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.

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.

Pavel’s Perspective in the Captivating Chernobyl Miniseries

Just recently, the venerable George R.R. Martin remarked that “I am working in a very different medium than David and Dan” when explaining why the ending he intends to write will differ from the final seasons of Game of Thrones. Now none of us are holding our breath waiting for the next entry in A Song of Ice and Fire, but Martin’s statement begs an interesting question: are authors better off not imagining their works as a televised program? The question may seem trivial but considering how often authors are exhorted to make mental movies of their work, I think it is worth pondering. Personally, I am inclined to say that it’s probably a good mental exercise for authors but it’s very important to remember that what works in television does not always work in literature and vice versa. For proof of this, we need only consider the miniseries Chernobyl.

In literature, recurring characters usually need to have some sort of backstory to hold the reader’s interest. Of course, there are exceptions but if we are going to spend time in a person’s head, we usually like to know what makes that person tick. When it comes to television, we don’t need to know nearly as much about a character because we can see how they feel and that provides an understanding of its own. Pavel, a young man conscripted into containment efforts in Chernobyl, is a great example of this.

Pavel being confronted by a superior for being negligent in his duties

His name is used sparingly in the show and even though he appears in multiple scenes, I could not remember his name without looking it up online. That did nothing, however, to prevent me from enjoying his storyline. Despite knowing little about the character in terms of his backstory or his interest, I still felt as if I understood a great deal about his character. After all, I could see how he felt when he was offered a drink by his new bunkmates, when he is informed that he has been ordered to shoot the dogs exposed to radiation, when he has to decide if he has the fortitude to kill a litter of puppies, and that helps a great deal with knowing how he feels.

According to the show runners, key information about Pavel was deliberately withheld from the audience so that he could serve as a symbol of the many individuals conscripted into containment efforts. Such sparse character development can work in television but is much harder to pull off in literature. There are practical reasons related to dialogue attribution and POV jumping but one reason stands out above all the rest: television requires less engagement from consumers. This is not to suggest less creativity or effort goes into the making of television—one need only consult the credits list for a movie to know just how much talent goes into the production of a televised event. But so long as Stranger Things is easy to binge and finishing Moby Dick is hard, I think characters like Pavel will work well on the screen but not so well on the page.

Perhaps I am wrong though. My TBR list grows longer by the day and I might revise my opinion on the matter once I make more progress on that front. For now, I am inclined to agree with George R.R. Martin that television is a very different medium and I would encourage everyone interested in good television to watch the miniseries Chernobyl. If the explosion in visits to the Exclusion Zone and the show’s stellar ratings are any indication, there’s a very good chance the show will be remembered as the best drama of 2018.  

Tom Cleary’s Clearly Great Character Arc in The Knick

The Knick is one of my favorite shows for a variety of reasons. I love the acting, the writing, but I love the directing most of all. Helmed by Steven Soderbergh, the Knick has been described as “the best show you are not watching.” For this week’s post, I will focus on Tom Cleary’s character arc in the first two seasons of the Knick and how it functions on a narrative level.

When we are first introduced to Tom Cleary, he is waiting in the ambulance bay with his co-worker, cracking dark jokes about the untimely death of the chief surgeon. He works as a paramedic, in practice this often means he is just transporting fresh corpses to the hospital for grisly medical experiments, and seems to take a perverse pleasure in his work. Nonetheless, Chris Sullivan—the same actor who played Taserface in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Benny Hammond in Stranger Things—portrays the character with impressive nuance and I imagine most audiences will understand well how Tom Cleary fits into the cultural milieu of New York at the turn of the 20th century. So inured is he towards violence that he sees nothing wrong asking Sister Harriet, in the almost immediate aftermath of a terrible accident, if nuns often break their vows on account of sexual curiosity. Much to his surprise, she responds by letting him know that “we get curious but then they show us a photograph of your sorry face and we all run right back into the arms of God.” Perhaps to add insult to injury, she also notes that “your ugly mug’s responsible for more girls staying virgins than the chastity belt.”

Cleary takes it all in stride and continues to trade barbs with Sister Harriet during their semi-regular interactions at the Knick hospital. By complete accident, he discovers that Sister Harriet secretly provides abortions to women of all walks of life and derisively refers to her as baby-killer from then on. However, after seeing a woman bleed out after a botched abortion, he changes tack and agrees to help her.

This decision engenders a great deal of risk since abortion is still illegal at this time but Cleary manages to evade the law. Sister Harriet, however, is not so lucky and season 2 begins with her awaiting trial. Cleary fears for her well being and dedicates himself to her legal defense with almost singular obsession. So desperate is Cleary to help her that he even pilfers medical supplies from the hospital in order to help pay for her bail as well as her defense lawyer. He succeeds in getting her the necessary money, though not without some terrible collateral damage, but life outside of prison isn’t much better for Sister Harriet as she ends up in the “care” of some truly awful people. Despite having little in the way of savings, Cleary sends money every week to Sister Harriet, only to discover that the money he has been sending has been getting filched. When it becomes clear that Sister Harriet will suffer terribly if the case proceeds to trial, Cleary even resorts to extortion to ensure that the well-off women who benefitted from Sister Harriet’s medical assistance will come to her aid. His unflagging support proves crucial as Sister Harriet is excommunicated from the church once others discovers that she has helped terminate numerous pregnancies.

