The State Within TV review: unknown knowns
A riveting BBC political thriller offering one of the most trenchant explorations yet of the sick symbiosis between big government and big business.
I’m “biast” (pro):
love Jason Isaacs and Ben Daniels
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
I wasn’t planning on writing anything about this. I only came across it on Netflix (it’s available in the U.S. and the U.K., but not Canada) because I’m crushing on Ben Daniels (just inducted into the Boyfriend Hall of Fame) and there were no Law & Order: UK reruns on at that moment and I needed a fix. And this had Jason Isaacs in it, too! Double yum.
But oh my god, now that I’ve finished all seven episodes — it’s a limited miniseries, so that’s all there will ever be — I feel like I want to stop total strangers on the street and ask them if they’ve seen The State Within, because if they haven’t, they must. As political thrillers go, it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen, which would have been the case no matter when I saw it. But coming on the heels of thinking about and writing about the Donald Rumsfeld documentary interview The Unknown Known, this was like the second wallop of a one-two punch.
You don’t want to know too much going in. The first ten minutes of the first episode are some of the most intense television I’ve ever seen, with a few truly horrifying moments and a whole buncha mysterious and clandestine doings in Washington DC setting up a twisty plot that will keep you riveted for the full seven hours. (You may not plan to binge, but you will probably want to. Set aside a Saturday.) We have the British ambassador to the U.S., Sir Mark Brydon (Jason Isaacs: Abduction, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2), who is about to leave his post for some sort of promotion back home, but a terrorist attack in Washington with some British connections is keeping him in DC. His senior aide, Nicholas Brocklehurst (Ben Daniels: Locke, Jack the Giant Slayer), seems to know more about the attack than he is letting on. Meanwhile, in Florida, former British soldier Luke Gardner (Lennie James: Colombiana, The Next Three Days) is on death row and about to be executed for murder, unless British consultate worker Jane Lavery (Eva Birthistle: Imagine Me and You, Breakfast on Pluto) can convince the parole board otherwise. Oddly, Gardner seems to know something about the terrorist attack in DC — he’s seen news reports on TV and appears to recognize a suspect — but isn’t using his information to bargain for a reprieve. What’s going on there?
Meanwhile meanwhile, there’s all sorts of trouble brewing in (fictitious) former Soviet client state Tyrgyzan, an earlier posting of Brydon’s where U.S. and U.K. business interests — oil and the like — are under potential threat, and where the ambassador’s personal knowledge and relationships may come into play. Major squaring off and dick-measuring will be going on with the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Lynne Warner (Sharon Gless), and her undersecretary, Christopher Styles (Noam Jenkins: Charlie Bartlett, Saw II)… not for the least reason because Warner is in bed with defense contractor Armitage, which is all over Tyrgyzan. All this will, of course, end up being connected to the attack and to Gardner.
The way State Within unfolds, though, is deliciously convoluted. This is not TV you can half watch while you’re surfing the Web or folding laundry: it demands your full attention, and rewards it amply. The characters — also including a kickass female FBI agent (Marnie McPhail: Grizzly Falls) — are instantly unforgettable. The relationships between the characters take often unexpected — yet still totally plausible — turns. Motives remain up in the air for a long time: we have no idea who the villains are and who the heroes are for quite a long while, and by the end, in some cases, we kinda still can’t distinguish between them.
But it’s the overall scenario that is particularly striking. This is one of the most trenchant explorations yet — this dates from 2006 and I haven’t seen better since — of the sick symbiosis between big government and big business; of the use of private contractors by major political powers as a way to get around military ethics; of the stuff that is kept secret from the public for our supposed own good; and of the manufactured fear that has dominated what passes for foreign policy and general governance since 9/11. Warner is clearly meant to be a sort of combination of Dick Cheney (and his tendrils into Halliburton) and Donald Rumsfeld, a conduit through which to savage the kind of modern war-profiteering — by the very people making decisions about going to war! — that is barely even recognized as such.
It’s all sort of infuriating in a get-your-crazy-hippie-liberal-ire-up sort of way.
Also too: gorgeous guys. So you’re getting hot and bothered in multiple directions. Enjoy.