Get Up to Speed on Middle East Politics by Watching Maggie Gyllenhaal

Political spy thriller 'The Honorable Woman' is a fair of the region's complexities.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in 'The Honourable Woman.'
Maggie Gyllenhaal in 'The Honourable Woman.'

By now we know that TV watching is not what it used to be. Not only do you not actually have to sit in front of a set, more often than not as a part of a group, you don’t even need a TV set to watch TV anymore; you can do so instead on your laptop, tablet or smartphone. Even your viewing schedule is no longer in the hands of the broadcasters, who are still producing and releasing their programs in time-slots, channels and seasons; each one of us can download, stream, record (via VOD, TiVo or any other acronym) and binge on any series or program at our leisure.

Basically, it’s all about providers – those outlets that allow us to surf (the new “tune in”) and choose our viewing diet whenever we feel like it. The experience of TV viewing has become similar to reading a book: a solitary undertaking.

That is how I went through all eight episodes of “The Honourable Woman,” a political, spy-thriller mini-series set in the Middle East, produced by the BBC and Sundance TV. It ran in the U.K. in July and in the U.S. in August, got passable ratings and, on the whole, good reviews. In Israel it is currently on offer on HOT VOD, and has not been scheduled on any of the providers’ channels. So I binged on it all last Saturday.

It starts as a family affair: Nessa and Ephra Stein were little kids 29 years ago when their father – a British Jew whose fortune was instrumental in helping the young state of Israel fend for itself in its struggle to exist in the Middle East – was assassinated by a Palestinian activist (or so it seems). Nowadays, Nessa (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) has just been made a baroness for her commendable philanthropic activities – through the family business – that aim to provide equal opportunities for Israelis and Palestinians alike and make the Middle East a place where all can live and prosper.

Truth be told, the title of the series carries a lot of meaning for those who care for words. Since Mark Antony’s funeral oration over the corpse of the assassinated Caesar (Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” act III, scene 2: “For Brutus is an honourable man; So are they all, all honourable men”), the adjective “honourable” is loaded with derogatory overtones, and tells us all that the man – in our case, woman – is anything but that.

A lot happens in the eight episodes of the series. The action shifts between when it all began, 29 years ago; eight years ago, when Nessa and Atika, a Palestinian woman, translator and friend to both Ephra and Nessa, are abducted in Gaza; and the present day. With various secret services (the disillusioned MI6, the manipulative CIA and FBI, and the inscrutable, efficient Mossad) all playing dirty, everything blows up in everyone’s faces, viewers included.

We have all of the Middle East in a nutshell: political agendas – Israeli, Palestinian, American and British – collide; the machinations of several secret services – wheels within wheels within wheels and with many wrenches thrown into the works – differ from the political agendas of their masters; and personal story lines capitalize on dashed hopes, thwarted dreams and a misuse of goodwill. Nothing is what it seemed to be and no good deed goes unpunished. The British are lamely noncommittal; the Americans are cold, calculating and not above using forces of evil purportedly for (whose?) good causes. The Palestinians are all evil, even with a cause, and the Israelis are mostly pretty evil, some very nave, and one wise and kind. The latter is played by the Israeli actor Yigal Naor, who made his name as Saddam Hussein in a British TV series “House of Saddam.”

The mini-series got very good reviews in the U.K. and the U.S., and it was applauded for not being blatantly political and for not taking sides. Seen from the eye of the storm, so to speak, it looked sometimes nave and melodramatic ad nauseaum, and sometimes well-meaning and striving to snatch complexity from the jaws of platitude.

I cannot go into detail without turning this column into one big spoiler alert. There is, however, one quote I’ll allow myself to reproduce here. It is a joke Nessa repeats in a couple of her public appearances, when inaugurating her philanthropic projects, that sounds like a fair summation of the Middle East as it is today:

“So, these aliens decide to invade Earth, and to show they mean business, what they do is first they destroy London, then New York, and then they land right on the Green Line between Israel and the West Bank. And they decide to call a meeting between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government. And their message is simple: ‘Resistance is useless! Lay down your arms!’ I can’t really tell you the details of what happened next, but basically, by the end of it, your sympathy was with the aliens.”

“Sympathy is what we need, my friend,” sang Rare Bird in 1969. And we still need a lot of it in 2015.



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