Facing the Berlin Wall

in spy city, dominic cooper scrunches up his face to reveal the emotions of a fateful historical moment.

Dominic Cooper as Fielding Scott in AMC’s Spy City.

Set in Berlin in the early 1960s, just before East Germany put up the Berlin Wall, AMC’s Spy City is a fairly conventional Cold War tale of intrigue in the John Le Carré mode of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. But the twists of the plot are not really the thing that make it interesting. Neither is some kind of deeper investigation of the politics and culture of the Cold War. Spy City is not even much of a psychological study of character and moral ambiguity. Instead, the real spyscape worth watching is lead actor Dominic Cooper’s face, in particular how many ways he can figure out to express disgust—with lovers, bosses, institutions, politics, humanity, and maybe most of all with himself.

At the end of the first season, as the barbed wire goes up where the Berlin Wall will eventually be built and cuts off Cooper’s character from important contacts in the East, he summons up a facial expression for the ages, a study of disgust that plumbs the many elements of the emotion: shame, loss, abjectness, physical illness, but also a hint of fascination with and maybe even an attraction to the feeling of disgust itself. In the momentary sneer and wrinkle of Cooper’s face at the end of the season, Spy City cracks for an instance. A fairly conventional contemporary television drama splits open to reveal the full emotional scream of a fateful historical moment.

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