Let us now praise Jim Broadbent, the clear MVP of London Spy, taken out of circulation one episode too soon. The fourth episode threatens to collapse under the weight of its more dubious provocations, but each time it returns to Scottie, it rights itself.
It’s a testament to Broadbent’s talents — as well as to the relative weakness of some other material — that the final image of Scottie’s hanging corpse packs such a punch. Director Jakob Verbruggen’s melodramatic, painterly eye has been one of the highlights of this show, and he frames the scene like a horrifying Constable canvas. Ghostly brown and green light floods the picture, with Scottie’s body a terrible black mass at the center.
It is an awful end for London Spy’s best character, and a tragic one for its best relationship. As much as the show has attempted to keep Danny’s love for Alex at the fore, it’s nothing compared to the richness of his bond with Scottie. Scottie’s doomed fate is telegraphed relatively quickly, if only because of his sudden re-acquaintance with depression and alcoholism. As he says to Danny, it surely can’t be a coincidence that this happens when it does. Danny’s romance with Alex, the state’s homophobic harassment, even the way Alex’s family bars him from his funeral — all of it dredges up the most painful points of Scottie’s life. It’s no accident that he calls Claire into action for help. We discover that, in their younger days, she served as both his beard and as his final attempt at a straight relationship. It’s yet another wounded bit of history. (This is where I once more beg for a spin-off about Scottie’s life; every story he tells is unbearably rich with possibilities.)
For a moment, it seems like Scottie will recover — “We must not live in fear!” he cries, addressing his own identity as much as the battle against the spies — but clearly, it is not to be. This being London Spy, there’s a lingering suspicion that Scottie’s death has been, shall we say, arranged. He lost either way, and so did we.
Scottie’s tragic arc is both exquisitely handled and, if we’re being cynical, quite useful to the hour, since its emotional heft goes a long way to obscure the near-ridiculousness of just what got Alex into so much trouble. The revelation that our beautiful, doomed cipher had constructed a kind of foolproof lie detector may work in some vague metaphorical and political capacity — the sudden montage of 9/11, Blair, and Bush, and Danny’s mention of the deceptions of Iraq gesture briefly in that direction — but it lands with a dramatic thud. When Marcus, Alex’s old professor, first sketches the idea out, his explanation is so full of opaque gobbledygook that it’s barely worth considering. It’s as if writer and creator Tom Rob Smith was so enamored with the broader thrust of his concept that he didn’t even try to give it a foundation.
The episode also takes for granted that an all-powerful lie detector would be a virtually unalloyed force for good. The characters reference a world where governments couldn’t deceive their citizens, which seems like a nice thing, but really, how could humanity survive without lying? (This is such well-trodden territory that Ricky Gervais even made a mediocre movie about it.)
Oh well. This is the conceit we’ve got. The episode relishes in the irony that such a truth-telling bombshell came from a man who concealed the truth about himself on every level. Danny is left to grapple with the reality that, despite his instinctual love for Alex, there were huge gaps in his understanding of him. Marcus points out that Danny never got Alex’s catastrophic brilliance. “We knew different people,” he replies.
Still, there is nothing that can shake Danny’s devotion. The louche Spaniard takes him through one of those ludicrously masterminded journeys-to-a-meeting that always seem to crop up in stories like this, and then describes how he seduced Alex so his paymasters could pick up sexual blackmail tips. Even that doesn’t succeed in jarring him off-course. He goes through the motions of moving on, tossing some of Alex’s possessions into the sea (another gorgeous image), but is back to his quest in about three minutes. A trip back to the police station, where the same cop from the first episode pointedly tells him, “For you, this is over.” Although she looks like she’s got a gun to her head, this also fails to dissuade him.
This obsession proves useful, however, because it allows Danny to finally crack the code of that pesky cylinder. The episode cuts to a conversation where Alex bluntly tells him that he doesn’t believe in the concept of soulmates — the inherent odds in finding that one person are too horrible, he says — but Alex, true to form, appears to have been lying when he said that. The code is 00001. Somewhat disappointingly, the cylinder turns out to be a flash drive. (I was hoping for some sort of ancient scroll, personally.) The flash drive contains the code for the aforementioned lie detector, which leads Marcus to marvel, “I told him he would change the world. I just didn’t know how dangerous it would be.” We knew that basically every spy agency in the world wanted Alex dead, so we are less surprised.
Presumably, the final episode will include a confrontation with the shadowy powers responsible for all of this misery. It’s a real shame that Scottie will not be among that group, though it’s also sort of appropriate. If London Spy is the story of two young lovers, it’s also the story of an older generation sacrificing itself so that that love can thrive. The episode may end with Scottie’s body hanging alone from a tree, but it’s clear that millions of similar ghosts swirl around him in the night sky.