I have a theory about why we have so many World War II stories: at least when focused on the European theater, the period allows white, English-speaking men to engage in a fantasy where their actions are righteous, important, and completely correct. Throw in the grittiness of war and the often all-white, all-male casting, and you have the only known period where these guys can see themselves as unequivocal heroes without wearing capes.
I mention this because MGM+ is carrying British production “A Spy Among Friends” to the U.S. and asking us to rehash this familiar territory. “A Spy Among Friends” takes place in the Cold War, when things are murkier. But our English spies are investigating what happened during World War II, specifically who was working with the Russians (when they were British allies) and who continued to do so when the Kremlin became the enemy.
Churchill, thankfully, does not make an appearance, but many of the other tropes of the genre do. It’s based on real events, as a title card at the beginning of each episode hints at, and the closing credits more thoroughly explains. Our characters are preternaturally clever, excellent spies in a world lousy with intelligence officers. The whole thing is rather gray, and it can’t all be blamed on the rainy London setting. The direction is such that even a sunny day in the countryside is shown in muted colors. And it’s largely a story of white men’s actions, consequences, and sensibilities.
You have to be into watching familiar dudes rehash power plays between empires to even approach this show. But if you like that sort of thing, “A Spy Among Friends” does it well enough. Yes, the first episode and a half are slow, mostly establishing mood and characters. But they’re the simmer of this spy soup, which does eventually boil.
Along the way, anglophile fans of period pieces will find plenty to enjoy. All the usual class commentary is there, even the bit where they discuss each other’s accents. There are references to the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Great Britain (with the U.S. representatives always less savvy and less posh). And the men’s wardrobes are delightful, going from what we here in the States would call a tuxedo to the three-piece suit (for days at the office) to the leisurewear of fancy cardigans. There’s even a bit where someone is potentially unmasked based on the make and expense of their shoes.
And the acting is superb. Damian Lewis plays Nicholas Elliott, the spy most likely to be the protagonist. He does an excellent job of giving his character a surface-level good-old-chap veneer while only occasionally revealing the complicated workings of his mind underneath. Guy Pearce wears many of the cardigans mentioned above as our most likely villain, Kim Philby. The production does its best to age him when necessary, but his chiseled features remain, marking him with dangerous male beauty—alluring and smart but ultimately empty. Our two leading men play well off each other, serving as foils and comrades.
They’re complemented by Anna Maxwell Martin as Lily Thomas in the interloper role. Nicholas and Kim have been friends for 23 years, part of the British aristocracy that believes itself incapable of doing wrong. Lily, meanwhile, is part of the lowly MI5, which lets in commoners and threatens both men and their machinations with oversight. She’s of a different gender, class, generation, and agency than the men she’s investigating, and “A Spy Among Friends” further signals her otherness by showing her in a bright blue overcoat more than once, marking her with a rare bit of color. But different is not always good or even real, so clever watchers will have to untangle what her true significance is in this story of men and their friendships.
Lastly, the spy craft itself is strong. There are disappearing messages, dead drops, and double-crosses aplenty. The plot twists through multiple reveals, establishing one set of facts and then questioning them. It’s a smart storytelling device, putting the viewer in the spy’s (expensive) shoes by making us ask if we can ever really know these characters, ever truly understand their actions. The answer is perhaps not.
But the other question is, do we care? “A Spy Among Friends” tries to reach above its espionage trappings by asking questions about the value of friendship. It’s not just in the title but also in an opening quote, which reads, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” But here, the show works less well because the experience of picking between “country” and “friendship” is so rarified as to be largely unrelatable.
“A Spy Among Friends” is about the exceptional, not the universal. The presumption is that we all remain interested in this kind of oft-depicted anomaly of the historical record, another moment when empires joined forces to stop evil in their midst, told via the same demographic eyes as always. As well-told as it is here, I'm not so sure it needs to be told again in the first place.
Full series screened for review. "A Spy Among Friends" will be available on MGM+ Sunday, March 12th.