This is a spoiler-free review of the entire six-episode run of The Night Manager season 1.
There’s a moment in AMC’s stellar new spy miniseries The Night Manager in which a beautiful woman is about to undress in front of our undercover protagonist. This is not necessarily new territory for the Bond-girl saturated genre. What is new, however, is what she tells our hero when he begins to turn away from her undressing.
“I don’t care who sees me naked. I do care who sees me cry,” she says referring to his witnessing her moment of weakness earlier. The Night Manager is unique and spectacular. And it’s because it neither cares who sees it naked nor who sees it cry. It’s the rarely perfect bundle of contradictions we look for in our spy dramas or any drama for that matter: both beautiful and substantive, archetypical and specific.
The Night Manager is another collaboration between AMC and the BBC, similar to last summer’s Humans. Humans was quite good. This is much better. The Night Manager is an adaptation of the 1993 spy novel of the same name by MI6 agent turned espionage novelist John le Carre’. Tom Hiddleston (of Avengers Loki fame) stars as ex-British soldier Jonathan Pine who now works as the night manager of an upscale hotel in Cairo. A series of unlikely and unfortunate events bring him into the world of espionage where he teams up with British Intelligence agent Angela Burr (Olivia Colman, a true British TV and movie MVP) to go undercover as part of the inner circle of billionaire arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie, yes that Hugh Laurie) and eventually take him down.
The less that’s said about the plot the better because the narrative is the real star of the show here. Throughout six episodes, the plot of The Night Manager is perfectly paced, logical and satisfying. It’s an example of adaptation gone perfectly right. The Night Manager as a property has long flirted with the cinema but it’s a blessing to the story that it was able to hold out this long until television miniseries became a viable and respected art. I’ve not read the novel in question but it’s near impossible to imagine its plot would have been as well-served as it is here spread out carefully over six hours. Score another victory for the Philo Farnsworth Television Home of Wayward Stories Looking for Adaptation.
Those who are fans of another, more prominent British secret agent will find plenty to love here. Almost everything in sight is beautiful visually. The people are beautiful.
There’s the aforementioned beautiful “Bond girl” Jed, the uneasy girlfriend to Roper played by Australian actress donning an American accent, Elizabeth Debicki. And Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine (and many aliases) is so attractive and charming its fucking insane. There’s a sequence in the second episode where Pine must pretend to be a drug-dealing badass and seduce a simple English country girl. The poor girl has no shot at resisting his charms. Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine flirting with women on this show is like rabbit hunting with a bazooka.
Then there is the scenery. Richard Roper is the platonic ideal of douchebag arms dealers and, as such, refuses to spend his time anywhere other than the planet’s most beautiful places. Much of the season takes place in beautiful Spanish villas, opulent Egyptian hotels and peaceful Swiss mountains.
The real appeal of The Night Manager, however, is how it marries that scenic and human beauty with real, substantive plot and spy work. As I’ve previously gushed, Hiddleston as Pine is a preposterously charming individual in a good way. What that leaves out, however, is just how both refreshingly decent and adept he is. For some reason recent television has had an aversion to both legitimately good people and legitimately competent characters and Pine is both.
Near the beginning of the series, Pine is asked why he would go through the trouble of doing all of this. There are the deeper psychological reasons at play of course, including both a father and a love interest failed by the system but the show also never gives us a reason to distrust the answer he gives at face value.
“If there’s a man selling a private arsenal to an Egyptian crook and he’s English … and you’re English and those weapons can cause a lot of pain to a lot of people then you just do it. Anyone would do it.” That’s what he says verbatim, awkward pauses and over reliance on conjunctions and all. It’s almost child-like in its simplicity but it works like crazy.
Pine is a fascinating character and Hiddleston gives a fascinating performance because while Pine may have all the raw charming material to be an international spy – he’s really just a good schmoe and a hard worker who knows how to utilize his natural gifts.
The only insight we get into Pine’s past is that he was an above average ex-British soldier who served in Iraq. We also get to see him calmly traverse the rioting of the 2011 Egyptian revolution to get to his hotel like only a confident, charming British man can do. As for his spy credentials, however? That’s about it.
He gets the offer to be the spy on the inside of Roper’s crew not because he’s the only man for the job or that he’s the best intelligence asset in Her Majesty’s Secret Service. He gets it because fate seems to have a habit of putting him in the same room as a bad guy a lot and he has some tangential relation to the British government because of his time in the services.
The infrastructure supporting him isn’t some pristine room deep within MI6 headquarters filled with cutting-edge technology either. Angela Burr exists on the fringe of the British Intelligence apparatus, largely because bureaucracy doesn’t really care for competent individuals but also because some of that bureaucracy may or may not have financial ties to Roper’s dealings. Pine is the man on the inside and Angela and her small team mostly work out of hotel rooms or forgotten British intelligence properties where the heat has long since stopped working. There’s a lot of tea-drinking waiting for the next morsel of information their inside man is able to scrounge up.
In this way, The Night Manager presents spying in a refreshingly non-glamorous but somehow even more exciting way. This isn’t an excuse to drink martinis and bang hot chicks.* This is fucking work. Angela and her cohorts seems less like an intelligence agency and more like a poor man’s version of NASA, trying to crunch the numbers and figure out a way to make their astronaut be able to survive in a hostile environment. The Night Manager is like Working Man’s James Bond meets Apollo 13 and it’s wonderful.
*Though don’t worry, pervs, many a hot chick is banged.
If The Night Manager has a flaw its that while the final three episodes are just as good as the first, they are not as diverse in setting or approach so they kind of blend together. Despite feeling like a great, coherent 6-hour movie this is one I would recommend actually watching live and eschewing binge-watching if possible.
Laurie as the villain is pretty stellar but, as seems to be the case with Laurie’s career, the accent is to be the story. His American accent was so perfect in House that it’s difficult to reconcile where this high-society British inflection is coming from. Roper purrs like only a high-society arms dealer can. Laurie seems to be struggling more with the upper class pronunciation as his body seems to be a better fit for our guttural American mishmash of consonants. That could very well just be a personal bias.
Regardless, any issues are quibbles as The Night Manager is the real deal. In a television landscape in danger of being overrun by “content,” “franchises” or any other buzzword to make TV executives smile into their highballs, The Night Manager is just a damn good story told capably.