Setting: A tight car. Scene: A tall, dark-haired MI6 higher-up meets with a tough, on-the-ground agent in order to establish a power coup of the top brass. Exposition is laid out like it is in most spy thrillers: carefully, with force, and carrying more information than can be picked up from simply hearing the words themselves. Players: Janet McTeer and Eve Best.
The above scene doesn’t take place until you’re already deeply involved with the new SundanceTV series, and it requires a step back from the story to fully comprehend its importance. Like many secret agent stories, this miniseries necessitates the utmost concentration if you hope to keep up with it — and even then the rewind button may be employed from time to time. Names are dropped casually as well as coded dialogue, unclear implications, and heady red herrings. Yet the scene between McTeer and Best isn’t only notable for its complexity. It’s that the gender dynamics of “The Honorable Woman” are flipped so effectively, it takes effort to actually notice them.
When we first meet McTeer’s character, Julia Walsh, in the second episode, she’s the head of MI6 and giving orders to Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Stephen Rea), the Head of Middle East operations for the British Intelligence Agency. This isn’t too out of the ordinary given we’ve grown accustomed to seeing a woman in that seat from Judi Dench’s portrayal of “M” in the latest James Bond films. We met Best, though, much earlier as an agent of note to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Nessa Stein and her brother, Ephra (Andrew Buchan). We don’t know why they’re giving her the evil eye (or as much of one as can be given by people constantly concealing their true identities), but it’s there, nonetheless.
These people, in addition to Atikia Halibi (Lubna Azabal) who plays a pivotal role from the get go, are the main characters of “The Honorable Woman.” They’re introduced through a series of meetings, interactions, and flashbacks, with exposition regarding their identities laid out in short bursts (with the occasional lie leading to a twist), and it’s this aspect on which you focus on right away — the story — not the fact that you’re watching a miniseries completely and totally dominated by incredibly strong female characters. They’re there as if they should merely exist in this world without question, rather than as an example of anything outside writer, director and producer Hugo Blick’s exciting world of espionage.
The true beauty of the miniseries is that despite all the opportunities for heavy-handed agendas to be pushed — be on the treatment of women, expectations of the genre, or Middle East politics — you won’t give a damn about anything outside the story until all those loose ends are wrapped up. “The Honorable Woman” is first and foremost an engrossing thriller, with its status as a notable feminist genre deconstruction coming in a distant second. The details for both elements come about organically, with clues being dropped early to properly establish the how and why of what’s to be revealed later.
How often in the past have we seen men dominate the spy game? From James Bond to Jason Bourne to “Spy Game” itself (one of the late Tony Scott’s finer works), the genre is filled with powerful men saving the world in one way or another. Even in the latest genre entrant to grace the silver screen, it’s a 2:2 split with Phillip Seymour Hoffman taking the lead role in Anton Corbijn’s “A Most Wanted Man.” Based on a novel by John le Carre, the author’s previous film adaptation was “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” an impossibly brilliant film (given its complexity and brevity) that’s still dominated by male characters. No complaints should be heard for the two, either, especially for the period setting of “Tinker Tailor.” It’s been the status quo of the profession and has thus been emulated as such.
For a modern spy tale, though, it’s about time things changed, and “The Honorable Woman” takes note of this from the get go, placing its story in an ideal Middle East setting, an area where women must behave as if the world around them hasn’t progressed at all. The titular character is Gyllenhaal’s Nessa, a British businesswoman with an Israeli father (and thus an Israeli passport) working between and around borders to establish a communication pipeline to help bring an end to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Her work draws the ire of a nation (if not nations), leading to the death of a newly hired hand who was competing with many other companies for a job. Is it a suicide like the note left at the scene claims, or a calculated act of homicide meant to provoke Nessa into hiring someone new? “If someone gets cancer, I think they’ve been given it,” she says, establishing the level of suspicion and distrust running throughout the miniseries. Each episode opens with Gyllenhaal’s voiceover on “Who do you trust?” The answer, as is usually the case, seems to be no one.
Yet this is the only overly familiar element to Blick’s manifold mystery, and frankly it’s a welcome one. “The Honorable Woman” doesn’t rely too heavily on its twists, instead exposing one of its biggest secrets at the midway point via a much desired extended flashback sequence. Blick, on multiple levels, shows an implicit understanding of what modern television audiences want in a substantive thriller. He provides satisfactory answers to its many questions in a timely and effective manner; he subverts genre expectations without betraying the elements that have helped the genre stand the test of time, and he’s created a program as compelling as it is progressive.