Cinemax’s new thriller, Hunted, is another series about spies. What first sets it apart in this already crowded field isn’t the subtlety of its writing (where it easily bests Covert Affairs, but not Alias or Homeland), nor the quality of its acting, but its visual sophistication. Notably, the pilot foregoes dialogue for long swaths of its runtime, choosing to develop Sam Hunter (Melissa George) in the aftermath of an attempt on her life by using desolate scenes of her struggle against the brutal, weather-beaten, and unpopulated wilderness of the British countryside. The show’s intelligent modulations of atmosphere through color, landscape, and lighting give a rough but elegant emotional texture to a boilerplate narrative.
The first season of Hunted is a concise and breathless eight episodes. The two main threads of the plot—Sam’s search for those who tried to kill her and the ethically ambiguous mission she undertakes on behalf of her employer, the private espionage firm Byzantium—generate narrative momentum not by suspending events, but by moving through them with such great speed that the audience hardly has a moment to predict what plot involution might come next. Where a series that spreads its season over a greater number of episodes might withhold the identity of a traitor until the very end, Hunted reveals this without any fanfare during the fifth episode, by which point it’s already moved on to bigger and more intriguing mysteries.
The series quickly builds a dense and—forgive the pun—byzantine mythology that can make the narrative difficult to follow. Such opacity would make Hunted a snooze if it didn’t command attention with its thrilling use of genre tropes. Like the best hardboiled stories, the series exhibits a flair for stylized violence and macabre humor; no episode seems to pass without brain matter splattering on a wall, and in scenes featuring a character named “the blank-faced man” (Scott Handy), characters are dispatched by being pinned to the ground and getting a syringe plunged into their eyeballs.
Like creator Frank Spotnitz’s most famous project, The X-Files, Hunted playfully subverts gender stereotypes. Though Sam exhibits traditionally feminine traits, such as an emotional intelligence that makes her the most effective operative within Byzantium, she also possesses a cartoonish physical toughness. Indeed, despite her small stature, Sam is depicted as so brutishly strong she is able to crush the bones of multiple thugs twice her size.
This fun but smart characterization is typical of Hunted, which balances its cheesy dialogue and gratuitous sex and violence with an overarching narrative that dramatizes endemic moral rot and the dark money pulling strings from behind the curtain. It’s an effective mixture of dumb force and sophistication, a work of shameless pulp gracefully told.