Welcome to Citadel, a show that makes no bones about its spy-thriller lineage or its intent to launch a new lore-rich televisual universe. It’s a child of 007 and Bourne, with an extra-generous helping of screwball comedy folded in for flavor and texture. It’s also been slightly infamous for over a year, thanks to its eye-popping, nearly $300 million budget. MCU writer-director juggernauts Joe and Anthony Russo had been involved since the project’s inception, stepping in to oversee rewrites and reshoots in early 2022. Amazon Studios’ investment will be worthwhile if its ambitious plan for Citadel — to become a flagship show and spinoff generator — is successful. Per The Hollywood Reporter, a second season is already in the works.
Citadel is everything we expect from a zippy spy thriller and is swinging for something beyond simply being engrossing by posing of-the-moment questions about the nature of truth, safety, and memory. At the show’s heart is a power struggle between two shadowy, well-funded international espionage collectives, Citadel and Manticore. Their conflict is played out by a small group of agents from each organization.
As Citadel’s resident tech genius and dad figure Bernard (Stanley Tucci) explains to his memory-wiped agent Mason (Richard Madden), their organization was founded in the early 20th century to be virtuously loyal to international safety and security, while Manticore’s purpose is to centralize and control wealth and power for its eight founding families.
By the time the credits roll in the pilot, Manticore — a newer and even more mysterious organization that Citadel’s own operatives seem never to have heard of until it’s too late — has murdered nearly all of Citadel’s agents. Our sympathy with Citadel as the show’s good guys is assumed: Theirs is the titutar agency; they’re the characters we meet first, the first to claim the nuclear-war-averting moral high ground; and they’re the ones being hunted and assassinated. But are they actually good? How do we know? And if they’re loyal to concepts rather than nation-states, who’s really in charge?
Viewers who loved sinking their teeth into the global-espionage/conspiracy-driven noir of the Russo brothers’ work on Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be at home on this ride. The opening set piece of Citadel’s two-episode premiere establishes some of the same appealing character dynamics and genre tropes right away. Superspies Mason and Nadia (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) enjoy a snappy banter-based relationship with their handler, Bernard. Like Nick Fury, he’s avuncular, cocky, and foulmouthed, and like Samuel L. Jackson, Stanley Tucci has a knack for delivering exposition with a light touch.
From Nadia’s chitchat with Bernard, we learn that she’s been away — On hiatus? On an extra-secret mission? Unclear for now — for about a year, and Bernard is glad to have her back. Things are a little pricklier between Nadia and Mason when he shows up, obsessively fiddling with an old-fashioned lighter; their banter hints at both the heat and the hurt in their past, and at their near-seamless teamwork, showcased in subsequent fight scenes.
Nadia’s encounter with her mark — a fellow in glasses named Gregor, whose briefcase is full of highly enriched uranium — turns on a dime from an easy pickup for her to a villain reveal. There’s no uranium at all because Gregor is on this high-speed luxury train to lure Citadel agents out to be assassinated. He flashes a circular wrist tattoo to identify himself, but in the sickest of all burns an international baddie can suffer, Nadia is confused rather than intimidated — she doesn’t even recognize the tattoo.
Still, his mortification doesn’t last long because nearly everyone else in the dining car immediately draws a gun on Nadia, leading to a spectacular firefight. At the same time, Gregor snarks that Citadel’s holier-than-thou shtick is ending: “We’ve waited a long time to wipe Citadel from the face of the earth.” According to his final pronouncement before detonating a device that sends the entire train plummeting into a lake at the base of the Italian Alps, Manticore is The Truth. That’s a compelling (if vague and easily put to nefarious purposes) concept. How can a commitment to the truth be bad? What if Manticore aren’t the (only) bad guys?
A quick eight-year time jump later, we’re at a sprawling collegiate gothic house in Virginia, the residence of the British ambassador to the U.S., Dahlia Archer. Played by Lesley Manville, she’s a gloriously over-the-top study in contrasts — tending to her white and red roses below a crystal chandelier suspended from a trellis while coolly informing the secretary of State that Manticore must take ownership of the tungsten-fortified briefcase full of Citadel secrets recently found by the CIA. She’s not just an ambassador; she’s also a broker for Manticore, using her position and security clearance to undermine or sidestep official diplomatic priorities. What a fun and chill multitasking effort, which she has no doubt fully disclosed to the British prime minister! Dahlia dispatches her twin henchmen, Davik and Anders, to Miami to retrieve and decrypt the X-Case.
Citadel may well be burned to the ground, but Bernard is still working hard, capturing, interrogating, and shooting Manticore agents dead. When he receives a notification that the still-amnesiac Mason — now living in Oregon as Kyle Conroy with his wife, Abby, and their daughter, Hendrix — has submitted his DNA as a step toward recovering his memories, Bernard invades the Conroy home, bundles them all into his SUV, and promptly sleep-gasses them for the ride to his secret lair.
Convincing a skeptical Kyle — “I coach Little League!” — to become Mason Kane again takes a while, but Bernard eventually succeeds using a combination of banter, flattery, throwing a supersharp knife at Kyle’s face to prompt his superspy reflexes to kick in, and finally, revealing that the late Nadia Sinh, his superspy partner, is the star of the visions Kyle’s been having for the last few months.
Bernard had long thought he was the only agent to survive Manticore’s attack — put into motion by a double-crossing Citadel agent — and now he needs Mason Kane to help him put them in check. If Kyle wants all the puzzle pieces, he must help Bernard find and retrieve the Citadel X-Case before Manticore can decrypt its locks and locate and then kill him and his family. Fine, he’s in.
