Normally I would say reaching the end of a TV season only to have a “what was the point?” reaction would be a bad thing. The devious trick of Glória, Netflix’s lavish period spy drama from Portugal, is that it delivers the viewer to such a moment, but another moment’s reflection answers the question, resonating cynically but powerfully. This unusual ending converts a brightly lit, colorful espionage puzzler from an engrossing example of its genre into a scathing deglamorization of it.
Set in the mid-sixties, Glória takes place near the rural village of Glória do Ribatejo, at the facilities of RARET, a radio retransmission station where American CIA agents, with the support of local staff, relay anti-Soviet broadcasts to eastern Europe. New to RARET is an engineer, João Vidal (Miguel Nunes), the attractive son of an important diplomat. João recently returned from war in Africa, where Portugal is mired in a futile, last-ditch attempt to retain its colonial empire. With his powerful, high-class pedigree, João seems both qualified and trustworthy. But he is in fact an agent of the KGB, recruited in Lisbon by the ruthless Alexandre Petrovsky (Adriano Luz), and he’s infiltrated RARET to sabotage the CIA’s propaganda operation. He goes about this work with a mix of deception, daring, seduction, and quick thinking, not to mention healthy doses of liquor and world-weary dread. But what lies beneath João’s inscrutable mask?
This question is the clandestine, thematic mystery of Glória, and a huge part of why it works, even as other surface mysteries dominate the plot. Among these: what exactly is João’s mission? How will he carry it out? And, perhaps most noticeably, what happened to the KGB colleague who preceded him, Mia (Victória Guerra), who turned up dead in a nearby reservoir? The show services this last mystery in a series of flashbacks teasing out João’s back story – and also, subtly, feeding into the less overt mystery of his motivations. Played with quiet, charismatic nuance by Nunes, João presents as a man with a dark history, hidden depths, perhaps traumatic experience lending his treachery an ideological foundation – but his façade never quite slips, leaving the viewer to guess. It makes him a weird central figure, unreadable, occasionally boring, but deeply intriguing.
Fortunately, viewers left cold by João’s close-to-the-vest presence can relish the surrounding milieu, which punches up whatever appeal he may lack. Glória has a distinctive backdrop, delving into under-explored genre territory both in its remote scenario (it’s kind of a Cold War Pine Gap with a Mad Men gloss) and its historical detail (Portuguese colonial conflict). Visually, the series is refreshingly coherent, eschewing the genre’s tendency toward murky palettes and shaky-cam action. Instead, it’s carefully composed, executing classic Hitchcockian suspense sequences, or tropey gambits and set-pieces that might have tumbled out of an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or Mission: Impossible – classic spy fare from the very era in which Glória is set. Indeed, from both a tradecraft and cinematic perspective, it resembles those shows, with a little James Bond glamor sifted in. This resemblance is deliberate, layering a veneer of spy fantasy camp atop its prestige drama foundation. But the sheen is a diversion. As the self-important spy hugger-mugger escalates, the writers increasingly marinate the characters in something else: creeping, virulent misogyny. At first this ugliness seems incidental to the plot, kicking off in earnest in what initially appears to be a tasteless subplot about a deeply unpleasant engineer named Ramiro (João Pedro Vaz), whose rape and psychological abuse of his wife Sofia (Maria João Pinho) is explicit enough to warrant an extended trigger warning. But male toxicity isn’t just an unfortunate side effect of the story; it’s integral, morphing from discomfiting background radiation into an intentional, onstage presence impacting everyone the story touches. This includes the unlucky Carolina (Carolina Amaral), a poor local girl who falls for João in a classic romance-under-fire subplot, that (of course) may or may not be genuine. Meanwhile, Carolina’s husband Fernando (João Arrais), deployed to fight in Angola, becomes both a pawn of his country’s desperate power machinery and a victim of ugly masculine expectations he can’t live up to. Meanwhile, back at RARET, João continues to run circles around the CIA, where the American espiocrats he’s ruining – the married James (Matt Rippy) and Anne Wilson (Stephanie Vogt) – come under increasing fire from Washington. When the axe comes down, of course, it’s Anne who suffers the blow, while James emerges unscathed. And that’s not even the full picture; by the time the final episode rolls around, the jacuzzi is boiling with sexism.
All this careful layering is set-up for a finale that works in an unexpected way, as our inscrutable antihero carries out the final phase of his mission. That last defining act, built up stylishly throughout and literally explosive in the execution falls weirdly flat. It’s disappointing — but only for a moment. Then as João drives off into the night with James Brown’s “How Ya Like Me Now” playing the background – an in-your-face choice from an appropriately abusive artist — it sinks in that the series has summarily demystified him, a clinical debunking of the romantic super spy. João’s haunted past, his semi-convincing connection with Carolina, his glimmers of conscience and guilt — none ultimately explain or redeem him. Whatever his motives, he is a serial, destructive betrayer, his actions emblematic of the damaging, powerful men who have made the world their chess board. He takes, uses, breaks, and discards without regard for the consequences, which more often than not fall on women. Sexism, one of spy fiction’s most poorly examined flaws, is deeply connected to the patriarchy, one of the world’s deepest, most intractable problems. Glória slyly draws attention to this by baiting the viewer with the genre’s sexy surfaces, before pulling the rug out, making the viewer question their very fascination with the milieu. It’s a slickly executed dirty trick, one that the genre’s fans probably needed to have played on them; I, for one, certainly appreciated it.