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Stream It Or Skip It?

One of the things that seems to trip up a lot of thriller series, especially ones that take place inside the world of international intelligence, is that they lose focus. There are too many characters, lots of side stories that are unnecessary, and not enough time spent on how the main story twists and turns. A new British thriller starring Daredevil‘s Charlie Cox shows a lot of promise. But can it keep its eyes on its main story?


Opening Shot: A dark, wooded area. A person with a rifle trains their sights on a couple inside a house. “Can we fix it?” asks the wife. “We have to,” says the husband. Then the shooter moves their sites to the boy in a window down the hall.

The Gist: Five days earlier, Adam Lawrence (Charlie Cox), deputy chief of MI6, is at the school of his son Callum (Samuel Leakey), talking to his class about his job. In the meantime, his boss Sir Martin Angelis (Ciarán Hinds), dubbed “C” for “Control”, sits at his fancy dining club with the president of the Supreme Court, showing him evidence of an affair and an illegal visa that he can make go away if the official plays ball.

A woman sneaks into the kitchen of the club and poses as a waitress; she brings Angelis his drink, which she’s already doctored. He drinks it and goes into cardiac arrest. As the assassin, Kara Yerzova (Olga Kurylenko), escapes, her driver hits a delivery person and gets out to help. She wants to help the driver, but she later tells him “I don’t fuck up,” as she poisons him.

Because Angelis is incapacitated, Lawrence is immediately promoted to C. As he coordinates the investigation into Angelis’ poisoning, his family has to adjust to a new normal of armed escorts and threats. Armstrong’s wife, Maddy de Costa (Oona Chaplin), a former military intelligence officer, knows he’s up to the task. Callum thinks it’s cool, but 14-year-old Ella (Beau Gadsdon) hates all of this new scrutiny on them.

A mysterious gift left in Angelis’ hospital room leads Armstrong to rendezvous with Kara. They know each other from his field days, when Kara was SVR (Russian intelligence) and the two of them were lovers. She’s been booted out of SVR and tells Armstrong that she poisoned Angelis so Armstrong could help her out with his new top-level security clearance. After all, he owes her, considering every intelligence win he got while climbing the MI6 ladder was provided by her, or at least she claims.

At the same time this is going on, a CIA team lands in London, led by Dede Alexander (Tracy Ifeachor). Their target is Armstrong, but she’s also there to reconnect with Maddy. The two served together in Afghanistan, and Dede pretends that she’s in London on vacation, when her real purpose is to make her friend an unwitting asset against Armstrong.

Photo: Ana Blumenkron/Netflix

What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Treason certainly has the same tense tone as Bodyguard. Both shows are also very British, and writers like Treason’s Matt Charman know that British spy craft is different than American spy craft.

Our Take: One of the things that Treason shares with its fellow British spy shows is that there are all sorts of characters that are floating around in this show’s world, and they all have dialogue and interact with the main characters in some way, but we don’t get a full idea of just why they’re there.

In reality, the story of Treason comes down to Alexander, Maddy and their kids (her stepkids, more accurately), Kara, Dede and Angelis. When Charman concentrates on this core group, the show’s tension rises to and maintains an entertaining level. But the first episode doesn’t really give some of the rest of the cast, like Alex Kingston playing Audrey Gratz, whom we assume is the British Home secretary, much in the way of story. There are others in the cast like this, but it’s hard to imagine casting Kingston in a tiny part with nothing to do, so we hope that she and some of the other ancillary characters factor into the story more as it goes along.

The intrigue is in the web that’s already twisting itself into a knot by the end of the first episode. Alexander is getting fed intelligence by Kara in exchange for information, which is going to lead to suspicion within the agency. And Maddy is being unwittingly used as an asset by old friend Dede, who just “happened” to have a voice recording pen in her purse when the two of them got together and Maddy expressed concern over some of her husband’s mysterious behavior. On top of that, Alexander is likely going to find out just why Angelis was extorting high-up government officials.

Shows like this sometimes lose the focus on what made us attracted to them to begin with; in the case of Treason, it’s the tension that comes with Armstrong’s handling of the director’s job while Kara simultaneously threatens his family and what little freedom he has left. As long as the show stays on that, while giving some of the third-tier characters a little more to do than what we’ve seen so far, it’ll make for a satisfying thriller.

Sex and Skin: Nothing in the first episode.

Parting Shot: Having slipped security, Ella walks home from school on her own and is immediately followed. She calls her dad, and Armstrong calls Kara and says “If you touch my daughter, I will use everything at my disposal to fucking destroy you.”

Sleeper Star: Oona Chaplin is not playing Maddy as the typical spy wife. She’ll have her own suspicions, both of Armstrong and of Dede; she’s too smart and savvy to be played by both of them at once. It should make for some interesting back and forth between her and everyone in her life.

Most Pilot-y Line: Our guess is that Kara’s driver had no idea what he was driving her to do, because we thought it was quite out-of-character of him to be concerned about the delivery driver he hit but not concerned that she potentially killed someone while he was waiting outside.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Treason has more than enough tension and intrigue to span its 5-episode season. As long as it doesn’t get too bogged down with unnecessary side stories, the show should be very entertaining.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon,,, Fast Company and elsewhere.

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