Welcome to Makeup Work, where we tell you what LGBTQ+ series or film you should be watching instead of whatever messy teen drama just premiered. This week, it’s the 2015 BBC miniseries London Spy, which is now streaming on Netflix. And please note, there are spoilers for this five-year-old series below.
Every good thriller is about itself and something else. The Silence of the Lambs is about a serial killer and the woman who has to catch him, but it’s also about the way men try to control women. The Babadook is about a freaky monster who escapes from a children’s book, but it’s also about the fear that becoming a mother means obliterating your identity for the sake of your child. When a story gets at something deep like that — something almost unconscious — it’s exhilarating.
London Spy, the 2015 miniseries, pulls off this trick for a queer audience. On the surface, it’s a great spy caper, about a young man named Danny (Ben Whishaw) who gets pulled into an international plot after his lover Alex (Edward Holcroft) suddenly dies. It turns out that Alex may have been a secret agent, and when Danny impulsively tries to hide some documents he finds among Alex’s things, he unwittingly invites the wrath of shadowy world powers. There are people who can’t let those documents get out, you see, so they decide they have to destroy Danny’s reputation (and maybe end his life). That way, nobody will believe anything he reports.
From there, we spend five hours watching Danny learn how to survive, rapidly acquiring skills and allies in an effort to protect his dead boyfriend’s quest to expose terrible secrets. And that could be enough! If that’s all London Spy delivered, it would still be a lot of fun.
But there’s so much more. For instance, the government tries to destroy Danny by using his sexual past against him. They get him on tape admitting to a history of drug-fueled promiscuity, and then they use the tape to try to make him falsely confess he was Alex’s rent boy. And that’s just the start.
As outlandish as it is, the cruelty of Danny’s enemies still feels emotionally true to the experience of being a gay person in the world. For all the advances we’ve made and all the rights we’ve won, doesn’t it sometimes feel like we’re just one Trump-sanctioned riot away from the return of the Religious Right or whatever the homophobes call themselves now? Doesn’t it feel like we’ve put too much faith in government institutions that have yet to demonstrate a sustained commitment to justice? Doesn’t it sometimes feel our new freedom could be used against us?
That’s not to say the anxiety in these questions is rational. Or at least, not always. But London Spy understands that the anxiety exists. It correctly articulates the queer community’s occasional dread that the powerful will use everything from the AIDS crisis to kinky sex for their own ends. By filtering this insight through a crackerjack spy drama, the series gives us an enjoyable way to work through the nightmare that’s nipping at the edge of our consciousness.