London Spy s1 ep 5

If nothing else, London Spy offers proof that a good mystery can go a long way. It certainly kept me watching until the end, even as the rest of the show slowly – sometimes very slowly – disintegrated around it, leading to this often risible final episode. We start with Scottie’s funeral, which gives Danny the opportunity to brood for a few minutes, although in a remarkably quick administration of the estate Danny seems to have inherited Scottie’s house.

Then, though, the episode – and, effectively, the series – starts to go downhill. Danny decides that he wants to bring Alex’s theories to the attention of the world, so he prints off a few copies and posts them – posts them – to a few newspapers. When the Mysterious Forces watching Danny send the documents back to him, now rendered blank, he then recalls that there’s an easier, quicker, cheaper, and more efficient way of sending documents, and emails them. The Mysterious Forces, of course, are able to block that as well, because they and they alone have found a way to turn off the internet. But why not put them on a blog? Or Facebook? Or… something? The Web’s full of lots of that sort of crap. (It occurred to me that it would actually have been more realistic, and in its way more devastating, to show the envelopes reaching the newspapers and being thrown out, or the emails being deleted unread.)

In the middle of that, Danny’s parents visit him in his new house, and prevail upon him to come back to theirs, where his mother insists on taking a group photograph of the three of them. Except – ooh! – his parents’ house had been done up to resemble a happy family home, and the camera was rigged with a something-or-other in it which wiped the contents of that spy keyring containing the details of Alex’s research. Hang on, though. Think of all the time and trouble the Mysterious Forces went to in order to pull that off, including browbeating Danny’s parents (who referred to the MFs as “scary people”) into participating, all of it standing or falling on whether Danny was willing to go with his parents, and happened to have the spy keyring with him. If you don’t want the contents of the USB drive to get into the public domain, why not just have someone snatch it off Danny? Or kill him? Or snatch it off him, and then kill him? I mean, what do the Mysterious Forces actually want?

Danny drops into a support group for people with HIV, then heads off to that miserable old house where Alex’s mother lives, where we get to find out one or two things about Alex’s upbringing and personal history. It takes half-an-hour, of course, when it could have been done in five minutes or so, including the fire, and the ending, in which Butch and Sundance agree to go out fighting. Buried in it all, mind you, there’s one excellent scene – horrifying, taut, and moving – in which we finally get to see what happened to Alex in the Secret Attic of Sub and Dom. The possibility which many of us have been holding on to – that it wasn’t actually Alex’s corpse in the case – is dangled before us then cruelly snatched away, with Alex’s own invention actually sealing his fate, although not before delivering a gratuitous gut-punch to his mother, in a manner not unlike the end of Brighton Rock.

The rest of it, though, notwithstanding Ben Whishaw’s quiet excellence, is nonsense, and excessively-padded nonsense at that. I should say, as I always do at this point, that I’m just a viewer: I have no idea of the process involved in getting something like this commissioned,  made, and broadcast. Once again, though, London Spy came across as a show which would have benefitted from a ruthless hand in the editing suite. Like Doctor Foster. And Broadchurch. And The Shadow Line. And The Fall. And just about every last fecking one, as far as I can see, of these British TV dramas, in which style is mistaken for substance, and the idea of fettering the writer’s “vision” is seen as the enemy of art, rather than its frequent ally.

London Spy s1 ep 4

The mobile phone ringing at the end of last week’s episode isn’t a wrong number; it is, indeed, for Danny. Unfortunately for us – and, I suppose, for Danny – the distorted voice on the other end of the phone is a character beloved of TV and film writers: the Drip Feeder: “You’re looking for answers. But are you ready for them?” So just, y’know, telling Danny those answers isn’t enough: he needs to be directed to a hotel room, where he has to get into a bath, get out again, change clothes, get into a mysterious taxi, and then go to a restaurant. After that he can meet the Drip Feeder, who is dressed identically to Danny, looks just a little bit like him in a certain light, and reveals himself as an employee of the high-end escort agency we’ve heard about before. Danny, it turns out – more fuel for the unreliable narrator theory here – pushed Alex into having an affair with Faux-Danny, which Alex later regretted. Then Danny goes to the beach and burns some of his Alex keepsakes.

More or less half of the episode is taken up with this, at the end of which I would have paid good money to see the script of London Spy thrown to, say, the 24 writers’ room, for “editing”. Although we do discover that Danny is a fan of the dreaded “What are you thinking?” question which, particularly when asked post-coitally, should be a sackable offence in itself.

Things get a little better in the second half, leading to the revelation of the McGuffin, although it’s a problematic one. Danny works out how to get inside the spy keyring, which is a USB stick. With the help of the increasingly desperate Scottie he meets up with Alex’s former professor (Adrian Lester), who works out that Alex’s big secret was a kind of algorithm which functions as an infallible lie detector by reading facial expressions. Or something. So it would be possible to work out when politicians, for example, weren’t telling the truth. Well, it isn’t pensions, I suppose, although I was hoping for something better.

The episode saves its big emotional punch for the end, though, as Scottie, with a stoic acceptance of his fate, is driven in the mysterious taxi to – well, something dressed up to look like a suicide. Maybe it was. It hardly redeems the rest of the episode, though. Ben Whishaw is still doing a great job, but once again this looks like a British drama which is at least two episodes too long.

London Spy s1 ep 3

This is the episode in which we start to get a sense of the size and detail of – if not, yet, the underlying motive behind – the anti-Danny conspiracy. He’s interrogated by police officers in what looks like the lobby of an upmarket hotel, although I think it’s an interview suite in a London police station. They start to unpack the case against him, including their knowledge that he’s tried auto-asphyxiation, and a recordng of what they say is a phone conversation between him and Alex – although he maintains that they were both in his bedroom when it happened. They also found sheets in the Secret Attic of Sub And Dom, which they expect to have Danny’s DNA on them.

