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As we head into the Christmas holidays, it seems like a good time for my semi-annual discussion of in medias res openings. You know, that thing where something exciting but confusing is happening for a minute or two at the top of a TV episode and then you get a “Two Weeks Earlier” title card.
You see them all the time and mostly, I hate to say, they’re not very good.
As I figure it, there are exactly two correct uses for an in medias res opening.
Use one: Present a scene so outlandish and packed with bizarre details that curiosity is unavoidable. A man wakes up in bed. The camera pulls back to reveal that he’s spooning with Dr. Ruth. The camera pulls back to reveal that the man and Dr. Ruth are surrounded by the corpses of 50 adorable white rabbits. The camera pulls back further to reveal that the bed is actually outside and on the observation deck at the Empire State Building. The man looks down at Dr. Ruth. He’s confused. “GRANDMA?!?” he utters. Hard cut to “One Week Earlier.”
This is a situation that utterly demands explanation, and if you promise me a satisfying resolution for it, I will watch 15 seasons of prelude in order to reach that destination.
Use Two: The in medias res event and the situation we cut back to are so diametrically in contrast that curiosity is unavoidable. A woman with bright fuchsia hair is being tortured by men shouting at her in Mandarin. She seems helpless and terrified under the pressure. Cut to the same woman, now a brunette, in an ornate, but comforting university exam room, facing the pressure of … finishing an exam. Yes, that’s the first two minutes of Alias and it’s one of the best two-minute pilot openings in television history.
Nobody did in medias res openings as well as J.J. Abrams and company on Alias (at least for a while), which is part of why the in medias res starters for a pair of new Netflix spy shows are so thuddingly disappointing and unnecessary. If Abrams made A-lias, Netflix’s The Recruit and Treason are basically C+-lias — not exactly bad, but unavoidably in the shadow of a superior original that’s available for streaming if you just head over to Hulu instead.
Both shows also make the very same error in their respective in medias res openings — an error that points to central flaws in both shows. They launch their pilots with completely unremarkable, thoroughly genre-standard spy beginnings — a guy running in the snow with a gun, two people being ominously observed by a sniper — so completely forgettable that by the time the main story caught up with the opening, I’d forgotten that the in medias res opening existed at all.
A good in medias res opening needs to be unforgettable. It needs to be something where 20 percent of your brain is always thinking, “Is this the part where the show is going to explain the 50 adorably dead white rabbits?” Otherwise, you’re just using the structuring device as a perfunctory excuse to start with some action in order to buy yourself 40 minutes of subsequent exposition, which is absolutely what both The Recruit and Treason are doing.
There endeth my lecture on in medias res openings. On to Treason, which, if I’m being honest, is probably more of a C+ version of 24 than a C+ version of Alias But 24 had its own structuring device that allowed it to tell instantly gripping stories without ever resorting to “Two Weeks Earlier” shenanigans.
Charlie Cox plays Adam Lawrence, deputy to the head of MI6 or possibly deputy head of MI6. It’s unclear if this would be a real distinction or if the show cares if it would be a distinction. Adam’s boss is Sir Martin Angelis, an intelligence services legend played by Ciaran Hinds, who receives the “With” credit here — two facts that should be minor spoilers immediately.
Martin is quickly poisoned by a mysterious Russian woman (Olga Kurylenko). She’s Kara, she has both a professional and personal past with Adam and she’s invested in Adam’s swift ascension to the top of MI6 (a thing that, again, makes very little sense under the circumstances, but you’re either going to go with it or you won’t).
Adam has to figure out what Kara’s motivations are and whether or not she’s the only foreign agent targeting him and his precarious department. Evidence begins to misleadingly suggest to everybody other than the audience (keeping viewers over-informed is another weird choice) that Adam might be compromised, as in he might be committing the title of the show.
Adam’s wife Maddy (Oona Chaplin) is concerned about the risks of his new job, son Callum (Simon Leakey) is excited about the perks of his new job and sullen teen daughter Ella (Beau Gadsdon) is a teenager in a television political thriller, so her only personality traits are “sullen” and “kidnappable.” And that’s barely a spoiler because this is basically the only purpose that teenage daughters have in shows like this, especially in countries without an available supply of menacing mountain lions. Long live Kim Bauer.
Created by Matt Charman (Bridge of Spies), Treason is only five episodes long and each episode is under 46 minutes, making it one of those shows in which brevity is both its best and worst quality. It unquestionably races along — and would race with the same momentum without the in medias res opening — with characters constantly rushing off to secretive meetings at different London locations selected, apparently, for the presence of large signs identifying places like Soho Square and the Borough Market. It isn’t condensed quite to that 24 level, but the events of the story take place within possibly two or three days and manage to be too derivative for the show to earn much credit as plot-driven and too rushed for it to succeed as character-driven.
There are elements of political intrigue, with a British election as a backdrop, but nothing with enough depth to count as nuance. There are elements of contemporary resonance, with Russian intelligence as a nefarious adversary, but nothing with enough depth to count as nuance. The presence of a completely random CIA operative (Tracy Ifeachor’s Dede) making a mess of everything could count as commentary on the state of American imperialism, but nothing the character does in five episodes makes a lick of sense. Treason relies too frequently on the familiar genre trope of allegedly smart people doing stupid things — a key point of differentiation with Apple TV+’s London-set espionage drama Slow Horses, in which characters do stupid things but those stupid things are grounded in character-driven flaws and balanced nicely by the clever things being done.
The Treason main characters have one trait or backstory detail apiece and the supporting characters are just… there. Adam has at least three or four colleagues in his MI6 inner sanctum who barely have names, much less personalities, a fact that drains any weight or surprise when one turns out to be surprisingly corrupt and another surprisingly honorable. You can’t have a character reversal when there isn’t an established starting point for them to reverse from.
The characters may be thin, but the cast is good. Cox conveys a general sense of Everyman decency — though, even if he isn’t as compromised as his enemies think, he’s more compromised than the show thinks. Kurylenko is effectively inscrutable, though the series doesn’t give us the information necessary to judge her, much less understand her. Chaplin is giving probably the best performance in the series — with the possible exception of Hinds’ effortless chilly arrogance — despite a character defined exclusively by having once been in the military.
Netflix is calling Treason a “limited series,” but the finale sets up a second season, one that could be more interesting and distinctive than the first. I’m still more interested in finding out what happened with those adorable dead rabbits.
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