I approached the finale of SS-GB, the good-looking conspiracy thriller, with some optimism just about intact. There had been flickers of life in this stodgy tale of alternative history, but so often when things threatened to spark they petered out and sunk into drudgery. Gorgeous-looking drudgery, mind. Still, it was the finale and there seemed to be a lot to fit in: would Archer and Harry manage to escort the infirm King out of the country? How would Britain rid themselves of the occupying Nazis?
NB: Spoilers inside
We were straight into it, no messing around, which suggested this series finale might be action-packed and with a pace and a tempo that would leave the previous four episodes in its wake. And there was tension; tension because Archer, Harry and the recently joined Sylvia (their original car had a dodgy clutch so they asked Sylvia to bring another motor along to carry out the mission) had to get to the King, pick him up and take him to the designated airfield to get him out of the country and to America.
Suddenly, some purpose and a clear line from A to B.
They picked up the King – I was never sure what was wrong with him but he was in a right state – and then they were on their way. But then they got a flat tyre and then it just felt very silly again – with all the rotten luck they were having with bad cars, it could have qualified as a farce.
So the mismatched foursome, with the King lolling in the back (and I don’t mean LOLling), were forced to seek refuge and help from a local farmer (they were out in the sticks by this time, en route to the airport), who turned out to be a Nazi sympathiser, passing on information about the locals who showed any Resistance tendencies in return for decent rations and a few privileges. This little segment produced a tense and explosive scene, as Archer had to shoot an escaped farm person and then get the rest of his merry band into another new car and go to the airport.
Once they got there it all kicked off. There was no sign of Mayhew as promised, but plenty of sign of the Nazis. There followed another tense, explosive scene where the Nazis attacked and did away with Sylvia and the King himself. As the Nazis put paid to this little operation, there was an another attack, this time from the ocean – the Americans had arrived, all ships blazing. And then… well, it reverted to type – a captured Archer got involved in a looong tête–à–tête with Huth, and once again men in grand rooms chatted for a bit in hushed voices. And this was SS-GB all over: whenever it threatened to flicker into life, it mired itself in overwrought, convoluted plot and exposition until you had completely forgotten about the flickery, good bits. In this particular overwrought, convoluted bit, Archer dictated to Huth his theory about how it was Mayhew who had set the whole thing up – he wanted to do away with the King because he was a vegetable and someone who would not wield any power or influence in America, he was the one who had maneuvered and fed different pieces of information to different factions so the Americans would eventually become involved just at the right moment, and he was the one who had killed Spode (remember how this all started with the murder of a man called Spode?).
In the end, Kellerman arrested Huth after blaming him for the King plot and basically any other excuse he could think of. (In fact, Kellerman had been a nasty old sod throughout this episode, revealing himself to be a deeply flawed, feckless and narcissistic man; a man who was willing to do anything to save his own skin. Earlier he had interrogated Barbara and was just about to torture her when her American embassy chums saved the day.) Huth was shot (which was strangely moving given that he was a nasty piece of work), and Archer had managed to spirit himself way via a priest hole and wondered off into the Downs, atomic plans safely in his pocket.
And that was kind of it. It felt like a bit of a let-down, as did the whole series. I was hoping for some sort of significant change in Britain’s status, but no. With the Americans now in the war and the German army and SS at each other’s throats you could easily speculate that the occupation would soon come to an end. (Len Deighton’s next book, XPD, told the story of how a group of SS officers tried to seize power in Nazi Germany.) Even though Archer stumbled across those barren Downs, we weren’t to know what would happen to him; whether he’d be reunited with his son, or what would happen to Harry. What about Barbara? Would they be reunited and get out of the country and live happily ever after in the US? It was a probability.
But like so much of SS-GB, it was up in the air. Or rather buried in muddy stodge. I so wanted to love this series – the production design was swoonsome, I love the period of history and its aesthetics; the acting (especially by Lars Eidinger as Huth) was very good (although I still contend that Sam Riley as good as he is, was miscast for this role), and the idea of Britain occupied by the Nazis in an alternative history was intriguing and unsettling – but in the end every time it flickered to life, any tension or momentum was extinguished almost straight away.
Once upon a time, SS-GB had all the makings of a decent period procedural, acting as a gateway to a conspiracy thriller. But in the end, it got stuck in quicksand and couldn’t move. Which was a great shame.
For all our reviews on SS-GB, go here