James Bond is the archetypal British spy, the one name that description brings to mind. So when you hear that a show titled London Spy is coming to BBC America, you might assume that its straightforward title is a nod to Bond’s legacy of camp; you might not expect an affecting, upsetting, nuanced series whose key act of espionage is less about getting to the bottom of an international affair than it is about getting to the bottom of a very personal one.
I was, to put it lightly, floored by the first two episodes made available to the American press in advance of Thursday’s US premiere. A great deal of this had to do with the series — by British novelist Tom Rob Smith — taking its time at the beginning. London Spy devotes its first 30 minutes to an impeccably developed love story — to the extent that viewers might find themselves wondering if the show’s title is merely symbolic. (And to an extent, it turns out, London Spy is a very loaded title. We’ll get to that.)
Danny (Ben Whishaw) meets Alex (Edward Holcroft) while jogging, and feels immediately, magnetically drawn to him as they cross paths. Eventually, they chat, but it’s clandestine: Alex is closeted, and leads a life of secrecy that extends beyond his sexuality. He claims to work for an investment bank and his high status has forged an existence of sexual repression; Danny works in a warehouse, and leads an open, if destitute, lifestyle. When they go to an expensive restaurant and Alex reassures Danny that it’s his treat, Danny responds, “I must be easy to read.”
“Most people I work with are inscrutable,” says Alex. Of course, based on the title, we assume he’s talking about spies instead of investment bankers. But at this point, the show is still in courtship mode, and so the class and sexual distinctions between these characters are what resonates. Alex claims to be a virgin, while Danny is quite experienced — and the power dynamic here is complicated by Alex’s wealth and Danny’s poverty. “It’s normally tidier than this… It’s never tidier than this,” says Danny, cutely, when Alex comes up to his apartment for the first time, before they attempt to have sex. The fact that it takes two tries seems sweet — one of the many moments in which the show is unwaveringly specific in its gayness. But their emotionally intimate, awkward, then sexy first try becomes key in unlocking the show’s core mystery.
Not long after Danny shares a particularly intimate detail — his one secret, revealed to the man of infinite secrets — Alex disappears. I won’t say much more about what’s found in an attic following the virginal Alex’s disappearance other than “a trove of silver butt plugs and bondage hoods” (and believe me, there’s a lot more). Danny is confronted not only with the personal tragedy of Alex’s absence (if you’re seeking spoilers, look no further than this news story), but with the prospect that his romantic ideals, which keep him afloat and seem to validate his otherwise troubled existence, have been undermined. He sets out on a quest to prove the exceptionalism of love, and the ability for an essential notion of intimacy to transcend superficial deceit. His basis for his certainty that Alex wasn’t wholly deceiving him is his perception of the authenticity of Alex’s callow sexuality.
In the second episode, the tender, mild-mannered Danny finds himself filled with bafflement and rage, as he practically spits, “I haven’t read many books. I haven’t been to many places. But I have fucked a lot of people. And there’s one thing you can’t fake — inexperience. I don’t care how smart you are. Your muscles can’t lie.” Whether or not that was indeed Alex’s first time — whether or not sex can transcend other lies — is the fraught question that guides the series.
So often, films and TV shows about missing persons do the bare minimum to set up what gets lost, leaving audiences emotionally alienated from the search for answers. That is clearly not the case with London Spy, whose first 30 minutes replicate the intimacy of recent emotionally intricate film romances — Blue Valentine, Weekend, etc. — before sending the protagonist off into a frightening existential/governmental wilderness, and into the sleuthing plot that’ll define the series’ next four episodes.
This also leads him to meet with Charlotte Rampling’s character — completing, with Jim Broadbent (who plays his older friend and incidental/grudging life coach, Scottie), the triad of this astonishingly good cast of British actors. I won’t reveal Rampling’s role, given that her character is likewise slow to do so. I will, however, say that her initial appearance is gloriously acrimonious. It’s also worth mentioning that Rampling is currently up for an Oscar 45 Years, which is similarly about an epistemological quandary that leads to a similar reinvestigation of a “true love.” In that film, she plays the equivalent of London Spy‘s Danny — amorous but grappling with a stirring discovery — whereas in Spy she plays a character who antagonizes the love Danny desperately wants to prove was always valid.
The title London Spy therefore splits into multiple meanings: while Alex may be a man of mystery and potentially bondage (the rubber hoods and butt plugs are, let’s recall, a central enigma), this series isn’t about Alex: professional spy so much as it is about Danny, the man who’s trying to get to the bottom of what their relationship meant. Imagine if, with emotional intelligence and a tinge of unprecedented realism, a James Bond film followed one of the spy’s temporary lovers after he’d ghosted, as she tries to determine the psychological implications of their shrouded, layered intimacy. That’s the kind of spy this story is more interested in.
The title also refers to all three of the series’ gay characters (including Scottie), whose character came of (gay) age at a time his sexuality was far less accepted, especially professionally. Tom Rob Smith said of his show, “I wanted to look at it from a slightly different perspective, which was that if you are aware that your country would not employ you, or would prosecute you for your sexuality, are you in a sense made a spy by your country?”
And so the series explores the lives of these three men who’ve had varied experiences with sexual clandestineness, existing outside of or formerly in conflict with their sense of belonging to their immediate society. London Spy can sometimes become so serious as to be over-the-top, but the actors are so good you might not even notice. Jim Broadbent exerts his adroitness with clunky, charged text as he delivers an emotional speech that functions as a quick catalyst for exposition. At times like this, the show’s depth does collide rather than coalesce with the plot-furthering needs of a series about uncovering secrets, even if they are personal just as much as they are spy-thriller-political.
But none of that overshadows — or even really puts the slightest dent in — this show’s powerful emotional drive, which is especially remarkable for a series that could so easily devote itself to either pure thrills and twists (Sherlock) or pure mood (True Detective). Rather, this is something else entirely: a drama that uses the conceit of the spy to examine the dangers of searching for an objective truth in something as subjective as love. What we have here is the story of a man going to great lengths to prove that someone else’s body reacting to his was not choreographed, but rather an ultimate, life-affirming truth. And what’s remarkable is how deeply the show invests viewers in hoping it’s the latter; the conclusion of this show seems to carry with it a conclusion on our own personal lives.