This is not another post just bashing the second horrible season of True Detective, I promise. It’s just that after that inscrutable finale, I realized what really pissed me off about this season: they’d robbed us of a decent TV mystery.
Sure, there were parts of the first season that were convoluted, and the ending didn’t really hold up. But for most of the first season’s run, they gave us compelling characters trying to solve a crime. One that we could identify and whose investigation we could mostly follow. And if you really think about it, there aren’t a lot of shows on TV like that. The NCIS / Law & Order varieties offer a new case each week meaning you can’t really become invested in any mystery for long. And other shows with unresolved plot questions (Mr. Robot) or serial killer manhunts (Hannibal) aren’t about finding out what happened as much as seeing what will happen.
What’s a whodunit junkie to do? She would watch The Honorable Woman.
I’m not sure exactly how it passed so unnoticed when it was released last summer, but we should all work on fixing that. The 8-hour miniseries focuses on Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character Nessa Stein, the titular honorable woman. At the beginning of the series, Stein, an Anglo- Israeli, has taken over her late father’s arms business after her brother stepped down as CEO. And instead of producing war materials, she’s hoping to advance an Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation by focusing on improving telecommunications and education in the Palestinian territories. Her brother now runs the charitable arm of their foundation. There is a crime that occurs, everyone’s secrets start coming out, and no one is who they seem.
Try not to find out anything more about the plot than that. Watching all of the backstories and secrets come together, the reveals that are later revealed as decoys, the loyalties that are gained and lost and gained again is amazing. The plot could have really easily become bogged down by all of the moving parts, but it never feels disjointed. And in a really novel idea, the show’s writer/ director Hugo Blick introduces characters by telling you their name and why they’re important to the other characters and the plot. It’s almost as if he’s allowing the intricately woven story to speak for itself instead of forcing out-sized philosophical statements into a basic crime story set in a corrupt environment.
Which, TD shade aside, isn’t to say that there aren’t overreaching thematic points. Secrecy and trust are at the center of all of the relationships. Nessa is determined to keep her company and charitable foundation from being corrupted while she and those closest to her are forced farther into corners because of their own inability to be transparent. What separates The Honorable Woman from lesser mysteries is the way those larger themes exist outside of the main crime. Stephen Rea plays the outgoing head of MI6’s Middle East desk. His relationship with his estranged wife (Lindsay Duncan) is completely irrelevant to the main plot, but so beautifully explores the other side of secrecy that I sort of want a whole miniseries based just on them. Duncan’s character’s unwillingness to accept her husband’s secrets calls into question everything that Nessa professes in the opening credits. We’re presented with our heroine’s worldview, but not necessarily expected to believe it.
Not that The Honorable Woman doesn’t have some flaws. Some of the violence seems unnecessary and is treated within the story as less destructive than it should to be. There are a couple of character choices which are really jarring, but don’t advance the story or add to the character. And even though most of the plot is clear, there are a couple of muddy points. But those flaws are easy to disregard given how well the rest of the series executes the plot.
Even if you’re not a huge mystery fan, you might want to still check out the series. Maggie Gyllenhaal is outstanding as Nessa, and the rest of the cast easily holds their own. The mystery wouldn’t be at all compelling if the characters’ relationships weren’t believable and sympathetic. Even when the secrets start pouring out of them, none of the characters’ motivations seem outrageous. We understand the characters and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Even when what they’re doing is horrible. As with most great crime series the mystery gets you in, but the characters keep you around.
The Honorable Woman is available on Netflix Instant.