And that’s not all: Danny’s flatmate tells him that the mysterious pill he found in the mysterious sweet left by the mysterious American looks like an antiretroviral for HIV treatment, so he gets himself tested, despite not having put himself at risk. The test, of course, is positive, which means – if you accept Danny’s timeline – that someone infected him deliberately. If so, how was it done? (The possibility that Danny might be an unreliable narrator is definitely out there and hinted at more than once. I’m going to assume, for now, that most of what we’ve seen we can take at face value, but I won’t be astonished if we’re being steered in the wrong direction.) Actually, my money’s on the medic being in on it and producing a false positive.

Scottie believes Danny, sort of, when he says that he didn’t engage in risky behaviour, and takes him to a club. They meet an old contact of Scottie’s, who discloses that every major intelligence agency in the world is in on the conspiracy. Which presumably means that Alex was up to something, and that Danny’s been the target of a meticulous and long-running plan. Why it’s necessary to frame him for Alex’s murder escapes me a little – why not just kill him as well, make it look like a suicide, job’s a good ‘un? Or – and this possibility doesn’t go away either – are we missing a key piece of information about Danny, and does Scottie know more than he’s letting on?

This is all pretty good stuff, and Ben Whishaw is unsurprisingly great. The episode is hijacked, though, by Mark Gatiss as a drawling, affected record producer/crack-dealer. I really like Gatiss, but the effect is to undermine the serious stuff that’s going on. Which means that I’m still hedging my bets about London Spy – it continues to combine the worthwhile and the stupid. My guess is that it’ll do so until the end.

London Spy s1 ep 2

Following the discovery of Alex’s body – I’m going to park, for now, the question of whether it actually was Alex, because I still can’t tell whether we’re supposed to take that on trust – Danny is working on a rather splendid Conspiracy Wall. He also conceals the tchotchke he found last week in Alex’s flat – some sort of encryption dealie, perhaps, or a novelty keyring? – in a kind of hidey-hole in a deserted building. This again raises the issue of whether there’s something significant we’ve yet to discover about Danny.

He tries to convince some journalists that Alex was murdered, then tells Scottie, who responds with a lengthy – and moving – anecdote about how he was blackmailed out of his job as a spy. One of the papers runs with the story, although as a kinky sex ’n’ drugs exposé rather than an investigation of Establishment crimes, and then he’s invited to visit Alex’s parents for the first time, which is nerve-racking enough when your partner is still alive.

At this point, though, London Spy started to try my patience. Alex’s parents are dour, taciturn, repressed, and live in a large gloomy house in the middle of nowhere. But Danny deduces that they aren’t who they claim to be. It turns out that they’re servants to Alex’s actual parents – let’s go with it for now – who are dour, taciturn, repressed, and live in a larger gloomy house in the middle of nowhere. It’s big enough to have a maze in the garden, which Danny wanders round – ooh! Could that be a metaphor for his state of mind? – before getting a lecture from Alex’s mother (Charlotte Rampling): her son, she tells him, worked out what people wanted, and then gave it to them. Sex was just another form of deception; he was “playing the part of a conventional lover” with Danny. Now, we’ve only seen a few minutes of Alex, but that’s more than enough for us to know that he was doing nothing of the kind. Mind you, Mrs Servant liked Alex. “Get as far away from these people as you can”, she admonishes Danny when she has a chance.

It might all have been mysterious and creepy were it not so insanely annoying, and the episode really goes for broke in its final scenes, when Danny is accosted by yet another enigmatic character, this time a boiled-sweet-consuming American (Clarke Peters), who leaves his half-sucked candy for Danny to break open. It seems to contain a pill, which perhaps he can stash with the keyring. Maybe he’ll get another clue next week, and he can play 3-2-1 with the ghosts of Ted Rogers and the taciturn, enigmatic Dusty Bin. Somewhat against my better judgment, I think I’ll still be watching; the premise continues to be intriguing, and I quite like it when I have no idea where a show is going.

London Spy s1 ep 1

Warehouse worker Danny (Ben Whishaw), who we know to be a hedonist because he smokes – which is, these days, as unequivocal and potent a signifier of wanton pleasure-seeking as you’ll see on network TV – has a sort of meet-cute with taciturn merchant banker Alex (Edward Holcroft), which ultimately becomes something more. I must admit I found this a little implausible, because although Alex has cheekbones to die for, the phrase “socially awkward” barely begins to describe his apparent dissociation from the world. Danny, on the other hand, is somewhat more lively, and also looks like Ben Whishaw, making him something of a catch.

Anyway, their relationship thrives for eight months until Alex suddenly disappears. Danny – in circumstances which the show will need to explain at some point – is able to get a key to Alex’s apartment, and finds both a stash of specialist S&M equipment, and a dead body stuffed into a case, in what is a clear and presumably deliberate echo of the troubling death of Gareth Williams, although I wasn’t entirely clear whether it was Alex’s body in the case. (Maybe I missed something; maybe it’s a given.) Danny calls the police, who are clearly suspicious of him, particularly when they reveal to him one or two things he didn’t know about Alex. He runs to his patron/sugar daddy Scottie (Jim Broadbent) who, if you ask me, knows much more than he’s letting on. As might Danny, who turns out to be unexpectedly adroit at a bit of spontaneous spycraft himself.

I’m undecided, for now, about London Spy: on the one hand, although there was something admirable about the serene pace of the first two-thirds of the episode, it’d be hard to argue that there was much actually going on. On the other hand, though, I’m kind of intrigued by the premise, and Whishaw and Broadbent are always worth watching. I think I’m in for next week.