Recap: The Honorable Woman, “The Ribbon Cutter” (1×04)

Well, when I’m wrong, I’m wrong. I stand by my stance that last week’s episode possessed flaws in plotting and characterization, but I was absolutely mistaken to underestimate the power of the Big Secret tying together our characters. You see, I was evaluating The Honorable Woman by established television conventions, where characters are motivated by either intimate, personal concerns or grandiose yet simplistic machinations to change the world. The thing is, The Honorable Woman isn’t playing that game, but rather a bolder and more challenging one, and shame on me for forgetting that.

Concerns of parentage, business, and allegiance aside, the real secret that the Steins, MI-6, and the US government are banding together to keep is the fiction of hope. Hope that eventually a solution can be brokered between Israel and Palestine; a hope the Stein Foundation appears to embody. Revealing that secret, and showing the world how Ephra compromised the company’s integrity by facilitating a $1.5 million ransom payment for an Israeli soldier, means destroying hope. Never mind that inside, that hope is rotten and hollow.

With the entire episode taking place eight years prior to the main narrative, “The Ribbon Cutter” explains the genesis of Nessa’s tragic rise from a brightly enthusiastic ceremonial figurehead for the family business – the ribbon cutter – to corporate magnate. Her rise is mirrored by Ephra’s fall; the siblings reverse roles out of devastating necessity. Ephra defies the wishes of Israel (which has a strict policy of non-negotiation with terrorists) and collaborates with wealthy US interests and the head of MI-6 to funnel the soldier’s ransom to his Palestinian kidnappers. He never counted on Nessa’s diligence in researching the company’s philanthropic efforts, and her dogged search for the missing $1.5 million education grant is what gets her and Atika kidnapped on an ill-advised excursion into Gaza.

As we all suspected, Kasim is Nessa’s son, conceived in captivity in Gaza when she was raped by Saleh al-Zahid, the son of prominent Fatah leader Zahid al-Zahid. Nessa submits calmly to the rape by the drug-addled and bereaved Saleh to prevent him from harming Atika, whose ferocity contrasts starkly with Nessa’s placidity, nicely showcasing a range of survival techniques. Indeed, the whole episode is a showcase for the astoundingly nuanced relationship between the two women, who we learn met each other for the first time on this trip. Prior to the kidnapping, Atika is at once taken by and mildly derisive of Nessa’s myopic focus on pursuing the truth, and after, Nessa begs on her knees for their captors to spare Atika’s life, deemed forfeit since she assaulted and burned Nessa’s rapist.

Appearing in front of an Islamic judge, Nessa is forbidden to abort her pregnancy, but promised that she will be let go after the baby’s birth, free to tell what happened to her as atonement for her suffering. However, as we know, because of the need for silence Nessa is even denied that bit of justice. Behind all of this lurks Zahid al-Zahid, introduced strapped to a dialysis machine, who also ordered Eli Stein’s assassination and has “plans” for Stein’s daughter. Al-Zahid is probably the only part of this episode that I didn’t love, as his grand pronouncements are too Bond-villainy for my tastes.

Back in the UK, Julia Waters and Monica Chatwin are taking advantage of the hostage imbroglio to take down the head of MI-6, clearing the path for Julia to ascend to the top office. Monica wants Julia’s old job on the Middle East desk but not quite yet, preferring to wring as much as out of her Washington DC post as possible first. So, poor Hugh is brought in as a desk-warmer who can easily be scrapped when Monica is ready to return.

When you realize that Hugh is one of the few main characters who doesn’t have any knowledge of what transpired between the Stein Foundation and the Palestinians in Gaza, it’s surprising. Part of this surprise stems from the fact that usually, in a political thriller, most of the primary actors are men, and the investigative underdog who pieces together the plot is often the role reserved for the sole woman. The Honorable Womanrefuses to adhere to this convention, as Julia and Monica are the primary manipulators, with Julia delivering the episode’s best speech as she dresses down Ephra and forces him to tell her about the ransom payment. (“Hand? Cards? Oh my God, do you think you’re the fucking Sundance Kid?”) Ignoring all typical concerns about female characters needing to be relatable or likeable, Julia, Monica, and Nessa especially are smart, pragmatic, and flawed.

Now we know the scope and gravity of the characters’ pasts; what remains to be seen is if they can keep living with that past in the present, or if it will bury them under that weight.

Odds & Ends

– I don’t want to forget the cold open, which manages to both clearly convey Hugh’s worldview (“I just gather the intelligence; it’s up to other people to decide what to do with it”) and slyly convey the background information necessary to understand the byzantine networks of Palestinian organizations that Nessa later gets entangled with.

– The show continues to be extremely smart – perhaps too smart, if I’m being honest, in that viewers without a comprehensive understanding of the multiple factions vying for power and governing the Palestinian Territories probably won’t follow all the details. I can’t believe I didn’t think to do this sooner, but if you want a primer, you can check out the BBC’s here or the International Business Times’ here. (It goes without saying that you should avoid the comments sections on any article about Israel & Palestine; those corners of the internet aren’t friendly places.)

-The same tunnels that Nessa and Atika use to sneak into Gaza are the ones that are currently points of contention between Israel and Palestine.

-I was hard on Andrew Buchan last week, but this week he’s one of the episode’s MVP as Ephra goes from grateful and magnanimous, to arrogant and manipulative, to completely devastated.