Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce star in the espionage thriller A Spy Among Friends. With its Cold War setting, incredibly complex plotting, and very slow-burn atmosphere, the series is decidedly more John le Carré in tone and style than James Bond – even if Ian Fleming happens to show up as a character in the second episode.
In fact, le Carré actually incorporated elements of the underlying true story, in an even more heavily fictionalized form, into his novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Officially, the show is based on a nonfiction book by author Ben Macintyre, which recounts the case of a British intelligence officer who was discovered to be a double agent working for the KGB. However, every episode opens with a disclaimer acknowledging that the adaptation “is a work of imagination in which some names have been changed and some characters and scenes have been created for dramatic purposes.” In other words, as far as historical accuracy is concerned, the specific story details should be taken with a grain of salt.
|Title:||A Spy Among Friends|
|Episodes:||1.01 – Boom-ooh-yatatatah|
1.02 – The Admiral’s Glass
1.03 – Allegory of the Catholic Faith
|Release Date:||December 8, 2022 (UK)|
March 12, 2023 (US)
|Also Available On:||MGM+|
Although it jumps around back and forth in time a fair amount, the story primarily takes place in 1963, at the height of tensions between the West and the Soviet Union. After a decades-long career in the Secret Intelligence Service, including decorations for his critical work during World War II, British agent Kim Philby (Pearce) is outed as a KGB mole and absconds to Beirut. Against the objections of rival agency MI5, which believes the matter falls under its own jurisdiction, Philby’s longtime friend and SIS partner Nicholas Elliott (Lewis) petitions for the chance to confront his friend, convince him to surrender, and bring him back to England. Regrettably, despite several days of recorded interrogation and at least a partial confession, the traitor slips through Elliott’s fingers and defects to Russia.
That alone could be the basis for a gripping Cold War tale, but the story only begins there. Following Philby’s escape, Elliott returns to London and must face a thorough debriefing from MI5 analyst Lily Thomas (Anna Maxwell Martin), who has conscientiously pored over every second of the recordings from Beirut and finds it suspicious that an agent as experienced as Elliott would come back empty-handed. Did he let his friend go out of pity or even help him escape? Worse, could Elliott be another double-agent? As she listens and re-listens to those recordings, Lily struggles to determine how much of the conversation is merely a performance put on for her agency’s benefit.
Meanwhile, en route to Russia, Philby faces similar treatment and suspicion from his KGB handler, who questions whether this very effective asset could have been turned as a ploy to infiltrate Russia. Is his commitment to Marxism as sincere as he claims?
For men like Philby and Elliott, the tradecraft of espionage is an intoxicating game and a way of life. When your job is deception, how can any supposed allegiances be trusted? Is their friendship of more than twenty years based entirely on lies? Or do they share even deeper secrets they’ve hidden from their superiors on both sides?
A Spy Among Friends is not the type of spy thriller with a lot of gunplay or car chases. Its most explosive action concerns two people sitting in a room attempting to outwit one another. Most of the characters are erudite Brits who thrive on formality, and talk in circles to obfuscate their intentions. The show’s plot is dense and complicated, and the writing literary in flavor. Early episodes work in a marvelous metaphor involving a stuck door.
This is very much a spy show for grown-ups, and its slow pace and complexity may try many’s patience. With only the first few episodes available in this market so far, I can’t promise for certain that it entirely holds together. I also question just how much literary privilege it takes in dramatizing the actions and motivations of real historical figures. That noted, I’ve found it to be a refreshing change of pace from so many action-packet yet dull-witted entries in the genre, and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen so far.
A Spy Among Friends first debuted as a full-season binge on the British ITVX streaming service in December 2022, but had a slow transition over to North America. In February 2023, the series next appeared on Amazon Prime Video in Canada. Meanwhile, distribution in the United States is split to two fronts: broadcast on the Epix cable network and streaming on MGM+, in both of which it premiered with two episodes on March 12th followed by a weekly schedule.
For those who haven’t followed these developments, Epix is currently in the middle of a rather confusing rebranding to the name MGM+. However, at least for the time being, the cable channel will retain the old Epix name, and cable subscribers can only stream its content from the legacy Epix app. Use of the new, simultaneously available MGM+ app requires a separate subscription. Yet when I access any of that content using my cable provider’s On Demand option, it’s already branded MGM+ there.
At the moment, I’m not sure whether MGM+ offers anything that Epix doesn’t, other than the opportunity to stream without a cable subscription. Because Epix is already part of my cable package, I streamed A Spy Among Friends from the Epix app and have no plans to pay for MGM+.
Streaming via Epix, the image has a barely adequate sense of sharpness and looks comparable to about 720p resolution. The audio is also limited to 2.0 surround. I can’t say whether it looks or sounds any better on MGM+, but I did check Xfinity On Demand and found the audio to be encoded in 5.1 format there, at the very least.
The show is presented in a 2.00:1 aspect ratio and is heavily stylized to evoke a period atmosphere. The picture has very flat contrast, with elevated black levels and dulled highlights. Colors are also drab. This all seems to be deliberate, and the image softness may be as well (some of it, anyway). It’s effective, but doesn’t exactly make for home theater show-off material.
The 2.0 audio has perfectly clear dialogue, and the music sounds good, with a decent amount of range and envelopment when decoded with the Dolby Surround Upmixer in my A/V receiver, but background ambiance is sometimes distractingly loud.