Why ‘London Spy’ Is One Of The Best Thrillers On TV

A “slow burn” is defined as “a gradual building up of anger, as opposed to an immediate outburst.” This definition works as a rather apt descriptor for the five-part BBC America miniseries, London Spy. Why? Because unlike prototypical British spy franchise head James Bond, Danny (Ben Whishaw of Skyfall and Spectre fame, no less) doesn’t have the faintest idea as to what is happening around him. Danny isn’t a spy, a secret agent or a figure anyone else would consider a hero with extraordinary abilities, and since he is the series’ focus, those watching London Spy must be willing to sit idly by and wait, a task that can test the patience of even the most genial audience. Television like this still exists today, but with the Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services dropping popular original programming simultaneously and altering people’s viewing practices, viewers are becoming more accustomed to a much different style of storytelling, one in which the narrative isn’t always teased or twisted for extended periods of time. London Spy is not that kind of story.

When we first meet Danny, he’s a young man looking for a good night in London. Said night includes cigarettes, night clubs, and, presumably, excessive amounts of drugs — or at least that’s what the audience is led to believe after watching Danny stumble out an establishment’s front door the next morning. He wanders around the city for a bit, attempting to call his friends for comfort on his cell phone, which he drops near the Thames River. That’s when he meets a nameless runner (Edward Holcroft) who helps him recover the phone and gives him a water bottle before heading off into the distance. Once Danny recovers, he sets out to find the runner in order to return the bottle. That, and because he begins to fall for the man.

Sounds less like a thrilling bout of espionage and more like a jokeless romantic comedy, right? The first 10 minutes or so fit such a description, especially when the two finally reconnect and exchange names. The runner’s name is Joe, he’s an investment banker, and he’d like to get to know Danny over breakfast, but he needs to shower and change first. The encounter is awkward, but sweet. Yet London Spy‘s otherwise pleasant pretenses drop and reveal a very different kind of story, one in which Joe is actually named Alex, and despite opening up to Danny, remains highly secretive about himself. He shows up at Danny’s door, even though Danny never told him where he lived, and reveals his real name during an impromptu country drive. Over the next eight months, Alex and Danny become quite comfortable with one another, and their romance sweeps away all the other minor eccentricities and weird occurrences that Danny or anyone else would have picked up on.

These include things like Alex turning up the music on a small radio whenever he and Danny discuss topics pertaining to immediate and future plans. Or when Danny passes an unmarked vehicle with darkened windows, one of which is slightly ajar so that a steady stream of cigarette smoke can filter out. This same waft of smoke emanates from a first-floor apartment in a courtyard directly across from Danny’s window, which he often sits at and smokes during the night. Little, suspicious things that seem just right for a James Bond caper, but far out of place in what otherwise appears to be the love story laid out in London Spy‘s first episode.

Of course, London Spy has already aired its second and third episodes in the United States, and the fourth and fifth episodes are forthcoming from BBC America. The love is very much still there, but its quickness at the beginning has been replaced with a prolonged sense of sadness. Alex is dead, the authorities think Danny is a suspect, and now he must try to prove that his partner a) actually loved him, and b) that he was murdered by parties unknown. London Spy‘s slow burn has transitioned into an intense murder mystery, and considering Danny’s considerable lack of experience for such things, he’s as much in the know as the audience is.

This is why London Spy is so good. It doesn’t give viewers too much at once, but it also doesn’t hold too much back whenever the latest weekly installment airs. It’s not the kind of show one should binge — or can binge until all five episodes are finally available. Then again, why would you want to? All the details are slowly exuded at points pre-determined with care by series creator and writer Tom Rob Smith (Child 44). Along with direction by Jakob Verbruggen (The Fall and The Bridge), and ensemble performances by Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling and Mark Gatiss, London Spy‘s trajectory changes significantly — but not its speed. This means that viewers can genuinely identify with Danny’s pain, and his lovelorn quest to find out what actually happened to Alex.

You can watch the first three episodes of London Spy on BBC America’s website. The penultimate episode, “I Know” airs tonight, Thursday, Feb. 11, at 10 p.m. ET on BBC America. Until then, here’s a preview…