London Spy Recap: Ominous Consequences–Episode Two

Posted by on Feb 3, 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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Catharsis Blog

Previous: London Spy Recap Episode One

Next: London Spy Recap Episode Three

Episode Two

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

In Episode One, we left off with Danny slowly unrolling the wrapper off of the mysterious object that his enigmatic boyfriend Alex had hidden before he died. Even though we learned in Episode One that Alex’s given name is Alistair, to Danny he’s Alex, and to me too. I understand about the power of changing a name.

Danny is dealing with the fact he knew little about the man he loved. His instinct is to find out more. This is what sets him apart as a protagonist, from simply giving up or accepting what happened to Alex at face value. Instead, Danny becomes in some sense an advocate for Alex. He crawls under his kitchen table to examine Alex’s object–a metal cipher cylinder. He then goes on a nighttime mission. He’s acutely aware of the possibility of being followed and apparently loses a tail on the Underground. He has a purposeful cautious walk this time–in contrast with his slow sinuous visit to the nightclub in Episode One. He’s quickly adapted spy skills–changing clothes, going through back exits. He arrives at what looks like an abandoned factory/boiler room he’s used before and hides Alex’s cylinder.

The scene after this is interesting–Danny is trying to put on a tie in front of a bulletin board with notes and strings (strings like in the title sequence) indicating his work on the puzzle of Alex’s death. A classic clue wall. One thing that stands out is the clue wall itself. While a bit dramatic ( cards with no no no no no  and LIES LIES LIES written on them), I love creating a clue wall for brainstorming and recommended it to my students. Semiotically, in classic detective stories, the clue wall is the symbol of the obsessed detective trying to find the one bit of evidence that will make everything fall into place. We haven’t seen this trait in Danny before. Maybe it’s new to him too. Danny’s strings don’t seem to make real connections; they are all wound around push pins in no discernible logic–so it looks like a web. A web of lies? A web that’s a trap?

The lies are underneath the strings, at least to Danny–cut-out tabloid headlines claiming Alex’s death was a sex game gone wrong (and here I identify with that, as I had that happen in my own Gabriel’s World story, The Hanged Man, and my protagonist’s obsession with finding out the real story in spite of being pilloried by the press).

The second interesting aspect is his attempts at properly tying the tie. He flashes back on Alex helping him in a previous attempt–the kind of loving, intimate assistance that causes Danny to break down in tears. Danny works on what he’s going to say to someone–I’m here today to tell you the truth, trying to be more convincing each time.

Danny is then goes to speak with a couple of media persons and what looks like a lawyer. Danny tries to hold his own against the main interviewer’s skepticism–she at first thinks he wants payment to talk to them. The other journalist in the room stays quiet but later discreetly talks to Danny outside. She seems empathetic, but also emphatic–why does Danny use the wrong name (Alex)? It seems to be a sign he hasn’t accepted “Alistair’s” lies. Danny says that the BDSM devices Alex was supposed to have used didn’t fit in with the sexual behavior he observed. She says she believes him, but you get the sense that doesn’t matter. A story has to be written and the powers that be likely wouldn’t listen to the journalist even if she tried to change the course of the story.

Scottie is not happy Danny has talked to the press, but he’s also not happy that Danny suddenly doesn’t trust him. “You see me as part of the establishment…How dare you presume to know me?” He points out Danny doesn’t really know about him–his depression, his drinking problem, how he really isn’t the establishment. (Much as Danny doesn’t seem to know about Alex). This calls back to Scottie’s reprimanding Danny in Episode One. He proceeds to take Danny to a wooded spot where he says he had planned to commit suicide. Why? He had been part of MI6 himself–wanting a proper profession but one that wasn’t 9 to 5. However, he had an assignation (brief and in a men’s room, Scottie had the pleasure of not being alone for a small time). And it turns out this was a set-up. At first he was approached from a supposed Soviet agent in a blackmail attempt. But it turned out to be an MI6 operation to roust out gay agents. “You’ve heard of a mole hunt?…This was a fag hunt.” Sexual set-ups, things that aren’t what they seem to be.

Scottie has probably never told this story before. According to his story, he chose to not commit suicide, and instead tell his boss about the Soviet offer and claim the assignation was a one time ‘act of disgusting madness’ he would never repeat. He was pushed into an office job, becoming a whispered-about outsider, and actually sexually avoided men for 11 years. He practically bursts to explain this history to let Danny know who he really is, how he is worthy of trust. In contrast with Danny’s freedom in his sexuality, Scottie was from another era where his life could be utterly ruined, as many queer persons were in the UK and US. This gravitas makes Scottie’s anger understandable, and Danny is chastised but at least shows compassion in comforting his friend.

Not surprisingly, the morning headlines are sensationalized with his interview. Attic Spy Sex Partner Secrets. I TOOK DRUGS. I NEVER KNEW HIS  NAME. And naturally, Danny is less than popular when he returns to his Amazon-esque workplace. Danny stands up for himself, but don’t have to hear him being fired to know he is. Strangely, Danny then receives train tickets from Alex’s parents. He spends the ride to the country filling in a crossword with Alex’s names.

