To understand the TV series Treadstone’s premise, you need to know a bit more about where the Treadstone idea orginated.
Robert Ludlum introduced the world to Jason Bourne through his novels, starting with The Bourne Identity in 1980. Two more sequels followed in 1986 and 1990, and after Ludlum’s death, Eric Lustbader added to the series with another DOZEN stories from 2004 to 2019. The initial book focused on Bourne as an undercover agent trying to capture the terrorist Carlos the Jackal by posing as a rival but fictitious assassin named Cain. Unfortunately, Bourne almost gets killed, develops amnesia, and can’t complete his mission, and while he is recuperating, the host agency running his operation thinks he’s turned traitor. That organization is called Treadstone.
When the new movies came out in 2002 with Jason Bourne played by Matt Damon, they altered the plot to create a series of Treadstone agents who volunteered to become super agents with advanced training, drugs, and psycho treatments aka brainwashing. Bourne still had amnesia in the movie, but it is more about him being an assassin FOR the government for black operations and he had a crisis of conscience just before he got injured. Treadstone still distrusts him, so they send other Treadstone agents against Bourne, and he has to hurt the organization hard to get them to leave him alone. Two more movies followed where first he thinks Treadstone is after him again, and another where a journalist is investigating Treadstone and a new thread called Blackbriar. The constant spectra of “Treadstone living on” vs. “Treadstone being shut down” continues in all the movies.
In 2012, they made a Bourne movie — but without Jason Bourne. The film was called The Bourne Legacy and added a new thread of agents called Operation Outcome that used meds to stimulate cognitive and physical abilities. Bourne exposed Treadstone more widely in movie #3, and the storyline is woven into the background of Legacy…Treadstone is dead, Blackbriar is exposed, and people decide to covertly shut down Outcome too. With extreme prejudice. A fifth movie just called Jason Bourne had Bourne again, but this time helping one of his original handlers who is in trouble as a potential whistleblower. Over the course of the film, Bourne learns more about the origins of the original Treadstone and how it worked.
Which brings us to 2019 and a new show called Treadstone. It’s hard to know the premise exactly, as certain storylines don’t quite match up. Basically, instead of Treadstone being the training of hard-core James Bond-level agents who can kill without hesitation, there is a Russian program called Cicada. These are sleeper agents who have no memory of their original lives or who they are until they are woken up to do a mission. A North Korean general knows that someone has an old Russian nuke aimed at the U.S. and is trying to get the launch codes, so he alerts the CIA to prevent an apocalypse, even while knowing it will likely sign his death warrant.
But here is where it gets weird in a long episode introducing a lot of disparate parts:
- An ex-journalist is the one the DPRK general alerts, knowing she’ll be monitored by the CIA, and alerting the CIA that there’s something Treadstone-like called Cicadas who are being woken up, in addition to the problem of the nuke. In addition to the journalist, there’s her new handler, plus two senior officers within the CIA who are involved;
- It’s flashback time to 1973, where an American agent somehow infiltrated the Cicada program, and escapes. Two flashbacks show what happened and who one of them is in the present time, but not the American agent;
- In the present, a North Korean music teacher is activated or rather woken up as a Cicada agent in order to kill the DPRK general. Except she doesn’t know who she really is, or how she knows how to do stuff, or anything. She was activated blindly and given her assignment…the Cicada program is big on compliance over freedom of thought; and,
- A fourth stream of people is an average Joe working on an oil rig and taking special yellow pills that keep on an even keel (aka like the meds from Outcome). Except he gets laid off, doesn’t take his meds, and when a Russian jerk starts a bar fight, the leatherneck breaks into Jason Bourne abilities and kicks the crap out of five guys. A kindly face helps clean him up after the fight, and basically resets him back into being a normal guy again, kind of like a form of Treadstone with Outcome meds and Blackbriar awakenings and compliance.
Now if you don’t know all that context before you get to the TV show, all you’ll see is that there are sleeper agents doing missions on both sides of the old Cold War, and the bad guys are trying to get control of a nuke. Bourne and the rest of the stuff is great if you know it, but they don’t tell you hardly ANY of it. In fact, all they basically say is that they thought they shut down Treadstone previously, and it turned out to be bigger than they originally expected.
So who is relevant in the story? Hard to tell. Jeremy Irvine plays the original American agent, Bentley. He’s okay in the episode, but mostly what he does is fight and escape. Tracy Ifeachor (DC’s Legends of Tomorrow) plays the ex-journalist, and while she seems good, she has very little screentime to get to know her. Her handler is played by Omar Metwally but he has even less screen time. Gabrielle Scharnitzky plays the older version of a Russian agent, while Emilia Schule plays the younger version. The younger version has presence, the older version is boring.
But the show will live or die by the two sleeper agents. For the Communists, it is a woman named SoYun played by Hyo-Joo Han. She actually does alright, and it is fun to see her transform from simple music teacher and mother/wife into Jane Bourne. For the Americans, it is Brian J Smith playing sleeping Doug McKenna. I liked Smith on Stargate Universe, and he is decent here, although a bit inconsistent since he doesn’t know what’s happening to him.
And just to round things out, as we can’t have Treadstone without figures back at Langley, we have Michelle Forbes as the potential good cop (hard to believe she was Ro Laren on ST:TNG all the way back in ’91-94 and I wouldn’t have recognized her if I hadn’t seen her name in the credits) and Michael Gaston (a really great cynical white guy, although I liked him better as a Red John suspect in the Mentalist).
So where does that leave me? Certainly it is not well-paced for plotting and characters. If you didn’t know any background, you’d be thoroughly confused all the way through the episode. I DID know and I was still confused. Yet, I was already “all in” as soon as it was announced. I predicted cancellation as it seemed like it was going to be more about a one-man army, which lots of shows try every year and they all fail. However, with the addition of other competing agents, I’m going to reverse my prediction and say that USA might renew it.
Either way, I’ll be watching.