Set in post-war Britain, Traitors (Netflix Originals) plunges its viewers into the world of espionage, chiefly of Soviet infiltration of Attlee’s government around 1946. Soviets are there all right, along with dozens of bureaucrats and the Americans, whose agents are convinced that the Russians are up to no good. And they’re willing to use any covert means to prove it.
Episode one begins intriguingly enough, with a stranger coming back to his flat and to bed without noticing a suspicious set of toes jutting out from behind the curtain. The owner of the shoes comes out, smothers the sleeper, tosses him downstairs and pours some incriminating whisky on the dead man’s mouth.
The event can hardly be irrelevant, but it takes three episodes to find out how important it is. In the meantime, Traitors ushers in a stream of characters who will be sucked into a world of secrecy, lies, and, of course, treason. First among these is Feef Symonds (Emma Appleton, pictured left) whose American paramour Peter McCormick (Matt Lauria) recruits her to spy on her own country so as to uncover the treason that he and his boss Rowe (Michael Stuhlbarg), are convinced is happening. Straightforward enough, but when Washington decides to cancel the project and Peter concurs, Rowe murders him to keep the mission alive. Feef, thinking Peter has returned home, gets a ministry job and begins surreptitiously poring over documents, while keeping her eyes and ears open for anything that will provide a lead.
After a couple of episodes, Traitors seemed headed in the direction of too many modern spy thrillers: however villainous “they” are, “we” are just as bad, murderers and liars all. Necessarily, espionage is a dirty business on both sides, but Rowe takes the cake as a grade-A fanatic, the self-anointed saviour of the West, and just the man to dream of spies under the bed.
When the name Kim Philby pops up, the matter of moral equivalence briefly recedes, and the hunt for a mole is underway. Like the squeaky-clean Cambridge boys – “apostles” of a godless, Bolshevik future – someone in Traitors has burrowed into the cabinet, waiting patiently for the chance to tip the scales towards the East. But as soon as that story begins to develop, the Americans get nastier, as do the British, and it’s moral equivalence in spades right to the bitter end.
Traitors has its moments, as well as some good acting from Keeley Hawes and Luke Treadaway among others, but its writers are oblivious to the fact that no matter how imperfect the West was, it didn’t engineer the deaths of millions or set up the Gulag. Contrary to the party line, moral equivalence is baloney. Caveat emptor.
Dr Carl C Curtis III is a professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia