The Jason Bourne franchise didn’t exactly have a ton of success the last time it tried to launch a Bourne-less spinoff. Nevertheless, Heroes creator Tim Kring somehow convinced the USA Network that the concept would work better on TV. Does Treadstone actually tread water, or sink like… well, like a stone?
(Yes, I’m straining for a pun there. Groan if you must.)
The series premiere initially seems to be a prequel set in 1973 East Berlin. An American man named J. Randolph Bentley (Jeremy Irvine) has been held captive for nine months by evil scientist Dr. Meisner (Martin Umbach) and his henchwoman Petra (Emilia Schüle). They’ve experimented on him with drugs and mind control to turn him into an unquestioning, unstoppable super-soldier. As much as he resists and pleads, his mind goes blank as soon as he’s triggered by hearing Petra sing “Frère Jacques” and he executes three other hostages without wavering. He has no memory of his own identity. Meisner calls him a “cicada.”
Bentley isn’t totally brainwashed, though. He kills Mesiner and uses his badass fighting skills to escape. Petra turns out to be equally badass at hand-to-hand combat and the two have a brutal battle until Bentley cuts off one of her fingers and flees into the night, wearing only a pair of undies.
The episode then flashes forward to the present. Ellen Becker (Michelle Forbes) takes on the Joan Allen role of a CIA director who spends all her time standing in front of a wall of computer monitors and barking out orders. She’s alerted that a high-ranking North Korean general (Tzi Ma, who’s actually Chinese, which I guess is close enough by Hollywood standards) may want to defect, but he insists that he’ll only speak to Tara Coleman (Tracy Ifeachor), a disgraced former journalist now working as a cabbie.
Before she was fired, Coleman had been working on a story about a stolen Russian ICBM called “Stiletto Six” that was rumored to be aimed right at Washington D.C. She gets recruited by the CIA to speak to Gen. Kwon, who immediately tells her that Operation Treadstone wasn’t really shut down and, “We’re waking them up. It’s starting again.” Tara has no idea what he’s talking about, but Becker and some others listening in on her wire certainly do. Kwon wants Tara to somehow find the missile launch codes and also to locate his daughter in North Korea, which are totally normal things to ask a cabbie to do for you.
From there, we branch off to a few different storylines. An Alaskan oil rig worker named Doug McKenna (Brian J. Smith from Stargate Universe and Sense8) gets in a bar fight with a bunch of Russian creeps and quickly beats the hell out of all of them with fighting moves even he didn’t know he had. When chatting with a friendly doctor afterwards, the woman hums “Frère Jacques” and puts him into a trance, saying “Let’s hope it works this time.” Doug later wakes up in the snow some distance from town, with no idea how he got there.
In North Korea, a timid music teacher named SoYun (Han Hyo-joo) winds up in possession of an illicit GameBoy device that her young son found in his school locker. Worried that being caught with American technology (no matter how old) is a capital offense, she confiscates the toy and tries to hide it. Once turned on, of course the machine starts playing “Frère Jacques.” She breaks it open and finds a syringe hidden inside, along with an address on a note. SoYun sneaks into the apartment and finds Gen. Kwon, who recognizes her and isn’t surprised that she was chosen to kill him. She tries to stab him with the syringe, but Kwon has some pretty good moves for an old guy. He fights her off for a while, but eventually she strangles him to death.
Finally, an elderly farmer in Russia is ecstatic to get a new hearing aid, but the device keeps picking up a strange beeping noise coming from his barn. His wife (Gabrielle Scharnitzky) dismisses the hearing aid as defective and takes it away from him, but the old man takes it back and follows the noise to a secret hatch hidden under the hay. He opens it and follows it down to a strange underground bunker. The man is more amazed by all of this than worried, but his wife sneaks down after him and promptly slits his throat. From the missing finger on one hand, we can deduce that the old woman is Petra from the flashback story. She opens a door to reveal a gigantic ICBM (which is seriously about fifty times larger than the barn and would need to be ten stories underground) with the name Stiletto Six marked on it.
Episode Verdict / Grade: B-
Treadstone tries very hard to be as Bourne-y as possible without Jason Bourne. The pilot episode is slickly produced and has some well-choreographed fight scenes (though I’m left wondering why Petra needed to fight Bentley at all when she could have just hummed “Frère Jacques” and immediately subdued him). The plot is immensely convoluted in a way that can almost convince you something exciting must be happening. I’ll even go so far as to say that dividing up the story among multiple Treadstone super-soldiers is a somewhat interesting twist.
Even so, at the end of the hour, this is basically just a limp retread of the Bourne movies, filled with lots of spy clichés. I don’t see any great need for it to exist, and won’t feel like I’m missing anything by not watching further.