London Spy Recap: Slow-Burning Seductive Mood Piece; Episode One

Posted by on Feb 1, 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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Next: London Spy Recap Episode Two

London Spy Recap Episode One 

London Spy has already aired in Britain in December of last year. It’s being broadcast now on BBC America. I was interested in the concept of a genre show that had a same-sex love story, and how that would be played out. I was also interested in seeing Ben Wishaw’s performance, having previously only seen him as Q in the last two James Bond movies (where his small parts stood out—holding his own against Daniel Craig). So while I’ve never tried recaps of TV shows, I thought this five-episode intriguing show would be a good start. I have read some articles and other first episode recaps (links below) but have not read about the completion of the series, in an effort to avoid spoilers.

Genre shows/movies with an LGBTQ element are compelling to me for both obvious reasons—I write one—and also because the LGBTQ element may be there less for the sake of itself and more as just ‘happens to be,’ (as co-star Jim Broadbent asserts about London Spy) compared to shows that are, say, about being gay or trans, or have a token character who is LGBTQ without other development—the shoehorn, I call it.

The show has sparked some mixed reactions in Britain. The Independent called out the Daily Mail’s reviewer, who seems to have watched an entirely different show from what I saw. In that reviewer’s mind “Beeb” (the BBC) presented a farce that was all disco dancing (none was in the episode) and lostsa politically correct gayness. This proves that people will always see the same work of art differently. Barely being gay to one viewer is overflowing with gay to another. The point of this show, as the BBC has advertised, is that it is a spy story and love story. So of course the show needs to carefully set up the romantic interest between the characters. If it was just a spy story, the romance might seem unnecessary, but that isn’t the case here.

What’s aggravating to homophobes isn’t perhaps the sex, it’s the portrayal of gay men as normal persons who are affectionate and aren’t there for sensationalism (notice that when more balanced images of queer people are presented, haters always accuse the medium of overpresentation).

Just to note regarding my reviews, I love art in movies, TV, books etc. and I’m very forgiving and generous with the suspension of disbelief. I consider in a work like this—was it worth my time to watch in being entertained, in becoming invested? Interestingly, the show was written by Tom Rob Smith, whose partner is Ben Stephenson. Stephenson was controller of drama at the BBC, and had advocated for more idiosyncratic, left-leaning thinking in the staid impartial media giant—and for more gay characters. He’s now head of television in J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production company. Smith has acclaim for his novel Child 44, and its follow ups. Child 44 (which had five of my favs—Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Joel Kinnaman, Vincent Cassel and Noomi Rapace)  was released last year—myself and my significant other felt like we were a couple of the only dozen or so people who saw it, and maybe the only two who really enjoyed it, as critics trashed it mercilessly, I found the movie intriguing and solid. It does not move fast—it’s like Nordic Noir in that way.

And so, I’m not surprised that London Spy has a similar slow feel, a sense of a story unfolding artfully, in a subtle undercurrent of tension. We know something’s going to happen—“Spy” in the title, but the initial episode takes some time in setting that up. It’s the kind of show that does well with a second viewing to catch details.

Whatever any other flaws in the series, London Spy achieves an integration of its gay characters without feeling that the story is about them being gay. They happen to be. But also, in reality queer persons often carry being queer as something to deal with in society that straight/cis persons do not have to think about. And so, in the show being queer is reflected upon by the protagonist’s best friend, an older well-to-do man named Scottie (this occurs in Episode 2).

Episode One

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

The episode starts its focus on Ben Wishaw’s character, Danny. Danny is set up by the framing and shots to be solitary in a sense, even when clubbing. Our introduction of him is on a nighttime London street. Danny is smoking, listening to Donna Summer’s I Feel Love. Even the common sight of someone listening to an iPod seems isolating. He saunters into a club alone, in contrast to the socializing groups of people around him. And then nearly stumbles out in early morning—a shaky camera indicating his indulgences, even down to a broken cigarette and lighter that doesn’t work.

He calls someone who doesn’t answer and nearly collapses on a walkway near a bridge. The shots of London and the nearly empty park accentuate that he’s on his own and probably familiar with that feeling. He wavers in emotional frustration and throws his mobile on the stony pavement. At the same time a fit early morning jogger approaches and sees Danny start to slump, reaching down for his shattered phone.

The stranger cups the shattered phone in his hands, and the two look at each other. The stranger asks if he’s okay and offers him a drink from his container. Danny is quick to say he’s fine, but accepts the container. Danny says, “You don’t know me but if you did, you’d know I’m always fine.” But this is belied by the other man touching Danny’s face briefly, where he’s sweating. It’s a moment that both men see is more than just a casual kindness. The other man (Edward Holcroft) in particular seems struck by his impulse to touch Danny, making this touch seem extraordinarily intimate. Then he takes off, clearly unnerved by his own actions.

The show then goes into its title sequence, which is interesting and symbolic in itself—blue with shadows, falling figures. Kind of James Bond like but far more ominous and moody. One man’s hand grasps another and then lets go. Number codes turn into names. The two figures are overlayed with the numbers, crisscrossed lines (like the bulletin board Danny later creates) and seemingly drowning just under London itself.

Danny is hooked by that brief encounter, enough so that it takes him through his mundane job in a shipping company (lost as a human in a robotic-voiced world of enormously tall shelves of anonymous boxes—sort of Metropolis-like) and his shared flat and mundane activities. He keeps the man’s beverage container, and starts jogging in early morning. He stares out his bedroom window into the windows of the adjoining buildings, smoking in the dark, watching more mundane activities.  Finally he runs into the man on a rainy morning and awkwardly approaches him. He explains himself as having a hunch, as taking a chance, as the other man stays silent at first. The man says his name is Joe. In a walking conversation Joe says he’s not out, and works in an investment bank. They go to Joe’s apartment which is spacious and white and overtly neat, sparse and organized (remind me of Jason Bourne’s flat in Paris).

