A Rewarding New TV Drama About Why People Even Try to Solve the Israel-Palestine Conflict

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July 31 2014 12:49 PM

The Honorable Woman

A complex, turgid, worthwhile mystery about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Honorable Woman.
Maggie Gyllenhaal grapples with her past and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Sundance Channel's new drama.

Photo courtesy Des Willie/Sundance Channel

Depending on whether you like your fictional television programs to resonate with real-world events or provide escape from them, The Honorable Woman either has very good or very bad timing. The extremely somber eight-episode miniseries starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, which begins airing on the Sundance Channel (in collaboration with the BBC) on Thursday, is an intricate, at times opaque drama, both mystery and spy thriller, about the incredible complexity, raw emotion, and intractability of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is not a break from the news, so much as an imaginative footnote.

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Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

The series tells the story of Nessa Stein (Gyllenhaal), who, as a child, witnessed the assassination of her father, an Israeli businessman whose company, the Stein Group, had its name literally stamped onto the mortars, tanks, and walls it manufactured for the Israel Defense Forces. As an adult, Nessa has dedicated her life and the Stein Group to a more liberal mission. Announcing a new business initiative, Nessa says, “In our view, one of the greatest threats to Israeli stability is Palestinian poverty. Terror thrives in poverty, it dies in wealth. And so we decided that instead of mines, we would lay cables—for telephone, for the Internet, millions of miles of communication.” Yet even as Nessa announces these plans, the Palestinian contracted to lay these cables is hanging dead in his hotel room, the victim of a very suspicious looking suicide.

This man’s death is the opening salvo of a complex, emotionally fraught conspiracy, one so vast that it ultimately has bearing on the possibility of Palestinian statehood. But before the show expands out to such a grand stage, it focuses on a seemingly unrelated crime more pressing and personal to the Steins: the kidnapping of a young Palestinian boy. Kasim is the son of Atika (Lubna Azabal), Palestinian housekeeper to Nessa’s brother’s family, a woman with a mysteriously close relationship to Nessa. The murder and the kidnapping bring the Steins to the attention of MI6, and specifically Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Stephen Rea). Hayden-Hoyle, a hangdog le Carré type, speaks in obscure quips and uses intel more than his gun. He is worried about his job security, which is protected by his boss and ally (Janet McTeer) and endangered by a rogue careerist chummy with the Americans (Eve Best).

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The Honorable Woman is in many ways, most of them cerebral, an extremely impressive piece of work. Any series that takes on the Israel-Palestine conflict and does not immediately wander into a morass has accomplished something difficult. It takes its subject absolutely as seriously as it should, and in the endless complexity of motivation, the depth of grievance, the weight of history, the impossibility of honor—it oversimplifies very little. As with any work addressing such a controversial subject, there may be people who find that it vilifies either Palestinians or Israelis, but it is, especially for a TV series airing in the United States, even-handed, indeed oriented slightly toward the Palestinian experience.

Nessa, at great personal sacrifice and with the feverish dedication of someone who feels immensely guilty for the sins of her father, wants to help the Palestinians. But even she has secrets. Her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan) and the siblings’ much more staunchly Zionist uncle-type Shlomo (Igar Naor) are more compromised still. The series’ other Israelis are largely marginal figures—shady, curt, cutthroat, immoral, and unhelpful. At first it seems the Palestinians fare even worse, constituting the show’s major villains. But The Honorable Woman, unlike so many series that claim to do so, genuinely complicates notions of villainhood and herodom. It does not shortchange historical atrocity, pooh-pooh grievances, or whitewash systematic injustices.

By the end of the series, Atika, who initially seems stuck being not one but two stereotypes—the noble, calm ethnic person and the other woman—emerges as much the titular “honorable woman” as Nessa, with all her dreams of being a savior to the region. Gyllenhaal, with her huge limpid eyes, has the more dynamic part, playing a woman with a charming public face and debilitating inner trauma who is steely even through her fragility. But Atika, slowly and surely, becomes, first, more than mysterious, and then completely human.

And yet The Honorable Woman can be extremely rough going, and I do not just mean because it is about a difficult and taxing subject—though that may explain some of the dreary lethargy that would descend upon me whenever I tried to watch more than one episode in a row. The Honorable Woman has a far more propulsive plot and genre bells and whistles than HBO’s The Leftovers, but like that show it does seem to be exploring a new frontier in depressive TV, the full-body despondent experience.

There is something turgid about The Honorable Woman. The opening voiceover beginning every episode is ponderous almost to the point of nonsense: “Mostly we tell lies, we hide our secrets from each other, from ourselves. And the easiest way to do this is not to even know who you are. So when you think about it like that, it’s a wonder we trust anyone at all.” The idea that everyone is hiding something, that everyone wears masks, has become the baseline cliché of all shows that contain a mystery. Everyone has secrets? You don’t say! That no one in The Honorable Woman is exactly who they seem to be is a kind of obviousness in and of itself.

And the series’ pacing is off. The Honorable Woman has many twists and turns, and I don’t want to spoil them, but the first four episodes are organized around a dramatically irritating mystery of withholding. We see in the first episode that Nessa and Atika were once abducted somewhere in the occupied territories, but what exactly happened there and the secrets germinating from it are meted out slowly—not to the characters in the show, just to us in the audience. This maintains a kind of artificial, plodding sense of suspense that’s at odds with the show’s second half, a headlong dive into a huge, gnarly, frenetic conspiracy with world-historical ramifications.

Whatever the series’ flaws, though, it effectively communicates an impressively high order of ambiguity. Near the very end of the series, an American newscaster talking about the latest spate of complicated developments in Israel-Palestine flippantly says, “It’s a wonder they even try”—meaning it’s a wonder anyone tries to make change in this impossible, thankless region at all. It is clear The Honorable Woman eschews, even disdains this perspective, even as its entire plot is a lesson in the impossibility of making change. It’s not hopeful or hopeless, it’s stalwart: You try because there is no alternative.

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