Twisty Spy Show of the Week: The Recruit

Laura J. Burns
Laura J. Burns writes books, writes for TV, and sometimes writes TV based on books and books based on TV. She will never, however, write a poem. She’s the managing editor of The Antagonist.

It’s winter! Winter sucks. Let’s curl up under blankets and binge spy shows. There’s always adrenaline-pumping action and hot spies to keep you warm in the winter chill. This week’s entry is The Recruit on Netflix.

Is it based on a book?

Nope. Seems like this time, the story was based on reality. Which is kinda horrifying, actually. Nobody wants to know what’s really going on at the CIA, both because it’s presumably terrible shit and because we’re not supposed to know about it since that would be, you know, a national security issue. Or would it? I don’t know! If they told me, they’d have to kill me. Anyway, I’m gonna go ahead and assume that executive producers Adam Ciralsky (who used to work for the CIA and lives to tell the tale) and Alexi Hawley have fictionalized this story so much that actual CIA agents just laugh when they watch it. The same way I laugh when I watch movies about book editors who wear designer suits to work and live in palatial NYC apartments.

Is the spy a man?

Does the CIA lie about everything? Of course he’s a man! I mean, technically he’s not a spy, as he keeps telling everyone. He’s a lawyer. For the CIA. But since he’s the main character in a spy show and he’s forever being followed and shot at and threatened and tortured and propositioned for sex, he’s obviously a spy.

Does the conspiracy go to THE HIGHEST LEVELS????

Hard to tell. There’s a conspiracy in here somewhere, I think. And the Chief of Staff to the President of the United States is maybe involved? But it’s super unclear what that conspiracy is or if it really matters at all. Or if it’s even truly a conspiracy instead of regular office politics at the CIA. And those sentences I just wrote may be the most “this show is based on reality” part of the entire series.

Who is our spy?

Owen Hendricks, a 24-year-old mess of a lawyer. He’s got daddy issues AND mommy issues, an unresolved crush on his ex-girlfriend/roommate, and an unhealthy addiction to following his gut. Also, his gut is dumb. One field operative tells him he fits the profile of a field agent and is wasted in the office of the General Counsel, but apparently Owen doesn’t like the field agents because they’re the “cool kids” who bullied him all his life and as a lawyer he gets to make their lives harder. Go, asshole lawyer! It’s not often you root for that guy. Still, though, he’s dumb. He’s always being told to pay attention to how naive he is, but he continues to fumble. It doesn’t seem to bother him much, though. Owen appears to think his ability to take a punch is some kind of super power. And so far it is.

Is he sexy?

Sort of. He’s easy on the eyes, at least. He’s played by Noah Centineo of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, but now we’re allowed to acknowledge that he’s not actually a teenager. There’s still a puppyish quality about him that keeps him from being sexy in my eyes, but your mileage may vary.

The Recruit. Noah Centineo as Owen Hendricks in episode 101 of The Recruit. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

Does it hook you right away?

We start in the middle of the action and then cut away to go back in time and explain things. I feel like this device has been used so often that it’s gotten boring, so I’m going to say no.

Is there romance?

Not as much as you’d think. Owen gets around, managing to sleep with with a coworker at the CIA and an asset in the field, but it’s all casual sex. Which I appreciate! It’s fun! Especially his situationship with Amelia, another CIA lawyer who specifically dates him for the sex, sets all the rules, sees right through him, and spends her post-coital time practicing to be a TV pundit in the private fake TV studio she’s set up in her spare room. Amelia’s the best! She gets an intro to Owen by agreeing to trade dirt on him in return, never does, enjoys the sex, looks out for him whenever she can, and dumps him as soon as he becomes inconvenient. She’s my hero.

But Owen’s true love is his roommate and ex-girlfriend, Hannah. She’s got a boyfriend, rich parents, and an unhealthy habit of bailing Owen out of trouble. Hannah and Owen went to law school together. She grew up in DC. She really should know better than to keep sticking her nose into his job at the CIA. I’m just saying.

Are the bad guys interesting?

Yes. The main “bad guy” is also the second main character, Max Meladze. She’s a former Russian mafia operative-turned-CIA-asset who spends the season blackmailing Owen (well, the CIA via Owen) into doing whatever it takes to return her to the field in Belarus. But because we spend so much time with Max, we get to know her and like her. We understand why she beats a man to death with a crowbar and ends up in a Phoenix jail, for example. And we can’t help but sympathize with her when she feels she has to hedge her bets because she fears Owen will be too stupid to do what he needs to do on any given mission. Max and Owen have a great cat-and-mouse relationship that fuels the first season of the show. It’s hard to say whether the series would work as well without it.

Any big stars?

No A-listers show up, but Vondie Curtis-Hall is a delight as Owen’s boss at the CIA, and Nathan Fillion pops up out of nowhere at one point. It’s mostly Noah Centineo’s party, though.

Will there be more?

Yup! Season two is shooting now, and they’ve added some great new cast members including Teo Yoo (Past Lives) and James Purefoy, who is delicious in everything. The first season ended on a major cliffhanger, so it’s good to know they’re continuing.

Should you watch it?

Why the hell not? It’s a slick, fun show that never makes you think too hard. The cast is beautifully diverse and everyone’s doing good work. There’s some levity in the form of Owen’s jealous coworkers and a running bit about how many suits he keeps ruining. And if you’re like me, the absolute ridiculousness of a show that travels from DC to Arizona to Yemen to Vienna to DC to Arizona (several times) and then casually reveals that it’s only been a week is hilarious all on its own. Time zones don’t exist, nor do flight times! One day Owen travels cross country and back, then goes to a black tie event for hours, and THEN has a date at 8pm that night. It almost reminds me of Alias in its brazen absurdity. Don’t ask questions, just put it on and zone out.

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