Move Over, Homeland. Another Hit Israeli Spy Thriller Is Coming to U.S. Television

The performances and ideas behind 'The Gordin Cell' make it one of the best suspense series in many a year, with Ran Danker perfectly cast as a pawn caught between loyalty to the state and his Russian family.

Pini Siluk

One of the most interesting things about the Wachowskis’ “The Matrix” is the casting of Keanu Reeves as protagonist Neo. While it seemed, on the surface, that the Wachowskis would be better served choosing an actor with more talent, charisma and facial expressions, Reeves’ one-dimensionality and perpetually shocked expression – Etgar Keret once wrote that he was “as threatening as the security guard at the entrance to the Dolphinarium” – were actually major considerations in landing him the part.

Pini Siluk

Neo is supposed to be an empty vessel whose superhuman physical and mental abilities had been implanted in him, not learned or acquired through training and effort. His use of them is purely functional – mechanical, not rational – and its purpose is to serve a larger goal to which he is always led (he never assumes the lead). So who better to portray a character who is hollow, passive and lacking any will of his own than Keanu Reeves?

Pini Siluk

While I have no idea whether the same considerations played any part in the casting of Ran Danker as Eyal “Alik” Gordon in the Israeli television series “The Gordin Cell,” Danker definitely serves the same purpose. “The Gordin Cell,” which can stand proudly among the world’s best suspense shows, is an original espionage thriller series by Yes, directed by Daniel Syrkin and written by Amit Cohen, Ron Leshem (also the writer of “Beaufort”) and Izhar Harlev.

Anyone seeking proof of its credentials should note that it has already been remade twice: the U.S. version, “Allegiance,” airs on NBC next month, while a South Korean adaptation, “Spy,” starts there this month.

The original program is about Diana and Mikhail “Miki” Gordin, a husband and wife whom the KGB recruited as spies upon their immigration to Israel a decade before. The KGB now wishes to recruit their son Eyal – an officer in Unit 669 of the Israel Air Force – to spy for them, betraying the country he has served.

One step behind

As part of this complex plot, Danker’s Eyal, who knows nothing of the espionage, is a blank slate, just like Reeves’ Neo. Both characters are manipulated like marionettes, moved hither and thither by forces greater and stronger than themselves. Danker’s teen-idol features, looking just the same as they did during the hit series “Hashir Shelanu” (“Our Song”) a decade or so ago, enable this situation to continue unhindered, its credibility unchallenged.

As the one who represents the series’ major object of identification, Eyal is always one step behind everyone else, which keeps the tension high. The Mossad, the Shin Bet security service, the Russian intelligence service and freelance terrorists are all ahead of him, misleading him and navigating him as they wish, until he – and we – no longer know whom to trust, whom to believe or whom to shoot in the head – which, of course, ratchets up the atmosphere of paranoia, just as the series’ creators wished.

To illustrate the gap between Eyal’s cluelessness and his environment, all the thespians around him are from the acting elite and give precise performances. This is done not only by Russian actors from the Gesher Theater who charge this family story with a heavy, tragic, Chekhovian atmosphere – the likes of Helena Yaralova as the mother; Slava Bibergal as the father; and, particularly, Svetlana Narbayeva as the grandmother who did a stint in the KGB’s cellars – and make fun of Eyal and play off his confusion very well.

Local actors also fill some of the best dramatic roles that have been seen on our screens in recent years: Neta Riskin as an unexpected and unsentimental femme fatale; Aviv Alush entrenching his position as his generation’s alpha male as the young, conflicted Shin Bet agent Ofir Rider; Hadar Ratzon Rotem as a Mizrahi woman in the Mossad, with all the difficulties that entails; Yigal Naor, proving why he is constantly invited to Hollywood; and Mark Ivanir, continuing in his virtuosic tour-de-force as “Yasha” Lundin from the first season.

Rising above them all is Moni Moshonov, here playing one of the most complex characters in his rich repertoire – including the time he burned Joaquin Phoenix onscreen in “We Own the Night” (2008). In “The Gordin Cell,” Moshonov plays Peter Yom-Tov, a retired Shin Bet agent with a mind like a freshly sharpened razor. While everyone is busy searching for the coin at the foot of the street lamp, Moshonov’s Yom-Tov brings a stage light from home.

In the first season of “The Gordin Cell,” Moshonov’s connection with music gave his character a poetic dimension, while now, his coping with becoming a senior citizen – in a kind of gentle understatement that suits his laconic character – is what stands in the background, always whispering to him. The vulnerability Moshonov brings to Yom-Tov is reminiscent of what Robert Forster did with the Max Cherry character in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (1997) – and I swear I can pay no greater compliment than that.

The character of Yom-Tov, whose sharp eye and sharper mind notice everything, stands in direct opposition to that of Eyal – just like the polar difference between Moshonov and Danker – and this works in the series’ favor.

Something else firmly in the spotlight in the second season is the issue of loyalty – to self, family and country – and what happens when the interests between the various loyalties that a person is supposed to fulfill collide. At times like our own, when a series of senior party figures who suggested examining the loyalty of various Israeli citizens are being investigated on suspicion of having robbed the public treasury, breach of trust and poor management, it is worthwhile probing the innards of this elusive concept via the treacherous intersections of “The Gordin Cell.”

This time, as the show’s fabric spreads to the political arena as well, it is not only the loyalty of the Gordin family that hangs in the balance, but also that of the state’s leaders to its citizens.

As fictional and implausible as the show’s plot is, the way it shows how personal interests and motivations (whether rooted in greed or the survival instinct) trump the good of the state is realistic in every possible way. From a different angle, it also shows how a person who acts as a nationalist is much more damaging to society than those he opposes. So there is no loyalty or good citizenship – but there is one very good television series.