Karl Conroy (Richard Madden) has a very nice life in Eugene, Oregon, including a comfortable home, beautiful wife, and an adorable daughter. It’s all the more impressive considering where he started from: waking up in an Italian hospital bed with retrograde amnesia, his only persistent memory of one beautiful woman. What we know, and he doesn’t, is that, before his amnesia, Karl was Mason Kane, an international super-spy in a very secret agency called Citadel…and he’s about to get called back to active service.
According to a THR report earlier this month, Prime Video’s Citadel is the second-most expensive series Amazon has ever made (after The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power). “Multiple sources” chalk the price tag up to “differences in vision” that caused “half the creative team” to depart the project, requiring “a round of expensive reshoots.” But, evidently, the studio is unconcerned: It was renewed for a second season more than a month before its April 28 premiere.
The series has all the elements audiences expect to see in a spy drama: sexy leads, shifting allegiances, fast-paced fight scenes, and globe-trotting action. Its ambitions are reflected in the pedigree of its behind-the-scenes talent, including executive producer Joe Russo. With his brother Anthony (also a Citadel EP), Russo directed the last two Avengers films, plus Captain America: Civil War; the Russos also produced this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Everything Everywhere All At Once.
Clearly, action is a genre with which they’re very familiar, so what made Citadel leap out ahead of other pitches the Russos had received? Earlier this month, Joe Russo told The Daily Beast’s Obsessed that he got involved with Citadel after a pitch by Amazon Studios Head Jennifer Salke. “It was a brand-new way to tell a story,” Russo said.
Salke’s idea: to create a world rich enough to launch with an English-language show, then spin it into a franchise, with installments set in countries around the world, and produced by each location’s “best storytellers,” who can “change the tone and the cultural context” for their specific markets.
As a veteran of Marvel, entertainment’s biggest cinematic universe, Russo was intrigued by the opportunity to bring many voices into the storytelling process. “We flew everyone out to Los Angeles to sit at our offices at AGBO,” Russo said, referring to the production company the Russos co-founded with Mike LaRocca. “It was probably one of our proudest moments in the business, having this amazing collection of diverse voices working together, building out an original story from the ground up.”
One of the ways Citadel’s producers set its international collaborators up for success and ensured the series would feel authentic was to directly acknowledge the current political moment.
For example, early in the series premiere, Dahlia Archer (Lesley Manville), the British ambassador to the U.S., sits for a TV interview with the BBC. Journalist Marjorie (Erin Boswell) comes in hot, asking Dahlia whether “certain nation-states are too powerful, with (among other things) “monopolies on natural resources” and “inclinations to wage war to further GDP interests.” She lures Dahlia into agreeing that nations that “pose a global threat” should be limited in their powers, and follows up by suggesting one such threat nation is the U.K. itself, considering all the countries it’s invaded and economies it’s destabilized.
Dahlia, cornered into defending imperialist policies, is (moderate spoiler) Citadel’s worst villain; that’s no accident. “You’ll notice that Manticore, Citadel’s nemesis, is made up of a cabal of wealthy elites, who want to manipulate world interest in their favor so that they can line their pockets more,” Russo said. “Probably not dissimilar to what we’re experiencing in our world currently.”
Russo confirmed that politics are inherent not only in this story, but in all his work. “My brother and I, we grew up in a political family in Cleveland, Ohio,” Russo said. “Our dad was a councilman and then a judge. It’s always been intrinsic to who we are. Even in our Marvel films, we try to infuse them with themes that, if you want brain food, it’s there for you.”
“There is a context in the modern world” when you view anything in pop-culture, he continued. “We do have commentary [in our superhero films], and it’s no different with this show. There’s certainly commentary throughout.”
But a documentary about contemporary geopolitics might be the last thing the average Prime Video viewer wants to dig into after a long day at work. Russo understands. Citadel is hardly a docudrama, but it’s not meant to be fluffy either. “The world can be overwhelming,” he said. “There’s a constant amount of information coming at us. Sometimes in fantasy and escapism, you can process things in a way that you can’t when you’re reading a headline. That’s a compelling part of storytelling to us.”