Hugh Laurie as Richard Roper.
And so we’ve come full circle: Jonathan Pine, first seen slipping through Tahrir Square on his way to work, has now traversed another conflict zone to get back to Cairo’s Hotel Nefertiti, where his last stirring of consciousness resulted in the death of the woman he tried to protect. Roper and Jed are staying in the very same suite where Sophie Alekan was killed, and Pine is bracing himself for the aftermath of another failed operation, perhaps his last and best chance to find justice for her, for England, and for the world. (Unless he’s a double agent, in which case he has triumphed unambiguously.) (No, he’s not a double agent.)
The return to Cairo is also a chance to reflect on one of the most significant alterations to John le Carré’s novel: Updating the action to reflect present-day turmoil in the Middle East. From a plotting standpoint, the changes have been smoothly integrated, tethering our hero (and our villains) to important real-world events like the resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the plight of Syrian refugees. It makes sense for Pine, in a professional capacity, to serve the wealthy Westerners from a five-star hotel in Cairo, just as it makes sense for Roper, in a criminal capacity, to exploit regional instability in order to sell loose arms to the highest bidder.
Still, it’s also time to ask a rhetorical question: How much does The Night Manager care about any of this stuff? Of all the good qualities that it has — the first-rate performances, the well-oiled plot mechanics, the jaundiced perspective on the death-dealing elite — political engagement is not one of them. Where the film adaptation of le Carré’s The Constant Gardener committed to a sharp critique of Big Pharma’s abuses in Africa, The Night Manager’s Middle Eastern politics feel mostly like window-dressing, a surface-level attempt for ripped-from-the-headlines relevance. Much like Pine striding confidently through the turmoil in the very beginning, the show is more associated with real-world chaos than connected to it. That may be a consequence of telling a story about an arms dealer who’s removed from the carnage he causes, but the point still stands.
Consider, for example, tonight’s trip to “The Haven,” a Syrian refugee camp that doubles as a cover for Roper’s nefarious operation. We knew that Roper’s activism on war refugees was a PR gloss on his black-market business, which makes meaningful contributions to the despots who make refugees out of innocent civilians. To have a place like “The Haven” exist as camouflage for mercenaries, illegal arms deals, and “fireworks” does elevate Roper to the status of real-world supervillain. But there’s so much narrative business in The Night Manager that the show doesn’t linger long enough to give a deep impression of the conditions on the ground. Later, a village supposedly “cleared” for arms testing leads to the death of an elderly person. The outrage of that tragedy isn’t felt, either.
But what a display! Roper’s product demonstration, with its anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles and its “grand finale” of village-leveling napalm, makes for a spectacular Whitman’s sampler of destruction. It’s also the most tangible understanding we’ve had yet of Roper’s business and its potential for doing harm on a massive scale. In his “Andrew Birch” persona, Pine sells it as the slick piece of stagecraft that it is, all while barely obscuring his fear and revulsion. At “The Haven,” Pine comes to terms with the full extent of Roper’s power, not just as a seller of lucrative black-market goods, but as his own rogue nation, complete with a multinational army of experienced, well-paid military professionals. “We are emperors of war!” he declares, with a trace of irony.
Throughout Pine’s time in Roper’s inner circle, his quick ascendance over Corky has been a little hard to believe. And with word circling back to Roper that his sales documents — to which only he and Sandy were privy — have leaked out and found their way to Angela Burr, his suspicion over Pine’s motives should be running high. This episode suggests the obvious: Perhaps Roper knows Pine is a mole and has been using that knowledge to play a shell game with his adversaries. Which would, in turn, put the operation (and Pine’s life) in imminent jeopardy now that Roper has pulled off his ruse. (The alternative is that Roper’s “anyone can betray anyone” credo applies equally to all the people in his inner circle, which makes no sense.)
For Burr, the failed sting operation may be the final nail in the coffin, though River House holds the hammer as much as Roper does. With Rex Mayhew, her chief ally and confidant, up for a mandatory reassignment with the royals, Burr has no more resources at her disposal and no one in power she can trust. Like Pine, she’s tried to work in the shadows, away from Roper’s immense sphere of influence, but both have been dragged into the light. As Operation Limpet falls apart in London and Cairo, The Night Manager enters its final hour with justice out of reach. For now, survival is the best-case scenario.
- “When a continent enters into chaos, that’s when opportunities open up.” Roper vying for dean of Hell’s business school.
- Burr’s pregnancy seems like a largely irrelevant detail in a show that hasn’t spent any time on her domestic situation or articulated her work-life aspirations, beyond her revulsion over witnessing children being killed by biological weapons.
- Roper summoning Jed to his base of operations shows a sadistic streak. He wants to punish and humiliate her, and the slap across her face is evidence that he’s also capable of direct violence, rather than simply issuing it second-hand.
- Hugh Laurie’s performance has been chillingly inscrutable. At times, Roper is a sophisticate who can casually execute power over cigars and champagne. At others, he’s a pugnacious brawler along the lines of Corky, who’s not afraid to snarl and use his fists when occasion calls for it.