An older staid couple pick him up. They are awkwardly stoic. Danny has to explain that Alex had said they were dead. In the monastery-like country home, the awkwardness continues. He’s given an awful looking dinner and left alone to eat it. He sits across from them in a living room silently until he asks them to tell him about Alex. They don’t. Later on, Mom tells Danny that Alex enjoyed running to relieve his insomnia. Danny makes a late night investigation of what appears to be Alex’s room, and finds awards and a model ferris wheel.  

Dad and mom tell Danny they are private people and want the topic to drop, no judgments. After Danny says Alex was murdered. Dad tries to insist that Danny leave the matter alone. As this is a show with a theme of people not being who they say they are and situations not what they appear to be, we can’t help but wonder if these people are someone else–if this is another set up. Danny does too and demands to know who they really are, as he senses that the house is not Alex’s. Conveniently, Alex’s mother then calls. She wants to meet Danny.

The morose fake parents go from one bleak house to a larger, more Gothic and truly even more stark estate. Alex’s mother Frances is played by Charlotte Rampling. As The Vulture pointed out in a review, watching her is awkward in light of her recent unpleasant remarks regarding the Academy Awards’ diversity problems. However, it does make it easier to look at her as a manipulative villain, like she had been in Dexter. Frances had played out the deception as she assumed Danny wanted money. After all, he has none. Danny refutes that, for the second time–he may be low income, and people have misconceptions about low income persons being money-grubbing, but Danny has a higher motive.

Frances explains the house is being restored and she hoped her son would finish the task. Alex’s empty room is in a sense grander in scope than the first one, but just as empty and stark and with a horrible antler chair. “It’s the loneliest room I’ve ever been in,” Danny says. It looks like it’s out of Kubrick’s 2001 and fittingly, the estate has a maze like in The Shining. Frances pays Danny a backhanded compliment that she knew he would figure out the initial deception because of his “feminine intuition-like” trait.  

Danny visits the maze and finds a statue of a boyish figure overgrown in ivy, caught in it like the web of string (lies). Danny clearly sees Alex in that statute. At dinner, not much more pleasant than that with the fake parents (who are Frances’ servants) Frances brags about Alex’s completion of the maze before his 5th birthday. She explains that his brilliance needed discipline to not be squandered. She did her best to keep him disciplined and he hated her for it. This is not a shocking revelation, to say the least.

Danny tries his mantra again on murder and staging and lies. For the second time, his insistence is met with an off-putting response–Frances invites him for a drink. Frances then momsplains that Alex wasn’t gay but just would read what people wanted and would give it to him–such as romance and love to Danny, and other things to other people, men and women. Danger, pain, submission, domination. Frances asserts Alex was was precocious sexually (How the hell would she know this? Shudder).

Frances tells Danny she hoped he’d just shut up and go home. It’s the classic situation of being warned “for his own good.” Danny uses his own experience to tell her that people cannot fake experience, and Alex was inexperienced sexually. Danny is pretty blunt, without being crude, in what he means about feeling Alex’s inexperience. He knows she’s lying–why? But Frances only again makes a veiled threat in the form of advice: “No fuss.”

Danny chooses to break the rules and spend the night in Alex’s bed, feeling his lover’s loneliness. The next morning he continues to break the rules by eating in the kitchen with fake mom/housekeeper. Fake mom at least cared for Alex as Danny discerns, and even called him by his preferred name.

Then Danny is back in London. He’s taking a walk by the river, reminiscing (Alex talking about loneliness), and a mysterious American approaches. Clarke Peters! Hey! Clarke works for GenericVaguelyThreateningCo., Ltd. He has advice for Danny too, although it’s short and oblique–he spends more time talking about how he’s not British. He also leaves Danny a piece of candy in a handkerchief. Danny takes the candy and sees something is in it. Anxious, Danny runs to Scottie. Scottie can be trusted, but Scottie is also different from Danny in his fear of causing trouble. He says if Danny is right, his moves have been predicted and he’s only alive because the powers that be don’t find him significant. Scottie admires Danny’s fearlessness, but is reluctant to get involved and suggests Danny leave it alone.

We know Danny won’t, though. Danny’s back in the flat, opening the candy. It has some kind of blue pill that Danny hides in the house drug stash. Then he takes Clarke’s fine GenericVaguelyThreateningCo., Ltd. business card–fully Patrick Bateman envy worthy–to the roof and rips it up as if someone may be watching him.

Where the first episode was thriller/mystery–you know something was going to happen and the climax was the horror of Alex’s death and the discovery of the cipher, this episode is more noirish–Danny searching for answers, being deceived, people who aren’t who they say they are. It reminds me of classic movies I’d like to see be remade Queer–Laura, Out of the Past, Marnie. The episode ends in defiance; Danny will continue his investigation, which no doubt means the danger factor will rise considerably.

The episode will be available on the BBC website for 40-odd days.

Off Topic Links:

Clue Walls: An Esquire UK article with a good picture of one, discussing detective shows.

A still from the Swedish and vastly better version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, of Mikael Blomqvist and his clue wall.

The website for a new documentary on the Lavender Scare, the witch hunt of gay US government officials in the Fifties.

 

This post last edited 2/3/2016, links updated 1/18/2017