Block politics inspired a multitude of series and films about spies and secret services and just as art imitates life, now that the cold war seems to have returned and destabilizing shifts on the global chessboard multiplying, the espionage genre has also made a strong comeback on the small screen. Here’s our list of five of the heaviest hitters released in the last two years, which explain how those shadow-dwelling characters operate and shape events. Sometimes saving lives, while other times condemning them.
The Slow Horses (Apple TV+) of the title are the washed-up secret agents who’ve messed up at some point throughout their careers and have been banished to a seedy house where they have to purge their sins, engaging in irrelevant missions under the orders of an alcoholic, tyrannical boss – a sublime Gary Oldman – who systematically despises and insults them. And yet, this group of losers ends up becoming embroiled in the resolution of the alleged kidnapping and threat of the on-camera beheading, of a young Muslim man by a group of white nationalists. The series, based on Mick Herron’s novels, is a vindication of those spies who refuse to go quietly and delivers just the right doses of humor and tetchiness over six episodes as they gradually strip the cynicism from MI5 and call out the underhand goings-on of their superiors, slaves to personal egos.
Yosi, The Regretful Spy
In 1992, an attack on the Israeli embassy in Argentina left a trail of 29 dead. Two years later, 85 more people were killed in an attack on a Jewish association in Buenos Aires. Filmmaker Daniel Burman explores the involvement of a faction of the country’s secret services in those events. Yosi, The Regretful Spy (Amazon Prime) follows the life of the agent who infiltrated the Jewish community in Argentina to collect information on their activities and how he then managed to distance himself from the very people who assigned him the mission, concealing what he had learned once he understood he was actually serving all the weaknesses he had detected as a spy. A stark portrayal of anti-Semitism and state corruption, the series has put actor Gustavo Bassani in the spotlight for his stellar performance.
International Emmy winner, Gjermund Stenberg Eriksen, for his series Mammon, is back on the attack with a series where secret identities play a very relevant role. Asgeir is a policeman who takes refuge in a small village in Norway, fleeing the Russian mafia. Ragna has been infiltrating a white nationalist group in the same village for years and is in danger of being exposed. From this point onwards, the action jumps between the idyllic Norwegian landscape and the city of Berlin, portraying the threat of the far right in Europe. What seemed like a small group focused on a sleepy tourist town ends up revealing itself as an organization with many ramifications and with a disturbingly detailed plan to scrap the European values that have prevailed since the last great war. Furia is available on Filmin.
Although shot on location in Athens, Tehran manages to adapt perfectly to the Iranian capital in this series about modern-day espionage that plays adeptly with the intrigue inherent in the permanent fear of being discovered. Tamar Rabinyan is a secret agent, and hacker by trade, whose first mission for Mossad takes her to the city of Tehran where she has been tasked with interfering with the power grid so the Israel government can bomb a nuclear plant where they suspect the Iranians are working to make a nuclear bomb. Although a meticulous plan has been put in place, a chance encounter triggers a game of cat and mouse in which tensions reach breaking point. As was the case with Homeland, and despite the Israeli origin of the series, the situation in Iran is not at all approached in an overly-simplistic way and seeks more to highlight crosscutting interests than to depict a scenario where it is easy to draw a line that separates good and evil. In fact, the protagonist was born in Tehran and rediscovers her origins throughout the series. Season one and the recently premiered season two are now available on Apple TV+.
Over the past decade, series have become increasingly more diverse, and Queen Sono is one of the best examples of this. The South African show featuring a spy who could easily stand tot-to-toe with the very best James Bond: intelligent, seductive, expert fighter and with the similar utter contempt for the proverbial norms. The setting and rich color palette – much warmer than the glacial tones we are accustomed to portrayals of the era of Russian spies – help Queen Sono (Netflix) stand apart for its aesthetics and references to African culture and politics. The series stars Pearl Thusi (Queen Sono), whose activist mother had been murdered twenty-five years previously. She is now investigating a terrorist group while trying to make peace with the death of her mother (and a corrupt government’s decision to release her murderer). The show is packed with a rich diversity of exteriors and well-choreographed action scenes that make for excellent entertainment, as it relies more on adrenaline than on depth or suspense.