London Spy had, in the first three quarters of its premier episode, the potential to be the gay spy drama we’d been waiting for. Ben Whishaw, who plays unassuming warehouse worker Danny, is captivating as always. He’s waifish and almost dwarfed against the cold and grey London landscape, but he holds his own. Still, nearly anything featuring Ben Whishaw guarantees a good performance from him; it’s almost a given and does not necessarily extend to the rest of the show.
In a (sort of sad) meet cute, Danny meets Alex, the titular spy, who appears to be just a jogger—albeit an enigmatic, mysterious, and even awkward one. They eventually fall together, despite Alex’s claims of being both closeted and a virgin. Those are the strongest moments of the episode. For the first half hour, one can almost believe that’s all the show will be about, and it’s satisfying enough. There’s a gaping loneliness surrounding the two of them and it’s echoed in the landscape and cinematography. Every hesitant touch and unsaid word builds tension and fills that empty space until it’s unbearable. When Danny makes Alex smile for the first time—and it’s just a tiny, awed thing—it’s a relief, and one of the most well-cut scenes in the episode. Perhaps it’s because the characters’ loneliness is what audiences relate to most, and when Danny says that Alex was the only person who asked if he was okay and saw that Danny wasn’t okay, it feels life-altering.
Still, there’s a honeymooning sense surrounding their relationship, and it comes crashing down in spectacular fashion. When the two of them make plans to get away for the weekend, Alex naturally disappears. That is the turning point of the episode. Danny confides in his older friend Scottie, played by Jim Broadbent in what is so far a pretty expected (still good, just expected) performance from him. Scottie, who is also gay, seems to know more about Alex than he’s letting on, and Danny, mysteriously sent the key to Alex’s apartment, goes to figure it out for himself. This is where the show makes a baffling decision: Danny finds a room that turns out to be not so different from Christian Grey’s playroom in 50 Shades of Grey—that is, it’s dedicated to sadomasochism, complete with Alex’s dead body shoved into a chest. The audience already knows Alex is a spy; that much is clear from not just the premise of the show but Danny’s own suspicions and a few telltale signs, including a mysterious cylinder Danny finds in the room and swallows at the sign of cops. So if this is the case, why the S&M?
It comes entirely out of left field and feels forced, like a cheap gambit. There’s no point in it, or Danny’s humiliation at the police station when confronted with the photos. If it is simply to throw him off the track, there are better ways than to use shock value, especially when LGBTQ characters are at the center, as their narratives have long been dominated by shock value alone—shock value, then heartbreak or death. London Spy seems to have shoved all these tropes in at the last second, which is its undoing. It’s a five-part series, and hasn’t lost my viewership yet, but has certainly imbibed it with a healthy dose of skepticism.