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Spies, Spies, and Divorce

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Since people have more time at home these days, they are also looking for more ways to amuse themselves indoors. Sex is one option, although in some places, restrictions apply if the parties are from different homes. In the UK, for example, people from different households are not allowed to have sex unless they are in an exclusive relationship, aka "support bubble." Switching or having multiple bubbles are frowned upon.

Watching TV and reading books are superior choices, I reckon. Sure, TV and books may cost a little money, but they can be free or nearly free. Most libraries lend e-books. Many streaming services, such as Netflix, Hulu, and HBO, are packed with so much excellent content that the price is an amazing value. You’d be hard pressed to find, um, more bang for the buck. Finally, no matter how promiscuous you are with shows or books, you will never catch Covid.

The spy thriller is one of my top genres. Three recommendations:

Credit: Showtime

Homeland. TV show. CIA agent Carrie Mathison, played powerfully by Claire Danes, is a true believer who chases after bad guys to keep the country safe. How far will she go to get the job done? What if it requires a betrayal of the most unforgivable kind? Whom can you trust? These are questions that are not just ripe with dramatic potential but possess real life relevance as well.

Saul Berenson, Carrie’s CIA boss and mentor, is my favorite character. He is played with understated gravitas by Mandy Patinkin. Saul is that old sage whom you can trust to make wise decisions. Or can you? Does he have his own agenda? The quasi father-daughter relationship between Carrie and Saul is what makes this show so emotionally rich. It underpins their strong bond but also produces the most painful conflict that comes to a head in the final season.

Though the dynamics between Carrie and Saul is the heart of the show, there is more. Hold-your-breath action, engaging actors, moral quandries, stomach-knotting tension, and compelling drama—they are all present as well. Most shows are lucky to have a couple of the ingredients; Homeland checks all the boxes. Even characters you think would be obvious to hate can turn out to pull in your sympathy. Things are rarely as simple as they seem at first.

The dark complexities of Homeland, from the plot to the characters, hooked me from day one. And I do mean dark. If you want something to watch while you scarf down your Happy Meal, look elsewhere. This is heavy fare that will make you cringe, depressed, and even cry. But that is what makes this show great: it pulls no punches. Homeland pushes the characters to the edge, and takes you along with it. Sure, some of it might be outlandish, but this is fictional TV meant to entertain. I usually prefer to advertise hidden gems because popular shows already get too much attention, but I have to tout Homeland. It is the best show in the last decade.

Watch it on Showtime or Hulu.

(The Walking Dead would’ve been up there. However, after they killed off nearly everyone I liked, TWD lost much of its appeal to me. Sacrificing a beloved character creates excitement but exacts a great cost: it severs a bond between the show and the audience. One big reason people come back to shows is that they are attached to the characters.)

Publisher: Signal

The Spy and the Traitor. Nonfiction book. A top KGB officer turned MI6 agent during the Cold War. (MI6 is Britain’s foreign intelligence agency.) This book reads like a fictional spy thriller because everything seems so incredible, intense suspense running through the plot from beginning to end. It says a lot about both the extraordinariness of the story and the superb skills of the author, Ben Macintyre. I felt stressed just reading the story. How can a spy stand such a life? It’s like being a gangster, knowing that whenever you turn the ignition of your car, it might just be the last time.

Goodreads link.

Credit: BBC

The Split. TV show. High-end divorce lawyers in London duke it out. “Wait,” you say, “I thought you were going to talk about spies?” Well, I still am. Sort of.

The essence of the spy story is betrayal. The spy is out there, trying to recruit a foreigner, maybe even another spy, to turn against his/her country. That recruit, the “asset” (in industry parlance), has to decide whether to betray.

Divorce is often caused by betrayal in the form of infidelity. On The Split, betrayal in multiple forms even seeps into the lawyers’ personal lives. Parents, spouses, siblings, children … almost everybody has, is, or will betray someone else in some way. Messy? Yes. Engaging drama? Oh yeah.

Because betrayal—its origins, struggles, and consequences—is the central force that drives The Split, the show is thematically in sync with your typical spy drama. The show has plenty of fireworks but remains nuanced. There are no soapy antics as cheap tricks. Season one ends with something happy, which I expected, and something far messier, which I did not expect.

A BBC and Sundance Channel coproduction.