Showtime’s limited series, Guerrilla, dramatizes the origins of a fictional underground terrorist cell operating in London, 1971, illustrating how liberal idealism can serve as a breeding ground for self-righteous nihilism. Creator John Ridley, who wrote most of the episodes and directed several, follows this cell from its beginnings, as a group of exasperated intellectuals, to its rapid evolution as a small but focused organization of armed radicals.
The group’s founders, Jas (Freida Pinto) and Marcus (Babou Ceesay), the daughter of an Indian terrorist and a black unemployed English teacher, respectively, are attracted to black activism but frustrated with what they see as a mainstream movement that’s grounded in meaningless and self-flattering pretense. Marcus is involved with a prisoner education program, discussing Ho Chi Minh with criminals such as Dhari (Nathaniel Martello-White), advocating for a gradual class and race revolution via education, though Jas and Dhari favor armed revolt. The conversations between them and others offer variations on one of the central debates of revolution: Does one use force, which discredits rebels to a regime’s unquestioning populace, or invest in pockets of infrastructure that may never significantly influence society?
Discussions of these questions dominate Guerrilla at the expense of immediacy. Ridley has a shrewd and multifaceted grasp of the various ironies and class resentments informing London’s social macro (particularly of the many divisions existing within subsets of both the white and black populations), but the micro eludes him, as the series’s characters are uninteresting mouthpieces for these sentiments. Ridley understands that the cops and terrorists are both tormented by self-interest and hypocrisy, and he’s daringly willing to suggest that these factions are primarily differentiated by the issue of power—as in the whites have it by birth and the blacks must wrest it from the whites’ grip. But this thematic maturity has a price: Intellectually, we sympathize with the terrorists and protestors, but we aren’t emotionally drawn into this war at all, as every character is a tedious zealot, given to repeating platitudes about how the ends justify the means.
Whenever a scene appears to be on the verge of breaking free of Guerrilla’s tightly governed framework of moral relativity, so as to revel in individual behavior, Ridley cuts to another set of characters having a similar strategic conversation, giving the impression of the episode starting anew. Worse, the protagonists’ motivations remain deliberately yet unsatisfyingly vague throughout. Marcus and Dhari resent their symbiotic relationship with one other, as Marcus’s writing merges with Dhari’s past actions to forge an image of a hero in the minds of the sympathetic left-leaning populace. Yet this conflict is under-explored, relegated to the occasional passive-aggressive gesture or argument, as well as an ongoing triangular tension between Marcus, Dhari, and Jas that doesn’t go anywhere.
Jas is most ill-served by this elliptical structure, as she understandably resents men who focus on her beauty while ignoring her revolutionary aspirations, though Ridley doesn’t define said aspirations, inadvertently rendering her callow and self-delusional. It’s Marcus who provides this cell with its ideology, yet he’s often portrayed as a sensitive punching bag for Jas, Dhari, and a rotating gallery of other egomaniacs. Marcus gradually hardens into a leader, but that evolution is also muddily dramatized, unclear until the last few minutes of Guerrilla’s final episode.
Ridley discards much of the romanticizing that’s associated with legends of revolutionaries, yet doesn’t find another quality to serve in its place as Guerrilla’s center. At times, the series superficially suggests Carlos, which was also frank about its protagonist’s narcissism, gathering intensity from Olivier Assayas’s eye for minutiae. Assayas is a natural filmmaker who mines the story of Carlos the Jackal for exhilarating procedural cinema, viscerally detailing how iconography derives from an accumulation of small details. He filmed Carlos with a sense of docudramatic expressionism, but Guerrilla offers lifeless images that merely serve as repositories for endless exposition. This is another prestigious series that’s competently written and directed, dutifully performed, and politically astute, yet mired in numbing earnestness that dampens the most important element of all art: figurative revelation.