The spy story has all the makings of a good gay soap: Double lives, shadow societies, gossip—excuse me—intel. John Le Carré got there decades ago, even if it took Tomas Alfredson’s film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to make subtext text. Tom Rob Smith’s miniseries London Spy is a lot more upfront about its queerness. It’s not a spy drama with characters who happen to be gay. It’s closer to a gay drama with characters who happen to be spies. Although it’s espionage-adjacent, it’s centrally the story of a few gay men and many gay issues: the closet, HIV, social outsiderhood, and queer community. But don’t believe what they tell you. Really London Spy is a murder mystery. Now BBC America has its own True Detective season two.
Ben Whishaw plays lost boy Daniel Holt, a man who, when we meet him, is embarking on a lonely late night of dancing and drinking. We later learn he’s a recovering risk-taker and a gregarious fellow, which doesn’t seem to add up, but for now he’s hammered and alone. Maybe he just hasn’t met the right man yet. Enter Edward Holcroft’s Alex, a handsome nerd out for a morning jog. When Daniel hurls his phone at the ground in despair—nobody wants to hang out with him at 6 a.m.—he immediately regrets it, but that’s what brings Alex into his life. They bond while picking up the pieces of the shattered cell—at least they’re supposed to. Their faces reveal no spark and their deliveries reveal no charm. They must really want each other, because they’re totally dead onscreen together yet they suffer the void anyway.
The two lovers create such a vacuum that it distorts linear time. They’re already making heavy confessions on the first night. They say, “I love you,” after, like, a week. The romance is more told than shown—but first of all, so is everything else in this miniseries and second of all, they eventually shut up, quit glowering, and have sex. There’s nothing hotter than moody monologues.
Finally Alex ghosts Daniel. Here’s where time starts to come back to normal: What seems like a weekend of unreturned texts turns out to be 11 days. Crazier still, the two were together for eight months. It plays like a whirlwind—the first taste of London Spy’s uncontrolled storytelling—but now the couple’s attachment is making more sense. Then Daniel gets a mysterious package that leads him to a mysterious attic outfitted with mysterious objects like a room in Myst. In short order, Daniel learns that Alex is a spy and concludes that he’s been murdered, and resolves to figure out why.
The reasons the romance lacks life and the mystery lacks intrigue are one and the same: Plot leads character. London Spy is a game someone else is playing. Series director Jakob Verbruggen, who made Belfast such a creepy prowling grounds in the first season of The Fall, might have been able to fill in the skeletal storytelling, but London Spy, with its blend of queer, noir, and sci-fi notes, gets away from him. As for the spy story, the inciting incident is the death of the only main character who’s a spy. Instead of Daniel using tradecraft to investigate Alex’s murder, the mystery unfolds via inexplicable narration: Some enigmatic party reveals itself to Daniel, tells him something that may or may not be true, and then delivers him to his appointment with the next enigmatic party. Daniel’s job is just to put all the pieces together.
Early on, Alex reveals himself to be a sheltered weirdo. He tells Daniel he sees people as puzzles and prides himself on his ability to solve them. That’s how London Spy works: It’s a puzzle where people are the sum of their fixed positions on things. Dialogue is plain exposition couched in some kind of story. A maid at Alex’s mother’s house is always found in the kitchen, day or night, no matter whether it makes sense for her to be there or not. That’s why Alex and Daniel have such an awkward meet-cute. In London Spy, love is a flipped switch. Or as one character says, “Sex is just another form of decryption.”
The mechanical storytelling is insurmountable even for such a talented cast, but there is some satisfaction in watching Ben Whishaw sit down for an informal interrogation by Charlotte Rampling or feel out a scoundrel and potential ally played by Mark Gatiss. Nobody behaves like a human being in London Spy, but these are still extraordinary actors. Rampling’s aristocracy here illuminates her rustic brilliance in 45 Years, and Gatiss oozes into new territory himself. Best of all is Jim Broadbent as Daniel’s older friend Scottie. He’s saddled with some of the worst material, like when he’s made to stare out a window and fume as Daniel confesses some disturbing news and then at last, arbitrarily, show some compassion. But thanks to Broadbent, Scottie ultimately comes across as the most fully formed character in the series.
Shortly after Alex’s disappearance, Daniel calls Scottie an establishment cog for not helping him, and suddenly affable, old Scottie breathes fire. “Do you know just how fucking far I am from being part of the establishment?” They’re talking about his status as a government agent, but on another level they’re talking about wealthy white gays, the most mainstream color in the rainbow. From Daniel’s point of view, a man like Scottie is so assimilated he may as well be the majority. But Scottie is a man who’s been through some shit on account of his sexuality, and he knows exactly where he sits on the spectrum from outsider to insider. That’s what’s interesting about London Spy: Time and again the drama is overtly or covertly about queer life. Gay cinema like Victim and Cruising are grist for the mill. Government oppression, support groups, mommy issues, chastity, promiscuity, being denied access to institutions, forging alternative lifestyles—these are the chase scenes and dramatic betrayals of this spy story. London Spy’s abstract cerebral approach is too reductive of individual humans, but it’s just right for the macro question of what gay acceptance looks like nowadays.