Mild spoilers up to the fourth episode.
As befits a proper British lady, The Honourable Woman wears a lot of hats. Viewers will be able to find almost any kind of story they want in the new BBC/SundanceTV miniseries starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays an aristocratic Israeli-British chief of a telecommunications firm and an education charity for Palestinian college students.
Those dutiful few who prefer their fun mixed in with homework will find plenty of links between recent headlines and the geopolitical mystery series. But The Honourable Woman (which began airing July 31 stateside after a July 3 debut in the UK) works best as stylish, moody escapism: As an abduction thriller or family melodrama, an espionage drama or a tale of impossible redemption, a psychological portrait of trauma and paranoia or a familial saga of dynasty and knotty inheritances.
That this tense, somber, occasionally mordant eight-part miniseries proves convincingly versatile while retaining its coherence is a testament to writer-director Hugo Blick and his sprawling cast of impressive English and Irish actors, including Stephen Rea as a gnomish intelligence officer and Janet McTeer as the coolly Machiavellian head of MI6.
Set mostly in London, the pilot for The Honourable Woman begins with a murder and ends with a kidnapping. Three decades separate those two events, but they have a commonality in Nessa Stein (Gyllenhaal), whose father’s throat was slashed in a crowded restaurant before her eyes when she was a young girl, and whose five-or-so nephew Kasim is snatched in front of her at the symphony.
If the narrative progress on finding Kasim’s captors develops too slowly, The Honourable Woman excels in unfurling its mysteries about the events that lead to the boy’s abduction and shape the evolution of the fear-paralyzed little girl into the placid, bossy wreck she is today. (Needless to say, the always-fantastic Gyllenhaal gives a performance that’s equally winsome and devastating.) Likewise, a seemingly obvious question about Kasim’s parentage gradually finds a profoundly upsetting reply, while an exploration into the true nature of the boy’s nanny, the Palestinian Atika (Lubna Azabal), yields an array of answers, each more fascinating than the last. (Atika is already in the running as one of the most interesting female characters of the year.)
The mysteries are built on thoughtful characterization, so each new revelation adds a new layer to the relationships between, say, Nessa and her seemingly well-adjusted brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan), rather than merely pull the rug out from viewers’ feet. (Bonus points for being a mystery show that, like the also female-led Top of the Lake, doesn’t revolve around an act of femicide, but emphasizes female survival.)
There’s enough double-crossingand shootings among the warring spies who want to open up an investigation into Nessa’s past to satisfy our desire for jolts of action and bloodshed.
Each episode offers a kind of mystery of the week. In the second episode, for example, the fate of a flirty, middle-aged blonde that MI6 agent Hayden-Hoyle (Rea) is willing to let die only to prove his suspicions about her to an underling leads to a ten-minute sequence of white-knuckled suspense while she scans who she can trust.
But The Honourable Woman is arguably most successful as a meditation on legacy: how to escape one, and how to create one without too many compromises. Nessa and Ephra strive to subvert their inheritances — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the blood money their father earned through exploiting the hatred and oppression therein — by building cable lines instead and becoming politically correct philanthropists. But things began to fall apart almost immediately — so much so that Nessa eventually wrested control of the company from her brother, though we aren’t yet sure how or why. Then there are Blick’s explorations into the hazards of extreme wealth and noblesse oblige. The Stein siblings quickly discover that with great power comes great responsibility, but not quickly enough the lesson that great power is often a blunt, indiscriminate force.
Despite the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the characters are so specific — in this case, so astronomically affluent — that it’s easier to view The Honourable Woman as a smart soap opera, a la Homeland, than as Important Commentary. That’s partly because Blick devotes much of Nessa’s scenes to examining her acute emotional isolation — a response to the traumas of her life, as well as to the unique danger her vast bank account brings. Among the sadder revelations from the pilot is the fact that, while she owns a plush, handsome bed, Nessa sleeps in a never-completely-dark panic room outfitted with security monitors that resembles a Kubrickian space capsule from 2001. (Has there ever been a lonelier movie?) Equally tragic is the reveal early in the second episode that asking “Who do you work for?” of a sex partner isn’t just silly pillow talk on Nessa’s part, but a legitimate question. (At the end of the scene, she sassily sends her compliments to MI6 for picking more enticing honeypot bait than in previous operations.)
If the first half of the miniseries is any indication, The Honourable Woman looks to be a skillfully constructed procession of questions posed, answers given, then the truth revealed, with each new insight another stratum in the countless tiers of secrets, traumas, betrayals, and retributions tying the characters into a tight, messy net. And given the miniseries format, there’s actually a pretty good chance that all the storylines will end in satisfying finality. So try to get the news out of your head (if you can) and enjoy a show that’s offering you everything you want and more.