London Spy Recap: Episode 4–Catalyst

Posted by on Feb 12, 2016 in Catharsis Blog on Media, Writing, and Art

Ben Wishaw in London Spy, BBC America. Image from screencap of BBC site with link to show.

Ben Wishaw in London Spy, BBC America. Image from screencap of BBC site with link to show.

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Previous: London Spy Recap Episode 2
Previous: London Spy Recap Episode 3
Next: London Spy Recap Episode 5

Episode 4

(As I go into detail about what happens in the episode, spoilers ahead).

In Tom Rob Smith’s story, Danny is a catalyst. He’s trying to find out what happened to his boyfriend, but he’s set things in motion as much as Alex has. Especially now. Marcus, Alex’s professor, tells Danny that Alex was an extraordinary person who could change the world but did not have the chance as he chose the wrong profession. But in this story, Danny is the one who changes things. He forces hands, he inspires or causes decisions. He is ordinary. So ordinary that his life with Alex seems in stark contrast to the intellectual relationship Marcus had with him. And yet ordinary Danny has managed to stir up a firestorm of trouble. Perhaps he’s extraordinary in a different way, the force of his personality.

In Episode 3, Danny was given a phone with some connection to the escort agency. We pick up as he’s answered it.

“You’re looking for answers a heavy whispery male voice says. But are you ready for them? Get in the hotel.” And Danny goes to the hotel with the neon sign outside. A hotel of convenience. The camera slants and moves awkwardly to demonstrate the uncertainty of the situation. Danny enters the room, still on the phone, and is told by the voice to go to the bathroom and get in the drawn tub, in his clothes. This is to destroy any listening devices. The overflow of the tub is symbolic. Danny’s told to change into a different suit.

The voice continues to tell him what to do To get in a car, locked automatically. Taken to a journey in Alex’s past. He’s let out at Alex’s flat. He’s told to walk to a restaurant where a reservation has been made. He’s been there before, in Episode One, where they had breakfast. A person finally arrives, a handsome man in a black suit and a soft accent. A man who says he’s Alex’s past.

Compared to the time Danny was with Alex in the restaurant, this is dark, moody. The man is dressed in the same suit as Danny. He says “they” are paying him to tell Danny how he had sex with Alex. He won’t say who “they” are, but he’s under their control. Everything he does, including acting flirtatious and affectionate to Danny in the restaurant, is by their control–he’s from the escort agency. The man says the service is expensive the because those serviced are not aware they are using escorts. The escorts pretend to meet the person by chance and pretend they are won over by the person’s (or target’s, really). Their clients are someone else. The escorts report back on what the target likes sexually. Blackmail, Danny suggests. Maybe, but the man says it’s not his business.

The man says they told him to meet Alex the way Danny did, by accident. He had pretended to be a waiter in the restaurant. They told him to be like Danny. Alex needed to believe he was being good until he was being bad. The escort was seducing a good man with a sad story. In the flashback, we see this. He draws Alex in with the story of being an aspiring artist treated badly by his mother and they play the game of drawing out the real reason they are meeting up. The escort pointedly mentions Alex’s thirst  for missed years (which seems to speak to Alex not being experienced).  

The escort tried to see Alex more for ‘them,’ but Alex wasn’t interested. “You seem to be a loose end,” Danny tells him, and throws the escort the phone he left on the table.”How else will they know what a great job you did?” “I can see strings on you too,” the escort sneers.

Danny has a flashback to Alex.When asked what he’s thinking, lying in bed, he says, “Nothing.” Then Danny is talking to Scottie in park, Scottie talks about how the honeypot has always been used in intelligence. In the end, he tells Danny, your relationship became a threat to their relationship with him. Danny changed Alex by their relationship, as they were besotted with each other. And that was a threat as Alex’s perspective changed. Danny admits he didn’t know Alex, not the job, not the man. Scottie says Alex didn’t tell him because he knew Danny wanted him to be perfect. More ways in which Danny was a catalyst.

As they walk, Danny says he heard about Alex’s funeral. Scottie notes he comforted many men who were not allowed into their partner’s hospital room as they were dying of AIDS, or allowed to attend their funerals. This history is again an enriching part of the show, a connection from the past to the present, especially if you were around in that era in the 1980s and see the change and evolution. Danny figures he should be saying goodbye to Alex instead of this other stuff. He wonders what is he doing, hunting these secrets. He doesn’t have any code and doesn’t understand the secrets, so why keep on? Then that’s that, Scottie says.

Danny goes through the few things he has of Alex’s, a map, a book, a shirt. Scent is evocative, and Danny evokes memories from that shirt (as in the end of Brokeback Mountain). While Proust mentioned taste, perhaps scent is even stronger. Even more of the essence of someone’s life. Memories. A conversation between Danny and Alex on soul mates, as they sit by a fire built next to the sea. The conversation doesn’t go as planned but it sticks in his mind, and now Danny takes Alex’s things and builds another fire, and consigns the objects to the fire. His own funeral. He takes the ashes to the water, his own intimate consecration. This funeral might be compared to the unseen official funeral. Truth and public narrative. What you read and the story you’re told are just one narrative, and perhaps one carefully constructed.  

But at a train station, objects take on significance to Danny as he watches numbers everywhere. Times, phone keypads, train lines. Flashbacks with Alex and trying to define their relationship. One person meant for you (soul mates). You should be with more than one person/no I don’t want to be. Danny’s inspired to retrieve the cylinder and try the number 1. It opens.

Back to Scottie’s. But he doesn’t answer. Danny finds the spare key. He finds broken glass, blood. Scottie has gotten drunk and depressed. Remembering a place, he says. Where no one cares. Now Danny gets Scottie cleaned up in the hospital. Danny suspects that Scottie’s pills have been switched.  

