Let’s get one thing clear: The imagery brought to mind throughout “Our Boys” is horrific; however, the imagery actually seen onscreen is anything but. It’s a crucial distinction to make, as HBO subscribers weigh whether or not to embark on a 10-hour journey into multiple child murders, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and, ultimately, the 2014 war in Gaza. Handling the dense storytelling is one thing; understanding the age-old conflicts between secular Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Jews is another.
But the core story itself, told primarily through the investigation into Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s death, is a far cry from the bloody, gut-wrenching imagery used in other true crime tales. “Our Boys” is carefully constructed to be accessible. Creators Hagai Levi, Joseph Cedar, and Tawfik Abu-Wael want this story to be heard worldwide, and the early episodes depict the death and ensuing violence in a visually palatable (yet emotionally shattering) fashion, hooking their audience with an anger-inducing crime and absorbing them in a nuanced investigation soon after. The framework is familiar, but the message — and means of getting there — are anything but.
Shot in Israel, “Our Boys” picks up shortly after three Jewish teenagers are kidnapped. Shockwaves are felt throughout Israel, as the incident receives intense news coverage and stimulates mass prayers, protests, and even more outrage when it’s confirmed the boys were killed by Hamas militants (an Islamic Palestinian movement dedicated to the establishment of an independent Islamic state in historical Palestine).
Shin Bet, Israel’s Security Agency, is monitoring the situation closely, especially the Jewish Division’s lead terrorism agent, Simon (Shlomi Elkabetz). They have to balance the release of information carefully, in order to avoid insinuating further violence, but the worst is yet to come.
A day later, in the early morning hours, the son of a construction worker walks outside his parent’s house to wait for morning prayer. Though his mother, Suha (Ruba Blal Asfour) watches from the window, Mohammed (Ram Masarweh) disappears. His father, Hussein (Jony Arbid), is on the streets in seconds, looking for his kid, and the police are called to the scene soon after. Suspicious of the Palestinian’s claims, the beat cops don’t take him that seriously… until a body is found.
When Simon arrives at the scene, directors Abu-Wael and Cedar frame the shot in a medium close-up with a slight upward angle. You can only see the upper torso of Simon and his superior officer, Mike (played by Tzahi Grad), even as they glance down toward the tarp covering Mohammed’s body. Eventually, they walk over and crouch by his remains so Simon can inspect for himself, but the image cuts out the blue tarp — it’s only shown when Simon lifts it into frame.
When he takes his first look, Simon immediately looks away. There’s a beat, as the men process what’s in front of them, and then Simon asks, “Was he alive when they set him on fire?” The two men stand, and the covered body creeps into the edge of the frame. Later, there’s a glimpse of Simon looking directly at it, but viewers are never shown what’s underneath. You understand it thanks to the descriptions, and you feel its weight because of the characters’ pained reactions.
This all takes place in Episode 2, “I Love Toto,” but it sets the tone for everything to come. Though there is violence and tragedy in the ensuing episodes, “Our Boys” is primarily concerned with building an atmosphere viewers can feel and a discourse they can wrestle with, more so than provoking extreme reactions through graphic visuals.
To that end, the focus soon shifts toward the investigation, as well as the bias steering it: Despite the obvious retaliatory motivations, everyone at the Shin Bet refuses to believe the Jewish people are capable of such a crime; everyone, that is, except Simon. Part of their skepticism is rooted in protection: They know if angry Jewish citizens burned a young boy alive in response to Palestinian militants killing three Jewish teens, it could spawn another war; confirming that theory or even letting it leak could ignite an outcry they’re unable to quell.
But there’s also something purely instinctual about the investigators’ response. They really don’t believe that Israeli Jews, the predominant population and controlling power in the region, could be capable of doing something like this. They know the Palestinians could, but not Jews — not their own people. Simon knows better, and as “Our Boys” continues to unfurl its investigation, soon others do, too.
This early examination of what connects warring parties is an odd twist on the typical way these stories are told. Usually, films and series look for the unifying good within two opposing people — whether it’s “Green Book’s” artsy black pianist and his blue collar white driver finding common ground over fried chicken, or “Avatar’s” blue native Na’vi and white colonizing soldier falling head over heels in love, it’s clear why each should treat the other with respect and understanding when they see undeniable and universal positive traits. That’s what allows for a happy ending (whether it’s earned, truthful, or neither).
“Our Boys,” however, is dealing with a unique dispute still raging in the real world, and it’s not interested in easy answers. So its initial point of comparison arises not from the good attributes Israelis and Palestinians share, but their worst human instincts. Both are capable of murder. Both are capable of vengeance. Both are capable of the kind of disturbing, enraging, and segregating acts they each think of as being unique to the opposite party. “Our Boys” contends a shared capacity for evil can eradicate a dividing line just as quickly, perhaps faster, than a shared capacity for good.
Acknowledging as much makes the storytelling distinctions all that more important. Ghastly imagery and visceral sequences could send the series over the edge, making it too dark and intense for anyone to keep watching. Instead, the creators invite viewers to thoroughly consider the difficult themes with patience and compassion. As the middle episodes unfold, it’s clear Levi (an Israeli writer), Cedar, and Abu-Wael (a Palestinian filmmaker) want their audience to see the humanity in each and every character. Through seven episodes, the series encourages an intimate knowledge of its characters, including those who killed Mohammed.
Establishing a capacity for evil is a far cry from endorsing it. “Our Boys” starts by acknowledging the darkness, keeps its viewers from getting lost there, and then steers its difficult journey back toward the light. There’s an immense level of compassion here, which should ultimately prove rewarding for anyone who digs in.
“Our Boys” airs new episodes Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.