I Spy a Good Show: A Review of Netflix’s The Spy

When I first read about The Spy, I remember thinking that it was impressive that Sacha Baron Cohen learned Syrian Arabic for the part, but I didn’t feel any burning need to watch the show. I kind of just went huh, that’s cool to myself and then moved on with my life. What with cv19, I am indoors a lot more than I used to be so I decided to check out Netflix’s bountiful offerings. As someone who finds it really hard not to binge a good series, I figured it would be smart to find a miniseries to sink my teeth into, rather than a multi-season epic that would probably destroy my sleep cycle. The Spy kept coming up on the list of best miniseries on Netflix so I decided to check it out and I am really glad I did.

James Bond films would have us believe that international espionage consists mainly of glitzy parties, casual sex, high-octane car chases, frenetic fisticuffs, and diabolical plots to destroy the world. The Spy would have us believe otherwise and gives audiences a much grittier depiction, one less glamorous but more grounded. To be fair, there are many edge-of-your-seat moments in The Spy and I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers played up the drama surrounding certain events for the sake of the audience. However, what makes The Spy different than the typical Bond film is these sequences aren’t exciting so much as they are exhausting. 

Exhausting has negative connotations, and I want to be clear that I don’t mean that in a bad way. Part of what makes The Spy compelling is that we know from the very first episode that Eli Cohen, the protagonist of the show, gets captured by the Syrian government. As a result, every time we see Eli put himself in danger, we have to think to ourselves: is this how he gets caught? Any relief we feel when he survives a brush with danger is fleeting because we know every success only encourages him to take greater risks. And boy, does he take some great risks. He doesn’t just pop into Syria for a quick peek–he ends up living there for nearly half a decade, brushing shoulders with some of the dangerous people in all the country and building a facade so consuming it ends up, well, consuming, him.

Reading some reviews online, I notice some critics took issue with the depiction of Eli Cohen and contend that the show writers should have done more to develop Eli as a character. To some degree, there is validity to this criticism. There are only a few episodes in the series and Eli gets precious little time to be himself–rather than his altar alias, Kamel Amin Thabbet–or spend time with family. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing we know Eli primarily as a spy. I think in some respects, it makes for a more honest depiction. Eli has to play the part of his altar alias so much that it becomes him and his downfall is all the more brutal because of it.

His handlers should have stepped in before he was caught, but they do as much to enable his downfall as Eli’s penchant for risk-taking. Eli has given them such great information, has triumphed in the face of such spectacular odds, they convince themselves Eli can’t be caught. This delusion proves deep-seated and, ultimately, tragic. In an odd twist of fate, Eli becomes so valuable to the state of Israel that he becomes expendable. His eagerness to serve dooms him, and the Israeli Intelligence Services lose their golden goose because they are unwilling to quit while they are head. Instead of pulling Eli out when he relays extremely privileged information, they encourage him to discover even more privileged information even though they can do nothing to protect him once the Syrians start wondering who is leaking the privileged information. Sure, he’s their hero, but that just means he has the honor of taking more risks on their behalf.

The question of how we treat our heroes is an important one then as much as now. Many of the same people who are lauding frontline medics for their selflessness in the fight against cv19 are loathe to practice social distancing measures themselves. In some cases, they flagrantly violate them. One has to wonder if we perhaps ask too much of our heroes.

The Spy probably isn’t for everyone. It’s hard to imagine the show has much viewership in Syria, which is ironic considering the trouble Sacha Baron Cohen went through to learn the lingua franca, and it has flown under the radar with a lot of American viewers also. The Spy is not as action-packed as a modern Bond film, nor is it as heady as a John le Carre adaption, but it’s worth checking out and I recommend it to all viewers interested in Israeli history, Syrian history, or foreign espionage.

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Boardwalk Empire: Boring at Times, But Pretty Good Overall

The Prohibition era has inspired plenty of books and movies but as far as I know, it hasn’t inspired that many television shows. Boardwalk Empire is a welcome addition in that respect and the critical success of HBO’s show is just another example of how historical fiction is finally coming into its own as a genre. While it will probably be a while until book stores carve out a specific section for historical novels, I think shows like Boardwalk Empire help broaden the fan base for historical fiction and I hope more outlets start putting out content for history buffs. Having said that, I do think Boardwalk Empire leaves a bit to be desired in terms of entertainment value.

When it comes to production design, the show gets everything right. The costumes are stunning and the attention to detail is impeccable. From an acting standpoint, there’s really not much to criticize either. Michael Pitt, Michael Shannon, Michael K. Williams, and crew all turn in great performances. Even late entrants like Jeremy Wright and Erik Harvey hold their own. In some cases, they steal the show. Unfortunately, the show lacks a compelling protagonist. Boardwalk Empire is filled with a vast assortment of fascinating characters–Richard Harrow, Chalky White, Dr. Narcisse–but none of them get nearly as much screentime as Nucky Thompson and that’s a shame because Nucky is by and large an unrealized character.

Steve Buscemi does a great job portraying Nucky, nobody who has seen Fargo can deny that Buscemi is a talented actor, but the character just never gets fleshed out. Towards the end of the first season, Nucky does have a revealing heart to heart with a love interest but moments like this are few and far between. By and large, when Nucky is on screen he is barking commands or negotiating illicit deals. This is interesting every now and then, but it gets a bit dry after a while. Nucky’s remarks aren’t especially witty and he’s not all that charming either. Most of the time, he comes off as rude or selfish or both. The great lines in the show belong to other characters, I ain’t buildin’ no bookcase for example, and Nucky really doesn’t have much of an arc. He starts out as a gangster who always delegates the killing to others and then becomes a ganger who often delegates the killing to others. If that shows growth as a character, it’s not the kind that especially interesting.

When it comes to plot, the show doesn’t really grow much either. For the most part, the plot of season 1 revolves around a failed hit on Nucky. As for season two? Another failed hit. Season three? Another failed hit. Season 4 is the only entrant to diverge from that pattern but by the time we get to season 5, we’re back to another failed hit.

The funny thing is, Boardwalk Empire doesn’t lack for compelling characters or interesting arcs and it’s a very creative show when it comes to characters other than Nucky. Agent Nelson, Richard Harrow, and Dunn Purnsley all have great character arcs. Certain characters don’t change much, Al Capone and Eli Rothstein for example, but they have great screen presence and take part in some really interesting scenes. Unfortunately, they’re all bit characters and they play second fiddle to Nucky in most cases. It’s frustrating just as much as it’s puzzling. Everybody who works on the show is incredibly talented, and the show could have been so much stronger if Nucky was a supporting character rather than the main character. Then again, just giving him more backstory and making him less abrasive might have done the trick also. In any case, the show is still worth watching and I recommend it to anyone interested in the Prohibition era.

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