The awkwardness continues as Danny pokes around on Joe’s computer, discovering a series of numbers. They go out for an awkward meal as Danny is conscious of prices. Danny suggests he’s easy to read. Joe seems to be charmed by that. They shake hands and part. Danny leaves Joe’s place in a happy state, and the camera focuses on a white van with smoke trailing out the window. A clear implication the apartment is being watched (Joe has a security camera set up and says security is very important for the place).

Danny’s next seen meeting his older friend Scottie for drinks; he describes his encounter with Joe and how he gave Joe a phone contact number that Joe seems to memorize. And then Joe shows up at Danny’s door, repeating Danny’s words back to him, but as they go for a drive, Joe is reluctant to talk about himself and we get a sense they may be followed. Joe stopes at a beach and opens a trunk filled with neatly organized things. Joe reveals he attended the university early, at 15. Joe tacitly admits that he checked up on Danny as the way they met was unusual, and Danny’s guilelessness was why he would have been selected to set up Joe, who follow’s Danny’s whimsical traipsing on the beach. Although Danny doesn’t feel innocent, Joe insists otherwise, and finally gives Danny his real name—Alex.

More hesitance at Danny’s door but finally Alex gets there. Everything about Alex takes twice—meeting him twice, going out with him twice, asking him up twice, and two attempts at intimacy. The intimacy itself is handled well—subtle at first as Alex has a difficult time going through with it, then suddenly passionate in embrace, as though Alex is really letting himself go. The next day Danny broaches the topic of dealing with things when they aren’t okay. Alex has a portent question—what if things aren’t okay? But when Danny asks if Alex has something to tell him, Alex gives a short ‘no.’ And again the camera work suggests they appear to be under surveillance.

Danny meets Scottie in a restaurant and introduces him to Alex (eight months later). Scottie is offput by Danny’s lag in bringing the two to meet, and immediately braces Alex, noting his straight-actingness, suggesting he’s uncomfortable with a teary, Geisha drag lip sync of Takeda no Komoriuta in the floor show, and then tells Alex how he and Danny met—explaining that Danny comes to him when times are tough, and Danny has a habit of picking the wrong man.

Later in Danny’s room, Danny tells Alex about a time when he was so distraught he posted an ad inviting anyone to his room for sex, and then broke down and asked Scottie for help getting himself together (alluding to some sexual concerns of drugs, promiscuity, and risk of STDs). That help sealed their friendship. Danny assures Alex he’s never done that since and does not cheat, and wants no secrets.  The affection in their holding hands is heartening, but the next morning Alex has to go out to buy a battery for his laptop. When Danny comes by his place later, Alex doesn’t answer. And continues not to answer for 11 days. Danny visits Scottie in his elegant countryside house and explains his distress. Scottie advises him to accept the relationship is over.

Danny is not young-young, but he’s immature in a way that belies his sexual and drug experience. This demonstrated most starkly when Scottie suddenly loses his reserve (he has to work, and Danny seems petulant about it) and snaps at Danny, “Did you ever think about what I might want?” Danny clearly hasn’t—he’s allowed, and Scottie has allowed, this friendship to be Danny-heavy. And apparently until now, Scottie was willing to be okay with that. But in a few words artfully delivered by Broadbent, he shows his frustration with a young man who’s all wrapped up in his own pain and isn’t sure how to think of others, outside snarl-asking Scottie if he wants sex as payment for the friendship. Scottie doesn’t bother to answer.

Danny comes home to find the flat ripped apart—but nothing taken. He notices an apartment across the way from his window that appears empty yet someone seems to be watching him discreetly. At his job, his handheld package locator-thingy reboots and tells him he has a package. The package has a neatly arranged set of keys—to Alex’s place.

Inside Alex’s house, he doesn’t see Alex but ominously, sees something dripping from an attic ceiling. In the attic he finds a bed and mirrored ceiling, music box with cocaine inside, a wardrobe of BDSM gear, and a laptop with a knot-tying video. And horrifyingly, Alex’s trunk–blood leaking out. Alex’s body is in the trunk. Danny panics and runs, and accidently breaks a house phone downstairs. He calls the police on his mobile, but the battery in the broken house phone catches his attention. He returns to the laptop in the attic and finds a mysterious object in the battery case, which he conceals by swallowing it as the police bang on the front door.

During the ensuing police interrogation (in what appears to be an art gallery lobby masquerading as a police station), the cops tell Danny that Alex’s real-real name is Alistair, his parents aren’t dead as Alex has told him, he did not work for a bank, and they don’t believe Danny’s recount of their relationship. A lawyer shows up to stop the interrogation, and Scottie takes Danny home. Scottie tells Danny that he knew Alex was MI6 when he met him—a spy. At home alone, Danny retrieves the object he swallowed.

Smith said he had Wishaw in mind as he was writing, and more so when Wishaw agreed to be part of the series. Alex appears to be based in part on Gareth Williams, a reclusive math prodigy and MI6 spy found dead in mysterious circumstances—locked inside his own padlocked carryall.

Overall the program is artfully done. As The Guardian’s reviewer Gabriel Tate points out, the music, framing, direction, and overall feel draw you into the story. The episode will be available on the BBC website for 40-odd days.


Other reviews of London Spy:

The Vulture

The Guardian

IMDB on London Spy

BBC article on targeting gay spies

Tom Rob Smith’s website

Wishaw and Broadbent on the portrayal of the gay characters

Slate interview with Tom Rob Smith


Post updated 2/6/2016, Links updated 1/18/2017

Copyright Alex Fiano 2012-2016


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