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You should watch the subtle, thrilling London Spy

You should watch the subtle, thrilling London Spy


It's airing on BBC America now

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Ed Miller / WTTV Limited

London Spy revolves around international espionage, but it doesn't need explosions, car chases, or state secrets to generate nail-biting tension. One of its strongest scenes is startling in its simplicity. It focuses on two people in a lab, one of whom is administering a HIV test to the other. The equipment used to conduct the test is unpackaged and used at a snail's pace. There's a waiting period during which the results are processed, and you're actually made to wait.

When you think the sequence is finally over, you’re made to see the whole thing again. You know what’s coming the second time, and that makes it a hundred times worse. By the time the scene ended, I felt like my stomach had been thrown in a blender and poured back into place. I also left it with a new appreciation for what makes this beguiling and meditative drama so special.

London Spy is halfway through its run on BBC America, but it's not brand new: all five of its episodes first aired on BBC Two last November. Ben Whishaw (Spectre, The Danish Girl) plays Danny, a warehouse worker with a self-described "small" life. He meets Alex (Edward Holcroft) early one morning after a night spent clubbing and getting high; relying on a hunch, he seeks him out after their initial chance encounter and romances him.

They fall in love, and they start to transform the way you do when you’re starting to give your life to someone else. Danny is honest about his troubled past, and Alex starts to creep out of the closet he’s occupied his whole life. Everything is splendid until it suddenly isn’t: Alex vanishes, and Danny is unwilling to believe he’s just deserted their relationship without a second thought. His hunt for the truth regarding Alex’s disappearance casts doubt on everything he knew about Alex and their relationship, and it ends up putting his life in danger.

London Spy's gayness is more than a garnish

London Spy’s gayness is more than a garnish: it’s an integral part of the show, from its core themes all the way down to the intricacies of its performances. Some of the connections between homosexuality and the spy trade are more obvious than others. The show’s characters take to deception easily because they’ve been hiding in plain sight their whole lives. (Its moments of disambiguation are usually put in the hands of Jim Broadbent’s Scottie, the old queer who mentors Danny.) Writer Tom Rob Smith understands the ambiguity that compels gay men who are comfortable with their sexuality to dance around the subject of their romantic lives in conversations with strangers. He knows falling in love with someone who gives you a fake name or picture the first time you meet is still within the realm of possibility. And he knows that the looming shadow of infection is just as dangerous and haunting as the prospect of full-bore institutional surveillance. (It doesn't take much to make a quiet lab feel like a prison.)

The performances are exquisite

The show’s central relationships are complex, and Smith uses them to explore the central issues of identity that underpin gay men’s lives: masculinity, family, wealth, and age. Alex is handsome, wealthy, muscular, and refined; Danny is waifish, poor, and emotionally fragile. But it’s Danny who sets the relationship’s terms: he starts the pursuit, drives the seduction, introduces Alex to sex and opens his eyes to love. He spends the show’s entire run subverting people’s expectations with his grit, industriousness, and intuition. His relationship with Scottie is just as complicated: it’s filial and sterile, but there’s always something bubbling underneath it. They love each other, and that love is caught somewhere in between romance and platonic affection. It’s messy, and it feels real.

The performances holding London Spy together are exquisite. Whishaw feels so small he could start floating at any moment, and he has to juggle vulnerability and intense, steely resolve. It’s an impressive balancing act. (When he gets to face off against Charlotte Rampling — icy in a limited but pivotal role — you can feel the show throwing off sparks.) Broadbent is gentle and wise; Holcroft is a cool, lonely enigma. The show loses a little steam towards the end, a consequence of a plot that’s become confusing and unwieldy by its final episode, but it’s still electric, thought-provoking, and worth your investment.