It was easier when we were simply soldiers, one spy says to the other as they try to calculate their responsibility or, perhaps, reprehensibility in the gruesome strangling of a colleague at the hands of the opposition. Black and white. Now everything is gray.
Gray is definitely the color of the night on Wednesday television with the debut of two shows cloaked in moral and narrative ambiguity. BBC Americas Spies of Warsaw is a classic tale of espionage, chockablock with secret agents peering up one anothers skirts (often quite literally), while in DirecTVs Rogue an undercover cop goes dangerously off the rails pursuing a private agenda.
If the titular Spies of Warsaw were under my command, the first question theyd be required to answer would be, why has it taken a quarter of a century and the intervention of a British television network to bring one of Americas best espionage writers to the screen? Since 1988, Alan Furst has turned out a dozen tense, atmospheric spy novels set in Europe during World War II without Hollywood so much as twitching a muscle. The Spies of Warsaw, as his book was titled, is neither the most recent nor the best.
(Which brings us to my second question: Why on earth was the word the deleted from the title? Did a focus group object? Does it make the name too long for Twitter? Is this the first shot in the long-anticipated War on Articles?)
Fursts books all offer the same engaging elements that the BBC makes such excellent use of in this two-part miniseries: The claustrophobic lifeboat atmosphere of a society teetering toward its doom. A mixture of sly intelligence operatives and ordinary people caught up in events beyond their understanding. A continent stalked by totalitarian ideologies on which the middle will not hold.
Perhaps even more important is what they lack the crippling deus ex technico that afflicts so many modern spy thrillers. In Fursts pre-digital world, nobody ever uses his smart phone to redirect a reconnaissance satellite or collect surveillance footage from security cameras. The most cutting-edge technology on display in Spies of Warsaw is an 8mm movie camera.
These spies traffic not in electrons but flesh and blood. Humans some willing players in what Rudyard Kipling called the Great Game of intelligence, some not are seduced or extorted, blackmailed or bribed.
While Spies of Warsaws trappings are drawn from history books, however, its central concept is ripped from the headlines. Its various plots and counterplots revolve around one of historys great intelligence failures: Frances belief, as World War II approached, that the network of bunkers, pillboxes and fortifications known as the Maginot Line, which stretched 200 miles along its border with Germany, would keep Hitlers army at bay and prevent the outbreak of war.
David Tennant ( Doctor Who) stars as Jean Francois Mercier, a newly arrived military attaché at the French embassy in Warsaw. Under his cover as a superficial aristocrat engrossed in the diplomatic party circuit (almost every night, I sip the wine, taste the food, find everyone fascinating, he mocks himself), Mercier is running a network of spies against Germany.
From the reports he receives, Mercier has begun to suspect that Germany has devised new weapons and strategies that will enable it to bypass the Maginot Line and that war is much closer at hand than his government believes. His French intelligence bosses are unimpressed with his theory, which they think is disinformation being passed along to him by his new girlfriend, Anna Skarbek (Janet Montgomery, Black Swan), a League of Nations lawyer who is also seeing an exiled Russian journalist of dubious allegiance. Anna seems nonplussed by the suspicions. They think Im a spy? she asks in amazement. Im a slut.
The covert uses of sexuality are also a big part of the landscape in Rogue, an intriguing crime drama unfortunately available only to subscribers to DirecTVs satellite television service. It stars Thandie Newton ( ER) as Grace Travis, an undercover police detective yanked from her assignment infiltrating a San Francisco gang after her young son is killed in a drive-by shooting.
Her colleagues are convinced that the child was just an unlucky bystander just a senseless tragic accident, as one cop says. It happens all the time. But as news becomes evident suggesting that her son was actually the target of the hit, and that it was related to her police work, Grace goes back undercover without official authorization.
What distinguishes Rogue from a zillion or so other shows about undercover cops is Graces alienation from her fellow officers and even her own family, all of whom think shes nuts. Its not a job, Graces husband caustically observes of her undercover work. Its an addiction. As her so-called real life crumbles, Grace finds that her most genuine relationship, steeped in lies though it may be, is the one with the crime boss (Martin Csokas, The Bourne Supremacy) who may have ordered the killing of her son. As it says in the song, love is a bullet-riddled thing.