Three different miniseries. Three different networks. Three varyingly successful takes on the European underworld. One naked Tom Hiddleston.
Becoming a man is realizing it’s all rotten. Realizing how to celebrate that rottenness…now that’s freedom.
–Richard Roper in The Night Manager
This has been a surprisingly fruitful spring for fans of imported drama, and conglomerate AMC Media has been indirectly responsible, broadcasting a slate of “limited series” from across the pond on three of its sister networks. Earlier this year, the trippy London Spy, starring Ben Whishaw, aired on BBC America. Over on Sundance TV, the grimier and more sprawling The Last Panthers wrapped up last week, while The Night Manager, the hotly-anticipated (by me) John le Carré adaptation with an all-star cast, concluded just last night.
I had originally planned to write up all of these shows as they aired, but their thematic similarities (as well as my lack of time) make it worthwhile to compare and contrast them more directly. Each series is the product of a single director and a single writer, for better or worse. Each series boasts a handful of terrific performances, and an almost gratuitously “artistic” opening credits sequence. But each series also imbues their cloak-and-dagger stories with unique worldviews and degrees of glamour, even if their conclusions are similarly melancholy. The same actions — murder, betrayal, institutional corruption — play very differently when the audience is asked to connect to an impossibly suave Tom Hiddleston, or a haunted detective from Marseilles, or the justifiably paranoid victim of circumstance played by Whishaw in London Spy.
The Night Manager is the glossier, more brightly-colored series, belying the moral ambiguity of its source material. It wants so badly to instead be a James Bond story, right down to the oft-swelling musical score and impeccably tailored suits. Hiddleston certainly looks the part, nothing but pure, cool elegance in his performance-within-a-performance, and considering how bookkeepers in the UK have recently closed the betting on who will replace Daniel Craig, it seems these six episodes were his audition.
Hiddleston plays Jonathan Pine, the titular night manager of a Cairo hotel who falls for a damsel in distress only to see her murdered on the orders of Richard Roper (a smirking Hugh Laurie), a famous titan of industry who happens to be secretly running a billion-dollar weapons ring. Despite a lack of training of any kind, he volunteers to embed himself in Roper’s operation to help intelligence agent Angela Burr (the great Olivia Colman, Broadchurch) bring him down.
The problem, unfortunately, both with the plan (as scripted by David Farr) and the miniseries at large (as directed by In a Better World‘s Susanne Bier), is that Pine — or “Andrew Birch,” as he becomes known — is not nearly as clever as we’re supposed to think he is. While he does yeoman’s work to earn the trust of Roper, first saving his son from a fake kidnapping, later laying on the charm to secure a major sale, Pine just can’t stop himself from succumbing to his baser, Bond-ier impulses. The moment Roper’s girlfriend, Jed (Elizabeth Debicki) slinks onto the veranda, we know exactly what’s going to happen between her and Pine, and how terrible an idea it is. It’s a well-worn genre trope, like the double-crossing or the speedboats. But why in God’s name are there so many scenes of Pine and Jed making goo-goo eyes at each other in full view of Roper? And how does Roper not pick up on that, like, immediately? It’s maddening, and much more a symptom of clumsy staging than anything else.
Leaving aside the narrative conveniences and questionable decision-making, The Night Manager is still an appealing series, going down as smooth as vermouth. The locations are breathtaking; the actors, often presented in poreless closeups, are gorgeous; the story is engaging and straightforward enough that you don’t have to think too hard while watching it. And one performer in particular is nearly worth it all on his own: Tom Hollander (not to be confused with Tom Holland, Spider-Man) as Roper’s flamboyantly acidic lieutenant, Corky. He is immediately — and rightly — suspicious of Pine the moment they meet, and goes out of his way to intimate the ways in which he will destroy him, with Hollander’s diminutive frame comically contrasted against Hiddleston’s cool drink of water. In one scene Corky advises him to “fill [his] pockets with stones, walk into the sea, and keep going,” delivered with such dripping disdain that I realized I would rather be watching a prequel series just centered on the Rise of Corky. He’s delightful.
I may have made more negative than positive comments here, but don’t get me wrong — I enjoyed The Night Manager. It’s not a bad way to spend six hours. Yet its pleasures are fleeting and disappointingly hollow, especially considering how of these three series, it comes closest to delivering a “happy ending.”
The Last Panthers isn’t interested in happy endings, or satisfying its audience on any emotional level. It’s also, almost defiantly, not the breezy Euro-Ocean’s Eleven it was marketed as on Sundance TV (not the show’s fault at all, but it bears mentioning). The hook is “diamond thieves doggedly pursued by police,” but that is only a small piece of the story Jack Thorne wants to tell in six hours, and is quickly discarded for murkier, more politically-charged ideas, making this series more difficult to recommend to casual viewers.