Danny obtains Scottie’s pills illegally and shows him the cylinder. It’s a USB flash drive device. In an empty church, they discuss the situation. Scottie describes the way the FSB set up an individual to assure the person’s loyalty. A constructed narrative on top of a constructed narrative (making the person believe he is a sexual deviant in order to make him loyal) Yet in spite of that, repressive regimes don’t last because people do not want to live in fear. Scottie finds his courage to say he wants to finish this adventure with Danny.

Back in the first episode, the low key nature of this program was clear. Time is spent here on relationships–Danny’s with Alex, Danny’s with Scottie. It is not the formula for traditional spy stories and so some may see it as too low key. But those who appreciate the human element can find the time invested in relationships make the story more captivating. The more you empathize with the characters, the more the story stays with you. So this time with Scottie is valuable.

Scottie knows they are being watched and being followed. So they have to meet separately.  They return to the abandoned place where Danny had hid the cylinder in the notebook. Flipping through Danny’s notebook, Scottie says he seemed to be trying to figure out what he was to the world–but he needs to tell the world what he is. Claire shows up to meet them. As they talk, warmly, Danny asks how they met. They shared a flat in Cambridge, and pretended to be lovers. This relationship lasted longer than they thought, and they have been friends since. The affection between them is strong and speaks of something, a heartfelt truth beyond what another constructive narrative suggested.

Alex’s professor Marcus appears, already cynical from the get-go. Danny plugs in the USB. Marcus plays around with it. During a cigarette break, Marcus seems disdainful that Danny did not know Alex’s intellect. Marcus felt Alex was going to change the world, and his flirtation with the ordinary world was destructive to him. Danny recognizes they have different perspectives, but they both miss him.

Marcus recognizes in the numbers and info on the flash drive. Marcus explains that Alex decoded the emails from 9/11 terrorist Mohammad Atta to the other terrorists, setting up the attacks. They used innocent words to stand in for different meanings (construct again). But this is more than decoding. Marcus explains people are patterns, demographics. These can be turned into numbers to analyze. Our online identity would reveal our true nature even when we lie. Alex applied this concept to words but also other aspects–how one takes a breath, gestures, expressions, to determine if what one says is a truth or lie. As important people are highly documented, one could study their words, translate into numbers, look for patterns. Every statement could be examined for lies/truth. A perhaps infallible lie detector.

“If the four of us survive a week I’d be very surprised,” Marcus says. The powers that be would not want this sort of skill to be public knowledge. This must be why all intelligence agencies agreed it should be repressed.

The plan now is…Scottie has no plan. He does know the way of the world depends on lies. He suggests to Danny that perhaps Alex thought he was making amends for his own lies by creating the program. As he knew Danny would find the lies someday. Danny the catalyst. Would Danny still love him? Danny would, but Alex won’t know now.

And then Danny tells Scottie he loves him. A sweet thing, but we know he’s saying it because he’s afraid he won’t have another chance. As words are so meaningful in this story, we know this is a portent.

Danny is back in the police interrogation room. Detective Taylor tells Danny he’s not going to be charged. Is that is? Yes. Will anyone be charged? “Danny, for you this is over.”

“But it’s not over,” Danny tells the cameras. And that kind of statement makes him a catalyst again. In the evening he returns to the club where he introduced Scottie to Alex. A new show is on, with a genderqueer magician. Claire shows up, and Marcus shows. As the drums in the show pound in accompaniment to the magician’s change of clothes and blurring of gender, Danny receives a call from Scottie.

Scottie is in a cab and clearly from the driver’s expression, Scottie is on his way to his end. “There will be a note,” Scottie says pragmatically. Danny takes off to find the note in Scottie’s home, and try to find Scottie. He finds Scottie in the wooded place where Scottie told him he had considered hanging himself. We know what Danny’s going to see before he sees it.

Farewell to Scottie, a friend who stayed courageous for Danny up to the end. It’s Scottie’s love for Danny, and his gravitas that makes the situation so much more stark for Danny.

The final episode is coming up next Thursday. Although this has played out in the UK, I have not seen it, only the clips after this episode (Danny sends something to the New York Times. Having read Carl Bernstein’s article from 1977 on Project Mockingbird, I’d have chosen otherwise. However, we don’t know yet what’s going on so here’s hoping he had a good plan).

The use of words and linguistics to figure out the truth is the kind of plot device I can get into. Aside from a thing about constructed narratives, which I also like, words do reveal a truth even when constructed carefully. In college I conducted my own little study on the words used in white supremacist websites on what they said to recruit people. I used a word count program to see what was said more often. A book that has some interesting ideas about decoding truth in what one says, diction, is Spy the Lie. It’s authored by former intelligence persons.
Scottie’s recounting of AIDS history reminds me of more constructive narrative. In that time some who were dying of AIDS pretended otherwise. It was such a stigmatizing disease that they attempted to cover it up to the end, including the cause of death if possible. In the US, it was a stigma on top of a stigma of being gay or bisexual. If the person with the disease didn’t try to cover it up, the family might have tried. Certainly what Scottie mentions of lovers not allowed to see their dying partners is true. This was part of the story in And the Band Played on, by the late Randy Shilts.

History needs to be remembered, and from several perspectives in order to get a full picture.

Photos from a hospice in the early 1990s.

The various ad campaigns once the epidemic was recognized. 

A Reddit user asks for personal stories from the era.

AIDS in black America.


Copyright Alex Fiano 2016

Page last updated 2/19/2016, Links updated 1/18/2017

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