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The Many Seductions of ‘London Spy’

The Many Seductions of 'London Spy'

The scene that caused a minor furor when “London
Spy” (BBC America) debuted in Britain comes 26 minutes into the series
premiere, but by that point its first seduction is already long complete. In
fact, the knot of limbs in which Danny (the brilliant Ben Whishaw) and Alex
(Edward Holcroft) consummate their unlikely attraction is all the more
beguiling for being held, for a time, at arm’s length: by a chance encounter, a
quiet breakfast, a day spent along the shore. Sex is integral to
London Spy,” created and written by the novelist Tom Rob Smith and
directed by Jakob Verbruggen (“The Fall”), only in the sense that our
most intimate acts necessarily intersect with the wider world—even, or perhaps
especially, when we wish to keep them secret.

READ MORE: “BBC Crime Drama ‘The Fall’ Returns to
Netflix, Better (and Darker) Than Ever”

With a color scheme reminiscent of Tomas Alfredson’s
“Tinker Tailor Solider Spy,” period miniseries “The Game,” and
the Scotland-set final act of “Skyfall”—earth, stone, midnight—”London
Spy” paints itself as a familiar portrait of espionage, and then proceeds
to scratch through the genre’s outer layers until all that’s left is the framework
underneath. The series traffics in the illicit and the taboo not to titillate
the viewer, exactly, but to explain the allure of “the agent,”
“the spook,” in the rawest possible terms: as a vessel into which we
pour our unspoken desires, as perhaps the most common representation in popular
culture of what it means to live a lie.

Of the many seductions of “London Spy”—sexual,
narrative, emotional—it’s this ingenious queering of convention that
distinguishes the series from other entries in the genre, reconstructing the
closet from whispered conversations and coded messages, dead drops and shell
games. Smith seems to see passing as form of espionage in its own right,
requiring one to use standard social cues to hide in plain sight—though in
“London Spy,” which thoroughly de-romanticizes the reserve of James
Bond, the cost of constant subterfuge is an almost unendurable strain, akin to
strangulation.

Were this conceit limited to the theoretical, the series
might count as no more than a novel experiment, yet “London Spy”
practically throbs with want, down to the tiniest gesture. When Danny, a reedy,
dissolute club kid, tracks down Alex, an inscrutable investment banker, after
an intoxicating pre-dawn exchange in the first episode’s opening minutes, the
latter invites him back to his apartment and heads for a post-jog shower. As
Alex emerges, still damp, to find Danny standing in his bedroom, Whishaw’s eyes
dart, as ours might, to the gorgeous Wolcroft’s chiseled chest, the rumpled
terrain of his abs—a detail of such precision it appears reflexive, the carnal
instinct bubbling oh-so-briefly to the surface.

By the time Danny, accompanied by his closest confidant,
Scottie (the superb Jim Broadbent), learns that his lover is in fact an MI6
operative, their intense, eight-month affair has already been cut short by
Alex’s disappearance. “London Spy” nonetheless remains keenly attuned
to the dangers of stifled desire even as the narrative turns to the cryptic and
the conspiratorial. By reference to the blackmail of Cold War functionaries
caught cruising in public restrooms, prostitutes conscripted to collect dirt on
candidates in the years before Watergate, or the deployment of a taste for kink
to discredit potential whistleblowers, the series emerges as a thrillingly
adroit depiction of the consequences of sexual stigma, filtered through the
language of tradecraft.

To wit, with due respect to Charlotte Rampling’s brief,
potent performance as Alex’s demanding mother, the most tense interlude in
“London Spy” occurs not in her foreboding country estate, with its
echoes of “Rebecca,” but in the clinic where Danny awaits the results
of an HIV test. As the camera holds on Whishaw, fretting and pacing, for what
seems an interminable length of time, the series offers a reminder of the
tenacious, still-pervasive fear associated with the illness. I must admit that
the sequence unsettled me, first because I identified with Danny’s anxieties,
and then because I wondered if I, too, were guilty of treating HIV as though it
were deserving of shame.  

Though “London Spy” is not immune to cliché—surely
every investigation on television does not demand a Carrie Mathison-style
corkboard, pinned with clippings and tenuous connections—such complex, bracing stories
are not, even now, the medium’s status quo, and in its collection of intimate
close-ups and enticing twists, the series appears as content to ask questions
as it does to answer them. Referring to the early days of the AIDS crisis as
“a secret plague,” Scottie, the self-described “old queer,”
nods at the more salient point, which is that hiding from the truth is not a
solution but another, more fundamental problem: a closet within the closest, as
the ACT UP slogan had it, in which “Silence = Death.”

To function as both an espionage drama and a shadow history
of gay liberation is no mean feat, and yet “London Spy” manages this
delicate balance with aplomb. Its argument against pretending that the private
is apolitical is so compelling that even Scottie’s description of entrapment by
interrogation becomes a clarion call to speak—and to fuck—freely. “Those
systems of oppression, as ruthless as they appear, as unbeatable as they seem,
never hold, never last, never survive,” he tells Danny at one point,
“for we will not live in fear.”

“London Spy”
premieres Thursday, January 21 at 10pm on BBC America.

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