On Her Majesty's Secret Service
If any preconceived notions about world diplomacy are shattered by the three-night BBC America miniseries The State Within — about the political ramifications of a terrorist attack in America perpetrated by a British citizen — it would have to be the popularly clichéd image of ambassadors as moneybag appointees whose roles in international affairs barely extend beyond hosting a polished party. We already think fingerprint experts get to interrogate suspects, thanks to the CSI franchise, so why not get swept up in the fresh image of a bigtime diplomat? In this case, Britain’s embassy man in Washington, D.C., is Mark Brydon, played by Jason Isaacs, who must single-handedly avert the gathering forces of war while simultaneously exposing a dastardly conspiracy, dodging assassins and righting the balance of power in the world.
As the Iraq war parallels pile up, you won’t be terribly surprised where The State Within is going, even though its numerous story threads certainly charge off and immediately careen and carom like thoroughbreds jolted out of the gate. It begins with a horrifying plane explosion out of D.C.’s Dulles Airport. Evidence for the attack points to a British Muslim suicide bomber onboard. Brydon’s work is suddenly cut out for him as he tries to restore U.S. trust for the British while hawkish Secretary of Defense Lynne Warner — a growly, Rumsfeldianly perturbed Sharon Gless — takes a liking to the brash methods of Virginia’s governor, who decides to round up British Muslims and hold them without charge. (The 24 people envisioned the same thing for their postexplosion scenario.)
Posing additional problems for Brydon is the sudden appearance of dishonored friend James Sinclair (Alex Jennings), once Britain’s ambassador in the fictional central Asian country of Tyrgyztan, to again lambaste U.K. and U.S. support in the region: namely, the propping up of an oppressive ruler friendly to American and British strategic and business interests. Was the bomber retaliating against Tyrgyztan’s high-powered allies? Is the Tyrgyztan president becoming too much of a liability to the security of the free world? Will the smoking gun be a mushroom cloud? (Sorry, Condi, I couldn’t resist.)
Meanwhile, in the Virginia woods, a clandestine British mercenary outfit working for a private security firm seems to be carrying out highly secretive and dangerous maneuvers, which leads to one soldier’s death. And then there are the efforts in Florida of U.K. embassy-affiliated human-rights lawyer Jane Lavery (Eva Birthistle) to stop that state’s execution of British soldier Luke Gardner (Lennie James), who, naturally, has some interesting information about . . . oh, everything else.
Quick confusion in grasping the conspiracy web is understandable, but that doesn’t mean this series’ many hours — seven and a half in all, with commercials, over the two weekends — aren’t sufficiently tense and jarring to warrant your time. But if you’re even a mildly cynical A-section reader and/or devourer of suspense novels, and especially if you’ve enjoyed the many fine British multipart political thrillers that have graced our airwaves, like To Play the King and A Very British Coup and State of Play, then The State Within will seem either too familiar or too diffuse. The frantic possibilities that writers Lizzie Mickery and Daniel Percival work up in the early going — an initial milieu of modern terror as we see the limits of real diplomacy in an age where politicians like to be seen doing something, anything — don’t sustain well as the series devolves into last-hour whodunit theatrics and villain reveals that aren’t nearly as dramatically resonant. In other words, when nearly everybody in our blue-eyed, soulful ambassador hero’s orbit is despicable — save the ones who get killed, or have targets on their backs — does a grand mask-pulling climax really matter?
Maybe that’s one worn-down American’s reaction to point-the-finger overload with so serious a subject. When you look at the real-world events that obviously influenced this scenario, the fact that the manipulated lead-up to the Iraq invasion involved scores of people — from an incurious president to a rubber-stamp Congress to toadying intelligence agencies, down to a lead-hungry press and ultimately a terrified public — means that for a miniseries to dramatize an ugly road to needless (but profitable) war, it should on some level embrace more than defiant good people and sneery-voiced plotters. One pointed statement The State Within makes about string-pulling lies in what it leaves out: We never see or hear either a U.S. or U.K. head of state during the whole running time, as if the real engine that drives war lies elsewhere.
Or maybe, when you’re dialing up intrigue, having the culprit be the president is too obvious. The emphasis on machinations in The State Within means that connections between people — or even within a given character’s conscience — feel like byproducts of story plotting. That’s the only explanation I can imagine for why Brydon’s mysterious, scheming right-hand man (Ben Daniels) occasionally indulges in gay trysts with the mysterious, scheming undersecretary for defense intelligence (Noam Jenkins), or why the grieving daughter of an industrial manufacturer who died in the plane crash is involved with the smooth-talking president of a Halliburton-like company called Armitage: The characters were there anyway, so the writers just stuck them together to save time. By the time Brydon’s godson makes a seemingly innocent phone call that inadvertently leads to someone’s death, you may wonder if anyone is safe from a plot twist. The stakes as presented are never gripping beyond story convenience, certainly not compared to the way we were galvanized in the Paul Abbott–scripted State of Play, which indulged in plenty of deep, quirky characterization — usually tied to the investigating journalists’ methods of extracting information — that always illuminated, and never dimmed, the propulsive narrative. In The State Within, Isaacs projects a reasonable diplomat’s intelligence and compassion, Birthistle cries on cue at the awfulness of death row, and Gless barks her threats effectively. But ultimately, these and the others are characters being hurtled toward a conclusion rather than being allowed to claim some introspective, individualized turf.
For many, The State Within will inevitably play like the airport-read version of our century’s awful story so far, and on that level, it’s agreeably diverting, if not exactly eye-opening. Maybe you’ll get riled up about the privatization of war or the sticky relationship between Great Britain and America. Or maybe you’ll just dig figuring out who gets offed next. And the two directors, Michael Offer and co-writer Percival (each handled three episodes), don’t mess around with pacing, preferring jittery visuals when nobody’s talking, and, if people are talking, jittery editing. So the regret becomes that in creating a slam-bang, politically astute, globally minded miniseries, the complexity of humans wasn’t as integral a factor as the labyrinthine nature of the conspiracy — that it wasn’t played for tragedy as well as thrills.
THE STATE WITHIN | BBC America | Part 1, Sat., Feb. 17, 6 & 9 p.m.; Part 2, Sun., Feb. 18, 6 & 9 p.m.; Part 3, Sat., Feb. 24, 6 & 9 p.m.
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