Autry serial. We have seen enough of such stories that not every twist will prove a surprise, and as if to remedy this, many twists have been given twists of their own. Even the moles have moles. Across the first two hours — two episodes of eight were available for review — this can make the narrative hard to track, along with the fact that one of the two story lines runs three days ahead of the other.
This wary exchange, between Max and Leyla (Karima McAdams), his son’s undercover teammate and (also undercover) lover, sums up the confused atmosphere nicely.
Leyla: “I have every reason to tell you what you want to hear, it keeps me breathing. But how can you know I’m telling you the truth? Harry said you were dead.”
Max: “Yet here I am.”
Leyla: “You might not be who you say you are.”
Max: “I guess we’ll just have to take that chance. Because I suspect, like me, you want answers too.”
As a foreign production destined for a global market — co-created by Matthew Parkhill (“Rogue”) and Simon Maxwell, it comes from the Europe and Africa branch of Fox Networks Group — “Deep State” lacks the they-hate-our-freedoms blather of many domestically made, state-of-the-world action shows. Office politics, mission creep and amoral greed have more to do with what’s happening here than any fight over civilization — which, such dramas typically suggest, is really just a shared illusion, a projection upon a scrim that hides the real machinery of the world, where the only “ism” that matters is the one preceded by “capital.” If anything, the American characters, including Anastasia Griffith as a CIA higher-up, seem the more cold-blooded. (And bossy.) Perhaps significantly, it’s an American member of the assassination squad who raises the term “enhanced interrogation.”
The production has an appealing natural finish to it, enhanced by scenes that play largely or wholly in French or Arabic. Compared with many such productions, “Deep State” is (so far) not especially graphic: scenes that promise torture end quickly. (Still, not for kids.) There are enough action sequences, realistically staged, to maintain the genre cred — a fight here, a rooftop chase there — but for the most part the show runs efficiently, and not hastily, on suspense and character. Indeed, all of the details of the story may be regarded as a giant Hitchcockian MacGuffin, an excuse for some thrills and chills on the way to what might or might not be a happy ending. Relatively speaking.
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)