(For the foreseeable future — aka as long as this quarantine lasts — Emily will be watching the critically acclaimed German drama Babylon Berlin, a neo-noir set in 1929 Germany. The series is available on Netflix in the United States. For every installment, she will be joined by a special guest. Today’s guest is Indiewire’s TV Awards Editor Libby Hill. Find her at Indiewire and on Twitter.)
Emily: After we finished the third season finale of Babylon Berlin, I sat for a moment. I was pretty sure I didn’t like it. The final two episodes had had plenty of big, wild swings in them, but they also felt chaotic and barely held together. I admired the show calling all the way back to its very first episode to reveal the identity of the Ghost, and I liked the breathless search for Charlotte before she could die (again??), but the reveal of the culprit left me deflated.
Similarly, the finale featured one bravura sequence — Charlotte racing to save Greta’s life —and then a whole bunch of odds and ends that seemed less about tying up the season that had been and more about setting up a future season four. The final shot —Gereon looking down through a sewer grate and seeing some dark beast (Leviathan!) undulating beneath the city — was gorgeous and eerie, especially in the light of the show’s depiction of the stock market crash, but goodness me, I wasn’t sure any of the rest of it held together.
Then I thought about it for a couple minutes more and realized I loved it.
This reaction is pretty common for me. I often struggle with a show that does something this massive, only to flip right around and realize just how audacious it really is, until it’s tickling me all the way down to my toes. These two episodes aren’t so much about solving the mystery as they are revealing how deeply Gereon and Charlotte miss what we know is coming. The entire last third of this season is suffused with just enough light moments — the party at Gräf’s, the screening of the film — that they stand in contrast to the darkness. Leviathan is coming.
Does this season hang together as surely as season two? Nah. But I’m not sure that’s the point. It reminded me most of Mad Men season five, a similarly all-over-the-place, similarly brilliant attempt to capture a time and place through the eyes of a few people living there. We are watching Berlin on the precipice of something new, and the stock market crash marks the beginning of the cataclysm. Nothing will ever be the same after this.
The words Charlotte speaks at Greta’s grave continue to haunt me now, two weeks after we watched these episodes: “We did this.” Yeah, Charlotte and Gereon didn’t kill Charlotte. But they were complicit. Everybody is complicit. In what has been. And in what is to come.
Libby, what did you make of this finale? What did you make of watching this show with me all along? And are you still sad about poor Greta?
Libby: It’s been a few weeks now since we watched the final two episodes of season three, and I have to admit that I barely remember them. I chalked this up to maybe not paying attention or perhaps I didn’t like them as much as I thought I did. But upon re-reading the plot summaries on Wikipedia, I realized that neither of those things are the cause of my spotty memory. But first, a sidebar.
I’m a very strange dreamer, though in completely uninteresting ways. Most of my dreams are typical bullshit: teeth falling out, generalized anxiety dreams, etc. But I do have a dream that I experience on a semi-regular basis that’s I think fairly unique: It’s serialized. I use that term loosely because as far as I can tell, my unconscious mind isn’t the best writers assistant, so things don’t always line up exactly, but there is an identifiable storyline that progresses with every installment. But it’s a dream. No matter how much TV I watch or film I view or books I read, I can’t force my brain into crafting an intelligible narrative necessarily, but within the dreams things happen and I remember them in later dreams. My dream self has its own memory of its dream life that she uses to make decisions and frame her experiences.
The reason I can never remember what happens in a particular episode of Babylon Berlin is because it might be the TV show that best captures the dream state. (Yes, even better than Twin Peaks. Fight me.) Colors are bright, events are outsized and beggar belief, the people with the most sexual tension (almost) always stop short of consummation, smart people make stupid decisions that make sense in the moment and outrageous plans succeed because nothing is bound by the limitations of something as dull as consciousness.
This realization clarifies literally everything in the show for me and only serves to drive home the pointed message that if things in Berlin at the time were chaotic and unstable, they were, if nothing else, a dream, at least compared about the nightmare looming just out of sight in modern history books.
It is, I realize now, why I’ve been hesitant to sit down and have this discussion, darling, because everyone knows that dreams lose a bit of their magic when you start trying to dissect them. But, to answer your questions, the finale was amazing, I adore this show and anticipate its return more than any other series (give or take a Succession), and aren’t we all still terribly sad about poor Greta?
Also, I told Elisabeth Moss to watch the show, so maybe she can join the newsletter for season four. Am I bananas? Is it time to discuss how Helga has never worked as a character? Or would you rather go deep on True Detective season four: Elisabeth Behnke and Marie-Luise Seegers?
