Resolutely timely, The Honorable Woman spins a series of nested mysteries around that most impenetrable of subjects—the Middle East, specifically the escalating tensions between Israel and the Palestinian territories—and unsurprisingly uncovers long-festering classist wounds that are partially exasperated by British and America’s respective histories of colonialist instigation in the region. The miniseries cannily fuses pulp soap opera with contemporary political procedural, insisting that almost everything you read in the paper is the result of vigorous planning between a long list of global allies and enemies. Terrorist attacks, business partnerships, and prisoner-release negotiations are all coordinated projects designed to serve an increasingly cloudy purpose of social control. There’s a weird comfort to this cynicism, which revels in a sense of order, no matter how diseased it turns out to be.
The Honorable Woman’s narrative convolution is its chief asset as well as its most striking limitation. Unlike most politically themed series, in which people in high places appear to handle one digestible problem at a time, this one bombards you with reams of bureaucratic and proletariat details that yield government and terrorist operations that are so complicated that even the shadowy cabals revealed to be pulling the strings are somewhat clueless as to what their right hand is doing. It’s sometimes infuriatingly impossible to tell which events are the results of conspiracy and which are simply springing from human accident, or if these distinctions have been entirely sorted out by the miniseries’s creative team. Thematically, this forest-for-the trees approach scans and drains the usual “peace in the Middle East” bromides of their egotistical sentimentality. Creator Hugo Blick, who wrote and directed every episode, displays a knack for precisely parceling out bafflingly vague innuendos with the occasional nugget of undiluted exposition that comes as a sweet relief, not just for the viewer, but for the characters who are often as clueless as we are.
The downside is that The Honorable Woman can be awfully chilly; one is often too occupied with merely sorting the damn thing out to properly empathize with the characters. Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a businesswoman of British-Israeli heritage who leads the Stein Group, which was once known, under her father’s hand, for manufacturing munitions that have been used by Israel at various times in their bombing of the Gaza Strip. In the tradition of Michael Corleone, Nessa attempts to atone for her family’s legacy—in her case, by spearheading an elaborate telecommunications operation that will help to connect Palestine and Israel both to one another and to the outside world. But the head of the company that’s to partner with Nessa on the installation of the necessary cable into Palestinian land is killed under murky circumstances. And soon afterward, the son of one of the Stein family’s housekeepers, Atika (Lubna Azabal), is kidnapped by masked interlopers who may have assumed the child is Nessa’s.
This dual whodunit narrative gradually reveals that the Stein Group is laughably and tragically far from realizing Nessa’s naïve dream of “purity.” Nessa’s brother, Ephra (Andrew Buchan), who stepped down as head of the family business seven years earlier for mysterious reasons, is obviously not what he appears to be. Among other things, he’s a married man engaged in an affair with Atika, who’s quite a bit more than the grateful agent of servitude she contemptuously plays for others’ distraction. There are many other suspects and red herrings, and they’re all watched over by the American, Israeli, Palestinian, and, most prominently, British governments, who’re attempting to sort out where the various blames fall so as to properly discern their grand ongoing negotiating capital.
The Honorable Woman is ultimately centered emotionally by the force of its remarkable heroine. Gyllenhaal refuses to soften or explain Nessa to us, and, for that, the character arises as a potent symbol of white guilt and privilege as well as an embodiment of buried and confused yearning. Nessa routinely benefits from the need of the lower classes, taking that exploitation for granted in a manner traditional of the wealthy elite (in a resonant subplot, she has a propensity for diddling the help that borders on fetish). She’s not a bad person, but a blind one, and her inability to ferret out her own hypocrisy paradoxically brings her to a point of cultural rootlessness that engenders a blossoming of real empathy, particularly with the Palestinian people she dehumanizes as agents of redemption.
The conspiracy that drives the miniseries can be taken as a perverse shaggy-dog joke: Nessa gets exactly what she claims to want in terms of a cleansing comeuppance for her people, and only at that point does she realize that cultural levelers are much easier to speak of than to endure, though this coming of age is essentially understood, in a ghoulish finale, to be pointless. The Honorable Woman concerns one long, intricate trial by suffering that serves as a microscopic encapsulation of the bitterness that drives the world’s most reliably ultraviolent and publicized region, thus humanizing the headlines that many in this part of the world have grown to accept as a matter of course.