The line between comedy and tragedy is a thin one and it’s a line that Sacha Baren Cohen effortlessly shifts over to here for Netflix’s true-story espionage drama, The Spy.
We start the episode in 1965 with Eli Cohen in prison and shakily writing a letter to his wife with a rabbi present. His wife wakes up and listens to a radio announcement about her husband and it’s here we then flash back to six years earlier, where we see Eli working in a department store in Israel. In the evening, he heads to a party with his wife, Nadia. On their way there, they see on the news that Syria has attacked Israel; the first sign of conflict in the growing tension between the two countries.
The next morning, we see that the Israel-Syrian border countryside is being bombed. In the Prime Minister’s office Mossad agents, Dan Peleg and Jacob Shimoni, are discussing Syria’s attacks. Jacob tells Dan that they need to train someone to be a spy and to convince him, Jacob shows him satellite images after the attacks of Syria. They come to the conclusion that they are preparing for a serious attack, but they need eyes and ears on the other side of the border to find out what the Syrians are plotting to do.
Back at the Mossad office, Jacob is looking at potential candidates for the job which leads him to look at Cohen’s file. After having smuggled Jews from Egypt to Israel, he applied to work at Mossad twice however Dan is reluctant at first as Eli has a criminal record in Egypt. Deciding he will be the best choice they send him a letter and organise a meeting where they explain that they want him to work for them. He agrees but is told that he will have to go through a series of tests to see if he will be a good fit.
The next day, his training begins which includes being able to transmit Morse code rapidly, strenuous exercises and learning about different countries’ weapons. After 6 months of training, Jacob meets with Dan and tells him they need to move Cohen to Buenos Aires now because more and more people are dying. However, Dan thinks it’s too early. This leads to him telling Cohen that if he wants the job, he can have it but gives him the choice and to think about it carefully.
Later that night, Nadia confronts him about where he’s been as she went to see him in his shop but was told that he hasn’t worked there for months. However, he lies to her and tells her he will be a buyer for the government. It’s here we learn she doesn’t tell him the real reason why she came to see him – she just found out she’s pregnant.
It’s now January 1961. Eli arrives in Switzerland where he meets with Salinger and he is given his undercover name, Kamel Amin Thaabeth, and a new persona.
We find out that Eli has been sent to Argentina because the country has the most important Arab expatriation centre and the best place for him to create many Arab connections. He will be an undercover agent, pledging his allegiance to Syria.
The episode ends with Eli back in 1965 in prison being taken away by guards.
The Spy starts quite strongly with a decent introductory episode to help set the scene. While a bit slow at times, we are shown his background and the training he had to endure which really enhances the world building and helps us feel more emotionally connected to Eli.
The Spy is mostly filmed with toned down colours too, almost in black and white, which highlights the authenticity of the time period of the drama. Every time a letter is written or read, we see the text popping on the wall or different places on the screen. This is a really nice touch and adds some originality to the show.
Sacha Baron Cohen does a really good job at portraying the role of the famous spy too and while most people will be used to seeing him in comedies, it feels quite refreshing to see him play a completely different character and type. The Spy gets off to a good start though and does well to lay the foundations here, ready for the season to come.