London Spy Finale Recap: What Really Happened

Ben Whishaw as Danny, Charlotte Rampling as Frances. Photo: WTTV Limited
London Spy

London Spy

Episode Five Season 1 Episode 5
Editor's Rating 3 stars

As I’ve noted in recaps past, London Spy has a tendency to emphasize style and atmosphere over plot. Perhaps that’s why answers to the show’s mysteries are doled out so sparingly. It took four episodes, for instance, to find out what actually got Alex into so much trouble.

The price to be paid for all of those slight calories is the table-breaking buffet of exposition that comes in London Spy’s farewell offering. The hour is dominated by Charlotte Rampling, who returns to fill us in on several novels’ worth of gory details. It’s also dominated by Danny’s famed intuitive gifts, which run at full tilt as he uncovers long-buried secret after long-buried secret in the time it takes mere mortals to pull on a sweater.

Danny has to do all of this without dear Scottie by his side — the episode begins with Scottie’s funeral and some exquisitely heartbroken work from Ben Whishaw — but that seems an appropriate choice. If one theme of the episode is “let’s tie up the plot while we still have a chance,” another is Danny’s journey towards an emotionally settled plane without the two most important people in his life. It takes a complete unmooring for him to learn how to anchor himself.

This is evident when Danny’s scumbag parents show up to see him for the first time in 11 years. They’re there because the shadowy villains — the same ones who killed Alex, possibly killed Scottie, and are still tormenting Danny — forced them to visit, but he reacts with admirable equanimity. “Wouldn’t it have been easier to love me?” he asks, then departs, journeying to see Rampling’s Frances in that spectacular, preposterous mansion.

I wish that writer and creator Tom Rob Smith had not tied Danny’s personal growth so neatly to the turbo-charging of his Spidey sense, but suddenly, he’s able to spot connections at light speed. He dismantles the lies in the story that Frances tells him with unnerving ease, pulling the most important truth about Alex seemingly out of thin air. Yes, the wounded maid working for Frances is his real mother. But how’d he piece together that one?

Frances’s story is a dark fairy tale: the woman trapped in a decaying castle, doomed both by patriarchy and her husband’s professional disaster, who steals another woman’s child and condemns that boy to a life of lonely torment as acute as her own. Rampling tells the story in a typically spellbinding fashion, her voice at once cool and suffused with a near-bursting ache. Like most good fairy tales, hers is somewhat absurd in its particulars and shattering in its effect. It becomes clear that Alex, like his mother, never had a chance: He was victim twice scorned, first of a broken home and then of Frances’s attempts to turn him into the spy she could never be.

As it turns out, Frances’s parenting methods come back to haunt her in an especially nasty way. We are finally given confirmation that Alex died just like we thought he did — trapped in that box by the government whose commitment to lies he had threatened to destroy. I was not a fan of the lie detector as either a thing or as a MacGuffin, but it’s deployed here in perhaps the best twist of the series, which draws out superb work from both Rampling and Edward Holcroft. After a heartrending back-and-forth flashback between Frances and Alex, wherein she extracts from him a commitment to destroy his project and vanish forever, it turns out that the government has already put his lie detector to use. The detector concludes that everything he said — including that he loves Frances — is a lie. Her frantic attempts to go back to him are rebuffed. She is forcibly sedated, and Alex is left to die. It is a dreadful way to go, the cumulative weight of all of Frances’s and Alex’s mistakes catching up to them. Her mistake was to raise him in the way she did; his mistake was to try to be something other than the person she helped create.

After this story unfolds, Alex’s birth mother, the maid, winds up leaving the house in a devastated frenzy and burning the hedge maze to the ground — a symbolic act of solidarity with the boy whose ability to master that maze proved to be his ultimate undoing. Frances then kicks Danny out of the house, but just as he’s leaving, she joins him in his car and says, “Let’s burn them down for real.” Though she adds, “You understand we don’t stand a chance,” they share sly smiles as they hurtle towards a confrontation with the forces that have hounded them for so long. The sight of Ben Whishaw and Charlotte Rampling grinning in a snappy little motor provides a glamorous, improbably hopeful end to the show.

There are a couple of ways to interpret these final scenes. One is that both Danny and Frances have finally grown tired of being smacked around by spies, and that Frances, in particular, has had her cynicism broken and wants to avenge Alex’s murder. A more intriguing reading is that these two damaged souls are ridding themselves of their burdens — that they’re exorcising Alex’s demons now that he is gone. Despite their yearning for him, Alex has ultimately been an imprisonment rather than a liberation. When Frances says, “Let’s burn them down for real,” she might as well be referring to herself and Danny — or, at least, the versions doomed to be trapped by Alex’s grip on them.

You may notice that neither of these scenarios have much to do with Alex’s actual life. After all of the chaos and destruction, the fatal weakness of London Spy is that the man who caused all of the action — the man who gave the show its title — winds up functioning more as a symbolic mechanism rather than as a real human being. By the hour’s end, Alex has perished so that Danny and Frances may find themselves. Doesn’t he deserve a little more than that?

Other Thoughts

  • One mystifying thing about this show: the near-total indifference it showed to Danny’s roommates, who seemed very nice. Fittingly enough, he abandons them in this episode, and moves into Scottie’s much nicer digs.
  • I’m not sure I could be patient with my parents if they turned up after 11 years, told me a pack of lies, and then tried to guilt me about their health problems.
  • The most unintentionally hilarious part of the episode has to be Danny’s visit to the HIV support group. He tells the group the entire story of Alex, the spying, his injection with HIV, all of it! And instead of looking at him like he’s crazy, which any normal person would do, one guy just asks, “What are you going to do now?” What, indeed?

London Spy Finale Recap: What Really Happened