Cleary’s actions are often brutish, a prime example being when he knocks a gun-wielding assailant unconscious, but they are understandable also. By the end of season 2, he is one of the most sympathetic characters in all the show and I think a great many audience members feel bad for him when Sister Harriet rejects his proposal. Cleary is nothing if not persistent though and when he visits confessional in his penultimate scene, he confesses to the priest that he intends to marry a woman essentially disowned by the church. Had Cleary’s character arc followed the expected path, this scene could have helped build up more good will for the character. Instead, Soderberg yanks the narrative rug out from underneath the audience and reveals that we never should have rooted for Cleary in the first place.

For most of season 2, the audience is led to believe Sister Harriet was caught simply because her luck ran out. As it turns out, she wasn’t caught so much as she was betrayed. The cops didn’t just discover that she was carrying out illegal abortions—they were informed by Cleary. Moreover, he informs them for the worst possible reason: he wants her willingness to provide abortions to become common knowledge. He knows that a sister would never be allowed to marry but he also knows that Harriet’s fellow sisters equate abortion with murder. Just as he expected, she is unceremoniously expelled from the church after being arrested, even Sister Harriet’s surrogate mother disowns her, and she never discovers his duplicity. As a result, the scene in which she agrees to marry him, the final scene for Sister Harriet and Tom Cleary, is all the more haunting.

Some might find this character arc frustrating—viewers who believed Cleary was a good person or viewers who wanted him to face some kind of reckoning—but I think that’s exactly what makes it work so well on a narrative level. Besides being a great example of the Kuleshov effect, Cleary’s character arc gives viewers some profound questions to ponder. Does the priest who took Cleary’s confession have a moral obligation to share the truth with Sister Harriet, even though it would violate his vows? What if Cleary is never seized by guilt and keeps his duplicity secret from Sister Harriet for decades? What if Sister Harriet never discovers his duplicity at all? They are tough questions to answer and I think Knick fans will ponder them whenever they reflect on the character of Tom Cleary.

The first and second season of this show are available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries.

Review of Gunpowder miniseries: lots of flash, not much bang

The 2017 miniseries Gunpowder was headlined by Kit Harrington (better known to most audiences as Jon Snow) and backed by HBO but it hardly seems to have left an impression with most TV viewers. Viewership numbers are not disclosed on TV by the numbers but judging by the figures posted on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, critics were not very impressed with Gunpowder. Having finished the series not too long ago, I can understand the lukewarm reception it received.

Just to be clear, Gunpowder was not a bad show. The pilot is quite entertaining and so is the follow up episode. If the final episode had been stronger, Gunpowder would probably be remembered as a pretty good show. Sadly, the finale failed to live up to the preceding episodes and, considering there were only three episodes in the entire miniseries, this drop in quality had outsize consequences.

The strongest character in the show was Guy Fawkes, both in a literal sense and a figurative sense. He endures brutal, ceaseless torture at the hands of his captors but refuses to divulge the names of his fellow conspirators, even when it is abundantly clear that plot to bring about a “restoration of true religion” has failed miserably. Eventually, his captors tire of torturing him and haul him before a cheering crowd for an execution ceremony that could rival a flowery death in its gore.

Were he a weaker man, Fawkes might have had to endure the unceremonious death that many of his Catholic brethren suffer, but he summons the last of his strength to issue a feral roar and leaps off his hanging post to spare himself a painful ordeal. In life, as well as captivity, his impressive strength is plain to see and he easily bests his fencing opponents in a gripping fight that serves as a highlight of the second episode in the miniseries. From a character standpoint, Guy Fawkes is also one of the strongest in the ensemble and it’s a shame actor Tom Cullen did not get more screen time. That may have meant cutting back on the scenes involving Catesby’s young son, but that probably would have been for the best anyway.

Perhaps the biggest error the show makes is that it passes up the chance to say something important. Religious terrorism is an incredibly important topic when it comes to modern life and almost every major world region is affected by it in some way, shape, or form. Guy Fawkes may not be the Western world’s first religious terrorist but he is certainly an early and interesting example. The pilot does a great job of making it clear to viewers that Catholics suffer brutal persecution in post-Elizabethan England and the motivations of the Gunpowder conspirators are pretty understandable considering the fate of Catholics discovered by law enforcement.

To be fair, there are moments where the show explores the way hardliner policies can contribute to extremism, the conversation between Father Garnet and Sir Wade is a great example of this, but they are few and far between. Instead, a great many scenes are dedicated to the relationship between Catesby and his son, a dynamic that has some importance for the plot but is not interesting enough to merit so much screen time. The show creators, however, seem to disagree and the final scene of the show deals not with the Gunpowder conspirators, or their would-be victims, but Catesby’s son. Had the show just focused more on the major characters and taken more time to explore the interesting questions raised by the Gunpowder plot, the miniseries would have been much stronger.