Near the end of the first episode of BBC America’s new spy thriller, The Game, the members of MI5’s special counterespionage committee, affectionately known as the Fray, convene in an austere conference room. In 1972, as the United States and the Soviet Union wade through Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in Helsinki and a miner’s strike threatens Britain with an energy crisis, defector Arkady Malinov (Marcel Lures) approaches MI5 interrogator Joe Lambe (Tom Hughes) with news of a secret KGB initiative, code-named Operation Glass, which promises to change the West’s Cold War calculus forever. While those arranged around the long, sleek table debate the merits of one or another strategy for uncovering the conspiracy, it becomes clear from the clash of personalities that the real subject of The Game is the Fray itself: “We endanger the few,” says the director of Mi5 (Brian Cox), who goes by the pseudonym Daddy, “to protect the many.”
Sketched in the same palette (tweed, rain, tobacco smoke) as Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, its title sequence a collage of archival headlines and iconic images reminiscent of FX’s The Americans, The Game struggles to stake out new territory for the genre, but it nonetheless emerges as an absorbing portrait of internecine squabbles during an ostensible Cold War thaw. Against the spartan backdrop of MI5 headquarters, the seven members of the Fray evolve into a bureaucratic hydra of agendas, personas, skills, and secrets, and this tension between collaboration and competition lends the rather ordinary espionage narrative a delightful charge. In The Game, office politics are a matter of life and death.
Introducing this battalion of main characters along with the convolutions of Operation Glass unfortunately requires the series to devote the first two installments of its six-episode arc primarily to setup—a limp and unsatisfying beginning even in the realm of slow-burn dramas. Particularly fruitless is the attempt to construct something of an inner life for the alluring, enigmatic Joe Lambe. In a series of flashbacks, we glimpse Lambe planning to defect to the Soviets and settle down with his lover (Zana Marjanovic) in Poland, yet her character is so paper-thin it’s hard to take his decision seriously. Sure, she’s pretty, but this alone seems insufficient reason to reverse the entire course of one’s life. By the third episode, however, which unfurls an invigorating, candlelit subplot involving an American defense attaché, a suspected British defector, and Anna Karenina, even Lambe’s shallows develop into an asset. His beauty, not his female quarry’s, is the key to the seduction.
Once the Fray comes into focus, The Game speeds along nicely. From mounting bits and pieces of interpersonal conflict, the committee’s meetings derive a foreboding sense of betrayals yet to come, and each member’s role is increasingly defined by his or her uncomfortable place in Daddy’s hierarchy. Head of counterespionage Bobby Waterstone (Paul Ritter), desperate to assume MI5’s top post, struggles against damaging rumors regarding his sex life; his deputy, Sarah Montag (Victoria Hamilton), consistently proves her analytical mettle, but seems all too likely to strike the glass ceiling soon; secretary Wendy Straw (Chloe Pirrie) worries that she’ll muck up a golden opportunity to advance her career. Thus, fraught with mutual suspicion and played out in a series of minor skirmishes, it’s the committee’s internal shadow war as much as Operation Glass that imperils Britain’s security—and, finally, transforms The Game from a familiar period piece into a taut, effective examination of the point where the personal becomes political. When everyone has an angle, no one is above the fray.