Emily: Helga stiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinks. I really hoped that these final two episodes would redeem her in some way, but no, she just sort of programmatically played out the rest of her story arc and ended up with Nyssen. BLAH.
Babylon Berlin is a show that typically has interesting and complex women characters, and when one of those characters doesn’t quite work (as Greta often didn’t), it’s really good at course correcting to make them more vital. But it’s never been able to figure out anything to say with Helga that’s not “She and Gereon loved each other — once.”
If there’s a major story element that drags season three down a notch, it’s how much of the season is focused on Helga and Gereon’s would-be whatever, when literally everybody in the audience is shouting drunkenly about how he needs to get together with Lotte already. (Or, okay, I would be fine with him ending up with Gräf.) It feels like their connection derived almost entirely from the forbidden connection they shared in Cologne, and now that they’re together in Berlin, whatever they had has drifted out the window. So she gets together with Nyssen, and she’s with him when the stock market crashes, and then Gereon sees the two of them as the characters from the film, and I guess that’s that.
It’s fine, as far as it goes, but it’s the one storyline in these two episodes that feels more like moving pieces into place than anything else. At its best, Babylon Berlin subverts your expectations all over the place. When Charlotte is powerless to stop Greta’s execution, you feel it, because even though you know how the world of the show works — and that there’s no way a girl who had direct influence of a Nazi plot to overthrow everything could live without majorly changing actual history — you know cinematic grammar that suggests she’s about to be saved. But she’s not. The series is so good at making you feel the horror of failure, then tying that to a larger set of circumstances.
This never once happens with Helga. She just plays out the story arc you’d expect, and it all ends in a shrug. “Whatever!” says the audience, and, yeah, sure, fine. Compare this with the spy shenanigans of Elisabeth and MaLu to see how much fun this show can have with its supporting characters when it wants to. Maybe nobody really wanted to write too much more for Helga? And yet there’s Anno — or maybe just “Anno” — so you have to figure that will all play out in future seasons as well. (I kind of admire the guts of not revealing if he’s real or not.
I loved how you described the show’s dreamlike atmosphere. I agree that it’s incredibly potent and perhaps better than any other show at capturing that atmosphere in a way that feels woozy and incomplete, like we have half a picture and will only understand what’s going on when we wake up in the morning. That’s such a thematically rich portrayal of Berlin in 1929, too. The other half of that picture is about to snap into place, and it’s going to be absolutely devastating.
We’ve mostly talked about the finale here, but I want to hear what you have to think about the resolution of the mystery in “Episode 27.” Were you satisfied with the man who doubted Charlotte being brought low? Did Gereon’s salvation of Charlotte make your heart beat a little more quickly, or did you sort of wish Charlotte hadn’t been so stupid as to get herself into that situation in the first place? Finally: What do you make of the season’s final shot, that undulating beast beneath Berlin?
Libby: Before I answer your questions, I did want to add that all of the Helga plotting was a complete disaster, and I think you summed up what happened very well. I also am not sure what’s going on with the actress, is she an actual charisma vampire or does that blame lay in the writers room? I’m sure we’ll find out next season when she’s inexplicably even more central to the plot.
Honestly, Helga feels like a character who was added in case the audience didn’t fully invest in the golden child/scapegoat dynamic that Anno and Gereon were raised in and/or an even worse option: She exists as a mere roadblock to keep Gereon and Lotte apart.
While you’re typically the person in our relationship that’s obsessed with story structure, I was delighted by the unraveling of the mystery in “Episode 27.” I picked up on nearly every clue and didn’t end up anywhere near the actual solution, in fact ending up far afield babbling about some elaborate scheme with multiple murderers and hypnosis. It was all especially incredible if you think of the entire season as an outrageous attempt to put a button on Charlotte’s fingerprint shortcomings in the premiere. Which is what I do now.
Gereon saving Charlotte in the nick of time did feel a little bit “Fool me once…” but that relationship is the center of the entire series and if you aren’t rooting for smooching, then I don’t want to know you. And to that end, I don’t think Charlotte stumbling into harm’s way was disappointing or unearned. She’s a woman anxious to prove her worth and growth to a man who has gone out of his way to humiliate her. That’s no reason for her to suspect he’s a murderer. It’s a completely believable catalyst that’s really just another function of the stupid patriarchy.
