London Spy Recap: Truly Bonkers

Ben Whishaw as Danny. Photo: BBC/WTTV Limited
London Spy

London Spy

Episode Three Season 1 Episode 3
Editor's Rating 4 stars

At last, London Spy has tipped into truly bonkers territory. After two hours full of setups and puzzles, the plot has suddenly kicked into hyperdrive. Massive conspiracies! Six different spy agencies! Covert HIV injections! Strange symbols on cards! Randomly buzzing cell phones!

Frankly, this is not a bad thing. It’s a relief to move away from the vagaries of the first two episodes. We’ve finally reached the meat of the show — and as a result, the third episode is London Spy’s strongest yet. Let’s dig into it.

Poor, poor Danny. In this episode, one horror after another lands on his wispy shoulders. Things begin, appropriately enough, with him having a nightmare. He imagines Alex trapped in that trunk in the attic, banging like mad in an effort to escape. The sound quickly turns real: It’s the sound of the police, moments before they burst into his house and cart him away.

The same cop who interrogated him the last time is here again. She lays out a seemingly damning set of particulars. She knows that Danny has done drugs in the past, and that he dabbled in erotic asphyxiation. (He claims he did it to please another man, not because he liked it.) In short, she knows he has a history. Also: Remember when Danny told Alex about that horrible night in his younger days when he let a series of men come to his apartment? She reveals that their conversation was recorded, and plays it back for him before sneering, “You both enjoyed the company of strangers.”

All of this creates a tidy narrative of sex and drugs and death. The trunk was for kicks. Danny was supposed to open it, but passed out from the drugs conveniently found in the attic. Alex suffocated. Danny’s DNA will be everywhere, the cop tells him. He knows it’s not true, but he can see the machinations of power working behind the scenes. For whatever reason, someone is trying to destroy him.

As the interrogation sequence demonstrates, this episode walks a very delicate line with great skill. It shows Danny’s regret and revulsion over his past, but directs an equally appalled gaze at the ways his life choices, and especially his gayness, are used against him.

It’s unclear whether the police know about Rich, the evil music-industry man played by Mark Gatiss. Rich is a walking corpse, a man so decayed and devilish that, at one point, the episode drenches him in blood-red light. We see flashbacks of the drug-fueled orgies Danny used to participate in at Rich’s apartment, which gives off an almost pungent air of rot. When Danny goes to him for help in tracking down details about an escort agency — the police claim he and Alex used its services — Rich welcomes him like a particularly nasty spider who discovers a juicy fly in his web. He refuses to help, however, after Danny refuses to sleep with him. The episode then cuts to Danny in a shower, illustrating his sense of cleansing and rebirth.

After Danny suddenly tests positive for HIV, that rebirth continues. If this were real life, you’d say that Alex obviously wasn’t as virginal as he let on. But since this is a TV show, we instinctively know that isn’t the case. Somehow, Danny was purposefully infected — a deeply chilling way to show how far unseen forces will go to carry out their mission against him. The scene in the clinic is simply a stunner, long and quiet and painful. Ben Whishaw is brilliant, as Danny goes from tense-but-together to a quivering, quaking mess. The physicality of his breakdown is riveting to watch.

Of course, it’s no accident that HIV plays such a prominent role here. The show’s unseen antagonist is trading on the lingering wisps of homophobia that condemned so many to an early grave. As Scottie notes afterwards, the aim is not to kill Danny. It’s to smear him — he’ll be another one of those people who had it coming.

Luckily for Danny, the HIV test also brings Scottie onboard. He was around when the AIDS crisis first hit, and tells Danny about a lover who was one of the first men to succumb. The experience taught him to never accept “the inevitability of defeat.” Jim Broadbent dials down some of his menace here, instead letting the ache within Scottie’s life bloom. “We will lose,” he says, “But we will fight.”

Having Scottie in his corner opens some doors for Danny. The pair has a surreptitious meeting with Claire, the head of the University of London, in the school’s library. They arrange a meeting with Alex’s old math professor. Then it’s off to an exclusive all-male club, a preposterously opulent place, where they hand Danny a whole card with the club rules on it. You get the sense that these rules have remained essentially unchanged since the height of British imperialism. Rain or shine, the establishment endures. Even Danny has to smarten up for the occasion, looking dapper in a suit with his hair tamed.

At the club, they meet Scottie’s old friend James, who reluctantly hints that Alex was murdered because of something that six different spy networks want to keep secret. That’ll be easily countered, I’m sure. No wonder they’ve ensnared Danny so thoroughly.

As he heads home, Danny is flagged down by Rich, who has tracked him from the comfort of a Mercedes. He ushers him into the car, stuffs a package into his hand, and promptly tosses him out. For whatever reason, he’s decided to assist his former prisoner. Danny opens the package and an old cell phone falls out. It’s buzzing. End of episode.

It’s a worthy cliffhanger, and certainly reason enough to count down the hours until the next episode of this increasingly twisty show. Whether or not the ultimate conclusion will be worth all of these twists is, of course, yet to be seen.

Other Thoughts:

  • London Spy spin-offs I would watch: the story of Scottie’s life — which is frankly more interesting than the story of Danny’s brush with death — and a mystery series starring Scottie and Danny as mismatched detectives who solve crimes.
  • Danny wears socks with reindeer on them, even in upper-crust London gentlemen’s clubs. A+ for that.
  • The show uses London’s status as possibly the most-surveilled city in the world to good effect in this episode. The sense of being constantly watched lends things that extra shmear of claustrophobia.
  • I hope that the great Harriet Walter, who plays Claire, appears again.

London Spy Recap: Truly Bonkers