If you are sitting down to watch Complicit in the hope of being thrilled in the same way you were during Spook’s first few seasons, you’re going to be bitterly disappointed. Complicit doesn’t hold the same action based depiction of the British secret service that we had in the BBC spy drama, which also starred David Oyelowo. Instead, Complicit gives us a world similar to that found in Katherine Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, where the hunt for terrorists is carried out from behind a desk.
Oyelowo plays Edward, an MI5 agent who has been spying on terror suspect Waleed Ahmed for a considerable amount of time, with no results. When Ahmed travels to Egypt, Edward follows and detains him, convinced Ahmed is about to launch a deadly toxin attack on British soil. It’s hard to not compare this to previous spy dramas such as Spooks, especially considering they star the same actor. However, the world of Complicit feels much more authentic; Edward spends no time in the field but instead sits at his desk or in a safe house with his informant, trawling through hours of video footage of Ahmed in the hope of catching a break.
It’s a slow, cautious start for a thriller and suffers from throwing narrative devices at the audience left, right and center; we get a snapshot of an affair Edward is having with a coworker for example, that seems to have absolutely no significance on the narrative and does nothing but extend the running time. In fact that’s the main problem with Complicit, it’s an hour-long drama stretched out for 90 minutes.
Thankfully, once the scene is set and the action shifts from the grey streets of London to the sun-drenched city of Cairo, Complicit turns around and becomes a thrilling examination of the ethical boundaries that MI5 must work within. Investigations don’t accelerate at the pace they do in most movies, instead all leads must be double and triple checked, not just by the authorities overseas but the ones back in Blighty too.
Oyelowo’s performance is masterly, exuding a quiet confidence in his character that makes Edward threatening whist remaining inconspicuous; a true spook. In terms of narrative, Edward’s later choices are certainly unjustified and the writers are clever at turning a potentially generic spy tale in to something more substantial. Similar to Bigelow’s Bin Laden movie, it is the ethics of torture that become the main theme.
It is Arsher Ali’s performance as Waleed Ahmed that you remember though; he’s electrifying to watch, managing to create power and tension when talking with Edward or even more effectively when simply sitting quietly and starring at his nemesis. The show’s key scene, in which Waleed and Edward talk one on one, is a superb showcase of the talent of both lead actors; it’s 8 minutes of searing drama that’s equally as exciting as any high-octane shootout and twice as effective.
Complicit may have some issues with it’s opening half an hour, but once it focuses it’s narrative it becomes one of the best spy dramas on TV for years; superb performances and a narrative that raises serious questions about the ethics faced by MI5, it’s a show that’ll last long in the memory.