TV: Queen Sono (Season 1)

March 21, 2020

The Netflix original series Queen Sono doesn’t exactly reinvent the spy thriller, but it does something else important: it takes the spy thriller into uncharted, or at least under-charted, territory. This alone ought to make it essential viewing for fans of the genre. It follows the exploits of Queen Sono (Pearl Thusi), an operative of a South African intelligence service called the Special Operations Group. Queen is the SOG’s most effective, least compromising field agent. She’s also the daughter of legendary revolutionary leader Safiya Sono, who died under mysterious circumstances during Queen’s childhood. Her missions send her all across the African continent, where a new threat is building. It’s a nefarious alliance of convenience between a Russian private security contractor, the ruthless Ekaterina Gromova (Kate Liquorish), and a radical new freedom movement led by ex-SOG agent Shandu Magwaza (Vuyo Dabula) — who also happens to be Queen’s ex-boyfriend.

Seasoned spy fiction buffs will immediately recognize the many elements of Queen Sono. A tortured, loose cannon agent (shades of 24) struggles to balance her clandestine life with her personal one (flashes of Alias), while working in concert with a small, contentious team of experts and espiocrats (glimpses of MI-5). What makes it refreshing is that these classic components are ported into a new, underexplored geopolitical context. Queen Sono hardly ignores the wider world, but is almost entirely focused on its African setting and African issues. It reveals the continent as a vast, diverse, multilingual place with an entire planet’s worth of its own problems. This makes it a perspective-expanding watch, and not just for fans of the spy genre, where the status quo of the western world is often monotonously paramount.

Overall, the acting is a mixed bag, but it all works rather well as a collective effort, especially considering the wide array of languages deployed by the primary cast. Thusi is a riveting presence in the lead role, bringing depth, heart, and intensity to her performance. Her teammates on the SOG — Sechaba Morojele, Chi Mhende, Loyiso Madinga, Rob Van Vuuren — aren’t flashy, but are winning in support. Dabula brings the right balance of stoicism and passion to his role, while Liquorish delivers fierce and formidable villainy.

The big-picture plots and ground-level tradecraft aren’t exactly earth-shattering, but Queen Sono brings a lot more to the table than its genre trappings. It’s an attractively produced and executed serial that leverages its unique geopolitical context to memorable effect.