As for leviathan, I’m just not sure I’m knowledgable enough to theorize. My understanding of the creature is limited to the fear-mongering of fundamentalist Christians of my childhood, who took me to a youth seminar with Dawson McAllister which focused primarily on the end times. All I remember is apparently I’m owed a personalized mansion in heaven.
Regardless, it felt like an accurate metaphor for everything going on in the show. Foreboding and shit. And a nice way to underline Gereon’s continuing unreliability as narrator. Or, hell, maybe there really is a leviathan in the sewer and next season is all about the creature and Anno teaming up to do… something. Probably Nazi shit.
Emily: You just reminded me of our favorite running bit from this season, which was every time Gereon would stand and stare pensively at something or someone — which happens a lot — we would fill in “By the way, did I tell you my brother lives in the sewers?” The whole thing is so cracked that you just go along with it, especially when it turns out he holds half the men in the city in his thrall. (And honestly, the way the show styles him jussssssst a little bit like Hitler is so smart.)
I’m less sold on the whole cliffhanger involving Gereon going back on morphine, which feels a bit like one metaphor too many for a show already sweaty with them. So……. he’s going to be addicted to drugs again? Sure. And, yes, the season involved lots of hints that this was coming, and it’s always been clear we were headed here. But also, this supposedly capable man being hornswaggled by a sewer brother into completely losing his cool? It’s something that irritated me just a little bit.
But honestly, I sound so complain-y, and I promise I’m not. So much of these two episodes was borderline perfect. Like the resolution of Toni’s story, in which she goes off to live with the kids from Oliver Twist (and I’m already imagining the way she and Charlotte will finally reconnect in the final season, as Things Are Turning to Shit)! Or the way that the Buddha decides it’s high time to pursue organized crime! Or the resolution to the Armenian’s plot ending up involving him, Esther, and Weintraub in a throuple! Or… or… or…
Season three was a touch ungainly, but in a way I really dug. And for all of the season four setup that happens in the finale, at least some of it strikes me as really exciting (like Charlotte finding her brother — that could be cool!). But what has me most excited is that dragon underneath the city. What a perfect shot! What a perfect encapsulation of Berlin 1929 and Planet Earth 2020!
What are you looking forward to in season four? And what moments from season three will stick with you?
Libby: I won’t lie, I was definitely thinking “…and I’m still pretty messed up about it” in my head as I wrote the last section, re: pensive Gereon with his dead brother in the sewers.
And I agree about the morphine, doubly so because it was meant to be at least partially inspired by the HEARTBREAK of seeing Helga and ol’ fuckface together at the stock exchange. But PTSD is real and if Gereon thinks that morphine is the only way to control his tremors and, you know, his tremors are back, who am I to judge? In the end it’s all just more fuel for the unreliable narrator fire.
As for what’s sticking with me, I think of the leviathan often, especially when reading the day’s news. I often ponder Greta’s fate and the exquisitely composed race against time surrounding her fate. I’ll definitely be thinking about Gereon’s suits and Charlotte’s hats and Vera’s perfect face. And, as always, smooching.
But when thinking about season four, I have nothing. This show is so lovely that no matter what happens next, I trust that the creatives in charge know much better than I ever could. It’s like a dream. I have no idea where it’s going, but I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Emily: I agree that I cannot wait, and in the spirit of that, I asked some of our former recappers to offer their thoughts on the finale! A few of them were happy to oblige.
Emma Fraser: Mixing the wild and unpredictable weirdness (like featuring a monster in the sewers) with the financial crisis that opened the season perfectly encapsulates how this show deftly balances genres. Anno's hypnotic voiceover coupled with Gereon's return to drugs feels inevitable, and really I just want him (and Charlotte) to have a moment to breathe, sleep, and grieve (and kiss). It also feels like a major chapter is over with the tragic conclusion to Greta's storyline and the inevitable power takeover that is underway; this finale both fills me with dread and makes me want season four as soon as it is feasibly possible.
Amelia Tate: Sometimes you have the moral high ground, the law, and your own determination to save the day on your side, and it's still not enough. Down goes the executioner's blade, and up comes the monster from the sewer. So it was for Greta, so it would be for the Weimar Republic.
Emily: Back to you, Libby! Where can people find you?
Emily: Thank you so much for joining me once again! Whenever this show is back, I’ll cover it again! With the COVID-19 outbreak, it might be a while — but let’s hope not! Germany seems to have done a better job of keeping the whole thing under control than we did, so…
Until then — I’ll see you next week for an eight-week series on series finales!
Read more posts like this in your inbox
Subscribe to the newsletter