There are ostensibly three leads: the first is Milan (Goran Bogdan), a Serbian transplant and, quite literally, one of the last remaining members of the notorious Panthers, who have wreaked havoc across Eastern Europe for decades. After the Marseilles heist in the opening sequence goes awry, Milan finds himself returning home, reconnecting with old mentors, enemies, and friends-turned-enemies. The Panthers are a dead symbol, he realizes, because these former gangsters have traded in their AK-47s for pressed suits and fingers in government pies. Meanwhile, he is hunted by both a local French detective, Khalil (Tahar Rahim, bearded), whose own cultural identity and family troubles leave him vulnerable, and by British agent Naomi (Samantha Morton), who has been ordered to bring back the diamonds by a boss (John Hurt, on auto-pilot) harboring his own secrets.
It’s not just that the series is complex, but that it lacks emotional continuity: allegiances shift abruptly and without clear motivation, and Thorne makes the fatal mistake of assuming we have empathy for particular side characters just because our protagonists do. While there are some pretty cool sequences (a prison break-via-helicopter particularly comes to mind) and impressive authenticity in its locations, its tone is chilly, and events simply play out on screen in a perfunctory way. The repeated brake-pumping for flashbacks, all shot with heavy film grain and desaturation, grates for the first two-thirds of the series; only the episode dedicated to Milan’s “origin story” amidst the war in Kosovo, and his surprising connection to Naomi, generates the kind of intensity first promised in the premiere. Panthers skates from there toward an action-heavy conclusion that is appropriately downbeat, but it has nothing to say that we haven’t heard before.
What Last Panthers does have going for it, however, is “Blackstar,” the credits song David Bowie specifically wrote and performed for the series (before becoming the title track on his final album), and that’s probably worth a half-letter grade, right?
And then there’s London Spy, the boldest of these offerings, the most psychologically complex, but ultimately exceeding the grasp of first-time showrunner Tom Rob Smith. It starts extremely well: Ben Whishaw is Danny, a young gay man who has recently escaped a dangerous scene of excess and self-destruction, whose chance meeting and tender relationship with Alex (Edward Holcraft, an utter blank slate throughout) restores him to psychological health. Until, unfortunately, Alex is murdered, and the aftermath is equally disturbing: not only is Danny the prime suspect, he learns Alex was actually a genius codebreaker for the British Government. Danny’s efforts to uncover the truth and prove his own innocence pit him against insidious forces both home and abroad, but the series functions best as psychological thriller, instead of anything having to do with actual espionage.
The second episode of five, “Strangers,” best exemplifies its strengths. Danny spends the hour attempting to connect with Alex’s parents, but his almost “female intuition,” as one character calls it, soon clues him in that things are not as they appear. In fact, the truth — and ultimate truth, eventually revealed via monologue in Spy‘s bizarrely nonsensical finale — is much more twisted, but the success of the storytelling in the early going can be attributed largely to Daniel Verbruggen’s direction and Laurie Rose’s cinematography, a mini-masterpiece of mood and patient screw-tightening. Where the writing falters, the visual style and nervy central performance from Whishaw balance the scales.
Like with Night Manager and Last Panthers, the real villains are the institutions that are supposed to be on the forces of good, but instead enable the darkness for their own ends. We’ve been so trained as viewers of everything from 24 to The Wire to distrust authority figures, the better to see the protagonists as lonely crusaders swimming upstream against corruption and decay. Where London Spy sidesteps this, at least, is by placing its focus on the emotional gravity of its story. Danny doesn’t really care who is pulling which strings, or what world-changing secret Alex uncovered before his death — and, frankly, neither do we.
Instead, we just want him to find peace, and are much more invested in his paternal relationship with Scottie (a marvelous Jim Broadbent), who helps him navigate both the landscapes of spycraft and Danny’s myriad identity crises. There’s an entire unspoken history there, and Scottie’s stories of his own younger days as a closeted agent in deeply conservative Britain are tinged with heartbreak. London Spy really earns empathy for its characters. Too bad it betrays them at the end, with a final twist so implausible it would have been better if the series’s central mystery had just gone unanswered altogether.
Taken together, these three miniseries represent only the median of what TV thrillers can do, complementing each others’ strengths and weaknesses. The Night Manager is a feast for the eyes; The Last Panthers is a clinical exercise in plotting; London Spy, in its best moments, rattles you to the soul. There’s one for every taste, even if none of them ever rise to true greatness. But as more and more storytellers seize the opportunities TV and streaming networks afford, exponentially expanding viewers’ choices while diluting the pool, one thing becomes clearer: “good enough for TV” is no longer good enough. For that reason, at least, I will always make room on my DVR for ambitious series like these.
Especially when there are spies involved.
The Night Manager: B
The Last Panthers: C+
London Spy: B-