Created by Matt Charman
Release Date: 26th December 2022
There is something of an enjoyable ‘airport novel’ quality to Treason; the plot is fast paced, there are twists and turns in nearly every episode, most of which run for a little over forty minutes, and everything about the plotting is at its most enjoyable when taken with a grain of salt.
The series is the creation of Bridge of Spies writer Matt Charman, but where that film’s screenplay was a methodical and character driven exploration of espionage and Cold War intrigue, Treason is a potboiler with a classy cast elevating a somewhat pulpy plot with a sense of gravitas.
It proves to be a nicely paced binge and clearly wants to deal with real world politics through the prism of a ferocious thriller; the series dabbles with British leadership campaigns, MI6 ethics, Russian interference in the electoral process and clandestine agencies with dirtier secrets, but this isn’t a spy thriller of the thought provoking John le Carré mode.
Yes, Ciaran Hinds is there from 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but the presence of Olga Kurylenko, who has dabbled in many an action thriller since starring in Quantum of Solace in 2008, maybe gives a clearer indication of the vibe and tone here.
The plot machinations are kicked into gear right away as Kurylenko’s Russian spy Kara attempts an assassination on MI6 boss Sir Martin Angelis (Hinds). This prompts his second-in-command Adam Lawrence (Charlie Cox) to be placed in charge and from there the plot develops in swift fashion into the type of conspiracy thriller fare that tends to work quite well within a serialised television format.
Secrecy and subterfuge are prime components of the narrative here. It aims for some profundity in portraying a happy family and marriage involving Adam and his wife Maddy (Oona Chaplin) that threatens to become undone by secrets of Adam’s past rising from the surface and his wife inadvertently getting caught up in a CIA operation that suspects he’s a traitor.
There is a subtle paranoid air hanging over proceedings as to whether or not Adam really is a traitor which gives the series a modicum of an edge as to whether or not a more deadlier revelation is lying in wait, and while there are some very enjoyable action beats, it gains most of its thrills and suspense from the mechanics of the plotting rather than piling on action set-piece after set-piece.
That is manages to be rather pacy and never outstays its welcome says a lot about how effective a lot of this it.
It’s not a series that is likely to win awards and it’s not some genre game changer. If you like this sort of thing (say for example Homeland, the BBC series Spooks or even 24) then you might find this a rather fun comfort blanket of tropes and storytelling beats that this genre frequently likes to dabble in.
That it’s set in the UK and is focused on the inner workings of MI6 and the British political establishment gives it a different flavour to a large chunk of American thrillers that tend to dominate this genre with copious amounts of Washington/Capital Hill locations and slick CIA offices, and one could say that is more akin to Spooks in being able to revel in twisty-turns thrills while smirking about how UK politics work both in private and in the public eye.
This is a portrayal of the British government and the world of MI6 that isn’t a slick James Bond fantasy (although 007 is humorously referred to in the first episode) but one consumed by manipulations, subterfuge and looking out for oneself and to hell with the consequences, although you might be left wishing that it explored those ideas and themes in a manner with more bite. You can’t help but be left surprised that this doesn’t twist more deeply into these themes and ideas given that Charman’s previous credits includes Bridge of Spies which felt considerably meaty when it came to exploring Cold War intrigue.
It does utilise as a plot strand the influence of Russia on the geo-political sphere which comes as a frightening reminder just how much of a frightening influence the country has and how much its methods are no longer the concepts of far fetched spy yarns, with plotting like in television dramas and films now playing catch up to the real world as opposed to portraying ideas that might have once been seen as far-fetched.
There is a side order of cynicism here, but it’s not aiming for profound or deep. Instead it’s an entertaining way to spend a few hours and you’ll have fun while doing so. It won’t linger too long in the memory afterwards, but it works well as a television series. Better yet, with a cast like this, it’s taken seriously in a way that you buy into what’s being depicted even if the plotting stretches credibility.
There are a few plot developments that are obvious when one thinks about it, but you might be too engrossed to care. Better yet, it treats its female characters with intelligence. Cox is wonderful, but Adam Lawrence is a long way from the heroics of Daredevil. The opening moments where he describes his job might sound like he may eventually take a turn into James Bond/Jason Bourne territory, but it’s Kurylenko and Chaplin who get to play parts in the bigger set-pieces, while Charman’s script and Cox himself gently suggests that Adam is maybe too comfortable behind a desk than in the field to fully become a character of action. He reacts to events around him rather than dictating them, which maybe in the end says so much more about his character than anything.
It’s those factors which gives Treason more of an interesting edge as opposed to the plot mechanisms themselves, but even at that this is still an entertaining way to spend a few hours.