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London Spy – Another BBC Gem on Netflix

Utterly brilliant and beautiful.  Cinematically captivating and fearless in its portrayal of the truth as real, meaningful and important in our lives.  BBC’s London Spy starring Ben Wishsaw examines the idea and the reality that the truth, in all its forms, is both beautiful and vital, ugly and dangerous.  In the lives of Danny (Ben Wishsaw) and Alex ( Edward Holcroft) the truth is real, lies are real, and everything in between is action and response.  To fully understand why British critics have, at times panned this show is to contemplate what it must be like to have so much amazing television to watch that the remarkable is merely mundane.  I, for one, am so utterly grateful to the BBC for producing quality television, and saving me from having to watch American sitcoms, that I was ready to give them my first born, except that she is fourteen and objects to the idea.

London Spy follows Danny, a young nightclubbing, drug abuser, a handsome and lonely gay man, whose chance meeting with Alex leaves them both speechless and mesmerized by each other.  In short, they fall quickly and inexorably in love.  If opposites really do attract, then these two characters are unavoidably fated to bond.  Danny the gregarious, sensitive, free spirit and Alex, whose real name is Alistair, a guarded introvert who, as it turns out is a British spy, are both injured souls seeking healing.  They find in each other what they’ve longed for from their parents, from their friends, from their very existence:  unconditional love.

As rare as that is, I found myself hoping against all logic and circumstance that they could really be together.  The story, as written by Tom Rob Smith, deftly leads us through the story arc as defined by, boy meets boy, boy falls for boy, they encounter their first troubling obstacle:  “What is true?”  While Danny opens up about his self-destructive past choices,  Alex finds it impossible to tell Danny the whole truth; he is stuck in an extraordinary reality.  And this reality could be the undoing of them both.  After Danny finds Alex’s body in circumstances totally foreign to Alex’s true nature, he descends into a nightmare of police arrest, personal exposure in the newspapers, outright lies being treated as the truth.  But Danny’s own certainty of his truth is what keeps him going.

The unparalleled performances of this cast create a seamless story in which the audience experiences every emotional beat, from falling in love, to the first awkward sexual experience, and the intimacy it provides.  When Alex reveals to Danny that he is still a virgin, his vulnerability is palpable.  Danny is pure love and understanding in response.  Another intimate moment in the story reveals the underlying vulnerability of us all.  If sex is the creation of life, in our time it can also be the destruction of it.  One of the most powerful scenes of the series takes place when Danny goes to the clinic to be tested for the AIDS virus, and it comes up positive.  His reaction is honest and painful to watch.  Still, the director, very rightly keeps his lens trained on Danny and won’t let us escape, just as Danny cannot escape the reality of having to wait, alone for the results.  Where many might give in to their fear and grief, Danny allows himself to be comforted by his only other true friend.  As we learn later, his suspicions of being purposely infected by MI6 are correct.  This is a turning point for Danny, and for the audience.  Whatever happens next, he is all in, with nothing to lose.

And, as in real life, this is the time when we can see things most clearly.  When Danny first meets Alex’s parents, after his death, their stolid reserve and even angry silence, completely explain Alex’s personality, and fill in other gaps for Danny.  Much to their frustration Danny sees through their charade, just as his up front nature insists on the truth from them.  And what an ugly truth it is.  Danny’s closest friend outside of Alex, a former spy himself, once says to him, “The question is, how much of the truth do you really want to know?”  Fearlessly, Danny wants to know all of it.  He has faced his own parent’s rejection, and now he faces it with Alex’s.  Danny’s character is brave beyond expectation as he sifts through the stories told to him by Alex’s “mother”.  He quickly and instinctually discerns the truth of things, and the consequences are like those of an earthquake’s after shocks.  What is he to do?  How far will he go now that he knows much of the truth?  His courage inspires Alex’s mother to take a chance she would otherwise never have taken.  It even inspires others in the intellectual community to help him despite danger to their own lives.  Indeed, courage is catching, and I found myself hoping that I would be like him if I were so unlucky as to be in the same circumstance.

As we wait for the next season, and I truly hope there is one, we might contemplate where the story will take us next, but perhaps we should also contemplate truth and courage, and what they might look like in our own lives.



London Spy is a British-American five-part drama television serial created and written by Tom Rob Smith that aired on BBC Two from 9 November until 7 December 2015.    It can now be seen on Netflix.

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Melody Stewart is the founder of act.land and President of iactingstudioskc.com. She is a filmmaker in Kansas City.