Before we get to the episode, there’s an elephant in the room that I should acknowledge. The elephant is elegant and extremely talented and forbidding and has said some well-publicized and very stupid things and is named Charlotte Rampling.
In a cosmically terrible instance of bad timing, the second half of the second episode of London Spy is dominated by Charlotte Rampling, who plays the mother of the late, lamented Alistair (or Alex, or whatever this most confusing spy’s name was). You can’t help but watch her and think, “OMG, she’s so good and gaaah she probably had unbelievably antiquated thoughts about black people and Hollywood while she filmed this.” So let’s get it out of the way: Rampling is typically great in this episode, and it’s also very awkward to watch her right at this moment.
As with more and more of this show, Rampling’s performance is a triumph of style above all. Two episodes in, London Spy takes shape as a gorgeous, chilly, oft-mesmerizing piece of television that uses its atmosphere and its all-star team of players to hide its flaws. It holds you with a certain haunting power, but ultimately, it’s slightly less than the sum of its parts.
One big problem? The dialogue. Writer and creator Tom Rob Smith seems to be under the impression that scripting acres of conversation wherein characters never respond directly to each other is a good idea. It is not a good idea. In this episode, Ben Whishaw’s Danny tells Rampling’s Frances, “Your son was murdered. The attic was staged. Everything you read about his death is a lie.” She replies, “After dinner, perhaps you will join me for a drink.” Wha? There are tons of moments like that. Repression is a big theme of the show, but there’s a limit to how much clipped, elliptical verbal jousting we can take.
That odd chat comes towards the end of an episode in which Danny gets progressively more obsessed with his lover’s gruesome death. You will recall that Alistair/Alex wound up stuffed in a trunk in the middle of a spooky S&M attic. The common assumption seems to be that he died after some horrible mishap. (“SEX GAME GONE WRONG?” blares a tabloid headline.) Danny is convinced, as he tells Frances, that this is all rubbish — that his partner was killed and that all of the leather stuff was planted there for some mysterious reason. He doesn’t know why, but Danny is sure that unsavory forces are responsible. Alistair/Alex was a spy, after all. Spies can get themselves into serious trouble.
Danny brings his theory to a newspaper, where the journalists treat him with barely-concealed contempt. The story they produce is littered with homophobic dog whistles, and causes Danny to lose his job. He also produces the requisite “crazy bulletin board littered with thumbtacks and threads and bits of paper” that always appear in fiction, but have never once been encountered in real life. Some of the paper has “LIES LIES LIES” written on it, which seems like a particularly unhelpful way to solve a mystery. Also, Danny is prone to crying at the drop of a hat. He’s cracking up a bit.
Not that he doesn’t have reasons to crack up or suspect some nefarious plot. Of course something is going on! He’s getting followed by mysterious men on the Tube. He’s trying to figure out the code to open the cylinder he stole from Alistair/Alex’s attic. (He doesn’t know the right numbers, so it’s socked away in a secret porthole in a random pipe room. Revelations, it would appear, are for later episodes.) He’s being approached by strange men like Clarke Peters’ unnamed character, who approaches him at the episode’s end, makes cryptic comments about saving his life, and hands him a piece of candy with a pill hidden inside.
And, above all, he’s being summoned to meet Frances, who lives in one of those austere, crumbling mansions that seem to be a staple of spy stories. Her place is like Manderley on steroids, all ghosts and high ceilings and silences and blaring visual metaphors. There’s even a claustrophobic hedge maze. The only evidence that mansion has electricity is one little lamp in the dining room, which is otherwise lit by a ludicrous amount of candlelight.
Danny’s arrival at this most novelistic of scenes is preceded by a lengthy (and ultimately pointless) stint at the house of two people who present themselves as Alistair/Alex’s parents, but turn out to be Frances’s employees. Their scene is filled with even more vague dialogue. “Your son was murdered,” he tells the fake parents. “Let’s go for a walk,” the father replies.
You get the sense that we’re being put through these machinations purely for the sake of what happens nest, when Danny realizes that he’s talking to frauds. When Frances finally meets him, she pronounces herself impressed by his sharp instincts, which she chalks up to something like “female intuition.” Danny’s ability to suss out the truth certainly belies his down-and-out naif image.
He and Frances then have the kind of heart-to-heart a crocodile might have with an especially intelligent puppy. The conversation is played to evoke racy noir; at one point, a looming Frances is reflected in a gleaming black mantle that seems to pop up out of nowhere. Rampling, imperious and snazzy in slacks, is effortlessly captivating.
Frances tells Danny that her son wasn’t gay, just a hyper-brilliant sociopath who gave people what they wanted. She says he was “as precocious sexually as he was intellectually.” Danny politely tells her that she’s full of it — you can’t fake the kind of inexperience Alistair had in bed. She suggests that “no fuss is the best piece of advice you will ever be given.” Translation: Stop digging. It seems obvious that she isn’t telling him this out of motherly concern. Later, he finds kinship with Frances’s maid, who he instinctively sizes up as the only one in the mansion who ever cared for Alistair. She even called him Alex.
By episode’s end, we’re marginally closer to figuring out what the hell is going on. It is clear, though, that Danny is onto something.
I haven’t even mentioned the finest part of the episode, which comes relatively early. Danny is talking to Scottie, played by Jim Broadbent in what might be the most towering performance of the series. Scottie realizes that Danny considers him part of the faceless “establishment” that he’s going up against, and he explodes, shouting, “Do you know just how fucking far I am from being part of the establishment?” He then takes Danny into the woods and reveals that he, too, was a spy — which explains a lot — but he was entrapped by MI6 after the agency went on a “fag hunt” to root out gay men within its ranks. (Out of everything in this series, this is by far the most real.) Traumatized by the experience, Scottie nearly killed himself. As he recounts this story, London Spy loses its outré affectations and gains a true sense of mournful majesty. I hope more like that is coming.
- I want all of Danny’s striped t-shirts, even if Frances chastises him for dressing down at dinner.
- The man who plays the fake father of Alistair/Alex has an unbelievable voice.
- Was the hedge maze really necessary?
- Scottie’s story made me long for a spinoff about his younger life as a closeted, tormented spy. Jim Broadbent is a treasure — and thankfully, he hasn’t said anything terrible about race yet.