Twisty Spy Show of the Week: Treason

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.

This article was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.

It’s time to watch another spy show! This week’s selection is Treason on Netflix, which I carefully chose by letting Netflix autoplay it for me after I watched last week’s spy show and because I had Covid, I couldn’t be assed to change the channel and then I was hooked. It’s a win for me because now I’m fully on a spy show kick and you all get to read about it!

Is it based on a book?

Nope. This is an original limited series written by Matt Charman, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter behind the 2015 film Bridge of Spies. Charman based this story on his research into MI6. He said “what’s always struck me about those in that line of work is how brilliantly they fit into everyday life – how well and easy it would be to meet them at a party or sit next to them on the tube, have a little chat with them and not know what they do for a living.”

I think about that all the time, about how we portray spies in fiction as these dashing characters but in reality they’re people who excel at seeming utterly normal and that means living truly boring lives 95% of the time. And then I wonder how many actual agents I’ve known. I think maybe two, but if I asked them they would obviously deny it. Or, you know, kill me. ANYWAY, I believe maybe Matt Charman did too good a job making his spy seem realistic in this show.

Is the spy a man?

As usual, yes. But! There is also a female Russian spy making his life difficult the entire time, and she functions as sort of a second protagonist.

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

Well, we pretty much start at the tippy-top of MI6, the British spy agency, so yes. And the conspiracy itself tangentially involves trying to throw the leadership election in the UK. So…double yes?

Who is our spy?

He is Adam Lawrence, the deputy chief of MI6, who is quickly promoted into the top spot in the first episode.

Is he sexy?

I cannot believe I’m saying this, but no. Adam is played by Charlie Cox. Daredevil himself! The sexiest motherfucker in a mask ever to slink the alleys of Hell’s Kitchen. And yet Adam is kinda schlumpy. In a fight, I’d rather have his former lover, the Russian spy Kara, on my side. Or his wife, Maddy, an ex-soldier. I’m so sad to have to tell you this. I adore Charlie Cox.

Does it hook you right away?

Definitely! On the one hand, Adam is at his son’s elementary school telling the kids what he does at work and making it sound boring to be the second-in-command at MI6. But at the same time, his boss, played by Ciarán Hinds, is busy blackmailing some prissy British lord over lunch at a fancy club AND THEN BEING POISONED by a sexy waitress. We don’t even know who to root for here. It’s fantastic.

Is there romance?

This is hard to answer. Kara, the Russian ex-spy, is also Adam’s ex-lover. But are there still sparks between them? Yes, though not necessarily romantic sparks. Meanwhile, his wife Maddy is obviously a romantic partner. Early on, she’s suspicious and jealous of Kara and she spends far too much time trying to figure out what’s going on there, given that she is ex-military and knows that her husband is now the chief of MI6. The woman is aware of how classified operations work! You don’t get to ask why your husband’s acting shifty when he runs MI6, is what I’m saying.

As the show goes on, though, the two women are forced to interact more and they end up forming the most interesting–and satisfying–connection of the entire series. But no, it’s not romantic.

Are the bad guys interesting?

They are, largely because it’s difficult to tell who exactly one should consider the bad guys. In the end, a lot of typical good guys are bad guys here. And Kara, played by Olga Kurylenko, is terrific.

Any big stars?

Ciarán Hinds is probably the biggest. In addition to Cox and Kurylenko, there’s also Oona Chaplin as Adam’s wife Maddy.

Will there be more?

Unlikely. It was called a limited series, which seems to mean Netflix doesn’t intend it to continue. And that’s a shame, because Maddy makes a vow of revenge at the end that I’d very much like to see her keep, and a show starring Chaplin and Kurylenko’s characters would be a treat.

Should you watch it?

Maybe. If you have Covid like I did (or even just a bad hangover) and are too weak to lift the remote, there are way worse ways to spend a day. It’s only five episodes long and the pace is fast, the acting’s good, and London looks great. Watch it for Maddy and Kara. Watch it for Ciarán Hinds. Just don’t watch it for Daredevil.

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