I woke up this morning after last night’s second episode of The Secret Agent to news of more shootings and suicide bombs, in Florida and Germany respectively. It’s a hard, awful world we’re living in at the moment, and The Secret Agent, although set a hundred years ago, has themes and arguments that are extremely topical. Joseph Conrad probably didn’t foresee a world where a novel he wrote would have huge relevance 109 years later.
I had a discussion with a work colleague last week after the first episode about The Secret Agent, my colleague saying that she thought it was a strange and heavy series to be played out in the middle of the summer. And I agree – The Secret Agent, with its dark palettes, dark Victorian suits, and dark interiors (not to mention its dark subject matter) doesn’t sit well on a sultry evening in July. My colleague also felt that with everything happening in the world at the moment, The Secret Agent felt too close to stark and too close to real-life events. Do people want to see this on a Sunday night? Do people want to see escapism instead of a heavy-handed drama that holds a mirror up to the horrors of the modern world?
I agree with her on varying levels. I passionately believe that drama – especially crime drama – is an excellent genre in which to explore worldly, sociopolitical events, but The Secret Agent really doesn’t make any bones about what it is trying to say and what it trying to show: it’s trying to show how terrorism can happen, and how a whisper in the wind can turn into unstoppable momentum, which, in turn, leads to terrible deeds. We’ve seen Verloc, a double agent and a coward, radicalise his mentally disabled brother-in-law, and also the way dark, clandestine political forces and members of the security institutions put pressure on people until they break and snarl back. It’s almost a textbook depiction of how and why people become terrorists – ordinary people – albeit in a historical context.
Look at these exchanges in this second episode. First between madman The Professor, who desperately wants to provoke, goad and actually cause a war; and Inspector Heat, who’s doing his best to understand this new, wanton threat.
“Do you honestly think the state will meet murder with murder?” a disbelieving Heat asks The Professor on an omnibus, aware that he was wearing a suicide bomb jacket.
“And morality will disintegrate in its very temple,” laughs The Professor. “You understand the game! Congratulations!”
“And these innocent people will be killed? Is that the first step? Is that what you want?”
And then this exchange, when the insouciant Embassador, Vladimir, tells Assistant Commissioner Stone: “Tolerance can be folly, can it not? In the bigger match of the security of your country if these people are not suppressed, squashed then the conflagration may spread from the attempt on the observatory to every city in the country.”
Each character provides an argument for provocation and reaction, and deterrent.
This episode was better than the first, because the story really began to move. Verloc’s plan to let Stevie carry the bomb to destroy the Observatory went disastrously wrong when his brother-in-law snatched the bomb from him, as if it was a game, ran gayly into the middle distance and tripped, triggering the bomb and blasting himself to smithereens. This incident was intercut with Heat interrogating a still-goading The Professor, desperately trying to find out the location of the bomber’s target. The Professor took a beating (yes, torture during interrogation) and budged a little, bit it was too late. To increase the emotional impact of Stevie’s impending death, we also saw Winnie agreeing to go to dinner with Tom Ossipon, deflecting his advances by telling him that the way ‘my Adolph’ has taken to Stevie was impressive.
It was expertly done, building up suspense between each scene until the final, fatal explosion.
Post blast, we saw Heat display some deduction and investigative skills (he’d be a much more chippy Inspector than Lestrad) until all paths led back to Verloc. The scene when Heat visited the shop and told Winnie the truth about what had happened was fantastically well acted. Vicky McClure and Stephen Graham, used to spending screen time with each other, were just terrific and hugely affecting.
So all-in-all, this second episode was good, tense stuff, made even harder to watch because of what is going on around us today.
For our episode one review, go here