Sep 022016
 

London Spy Poster

This is the gay spy thriller the BBC put out last year and that has finally come to Netflix in Quebec. For celebrity obsession reasons, I liked it, but it is a dark and strange show.

The key early moment comes when Ben Whishaw speaks with his dead lover’s mother and she feeds him a very credible lie. Whishaw responds that “I haven’t read a lot of books or seen a lot of places, but I’ve fucked a lot of people.” He then exposes her lie and figures out a bit more of the puzzle.

In this moment, the series announces what I take to be an important but implicit project: to reimagine Sherlock Holmes in such a way that sexual experience supplants rationality and knowledge as the object and tool of deduction. As absurd as it sounds, Whishaw will peel back the lies and secrets hiding an MI6 plot simply by refusing to let go of his memories of the sex he had with his lover (and with those who came before) and by listening to the feelings these memories provoke. Because it’s Ben Whishaw suffering his way through this ordeal of emotional detection, I was on-board, but I wonder if that would be the case otherwise?

Ben with Big Ben

What was perhaps most shocking to me though was the image the series paints of government. This story operates in a world where agencies we don’t see or control are willing to discredit a critic by having a doctor purposely infect them with HIV. These same people kill a man by locking him into a luggage trunk and then leave him there to rot. They kill a different man and disguise his murder as a suicide, lighting the tableau in ways that remind me of a scene from The Silence of the Lambs.

The narrative does not however treat this brutality or the people who perpetrate it as if they were exceptional or fantastic or required explanation. In this London, the sun rises, the Thames flows downstream, and high-level government employees are psychopathic. Yes, Whishaw sees this and resists, but the very fact that he is so alone as he fights and that the others he meets are so oblivious to (or accepting of) what’s going on suggests that it is his sense of the world and not theirs that is the problem.

I’m guessing this paranoid world view is simply part of the spy genre, but by the end, the darkness of it was oppressive, and I’d had all I could take.

London Spy (Beach)

 

One final note: although the show is very well done, I think it missteps badly when it identifies the contents of the USB key that Whishaw finds in the first episode. The specifics of the contents are unimportant and when spelled out sound silly. In my opinion, let the MacGuffin be a MacGuffin.

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