Recap: The Honorable Woman, “Two Hearts” (1×05)

Herein lies the fallout of Nessa and Atika’s traumatic and disastrous kidnapping in Gaza eight years before. We can add Professor Shimon Ben Reuven to the growing list of victims who became ensnared in the struggle among the Steins, Israel, the UK, the US, and Fatah – a list that already includes Samir Meshal, Tracy Vorman, Nathaniel Bloom, and Gail Gatz – and subsequently suffered violent, unearned deaths in order to preserve the fragile secrecy and shadowy dealings of those linked to the Stein Foundation.

“Two Hearts” sets out to accomplish two things: fill in the remaining details of Nessa and Atika’s period in captivity and the circumstances of their rescue, and begin untangling the the threads that will reveal the true motivations of the kidnappers and (hopefully) eventually lead to Kasim’s return.

I’m not entirely sure that I needed to see as much of the women’s remaining stay in Gaza as we did. Previous episodes already established the closeness and interdependence of Nessa and Atika; if the show wasn’t going to throw a twist out of left field (and thank god Hugo Blick is talented enough not to) then we already knew that Nessa gave birth to Kasim, Atika raised him as her own in order to protect Nessa’s life and work, and that the women were rescued, even if it was not explicitly shown on screen.

However, I’m willing to accept the length of the these flashbacks if solely for the powerful cold open where Nessa discusses the devastating consequences of having the child after her captors denied her an abortion. Going home with the child means that all her future work will be judged up against the experience of her kidnapping. “I can give birth to a child – that’s not me; that’s biology,” she says, “but what I say or do or think – what I want this company to achieve – that’s me. So I can have this baby, and I might live, but whatever happens I’m going to lose my life.” A woman who so clearly explains why she does not want a child is a rarity on screen, where persistent social norms prefer motherhood to be viewed as the highest of callings. But the reality is that, even for women who want children, becoming a mother has consequences, and involves complicated and sometimes fraught renegotiations of one’s sense of self.

It turns out too that Atika is not only the only person who can understand Nessa’s experience, but is also the one who holds Nessa’s heart. Nessa is heartbroken when she discovers that Atika has been sleeping with Ephra – a situation that both Ephra and Atika acknowledge originates in the power dynamic created by Atika’s dependence on Ephra, something he grotesquely exploits to feel “better” and she relents to as a method of survival. Atika, who Nessa coldly calls a “wandering Arab”, tells Nessa that she can’t be in love with her. Atika is her rock, and you don’t love your rock.

As Nessa and Atika share this exchange, Rachel watches from the nearby house. Contrasting the three women reveals a fascinating tripartite image of womanhood within the show: Rachel, constantly shut out of the family business and lacking any control over events, nevertheless has her daughters and unborn child surrounding her – she can and does take refuge in her motherhood. Nessa is full of power and agency, but they deny her access to both her motherhood and her the subject of her love, both of which remain tantalizingly close but perpetually out of reach. Atika, with neither power nor a family by blood, forges bonds to Kasim and the Steins that are based in equal parts affection and survival instinct, and fights to keep her heart hard and her wits sharp.

In all this, let’s not forget Ephra. As we saw last week, Ephra was once a decent leader of the Stein Foundation and a devoted family man, if one with an easily swayed conscience governed too much by hubris and idealism. When Nessa disappeared, Ephra lost everything – his connections, his career, and his self-image were all summarily destroyed. In a standout scene between the siblings, he explains his bitterness to Nessa, and states plainly the central thesis of the entire show: either you own secrets or they own you. Ephra often veers into the despicable, and while he isn’t sympathetic (nor should he be), he’s as tragic and wounded as everyone else.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the character work in this episode because I found it stunning, but there was some convergence on the plot as well. Evidence regarding Shlomo’s potential entanglement in nefarious affairs oscillates between condemning and absolving him, even within the episode, but things are not looking good for his innocence. He does not, however, have have any connections to Hezbollah. The creepy security consultant verifies that evidence is falsified, manufactured by Monica and given to Nathaniel to be relayed to Nessa. Monica hoped this would keep Shlomo away from further work on the Stein Foundation’s fiber optics project while keeping the Steins in the dark about Shlomo’s real actions: he facilitated the set-up of a powerful wiretap giving the Israelis unfettered access to all Palestinian communications originating in the West Bank and heading overseas.

Whereas a contact of Nessa’s finds the actual wiretap, Professor Ben-Rueven stumbles across the monitoring center, a room full of menacing men and cutting edge supercomputers, during his investigation into Kidma University’s shady admissions practices. The computer science faculty of the university – one run by the Stein Foundation – has apparently been giving preferential treatment to Israeli military veterans at the expense of more qualified Arab students, and the professor takes the news directly to the press. Nessa sends her assistant Francis to go see the professor and find out more about the affair, but it’s a fool’s errand. The professor is murdered and left in dumpster while taking out the trash.

Kasim is still missing, Saleh al-Zahid is still calling Nessa, and now the Stein Foundation’s transgressions are in the press. Is there any chance that this all doesn’t end poorly?

Odds & Ends

– Julia knows something more is up, and is maddened that she doesn’t know what it is. She isn’t sure if she can trust Monic anymore; Monica’s desire to support the Steins unconditionally seems fishy to Julia. Despite her complicated history with Hugh, he’s the only one she trusts to harangue the Steins, and yet she’s even got a back-up on him. Julia might be one of the most competent spies in televisual history.

– Hugh knows exactly what buttons to push with Ephra, mocking him for losing his job to his sister, thus inflaming what little remains of his former pride.

– I’m a keen observer of sibling dynamics on television, and the one between Ephra and Nessa is one of the best. Blick captures the way that close siblings can find humor in horrible things and rage at each other over disagreements, only to band back together against outsiders when called for.

– Nessa named Kasim; in Arabic, the name means “divided”. Oy.