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Even before the success of FX’s excellent drama The Americans, it was a mystery why television didn’t delve more thoroughly into the uniquely compelling world of spies, historically, as the film world has done so well. But with the acclaim — and audience — of The Americans growing, it wouldn’t be unexpected to see a rapid increase in spy vs. spy series popping up everywhere (never mind that FX already has a great animated spy series in Archer).
Of course, the Brits have always had a fondness for the genre, so it’s with welcome and open arms that the six-part miniseries The Game arrives on BBC America. The network has dabbled in spies before, but the affinity of late has been for miniseries rather than serialized dramas. And that’s fine, given that The Game can serve as a closed-ended story and yet come back for more as well (making it more of an anthology like True Detective and Fargo — but whatever the name, bring it on).
The Game is particularly British, but fans of BBC America understand inherently that’s the conceit going into it — Anglophiles are willing to learn about history that isn’t their own. And so it is that series creator Toby Whithouse (Being Human, Doctor Who) has set this particular story in 1972, based around escalating Cold War tensions among the British and the Soviets.
The series jumps into the fray (a wink and a nod there to inside-MI5 nicknames) rather quickly, with the discovery that the Soviet Union is waking up sleeper agents all across England in what the Brits rightly suss out to be something very dangerous. As with all Cold War stories, regardless of origin, it’s important to remember what the tenor of the times was then — and it was fear, period. Nuclear war and the rise of communism were huge bogeymen for anyone involved.
The Game starts immediately with a tip from a Soviet informant that a large operation is already underway and British agents are a step behind in figuring out what the Soviets are up to. At first, there’s doubt that the Soviets are truly engaging in something big — doubt and deception being the calling cards of espionage. But when the Brits get a whiff of the implications of the alleged Soviet plan, all bets are off on how to play the game, as spies call it (also “the great game”).
In a nice little tweak to spy convention (and one that hints at real-life spy issues in England at the time), the miniseries opens with MI5 agent Joe Lambe (Tom Hughes) looking to make a dubious deal with the Soviets in an effort to save Yulia (Zana Marjanovic), whom Lambe not only turned against her country but fell in love with (spies are people too …). When the deal implodes, Lambe finds his life at a crossroads. He can go back to MI5 but it’s with the interior knowledge that he’d been compromised and his loyalty put into question, no matter how few knew about it.
But Lambe is valuable and knows his foe, so he’s recruited into a special task force by Daddy (Brian Cox, who should be in all spy stories). Daddy — which just gets creepier the more you hear it — is the complicated MI5 leader who knows that a win right now is essential to the survival of all of England. Along with Lambe, he recruits Sarah Montag (Victoria Hamilton), who looks to be in line to be the next head of MI5 — no small feat in the male-dominated world of spies and government agencies. In addition, the team has Alan Montag (Jonathan Aris), the shy, quirky technical whiz who is married to Sarah and thus hears all the slings and barbs about how odd their relationship is — her career in lights, his as more support-staff afterthought.
In one of the quirkiest bits of this spy series, there’s another character, Bobby Waterhouse (Paul Ritter) whose connections to England’s upper class have made him a powerful player — but not nearly as powerful as his own mother, Hester (Judy Parfitt), who degrades her grown son and, in one amazing scene, twists his ear so violently she floors him. It’s little touches like this that lend additional intrigue to the already smart and well-paced Game.
Some viewers, however, may feel like Britain’s MI5 in 1972 really needed a lot more firepower, as several crucial scenes play out with the thinnest of weaponry and less than a surgical-strike mentality we get in modern spy stories.
The Game, however, isn’t about all of that — it’s about characters and their slow unraveling along with the mystery at hand. Whithouse has assembled a superb cast of relative unknowns who support the main Hughes-Cox tandem and add layers (mother Hester, for example).
Having seen two of the six episodes, they were enough to want more in a hurry and foster a hope that The Game can, beyond this season, be a series or anthology that continues. After all, FX can’t have all the great spy shows — and TV needs to lean into this genre a lot more than it has, historically. There’s a rich load of drama to pay off here, no matter the year it’s set.
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