the secret (and stylish) adversary

a review of BBC’s The Night Manager

Warning: Spoilers ahead

Much to my parents’ chagrin, I spent the first three nights of our vacation in a Himalayan village watching AMC and BBC’s miniseries, The Night Manager. While they sat outside, watching the stars (“You can actually see them when there’s no pollution!”), I was glued to my laptop, consuming the show based on John le Carré’s novel of the same name. The six episodes present a world so stylized that I could be forgiven for not paying attention to the dazzling North Indian skyline.

The show opens with Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) making his way to the Queen Nefertiti, a posh Cairo hotel where he works as a night manager during the height of the Arab Spring. He is charismatic, confident, and calm—unfazed, he comforts distraught guests with ease during the shooting outside. Later in the series, we learn that he is a British ex-soldier and that his father was also a soldier who died before the series began. Seemingly charmed by his genteel manner, Sophie Alekan (Aure Atika) gives him a document to copy. It is a list of weapons that Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), “the worst man in the world,” in Alekan’s words, is supplying to the Hamid family. Sophie is Freddie Hamid’s mistress, and Hamid is the scion of the wealthy, corrupt family. Pine sends the document to a friend of his in the British intelligence, which leads Freddie Hamid to murder Alekan, but not before Pine and Alekan develop feelings for each other as Pine tries to help her escape. In a frantic last scene, Pine gets a call that she is in imminent danger. Pine rushes to her room, the Queen Nefertiti suite, only to find her corpse lying on the floor. This becomes something of a recurrent nightmare for him—numerous scenes in the show feature her ashen body beseeching him to act.

Angela Burr (Olivia Coleman), of the International Enforcement Agency, recruits Pine to infiltrate Roper’s inner circle in an operation called “Limpet”. It turns out that she has been trying to nab him for years.

Pine and Roper’s relationship is one of the most intense in the show, although parts of it don’t quite ring true. In Majorca, Pine rescues Roper’s son from a kidnapping that is later revealed to be staged. Pine’s seemingly brave actions are enough to make the usually sceptical Roper trust Pine wholeheartedly. As I watched them, the stage brimming with enigma and tension in Roper’s lush Majorca villa, I was reminded of Hugh Laurie’s character in “House,” who famously proclaims, “Everybody lies.” Laurie uses the same piercing, incisive gaze in this show, but unlike Dr. Gregory House, Roper does not succeed in doing an X-ray search of Hiddleston’s character. I expected his probing scrutiny to yield some results, for him to suspect that Pine was indeed lying, but rather unrealistically, the truth only dawns on Roper when it is too late. Indeed, he goes as far as to tell Pike that he reminds Roper of himself, and to entrust him with a major chunk of his business. It seemed like a classic maneuver—the villain discovering a kindred spirit in the anti-hero stationed to take him down.

If Roper comes across as moderately naïve, Pine does appear to be the antihero. Even though he is opposed to Roper’s arms trade, he himself has a murky ethical sense, at best. He doesn’t show the slightest hint of remorse for murdering Major Corkoran (“Corky”) at the Syrian border when Corky threatens to blow his cover. However, to be fair, we don’t see very much of his private life or musings at all. The only clues we have regarding his inner turmoil are the gruesome flashbacks of Sophie’s corpse. In Majorca, we don’t see his composure, mask-like almost, slip even when he’s alone. Sometimes, he fiercely adopts his role to such an extent that even Limpet officials find it hard to trust him. Like Roper, the only insight we can glean is from his intense glances, but even that is not quite validated by his behavior. His enigma makes him seem less and less like a night manager, and more and more like a wounded spy. Indeed, after the show was aired, Hiddleston became a favorite to play James Bond in the newest interpretation of the series.

The show is different from the novel in a few key ways. (Fun fact: John le Carré appears for a split-second in a scene shot at a restaurant). The 1993 novel presents Roper as a rogue arms dealer who supplies weapons to a Colombian drug cartel. Instead, in the 2016 show, Roper’s arms make their way across Egypt, Turkey, and Syria.

In the book, we don’t have Angela Burr’s dogged character. We have Leonard Burr, an earnest, honest intelligence officer out to nab Roper. This transformation works, especially since Burr is pregnant in the show and plays a different role than the other women, such as Alekan and Jed (Elizabeth Debnicki), Roper’s American girlfriend with whom Pine has an affair. Even though Alekan and Jed play pivotal roles in the drama—Limpet would never have been conceived if not for Sophie and Jed—they serve primarily as the love interests of powerful men. They are both economically dependent on Hamid and Roper—Alekan changed her name from “Samira” to “Sophie” to appear more Western, while Jed supports her child with Roper’s money. Burr’s character adds to the spectrum of women, as she is financially independent (her job is more demanding than her husband’s) and is not attracted to Pine. Her pregnancy is also never portrayed as a hindrance—we see her single-handedly take down one of Roper’s henchmen.

The conclusion of the show is also different from that of the novel. In the novel, after Pine’s cover is blown, Burr sacrifices his operation to save Pine and is discredited by the other agents who worked with Roper. In the show, Burr and her colleagues blackmail these agents, who abandon Roper. I enjoyed the institutional breakdown of Roper’s empire, but since the agents working with him go scot free, I wondered how effective this conclusion was. I wished that there had been some sort of resolution for them in the dubious light of their activity in the chain, and I couldn’t help but find the legitimacy of the ending a bit questionable.

Given the option between an eternal Himalayan sky and this show again, I would choose the skyline. The show was glamorous and depicts instances of amazing acting, but it isn’t perhaps as deep as I would have liked.