A solid historical spy drama can be brought down by the weight of history; the more you know about the actual events underlying the fiction, the harder it can be to stay surprised and engaged. Traitors, a polished period drama set during the earliest days of the Cold War, initially presents concerns on this score, but ultimately transcends them. As a seasoned spy fiction fan, I know a fair amount about the post-war tensions of this period of history, as western democracy began its clandestine face-off against Soviet communism. Consequently, the early episodes of Traitors felt over-familiar and expected. But by the end of a taut, focused six-episode season, the show makes its mark on the genre in new ways.
Our entry character if Fiona “Feef” Symonds (Emma Appleton), an ambitious British patriot whose training to become a secret agent of the Special Operations Executive is cut short by Germany’s capitulation and the end of the European war. Deeply dreading a return to civilian life, Feef is thrilled when American boyfriend Peter (Matt Lauria) presents her with a new opportunity: undertaking a new type of clandestine assignment to help flush out a Russian spy in the British Cabinet Office. Peter introduces her to fire-breathing anti-communist CIA agent Rowe (Michael Stuhlbarg), who leverages her ambition and resourcefulness in service to a new type of war. But Feef’s energizing secret life in the civil service becomes troubling when her well-intentioned work is supplanted by the realities of the business, taking a harsh psychological toll.
In the early going, Traitors shows warning signs of being a predictably themed spy story: a naive, idealistic operative’s exposure to the sordid world of espionage leads to difficult choices and rude awakenings. Had it remained strictly in this vein, it might still have been worth watching, thanks to Appleton’s likability, Stuhlbarg’s fiery performance as a paranoid James Jesus Angleton type, and strong production values. But initially I was worried that the shadow of Cold War history, including Kim Philby and the Cambridge traitors, might loom over and perhaps over-inform the story.
Fortunately, Traitors possesses more tricks up its sleeve. Intelligent, well rendered scripts deliver surprising angles on the familiar milieu, and the show is quick to stride down unexpected paths. The success isn’t merely structural. There’s also rather interesting political subtext; the show doesn’t hesitate to hold its storied era up to the illuminating scrutiny of modern filters. Traitors is very much a product of 2019, its historical conflicts newly informed by the squalid realities of a world marred by Brexit, resurgent authoritarianism, Russian meddling, and runaway capitalism. We live in the future that Traitors purports to be shaping, and knowing the eventual, chaotic plight of the Cold War’s ultimate “winners” throws the entire affair into a thought-provoking new light. Certainly the hopeful intentions of socialist characters are treated with more sympathy, while the shine of western capitalist democracy is examined in cynical, disillusioned detail. This inverts the traditional paradigm of this sort of story, making for a more slippery, ambiguous watch.
Also welcome is the series’ unusual focus on women and minorities. Feef’s journey is very much informed, for example, by her admiration and respect for an older female colleague, Priscilla Garrick (Keeley Hawes), while Feef’s politician boyfriend (Luke Treadaway) is deeply affected by the passion of a Jewish secretary (Cara Horgan) who comes under suspicion. There’s also a black American soldier named Jackson (Brandon P. Bell), who entered the service for idealistic reasons only to emerge jaded and traumatized; his entanglement in Rowe’s scheming provides an interesting subplot. All of these elements help to lift Traitors, which should resonate with spy enthusiasts, but also beyond them. Definitely hoping this one gets renewed.