Review/Recap: The Honorable Woman, “The Empty Chair” (1×01)

The Honorable Woman

Sundance’s The Honorable Woman is a timely series, almost eerily so. The miniseries is set in London against the backdrop of Israeli/Palestinian political tensions. The first episode aired in the UK shortly after news of the three kidnapped Israeli teens hit the international media, an event that set off a series of attacks and reprisals between the two nations that failed to let up in the weeks leading up to the show’s US debut. While contemporary resonance is generally a boon to a television program, the recent escalation in the Middle East occasionally conjures up some unpleasant voyeuristic feelings.

In many ways, the series is similar in structure and tone to another British import, Broadchurch. Both shows examine the aftereffects of a mysterious death on those connected to the deceased while investigators struggle to solve the crime. Whereas Broadchurch focused inward toward the claustrophobic relationships tying together a small seaside town, the stakes are raised in The Honorable Woman, as the reverberations of individual actions have the ability to bring the Middle East to the brink of war. It’s tense, riveting television, at least in the pilot.

(The show has already aired five of its eight-episode run in the UK; I’ve seen them all. Nothing since the pilot has quite matched it in clarity of purpose, and there are some wild shifts in quality, but so far, it’s well worth sticking through.)

The chief protagonist is Nessa Stein, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Dark Knight) in her first foray into television, joining so many other Hollywood film stars. Nessa is the daughter of a Jewish weapons manufacturer, who was murdered when she was a child. The Steins and their allies built a commercial empire by supplying the nascent Israeli state with weapons to fortify its borders. Her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan, furthering the Broadchurch connection) distanced himself from the family business after a mysterious incident in Gaza eight years before, choosing instead to fundraise and and spend time with his wife Rachel (Katherine Parkinson, The IT Crowd) and their children. Nessa subsequently took control of the business empire, now shifted from weapons development to the installation of fiber-optic cables between Israel and Palestine.

In recognition of her efforts to promote peace in the region, she is inducted into the House of Lords – on the very same day that a Palestinian contractor who received one of her lucrative contracts dies under mysterious circumstances.

Rounding out the chief players introduced in the first episode are Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Stephen Rea, V for Vendetta), an MI-6 officer in the process of being forced out of the agency and his bold replacement Monica Chatwin (Eve Best, Nurse Jackie), as well as the Steins’ enigmatic nanny Atika (Lubna Azabal, Paradise Now).

Nessa is a fascinating lead character, due to the layers of her personality slowly peeled back in the first several episodes and to Gyllenhaal’s ability to depict Nessa’s inner life through both her periods of stillness and kineticism. As far as female lead characters on television go, Nessa is something unique. Her outward strength covers a fragility resulting from severe trauma, and the folksy warmth of her political persona covers up a deeper, more emotional compassion that she strives to compartmentalize, often unsuccessfully. With a few exceptions, the rest of the characters are allowed the same complexity, and creator Hugo Blick trusts his actors to make the right choices to reveal those depths in their faces and body language.

**Here begin SPOILERS for “The Empty Chair”. You’ve been warned.**

The episode’s title refers to the empty chair at the reception in honor of Nessa’s entitling as Baroness Stein, a chair that was supposed to belong to Samir Meshal. Meshal is the Palestinian contractor who, after receiving a suspicious series of timers and notes in his hotel room, hangs himself wrapped in his nation’s flag. Meshal’s alleged suicide is the catalyst bringing together the world of the Steins and that of MI-6, as accusations begin to fly between the Palestinians and Israelis while British intelligence tries to piece together what actually happened to the man.

The first episode is heavily concerned with two concepts: symmetry and secrets. Symmetry is visually evident in the show’s direction – from the first shot of a young Nessa and Ephra dining at the hotel with their father (not long for this world) to a shot at the end of Nessa staring helplessly down a park lane at night, the camera frames the actors in the middle of arches and doorways and stages. Even the action is symmetrical, as the episode opens with the loss of Nessa’s father and ends with the kidnapping of young Kasim, Atika’s son, whose loss profoundly affects Nessa even as her precise relationship to the child remains unclear.

While Nessa’s opening narration about the danger of secrets and precariousness of trust is a bit heavy handed, it isn’t an exaggeration. Monica is keeping a secret of Ephra’s. Nessa and Atika, who we learn were abducted together in Gaza eight years ago, share a massive secret that drives Nessa to break down sobbing in a restaurant. Atika and Ephra are keeping secrets from Rachel. Even as Nessa tells an old family friend that she’s unable to give him a construction contract due to the lack of transparency in his business dealings, the Stein family is poised to collapse under the weight of their own secrets and lies. Trust no one, indeed.

Hugh, a man whose job is dependent upon keeping Britain’s secrets, is suffering due to the exposure of some very personal ones. His affair with his supervisor, made public, ended his marriage to his wife Anjelica (Lindsay Duncan, Rome) and seems to be hastening the demise of his career. For his last case as Middle East bureau chief, he draws Meshal’s death.

The most explicit use of symmetry comes in a sequence juxtaposing the course of Nessa and Hugh’s days after they learn of Meshal’s death. Both work, discuss the possibility of murder, return home, eat a solitary dinner, and evade their security teams to have clandestine meetings under assumed names (Hugh with an Israeli source, Nessa with Atika). The sequence is beautifully shot, with cuts from Hugh to Nessa and back again where they appear to be discussing Meshal with each other rather than their actual companions. Hugh eats a microwavable tv dinner, the universal television shorthand for loneliness, whereas Nessa eats a freshly prepared meal off an elegant tray – more expensive, yet just as solitary. Hugh and Nessa’s paths mirror each other, and it will be interesting to see what happens when their stories converge.

The episode ends with Kasim’s abduction during a blackout staged at a concert attended by the whole Stein family, minus Rachel and Atika, who both chose to stay home. (Might Rachel’s absence be important later? There are too many balls in the air to really tell at this stage.) Nessa is unable to prevent the kidnapping, and her loyal bodyguard Nathan (Tobias Menzies, Rome) is near fatally shot in the process. (I say near fatally because one doesn’t hire Tobias Menzies for the paltry amount of lines he has in this episode. No way is he dead yet.) What will this kidnapping mean for Nessa as she moves forward with both her fiber optic project and in her new position as Baroness Stein? And how does it relate to the murder/suicide of Meshal, and the mysterious events in Gaza eight years ago? As spy shows are fond of reminding us, secrets make a person vulnerable. On The Honorable Woman, everyone seems to be an easy target.

Odds & Ends

– I’ll be covering this show on a weekly basis for our recap section. Most likely, they’ll be a bit shorter than this one, but no promises.

– I will never, ever look at a pair of bread tongs the same way again. I gasped out loud, and I’m pretty hard to shock.

– Nessa is acutely aware of the danger around her and takes extreme precautions, demanding to know if her brother’s security is cleared, and sleeping in a fingerprint-access panic room.

– There’s a hint in the first episode of the role of the United States in these events. Meshal looks at an American flag immediately before his death, and Monica is the former MI-6 liaison to Washington DC. I’m sure this will only increase in import, as it’s nigh impossible to tell a story about Israeli/Palestinian geopolitics without including the US, for better or worse.

– When Nessa and Ephra’s father is murdered, Nessa is sprayed with blood and Ephra is not. Nessa goes on to run the family business, while Ephra gets out. Was one sibling doomed and another spared from the start?

– I mention above that I’ve seen all the episodes that have aired, but I wrote these recaps after each airing, so as not to taint them with Spoilers of Doom. An ounce of prevention, and all that…