London Spy Recap–Episode 5 Finale: Showing the World

Posted by on Feb 19, 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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London Spy Recap Episode 1
London Spy Recap Episode 2
London Spy Recap Episode 3
London Spy Recap Episode 4

Episode 5

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

Tom Rob Smith’s show has been different from what a thriller is expected to be, and that is great–to break up expectations and to add to or expand genres. While London Spy certainly has suspense, it did not have gratuitous violence, did not have crazy action scenes or stunts. It did have a connection between the main character Danny and his relationships with other people as a way of drawing you in. For a genre story, that is unusual unless it is also a relationship story, and blending the two is also unusual. These shows and stories (the Millennium Trilogy as example) pushing the boundaries helps rally against formula and to encourage an audience to listen and feel. As a fan of such boundary pushing, I’m wholeheartedly glad to have invested time in this show.

One thing that Scottie said in the previous episode was that Danny had to show the world who he is. In this finale, Danny is attempting to do that. The episode opens at Scottie’s funeral. As Danny had taken time to have his own funeral for Alex, the story allows him to have one here. This funeral is more public. His flatmates are there. Claire is there. In the bright church Danny speaks on his feelings.

“I have a question,” Danny says. “How do we live without the people we love?” Scottie would say to figure it out for themselves. But Danny doesn’t want to get past the pain. “I don’t want to know how to live without you.” He wants to do something about it.

In the awkward social gathering after, Marcus shows up to tell Danny and Claire that he’s destroyed his copy of Alex’s notes, and he advises them to do the same. Claire is angry that Marcus is withdrawing help. Marcus allows grudgingly that it was a nice idea  to get the notes public in some way.

Danny has not stopped thinking about who has been watching him. Later, he crawls into the downstairs apartment across the courtyard from him, to see if he can find evidence of spying. But he’s interrupted by Sara, his flatmate. Danny’s moving–to Scottie’s home. No one explicitly says Scottie left his home and car to Danny, but nothing in the episode contradicts it, and it makes sense. That is what Scottie would do (it’s such a great, tasteful house).

Danny is then on a walk by the water (where he met Alex), when Detective Taylor walks up to meet  him. In a slightly more private area, she tells Danny she asked the nurse who drew Danny’s blood at the booking process (which she says was not standard procedure) “Why did you do it?” She says the nurse was afraid, and Detective Taylor’s superior asked her why she was interrogating the nurse. “It’s not much,” she tells Danny. “But it’s as far as I’m prepared to go.” To at least acknowledge that she knows Danny was right about being set-up and being deliberately infected with HIV. But that’s all she’ll do. Detective Taylor knows her limits. She may be frustrated as Danny about that. But she knows.

Danny consults Claire. Claire doesn’t feel they can go any further. She attributes his quest to sentimentalism. She admits to sentimentalism about Scottie as well. Scottie has sent her Danny’s notebook and his statement ‘ambition but no conviction.’ Claire shows Danny the library of the university and says she’ll be there when he’s ready. Perhaps in college, Danny could find the conviction.

But for now, Danny wants to show the world. Show it what Alex had created. He prints out copies from the flashdrive and mails them to various media. However, he gets a quiet message (the quiet ominous is more effective than more blatant) that this will not work. Someone leaves packages in the garage with the copies he sent out–now all blank. So he tries email, but we suspect that will not be much more effective.

The next occurrence seems rather off topic at first. Danny’s parents arrive. He’s estranged from them. His mother is cold. His father, breathing through a throat tube, is silent. Mum says dad is dying, and she has not very warm attempt at reconciliation. Danny decides to accompany them back to their flat. I understand that. Moms have a draw, as I’ve known, even when cold.

But things don’t go better and Danny is suspicious. Mum wants a family photo and while he participates, he’s more suspicious–realizing that in fact this reunion was set up by ‘them.’ Mum protests that ‘they’ are too powerful and of course blames Danny. Danny has a trace of affection for them but leaves, knowing that ‘they’ are continuing the pressure. The camera has some kind of device that ultimately erases the flashdrive, and that was likely the motive in pressuring his parents to meet in the first place.

To add to the creepiness, as we never really see ‘them’ in this show, just hints, someone sends Danny the family photo (although he had broken the camera). He discovers his email sent file is also blank. This is showing how much ‘they’ can take control. Danny shreds the family picture. The next scene is his attending an HIV support group. Danny ends up talking, and telling his story. He tells a good deal of it, and there’s that wonderful moment when someone you the audience knows is telling the truth sounds utterly paranoid and mad when he lays out what happened. Nonetheless, he isn’t scorned by the other group members, a nice touch. One asks him, “What happens now?”

He says he’s going to do nothing. But he does make a skewed collage of the family photo for himself, wishing the parent/child relationship could be true (his mother had said he was not loved). This inspires him to drive to Alex’s mom Frances’s estate. She’s rather expecting him. She comes across as stern, but when she asks her husband “What harm can it do” to talk to Danny, her facade is falling.

