Middle East Espionage in ‘The Honorable Woman’
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because trying to represent real-world conflicts on the small screen is itself a risky high-wire act.
Imagine combining the dark, subtle world of international espionage with the visceral conflict of Israel and Palestine’s bitter relationship. The Honorable Woman, an 8-part miniseries from Sundance TV and the BBC, is the latest Western attempt to try and understand the Middle East through TV, and it’s garnered acclaim, BAFTA nominations, awards and controversy. The show embeds itself in the region’s complex, morally gray history — but its release last summer, just a month before Israel’s devastating bombardment of Gaza, makes it too topical for any old drama.
The Honorable Woman tells the story of Nessa Stein, heir to a powerful Israeli arms dealer. Recently made a peer in the British House of Lords, Nessa, played with eerie, electric poise by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is determined to use her family’s blood money for charity and healing in Palestine. But her family’s history in the region, her ambitious brother Ephra, shady international players and her own darkest personal secret all threaten to derail her.
… a tense, intimate, cinematic landscape, lingering on the curves of shoulders and rich folds in clothes …
Cue violence and betrayal, with astonishing characters representing different eras and ends of the political spectrum. Some of Britain’s finest actors shine in the cast, from Rome’s Tobias Menzies as Nessa’s delicately understated, loyal bodyguard to Stephen Rea, whose worn, eccentric MI6 agent Hugh Hayden-Hoyle is an uncanny echo of everyone’s favorite Cold War intelligence agent, John le Carré’s George Smiley.
This isn’t Homeland. For one, it’s more movie than TV: Writer and director Hugo Blick creates a tense, intimate, cinematic landscape, lingering on the curves of shoulders and rich folds in clothes to create a framework for international political machinations. The narrative refreshingly gives power and focus to women, from the formidable head of MI6 to Palestinian refugee Atika Halabi to Nessa herself. Perhaps most importantly, though, The Honorable Woman widens the scope of how Westerners typically think about the Middle East, giving voices to Palestinians and portraying corruption in the heart of the Israeli government.
But is that enough? UK-based activist Daniel Young explains that most media representations of Palestine and the Arab world follow “old Orientalist tropes,” whether that be notions that “Arabs are backward, culturally, intellectually, morally; that they are in need of saving by white Western power; or that the voices of civilized Western authorities ought to be heard over them.”
Despite rave reviews, The Honorable Woman fell strangely flat as Israel bombed Gaza. With media attention honed in on the region, cracks in the show’s narrative stood out for some viewers. There’s no getting around the lingering stereotypes The Honorable Woman portrays: Gaza is depicted as a pale, terrifying ghost town, inaccessible and populated only by lost or radical people. The only Palestinian we get to know well turns out to be a ruthless killer, while the others perpetrate Islamist violence. Nessa’s charity work is portrayed as powerful and inspiring, but there’s little acknowledgment of the Western backing that puts her where she is.
Young argues that this isn’t an improvement on Orientalist tropes, but “rather, it grants them respectability.” As a TV show, The Honorable Woman may be slick, beautiful and carefully crafted. But its failure to live up to its highly political context raises questions about how we’re still struggling to put the Middle East into words. Watch for yourself and decide whether the show rises to the challenge.