Episode 1 – | Review Score – 4/5
Episode 2 – | Review Score – 4/5
Episode 3 – | Review Score – 5/5
Episode 4 – | Review Score – 4.5/5
Episode 5 – | Review Score – 4.5/5
Episode 6 – | Review Score – 5/5
Very few shows about espionage today are worth watching. The genre has become woefully saturated with not a lot of refreshing takes on offer. There is an instant need to serve up spy protagonists as heroes who participate in high-stakes political scenarios, cool-looking bomb explosions, and edge-of-the-seat car chases. The on-the-run-almost-gets-caught-but-eventually-escapes trope is the baseline for such dramas.
The Old Man, which came out last year, made a defiant attempt to reshuffle the jargon. Its exciting potency for storytelling was established by rebutting all the above genre misgivings and creating a new narrative language. A Spy Among Friends does something similar and catapults itself into becoming one of the best spy stories told in the last few years.
Instead of having anything remotely viewed as bombastic in its arsenal, the show offers a uniquely compelling, engaging, and illuminating mesh of memories and flashbacks. It is not about looking at the present through the prism of the past but looking at the past for what it was. More often than not, human behaviour does not allow the realization of a certain event that happened like it did. We recall those moments as something we wanted them to be. But when push comes to shove, poking holes into one’s own fantastical story is not the easiest task.
And that is the reason why Nicholas Elliot (Damian Lewis) and Kim Philby (Guy Pearce) might not be infallible spies but flawed human beings. The British six-part series is based on the book written by Ben Macintyre that delves into the life and actions of Kim Philby, a notorious British spy who betrayed his country to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
The book delivers a fascinating account of Philby’s espionage career, his personal relationships, and the political and social context of the time. Macintyre’s writing style is clear, concise, and engaging, and he expertly weaves together different strands of Philby’s story, something that Alexander Cary, the writer and creator of the show, wholeheartedly inverts.
His descriptive writing heavily draws on events from the book but has a completely different tone, while still maintaining the ability to convey the political and social context of the time. He highlights the tensions and paranoia of the Cold War era, the fraught relationships between the intelligence agencies of different countries, and the political manoeuvrings of the time, all brought to life in a non-obvious fashion. Many might find it obtuse or too dense to understand, but after the first episode, the intention of Cary and director Nick Murphy becomes clear.
The writer-director pair shows how these factors shaped Philby’s actions and contributed to the broader narrative of espionage and betrayal. They also touch upon Philby’s conflicted feelings about his betrayal, showing how he struggled with his loyalty to both his country and his ideology. Intelligence agencies of Russia, the US, and the UK are all infected with mistrust and paranoia and their dynamics were forever altered. We see the heartbreak James Angleton struggles to cope with after learning the truth.
The cynical nature of the show, however, cannot undermine the flailing hopes of saving a friendship and realizing its end. Nick Elliot is at the forefront over the course of six episodes even as Philby’s narrative focus fades by the end. In a very subtle manner, the balance of power shifts from the latter to the former without too much collateral damage. Anna Maxwell is outstanding as Lily Thomas and shares spitting chemistry with Lewis. Her character sort of represents the voice of Cary and Murphy, along with how their take is through a contemporary socio-political lens. She is a vessel for ideas and emotion.
The central standpoint of Thomas’ argument by the end is the frivolous nature of the good that men like Nick and Kim do for society. It is a delectably anti-war statement delivered with a thumping punch. Creative choices like muddling timelines and playing around with events from Kim and Nick’s lives non-linearly impose a duty on the audience.
If you are diligent in following them and connecting the dots, you can see the point of this layout. Words fall short of describing the compelling works of Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce on the show. At every turn in the journey, the two men stand the test of all spectrums of emotion and stay authentic to Nick and Kim even when they are failed men. They embrace the flaws of their spy portraits and reach for deeper meaning within them. The believability of their friendship and betrayal is pivotal to A Spy Among Friends’ success and thankfully, that is present in abundance.
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Verdict - 9/10