Danny and Frances spar in front of a fireplace, but the dynamic slowly changes. This becomes the heart of the finale. Frances reveals more and more, and a strange connection develops. Frances wants to emphasize how much she loved Alex. It’s very important to her for Danny to know that, as well as understanding she blames Danny for Alex’s death.

Danny holds his own with her, showing remarkable perception of her relationship with Alex. She in essence admits she knows why Alex was killed, and burns the remaining copy of Alex’s notes. Frances tells Danny that for all his efforts he has nothing, and she’s talking to him for her own reasons. It’s clear that she has had no one else to talk to. Frances has her own hidden past.

She takes Danny to a room Alex had spent a lot of time in, a room covered in blackboard and glass, in turn covered in equations. She’s kept it like a shrine. Danny wants to feel him from the written numbers and symbols. When he starts to erase some to provoke her, she breaks down and grabs him, crying. “He was my spy,” she says.

Frances wanted to be a spy back in the day when she and her husband attended Cambridge. But MI6, a gentleman’s club, took her husband with the “second-rate mind.” Frances burned with resentment at being forced into a helpmate role. His second-rate mind did not pick up that his organization had moles–his own friends who defected. That led to disgrace and exile for the couple. Frances allowed her life to fall apart, but then invested in Alex and his mind. Alex was her and Danny’s step back from the edge, the abyss, she says.

Danny in turn repeats the story Alex had told him about being lonely. Why? She put too much pressure on him. Children cannot redeem parents, Frances realizes. “Hard to connect to people when you’re not sure how they are connected to you,” Danny says, and so comes the next revelation. Danny had hoped his parents were real parents and he realizes Alex’s parents are not, in a different way.

Down in the kitchen he confronts the housekeeper, Mrs. Turner. She’s actually Alex’s mom (and Alex was his original name). When Alex was young, Mrs. Turner had been working for Frances, and according to Frances, stealing from her. Going to Mrs. Turner’s place to confront her, Frances was struck by Alex’s potential and set up an agreement. She would parent him, Mrs. Turner would be the nanny.

And then it all came to a crashing end. While Frances had presumably manuvered Alex into his work for MI6, his lie detector project destroyed everything. We see in flashback the other side of what happened while Danny was trying to contact Alex. A set up of persons who had taken over Alex’s house. Frances being led into where Alex was inside the trunk, drugged. As persons in protective suits busy about or watch on monitors, Frances pleads with Alex to give up his project and disappear to America. He says he will. He agrees to give up Danny as well, and tells Frances he loves her. But when Frances watches the video of Alex in the trunk (in the next room with some of ‘them’)–’they’ are using his own formula against him–all he said turns out to be a lie. And despite Frances’s hysteria, she’s taken out of the picture.

Danny tries to convince her to go public with what happened. But she’s a realist. No one is going to publish what he says, no one is going to investigate his claims. But, Danny says, they’ll believe her. She’s his mother. What does she owe him? Her son was sacrificed to them. We tell them the truth, Danny says.  

Frances insists she can’t, and Mrs. Turner can’t. Mrs. Turner runs outside, devastated, and sets fire to the maze. Frances leads Danny out, and they see the fire. “For her son,” Danny says, as Mrs. Turner crawls on the ground in anguish. “It’s all she can do.” Mrs. Turner can only burn the symbol of Alex’s repression.

Frances shuts the door on him, and Danny gets in Scottie’s car and prepares to drive off. Suddenly, Frances gets in the car with him. “Let’s burn them down for real,” she says. Danny starts the car and they take off. Frances says, “You understand we don’t stand a chance,” but neither seem upset. They both have a small smile–at the prospect of doing something.

And so the finale ends. Ambiguous, but like the ending of Hannibal, an ambiguous ending if done correctly it has a satisfying weight. We don’t know what will happen, and so we can project either way. But from the long sequence with Frances, we understand that they are both satisfied with that. For trying to redeem.

So this was a hell of a story, and much like Smith’s Child 44, the stretches of characters relating to one another worked. It made for a much deeper, much more powerful story. Frances’s husband called Danny just a stupid boy, but Danny knows he’s more than that. He’s shown the world who he is by the efforts against him. As with last week, Danny was a catalyst to spur others on. His honesty became a catalyst to try to find the truth. Others older and more powerful–Frances, Claire, Detective Taylor, Marcus–they could not allow the truth, or they could not fight against those trying to prevent the truth. When all is lost, then the truth may be what’s left and most dangerous. Danny has shown the world who he is in seeking that truth, and being acknowledged for it by those older persons.

As Danny and Frances both loved Alex, and both had respective parent/child relationships that were not able to be saved, they were able instead to find a partnership to at least redeem Alex and his quest for truth in the face of professional and personal lies, and so you can believe they both indeed loved them.

Thanks to all who have read the recaps.
I wanted to note the excellent and evocative music in the series which was sometimes ethereal and usually haunting, by Keefus Ciancia and David Holmes. Music and art direction and cinematography help make the tone of the series so much more complete.


Copyright Alex Fiano 2016

Page updated 2/19/2016, links updated 1/18/2017

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