As The Honourable Woman draws to a close, many questions remain unanswered. That is to be expected of a drama which seeks to explore the complexities of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, but writer/creator Hugo Blick has done more than that. After the testosterone-driven Shadow Line, which was all about men behaving disgracefully, he has turned the genre of the spy thriller inside out. As much as it is about politics, the Honourable Woman is about women - powerful women, principled women, career women, compromised women - all of them operating in a world where honour is scarce.
“I was very intrigued by the characters that presented themselves to me,” Blick explained. “They were women, because by definition they had to be, but that was very exciting - to place that psychology under exploration.”
At the centre of his story is Nessa Stein, (icily played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), an Israeli philanthropist exploring the possibility of reconciliation in a clearly intractable political problem. In the first episode, she was elevated to the House of Lords. In the seventh, she was blown up - apparently killed - by a Palestinian bomb, but not before compromising her integrity. Blick has hinted that the title of the series might be a bit of misdirection - the correct form of address for a Baroness is “The Right Honourable” or “The Lady” - which leaves open the possibility that Nessa is not, after all the most important female in the story. So, as the drama concludes, it seems fair to ask: just who is the honourable woman?
Clearly, the story centres around Nessa, a woman with a vacuum at the core of her personality. She dresses like an angel and lives like a ghost. She has suffered terribly, on account of her name. Her father, an Israeli arms dealer, was murdered. She was kidnapped by a Hamas-like group, raped, and surrendered the resulting child to her (also kidnapped) Palestinian pal. Then, years later, the boy is kidnapped too, leaving poor old Nessa running around Hyde Park looking absolutely alone. That’s quite a lot of bad luck to be going on with, which explains Nessa’s glacial persona. She exists on the bruised side of numbness, rarely displaying anger, whatever the provocation - and the provocation she endures is extreme. Certainly, she embodies the drama’s theme of reconciliation, heading up the family foundation, which is behind the symbolic establishment of a communications cable running between the disputed territories. She shows her principled (gullible?) side early on, by deciding not to offer the contract to her surrogate uncle, Shlomo Zahary, on the basis of bogus intelligence. Later, she finds herself blackmailed into a grim and fateful deal with Palestinian businessman Jalal El-Amin, which shows that her sense of honour has its limits. Though, to be fair, she didn’t have much choice. Also has trouble with relationships, possibly due to the horrors she has endured. Indulges in anonymous, masochistic sex with strangers, which goes wrong when she is recognised and raped again. But also has a very close relationship with Atiki Halibi. Is she in love with her?
Atika is the most vividly-drawn character. She was incarcerated along with Nessa, and agreed to act as mother to the son Nessa had after being raped by her kidnapper. Also works as nanny to the children of Nessa’s brother, Ephra, who proves unable to resist her charms. So she lures him to a rendezvous at his holiday house, and has back-bending sex, knowing that a plastic-faced Palestinian hitman is about to appear and assassinate him at the precise moment Nessa is being blown up by a bomb. Not, on the surface of it, the most honourable CV. But Atika is a woman of strong principle, and while her methods are extreme, they are not unfathomable in the context of the middle east. On the plus side, she spared the life of Ephra’s wife, Rachel, and helped her give birth to the next scion of the Stein family in rather trying circumstances. (Two dead men next door. Armed men bursting into the room). Is Atika a lesbian? Possibly not. She proves quite adept at heterosexual activities - both the theory and the practice. But there is a real intimacy with Nessa.
Ephra’s wife has one of the more traditional female roles, being an attractive, supportive spouse whose pregnancy is always threatening to explode into the plot. However, on discovering just how friendly Ephra has been getting with Atika, her fury builds. It explodes when she is told that Kasim, the missing child who should be at the centre of the plot but somehow isn’t, belongs to Nessa, not Atika. She flips her wig. By the time she’s tracked Ephra down to their second home and caught him in an advanced yoga position with Atika, she is transformed into a suburban Tank Girl. And who could blame her? Nothing dishonourable about her at all, even if she does kill a man.
If this was a cowboy film, Monica would be riding the black horse. She is, or appears to be, the most clearly-defined villain of the piece, happily betraying her colleagues in order to advance her own career. She is also a double agent, employed by the British, but working for the Americans, while always working for herself. She was happy to see Nessa die in order to promote the prospects of Palestine being fully recognised as a state. So you could argue that her deceptions were carried out in the service of higher principle. Not honourable in the conventional sense, and not a code of ethics that would get her a degree in moral philosophy, but representative of the cynicism of state secret services.
Dame Julia is head of MI5, a job filled by Dame Judi Dench in the James Bond films, so they’re clearly quite used to having a lady around the place. In early episodes, Dame Julia acts as the punchline to the joke in which Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle is alleged to have slept his way to the top, before finding herself earmarked for retirement to satisfy the ambitions of the ruthless Monica. But as the plot develops, Dame Julia comes into her own, playing Sir Hugh and Monica off against each other, and proving herself to be more than equal to her foreign counterparts. Her importance to the architecture of Blick’s feminist design is proved by a one-liner she is given in tonight’s concluding episode, which is delivered with so much comedic zip that it invites a drumroll and a clash of cymbals. Still, that shouldn’t detract from Dame Julia's competence and grace, even if she seems to be contractually unable to stand up unless everyone else is sitting down. (McTeer is 6’ 1”).
An honourable mention to Nessa’s unflappable private secretary, media advisor and confidante, who keeps the show on the road while her boss is floating around in an ethereal fog. Poor old Frances has to witness the moment where Nessa sells out her principles, and - as a good professional must - buttons her lip and moves on.
It’s a sign of the strength of the cast that Blick could afford to keep Lindsay Duncan is what is little more than a supporting role as the estranged wife of Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle, who spies on her through binoculars in the hope of being forgiven for his time on the casting couch with Dame Julia. In truth, Anjelica doesn’t do much except repel Hugh with ever-diminishing force.
It may not be Blick’s intention, but the fact remains that in a drama in which the traditional roles of the sexes are reversed, Rea’s shambolic nightwatchman of a spy employs feminine wiles. He is accused of using his sexuality to advance his career, and finds himself discarded once the novelty has worn off. In this carefully-constructed inversion of dramatic norms, he sticks doggedly to his task in the hope of redeeming himself. He also does the traditional spy stuff, which mostly amounts to mumbling to his foreign counterparts on park benches and gazing wistfully at the Thames. He is honourable from the tips of his flip-on sunglasses to the soles of his Ampleforth socks, and in a world where all the men are women, he is a chap perennially in search of his testicles. Who do you trust? Sir Hugh, if you’re wise. He is The Honourable Woman’s best girl.