Typical of its narrative world, episode two revealed only what it wanted to, obscured when convenient with misdirection, and not always in good ways…
The Night ManagerAirtime: Sundays, 9pm
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Oliva Colman, Tom Hollander, Elizabeth Debecki
Subtitle: Episode 2
Air date: 2016-02-29
Unexpected and a little disorientating, this week’s opening pulled us far away from Zermatt and demonstrated again that the show has no intentions of sticking too close to previous Le Carré adaptations -- at least in terms of structure.
Before we storm ahead with the episode, it would be good to quickly acknowledge the welcome and unexpected return of Richard Ropers' (Hugh Laurie) TED-esque address. This is one of the most striking and promising elements of the shows potential to add to the novel, providing more questions about the character as it unfolds. It tells us as much about the man as any of his interactions with other characters: seeing how a man lives his life is one thing, but watching how he wishes to portray himself to the public can be just as revealing.
In politics, what a person wants the world to think tells us as much about their perspective and desires as any private confession. The other elements that'll better inform us are some of the smaller trinkets the show appears to be hoarding from us: what is this addresses’ purpose, who is its audience, and will it be any less irritating and self-important than usual TED talks?
Of course Roper isn't the only character of whom questions will be asked. Addressing one of my major concerns from the debut, Elizabeth Debicki's Jed is immediately provided with some purpose and drama not defined entirely by her relationship to Roper (although the show still requires at least some steamy shower and underwear activity from her; Alec Guinness's spectacles would be well and truly fogged up). But the telephone conversation adds a new dimension to the drama; whilst Jed shows deep affection for young Daniel Roper (Noah Jupe), she certainly doesn't appear to be entirely content. The nature of her residency on "Roper-island", and possibly that of her allegiance to him, is now far less certain -- promising signs indeed.
Sadly less promising, despite consuming the lion's share of the episode, was Jonathan Pine's (Tom Hiddleston) West Country excursion and subsequent turn to the dark side, which in Devon apparently is comprised of duffing up a small-time drug-dealer and a scuffle in a local drinking hole. Yes, admittedly, there's the slight issue of murder as well, but Hiddleston’s transformation fell a little flat here. The slight asides where we see doubts and reticence are curious; however, the absence of engaging characters for the sedate Pine to interact with sucks the life out of the drama.
After the initial promise for the scenes with Angela Burr (Olivia Colman), where the implications and dangers of the ex-night managers task feel all too apparent and risky, this is a disappointing turn, and one the episode doesn’t quite recover from. Early momentum is squandered amongst underdeveloped side plots, particularly another romance subplot involving the lonely Marilyn (Hannah Steele), which the show neither has the time nor the inclination to deepen, but still wastes valuable time introducing. One suspects the motivation may well be to claim another key shot of Hiddleston's bare figure, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt.
The issue here isn’t the episodes desire to capture the allure of the casts' sex appeal (much fun as it is to point out), but more how it fails to nail what should be the major moral quandary of the episode: how far should you go into the shadow of evil if you wish to defeat it? Pine appears to wrestle with the concept, but there’s no dialogue from the writer, or visual insight from the director, to pull the viewer into the dilemma.
Priorities there appear to be confused. Thankfully, there’s one area where the show seems comfortable, and unsurprisingly it's the segment that clings tightest to the traditions of Le Carré adaptations. Last week, it was Colman’s role to ground the narrative, and here it’s up to her scenes to remind us this is a political drama first and crime mystery second. Benefiting both as a character and an actor from the reliable support of David Harewood, Colman’s Burr has to navigate the hidden agendas and dangers of Whitehall politics, carefully managing both the real and cover operations.
Using the information provided by Pine in a believable and constructive fashion, it’s with her that the recognisable elements of espionage linger: the operations that dance upon the edge of legality, the white, male face of the political establishment, and the paranoid mind set required when navigating both of them. With the rest of the show feeling more indebted to the crime dramas of today (with the exotic whiff of Fleming still present – LOOK A SPEED BOAT!), here the show still stands out amongst other dramas offerings, fulfilling its promise of 21st-century Le Carré with a Hollywood cast.
Hopefully, that's where the show is headed as well. With Pine now trapped in the lion's den, the show's most engaging and enigmatic characters can hopefully all can benefit from each other's company, and the conflict can elevate characters such as Pine to be as interesting as Burr, Roper, or Corcoran (Tom Hollander).
I should really stop leaving discussion these two till the end -- despite the old saying about "saving the best" -- but both Hugh Laurie and Tom Hollander are clearly having fantastic fun teasing at the menace that lingers at the centre of men built on the riches of violence. This week’s increasingly domestic settings only helped the wolves stand out further from the sheep (although how many adults present at that dinner could genuinely be innocent lambs?). Roper barely suppressed his violent rage at the attack on his family, the very indignity of common thieves to threaten him no doubt fuelling it further, whilst his number one (raises pinky-finger) pulls off another week of oil-slick charm barely coating a malice-ridden soul.
Corcoran's address to Pine at the end is hardly going to hit big in YouTube views years from now, but was still deliciously fun after the po-faced scenes that had preceded it. Like Ian Richardson in the BBC's classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy adaptation, Tom Hollander provides the essential ingredient of enjoyably cruel levity that'll hopefully allow the show to remain serious and self-important without descending into parody. At least as long as it can stray away from stretching believability too far, whilst providing some convincing answers as to why Roper would buy Pine’s reappearance as simple coincidence.
Worse comes to worst, next week I'll be able to start a separate column analysing the similarities between the show and License to Kill. Bring on death by sharks and deep sea diving!
Thomas Meehan is a history graduate of the University of Reading. Based outside London, he writes and directs independent short films, when not busy teaching the young.