'The Honorable Woman' deals deftly with a complex subject

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Image Credit: Robert Viglasky/Sundance Channel

Nessa Stein is Batman. She’s born into a world of wealth and privilege. She’s lost both of her parents, and even watched her father’s gruesome death enacted before her. And now, bound to no specific law, she wields her parents’ power.

But Nessa doesn’t live in Gotham City. She’s a second generation Israeli. Her father wasn’t a do-gooder philanthropist but a Holocaust survivor–turned–weapons manufacturer. And while Nessa begins The Honorable Woman by donning a new costume (the ceremonial member robes of House of Lords), her actions are predicated not on some abstract ideal, but a series of compromises. You wonder whether she can do any good at all.

The Honorable Woman doesn’t label right or wrong, at least during its pilot. But because of its setting—a version of the Middle East that would have been realistic months ago but now seems almost peaceful—that refusal to take sides makes it both easier to condemn and more suspenseful. For now, the pilot is a stunning tightrope walk: a fairly standard thriller that’s propelled by its sensitivity to its subject and subject matter.

We begin with Nessa’s voiceover flashback, a bit of diplomatic doubletalk that Maggie Gyllenhaal delivers in through the shield of a perfect British accent. “We all have our secrets,” seems to be the point, and our own reasons for them. Her reason for secrecy (and her brother Ephra’s) is just more obvious—the murder of her father by a waiter before her very eyes.

Twenty-nine years later, another death has a less obvious cause: Samir Meshal, a Palestinian, hangs himself in his country’s flag. There’s a sealed letter on his desk, and if the ominous solo violin on the soundtrack tells us anything, it’s that foul play is definitely involved. This throws a wrench into things, as Meshal was supposed to be the recipient of contract for phase three of Nessa’s company’s plan to expand broadband internet from Israel into Palestinian territory.

Nessa preps for the announcement in the same room as her father was murdered in, just as Shlomo, an Israeli contractor and friend of the the family, bugs Ephra, her philanthropist brother, about whether or not he’ll get the contract. He doesn’t, but along the way, we’re also introduced to Ephra’s pregnant wife Rachel (Katherine Parkinson of The IT Crowd) and his children: foremost among them is Kasim, who has a habit of wandering off. Kasim’s picked up in the kitchen by the Stein’s babysitter, Atika, who seems to have secrets of her own.

After Nessa announces the contract, she and Ephra meet with Shlomo for a superficial “I’m sorry” and a more substantial accusation that he’s connected to Hezbollah. Shlomo claims whatever documents link him to the terrorist group must be fake, but Nessa (and Ephra, who seems more involved than he puts on) effectively forces him out. She’s not worried about lining up enemies, however, this is the Middle East. Here, “enemies is what you make.”

Finally, one last bit of intrigue pops up on the way out of the hotel—Monica Chatwin, a British woman in uniform, who tells Nessa she’s been assigned to her out of the foreign office. Nessa’s team assures her that Chatwin’s actually MI6, but the bigger reveal comes from a conversation between Ephra and Chatwin, where Chatwin promises that his secret is safe with her.

Cutting away to a London elevator shaft, two old spies banter about their respective not-that-distinguished careers (a necessary scene in every British TV series). One of them, Hugh (Stephen Rea) has slept with more than a couple of women, almost as a way of forwarding his career. As evidence, Hugh shows up at his ex-wife Anjelica’s front door to deliver an unsuccessful apology for his infidelity. “Most people get f—ed by their job,” she responds, “not for it.”

From there, The Honorable Woman cuts between Nessa and Hugh as they both become convinced that Meshal’s suicide was likely a murder. The sequences builds into a montage set to the tune of Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely” as Nessa and Hugh both ponder their failures and fears. The choice of music’s a little on the nose, but it’s carried by the way Gyllenhaal complicates Nessa’s sense of isolation and imprisonment—making it seem both forced upon her by family history and somehow almost comfortable and self-imposed. She half wants to disappear.

The two-part story continues as Nessa and Hugh head out to their own discreet rendezvous—Hugh for a chess match with Judah, a member of the Israeli intelligence who denies foul play in Meshal’s murder, Nessa for dinner with Atika. It seemed like Nessa and Atika might share a secret, and just to prove it, Atika reassures her “they will never find out.” Atika heads home, shares a terse exchange with Ephra (“she needs me”) and then sings Kasim to sleep.

In a flashback to eight years ago, Atika and Nessa are driving in Rafah, on the Gaza Strip. Attackers ambush their vehicle, and Atika is forcibly abducted from the car. Cutting back to the present, Atika removes Kasim’s GPS watch after tucking him in bed and lets it turn off.

A Palestinian representative tells Nessa that Meshal has become a martyr for his people. She has to choose a new partner for her deal, and if she chooses a Palestinian or Israeli, either side will likely become angry.

Amid this rising tension, Nessa heads to a charity concert with Ephra and the kids. Before the music starts, however, the lights go off and Kasim’s lost in the crowd. Nessa sees him with a strange man, and chases after him into the London night. She confronts him in front of a park statue, where he pulls a gun—only to be shot by her bodyguard (Tobias Menzies). If you think he’s safe, you haven’t watched enough thrillers—Tobias is shot by two men, who pull Kasim away and ride off on a motorcycle. The pilot ends with a shot of Atika at work. She looks straight at the camera, somehow involved.

In one episode, The Honorable Woman has given itself 29 years worth of intrigue to unravel (plus centuries of history to play off of). Given that subject matter, it’s almost a surprise that the show moves slowly—and is a little too obsessed with its shots of billowing curtains and falling chess pieces—but it’s also likely the series will heat up very soon. If not, Gyllenhaal’s performance is still worth tuning in for.

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