London Spy is a pretty banal title, yet it’s difficult to think of a more appropriate name for this series, which relentlessly avoids easy categorization. It’s a love story — one gay enough to give a Daily Mail critic apoplexy — and a spy story, and an urban-alienation story. It’s delivered in an oblique tone that always threatens to tip into the portentous, but somehow holds together through sheer atmosphere. After watching the first episode, it’s still tough to know what we just went through.
The opener, once we get through some necessary throat-clearing, is intriguing enough to make it worth the puzzle. And of course, London Spy benefits enormously from having Ben Whishaw — an actor who almost casually makes everything he’s in better — at its center. When the first episode begins, Whishaw’s Danny is entering a club while “I Feel Love” plays in his ears. He’s got the air of a cocky, assured man walking through the door of an old haunt.
Cut to the morning. Danny exits the club, looking decidedly worse for wear. He’s jittery, high, and lost. We follow him down to the edge of the Thames, where he shatters his phone into pieces. As he slumps to the ground, a beautiful man runs by. He stops, then picks up the pieces of Danny’s phone. Their eyes meet. You know the rest.
If you’re thinking that this handsome stranger would turn out to be important, you’re correct. (How did you know?) His name is Joe. He’s closeted, he’s an investment banker, and he lives a regimented life in the kind of gleaming fantasy flat that either inspires jealousy or revolutions. The two make an intriguing pair. Edward Holcroft has that overripe, full-lipped, halting delicacy a besotted Victorian might extol in a love poem; Whishaw is a bedraggled alien with a heart of gold. Danny, who works in a warehouse, is also living a decidedly boho-scrounger life, whereas Joe is possibly the poshest person in London. No matter, though. Both are thunderstruck.
There are some red flags. Like, maybe 500 of them. For starters, Joe isn’t actually named Joe. He’s named Alex, as he admits to the suspiciously perceptive Danny, who marks him out as a major secret-keeper but is so smitten — and, importantly, feels so protective of
Joe Alex — that he doesn’t care. Alex’s screensaver is a bunch of weird number patterns. He says things like “the people I work with are inscrutable” and refuses to discuss his profession. He turns up at Danny’s flat, but Danny never told him where he lived. Ominous cars lurk around him wherever he goes.
Danny lets all of these things pass. He’s found a kindred spirit. Both men, it turns out, have been battered by life. Alex reveals to Danny that he was a child prodigy, and he’s a virgin. His social isolation has left him thinking he will permanently be alone. (They deal with the virginity part relatively quickly, in a scene whose nudity quotient must have anguished the aforementioned Daily Mail critic.) Danny is more together than Alex in some ways, but he’s also been leading an aimless, druggy life. He carries a great deal of pain. When he says he’s doing fine, Alex is one of the only people to realize that he’s lying.
All of this unfolds in a halting, theatrical manner. Danny and Alex speak in a kind of clipped code. “I’m not innocent,” Danny says. “You might be the only innocent person I know,” Alex replies. On first viewing, I was so swept up in the specter of these two pretty people mysteriously circling each other, I didn’t notice that the dialogue is a bit ridiculous. London Spy leans heavily on Whishaw’s uniquely fragile charisma, that effortless way he pulls you in, to keep the grip tight. A second viewing reveals the sheer amount of work he does to put the words over, but the episode still gets away with it — just barely.
Alex is not the only man in Danny’s life. He’s also got Scottie, an older gay friend played by Jim Broadbent in a note-perfect combination of avuncularity and ice-pick danger. From the moment we meet Scottie, it’s clear he will do anything for Danny … and he is not to be crossed. He’s a protector, but when he looks at Danny, there’s enough unresolved sexual tension that it lends their relationship an immediately unsettled air. (The episode somewhat needlessly airs out this subtext after the two quarrel, when Danny brazenly asks Scottie if he needs to sleep with him to resolve their issues.) When Scottie meets Alex, he coldly says that he has been Danny’s safe haven since he was 19, and warns him not to break Danny’s heart. The warning contains deep amounts of both protectiveness and threat.
After this meeting, the action of the episode really kicks in. Danny reveals to Alex that his bond with Scottie was forged after a harrowing episode in which he took tons of drugs and posted an ad online inviting anyone to “come around.” He says that Scottie took him in and helped him recover from the ensuing trauma. Alex seems to understand, but then disappears. Danny is convinced that he scared Alex off. Scottie tells him to move on. Danny can’t. His determination is helped by two things: First, his apartment gets ransacked, and second, the scanner he uses at work goes all weird, leading him to a box that contains a set of keys that happen to open the door to Alex’s apartment.
Danny goes in, of course, and the episode shifts away from “moody love story with strange overtones” and begins to truly earn the “spy” portion of the show’s title. An ominous dripping sound leads Danny up to the attic — DON’T GO UP THERE, I wanted to scream at him — which turns out to be home to a particularly fastidious BDSM collection, complete with ropes, expensive leatherwear, and a set of gleaming sex toys. Not exactly virginal. Unfortunately for Danny, he also tracks a terrible smell to an old trunk in the room. When he opens it, he finds what appears to be Alex’s rotting head. Cue his very understandable freak-out.
Things only get crazier from there. Danny, in another flash of suspicious proactiveness, feverishly uncovers a cylinder lodged in the back of Alex’s laptop, then swallows it before the cops burst through the door. As we try to process this act, he’s being interrogated by a police officer who calmly informs him that Alex is actually named Alistair, that he doesn’t work for an investment bank, and that his parents aren’t actually dead. Danny says that he and
Alex Alistair were never into anything kinky, and the cop wonders if he is telling the truth. Danny is, naturally, floored. Scottie picks him up, says he’s been around long enough to have recognized that Joe Alex Alistair was a spy, and then, in a deeply unnerving way, asks Danny if he took anything of value from the crime scene, as though he was watching when Danny swallowed that cylinder. Danny says he didn’t, and the episode ends with him in the bathroom, unwrapping the cylinder. It contains … well, that’s for next episode, apparently.
This all unfolds over about 20 minutes, giving the last section of the episode a propulsion almost entirely at odds with everything that came before it. The two halves don’t mix seamlessly, but there’s enough talent here to ignore the narrative whiplash. Plus, the episode ends with a cliffhanger that almost demands we tune in again. Not that I wouldn’t have anyway — I’d watch Ben Whishaw do just about anything.