Bernard’s understanding of his agent’s psychology is impressive — it seems like he’s desperately throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, but in the midst of it, he’s also methodically escalating Kyle’s understanding of the stakes to rerecruit him into Citadel’s tiny fold.
“Spies Appear in Night Time” picks up right where the previous episode left off and immediately answers some questions while setting up others. Surviving the train derailment should have been enough of an achievement for one evening, but Nadia surges onward, fending off the kidnapper/would-be rapist who’s got her handcuffed to a bed in his house. That’s no small feat given that she’s barely conscious and nursing a bullet wound, but like Mason, she’s unable to prevent herself from being backstopped. Knowing her memory wipe was imminent, she scribbles “Valencia” on her forearm, then blacks out. Regaining consciousness on the floor, she takes in the horrifying scene, grabs some keys and a passport, and heads out the door. Is that something that a person with no memories does? Mason was a clueless little lamb lying in his post-rescue hospital bed, but Nadia seems to understand immediately what’s happened and what she needs to do next.
Bernard and Kyle head off to their next stop, Manhattan, where Kyle breaks into a secret Manticore tech lab, retrieves the case, throws a few punches, and manages to get out. Dahlia’s goons cannot believe their eyes — Mason Kane is alive?! Dahlia, who has been brooding in her fortress of solitude as the camera pans s l o w l y across a framed photo of her family, is pleased about exactly none of these developments. Mission failures and looking incompetent are not acceptable to the eight families of Manticore.
Kyle can’t quite believe he pulled off that caper, and the X-Case opens upon recognizing his biometrics. As they speed away, with Anders and Davik in hot pursuit, Bernard implores him to inject the vial of Official Mason Kane Memory Serum into a vein in his neck so he can regain all of his memories. Unfortunately, the lone vial is smashed in a freeway mêlée with Anders and Davik, which also seems to kill Bernard. How will Mason foil Manticore’s big bad nuclear plot with no memories and no Bernard? But wait a moment! The case’s agent-search function reveals that Nadia Sinh is alive, after all, in Valencia.
Mason races to reconnect with Nadia at her restaurant, where she doesn’t recognize him, but unhesitatingly knocks one of Dahlia’s henchmen unconscious with a frying pan. The other evil bearded twin nearly kills both Nadia and Mason, but she manages to grab her memory-serum vial and gets the upper hand, knocking him out with her pointy boot. Fully into superspy mode, she picks up Mason and puts pressure on his wound, assuring him that she remembers everything.
Everything includes a montage from the big pre-explosion set piece, followed by Nadia in a braided high pony, dark glasses, and a pristine white coat saying, “Mason can never find out.” Huh! Nadia snags the baddie’s gun but leaves behind her memory-serum vial. Double huh!
Back in Virginia, Dahlia is once again deeply unimpressed with the twins’ performance in the field, but contents herself with attending to the guest at her dining table, a plainly not-dead Bernard tied to a chair. She simply can’t wait to reconnect with her old pal, reminding him that she’s exceptionally skilled at getting Citadel agents to turn. Dun dun dunnnnn!
Let’s get out our red string, pushpins, and corkboard — it’s time to take what little we know and start to weave a grand unifying hypothesis of what’s actually going on here. It seems like Nadia is trying not to lie to Mason while also not exactly telling him the truth he’s after. “I remember everything” seems true and would explain why she didn’t inject her memory serum. But why doesn’t she need it, and why would she keep that information from Mason? Did she regain her memories some years ago? Was she somehow immune to the backstop memory-wipe process?
At this point, I suspect Bernard already knew Nadia was alive and that they had done something together to protect Mason, some well-intended plan that they knew he would hate and resent. This would go some way toward explaining whatever Bernard’s ex-wife, Jo, was referring to when she cautioned him against telling Mason and his family the [as yet unspecified] truth. If he does tell, she’ll make sure they find out what he did [which we are meant to understand is unforgivable].
As for Dahlia and Bernard, they must have some kind of long-standing acquaintance, but it could be anything from a basic mutual awareness of one another’s work to having colluded on dastardly operations to be revealed later.
My big questions for next week: Will we learn which Citadel agent (or worse, agents) Dahlia previously extracted secrets from? Did they betray Citadel under duress, due to a crisis of conscience, or for some other reason? Will she break Bernard, or will she even need to? She described herself as a broker to Manticore’s eight founding families, but who specifically does Dahlia answer to? How will Mason and Nadia’s next moves unfold if she has her memories and he doesn’t?
You Must Remember This
• Nadia and Mason’s dialogue — competitively witty, delivered with rat-a-tat speed and precision — is full of gutsy swings at conjuring Bogart and Bacall vibes. Whether it works or not is in the eye of the beholder; I think they keep it in the sweet spot of playful homage territory and look forward to more.
• I was sorry to note that Richard Madden (having a splendid time playing Mason as a dork who is also … suave? somehow?) is not speaking in his actual Scottish accent but in a serviceable American one, making it doubtful that we’ll be getting a supercut of him saying “ma’am” approximately eleventy billion times as we did when he starred in Bodyguard. Alas!
• Kudos to costume designer Sara Sensoy for bookending these episodes by putting Priyanka Chopra Jonas in two scarlet ensembles featuring very pointy shoulders. I love the visual telegraphing of her boldness and, perhaps, some Disney villainess qualities.