Keep It Like a Secret: The Elegant Wonder of ‘The Honorable Woman’

If you watch enough soccer, you become familiar with the idea of players passing in triangles. It’s one of the tenets of possession-based soccer; in order to keep the ball circulating, three players carve open a defense by passing among themselves. Sometimes, this action, when done by a team as good as Barcelona, can be as interesting as the score line.

Sundance Channel’s The Honorable Woman, a BBC coproduction that airs its fourth of eight episodes in the U.S. tonight at 10 ET, moves in triangles as well. And as with soccer, you can find yourself getting lost, appreciating the elegance with which the story moves along, without worrying all that much about where it’s going.

Andy Greenwald sold me on this show when he wrote about it after it premiered. If you say something has set its phasers “to full le Carré,” then I am going to watch it. The show is about Nessa Stein, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and her attempts to live a life without compromise. That’s hard enough in the modern world, but Nessa is trying to transform her late father’s arms business into a philanthropic force for good in the Middle East. Things, as you can imagine, get complicated.

Everything Andy told you about the show is right. This is the best I’ve ever seen Maggie Gyllenhaal, the show is intelligent but not at all ponderous, and it feels old-fashioned — so much business gets done on park benches — while not ignoring that modern terror and espionage has gone digital.

An eight-episode run suggests that a lot gets covered in a short amount of time, and that’s certainly the case. But the way that writer/director/producer Hugo Blick tells this story never feels rushed. And it’s in those quieter moments that the show’s wonder reveals itself. That’s where these triangles come into play.

There’s the triangle of Gyllenhaal’s Nessa — the titular honorable woman — her brother Ephra, and the shadow of their late father, Eli Stein, described as “the sword of Israel.” There’s Nessa, Ephra, and the Palestinian nanny who lives in Ephra’s house, Atika. Then there are the triangles that form out of various nations, or agencies, or ideas. Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and England. MI6, the CIA, and the Israeli government. And within those agencies and governing bodies, characters pass along information — between Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle, MI6’s lame-duck Middle East expert (played wonderfully by Stephen Rea); his boss; and the agent who is coming for Hayden-Hoyle’s job — in little triangles, in well-appointed studies, drab offices, or empty cafés.

There’s plenty of action to catch your eye — kidnappings, etc. — but the show’s weapon of choice is secrecy, and how those secrets prop things up and take them down, whether it’s people or countries.

Thursday night’s episode is when the series takes the leap from very good to extraordinary. It’s a flashback episode that begins to tell the story of how Nessa got to where she is. Even if Nessa is dealing with issues of peace and war in the Middle East, there’s something so sadly relatable to seeing a character get all the idealism of her younger self squeezed out of her. It is one of the most remarkable and tragic transformations of a character that I’ve witnessed since Walter White. Do yourself a favor and catch up.

Filed Under: TV, The Honorable Woman, Sundance Channel, Chris Ryan, Maggie Gyllenhaal

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Chris Ryan is an editor at Grantland.

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