The Honourable Woman

There’s a lot of great television out there these days – Game of Thrones, Utopia, Better Call Saul, Orange is the New Black … just to name a few (oh, and did I mention that The X-Files is currently filming a new series? I didn’t? Well, The X-Files is currently filming a new series. Yep, I said it twice. Here it is one more time – The X-Files. New Series. Right now.) It’s difficult to keep up, and I would have missed this series entirely had it not been recommended by a friend. I wasn’t the only one to come late to The Honourable Woman – NPR writes about it here as part of their ‘The One That Got Away’ series, and Gabriel Tate notes in this Guardian review that the mini-series “attracted respectable rather than spectacular viewing figures.” So what’s up with that? Why wasn’t my Facebook newsfeed a minefield of Honourable Woman spoilers (as it was earlier this week with Game of Thrones)? Is it because of the delicate subject matter (the Israel/Palestine conflict)? Or perhaps, as a few reviews have described it, The Honourable Woman is too ‘slow’ (although I found it pretty enthralling most of the time – and not because I’m ‘smart enough’ to watch a show about politics; simply because The Honourable Woman is genuinely thrilling in every traditional sense of the word). Whatever the reason, in my opinion this series is one of the best I’ve seen (and that’s saying a lot, given the TV renaissance we seem to be living in at the moment), and certainly deserves more attention.

To describe The Honourable Woman is a pretty complex task (I’m not entirely sure I’ve grasped all the nuances myself) but I’ll give it a shot. In a nutshell, it’s an eight-part mini-series, co-produced by the BBC and Sundance. The protagonist and ostensible ‘honourable woman’ is Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal), although Atika Halabi (played by Lubna Azabal) is just as important a character as Nessa. Nessa Stein is a Jewish-British woman; the daughter of an Israeli arms dealer. In an attempt to promote peace between Israel and Palestine, Nessa (as president of The Stein Group) is building a fibre-optic network in the West Bank. Communication – like peace – however, is never quite as simple as laying cables, and despite Nessa’s insistence that she “must not be compromised” she inevitably is. The Honourable Woman is part spy-thriller, part family drama. It is the perfect mix of personal and political: as Andy Greenwald writes of the series in Grantland, “All politics is personal. And that can be a very dangerous thing.”

The Honourable Woman is certainly dangerous. It’s also complex, violent, and real – often to the point of being hard to watch. From the very opening scene – in which a young Nessa witnesses her own father’s assassination – this series is intense. The writing is wonderful, as are the performances. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Lubna Azabal steal the show, but Andrew Buchan is also fantastic as Nessa’s brother Ephra Stein, as is Tobias Menzies as chief security advisor Nathaniel Bloom. Stephen Rhea is perfectly cast as MI5’s Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Andy Greenwald describes him as “a machete masquerading as a butterknife”, and I cannot do better than that!) The tension is high throughout, and the twists are many. I watched this on my own, and there were more than a few moments where I turned to my boyfriend with a shocked look on my face, only to have him say “What’s happened now?” Impressively, The Honourable Woman manages to address a conflict that is real and ongoing in a way that (for the most part) hasn’t pissed too many people off. There are no clear heroes or villains, both Nessa and Atika are both honourable (and dishonourable, at times) women, and everyone is compromised. The series makes clear the real messiness of such situations – it doesn’t matter whether or not you are willing to die for the ‘right thing’ if there is no clear cut ‘right thing’ to die for.

A few days ago a friend and I were discussing female protagonists on television. My friend pointed out that although there are more strong women on TV these days (I’m thinking Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones, and Gillian Anderson as Stella Gibson in The Fall among others) there aren’t that many that are allowed to be strong and struggling. It’s almost as if we’ve become so determined to represent tough female characters that we’ve forgotten that these women are still only human, and deserve to have a bit of a breakdown now and then (just as male characters do). I think that – in Nessa and to a lesser extent Atika – we finally get to see two on-screen females that are really real. Both incredibly powerful, and both allowed to bend beneath the weight they carry.

The Honourable Woman was written and directed by Hugo Blick. Inspiration for the series came from an incident Blick remembers from 1982, when the Israeli ambassador at the time was shot outside a London hotel. NPR quotes Blick as saying: “Suddenly I felt that the world that seemed so distant was there on our sidewalks.” The Honourable Woman first aired in 2014.


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