TV: The Widow (Season 1)

March 15, 2019

I’m conflicted about how much I should like The Widow, a polished conspiracy thriller which is compelling and appealingly complex, but also possesses problematic aspects. As the story begins, Georgia Wells (Kate Beckinsale) is a sullen young woman living alone in a remote cabin in Wales. A rare visit back to civilization to see a doctor throws her for a loop; in the waiting room, she catches a glimpse of a TV news report and a man who may or may not be her husband, Will Mason (Matthew Le Nevez). Will, Georgia thinks, died in a tragic plane accident over the Democratic Republic of Congo three years earlier, and while the body was never found, Georgia has always assumed the worst. But her fortuitous glance at the TV restores a kernel of hope, and she begins to investigate the possibility that Will is still alive — which takes her back to the DRC on a dangerous, longshot mission.

On the merits of its primary storyline alone, The Widow doesn’t sound particularly interesting: a run-of-the-mill rescue adventure with Beckinsale the steely, fearless protagonist searching for a lost love. Fortunately, there’s a intriguing subplot that adds layers of complexity, involving a blind Icelandic tourist named Ariel Helgason (Trapped’s Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), visiting the Netherlands in the hopes of restoring his eyesight in a clinical trial. If Georgia is running towards something, Ariel is running away, but their paths are destined to collide, along with those of several other characters who may or may not be involved. There’s Georgia’s father Martin (Charles Dance), a worldly former military officer who gets roped into the search; Emmanuel (Jacky Ito), a Congolese man Georgia met after the crash who also lost a loved one; Will’s boss Judith (Alex Kingston), an aid worker who seems to be harboring a guilty secret; Pieter Bello (Bart Fouche), a shifty South African man whom Georgia begins to distrust; and Adidja (the remarkable young Shalom Nyandiko), an abducted youth serving as a child soldier for a mercenary warlord. These characters, as well as several shorter-term ones, pepper the eight-episode affair with constantly shifting group dynamics, and also give the show a gripping structural unpredictability. It’s never quite clear whose throughline is going to alter the story’s trajectory, and difficult to tell whether newly appearing figures are throwaway roles or crucial story components. Adding a layer of intricacy is a Lost-like flashback structure; while this technique eventually grew long in the tooth on Lost itself, The Widow deploys it skillfully enough to remind us why it was so fresh and different back then. If nothing else, the series is a triumph of structural logistics, a nifty contraption of well oiled but unexpected parts.

However much I enjoyed the watch, though, I recommend it with some reservations. A minor problem is that Georgia, as perfectly composed and flawless as a video game character while chaos flails around her, is an unreadable cipher. This works in the plot’s favor as her carefully hidden depths introduce the odd surprise, but ultimately she’s a less-than-enthralling hero. The Widow also traffics in a handful of uncomfortable tropes: victimizing the expected characters, centering white characters in an Africa-centric story, painting its backdrop with a broad brush. Its shock-tactic plot twists angered me on more than one occasion. In the end, I do think many of these decisions are strategic, geared toward emphasizing the show’s primary political point: ultimately this is a series about looking into the world’s darkness, and then turning the other way. As we voyeuristically follow these largely unsympathetic characters, we realize that we are them, peering at evils we’re too complacent to quash. This mission should have been a topical gut-punch, but doesn’t land quite as squarely as it should because it allows Georgia to rise above its more flawed people, rather than leaning into the message to deliver the goods. It’s certainly an interesting and thought-provoking project, but to get to the sum of it, you’ll need to squint through some iffy parts.