The Arty Semite

Maggie Gyllenhaal's 'Honorable' New Show

By Gabe Friedman

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On the Daily Show, Maggie Gyllenhaal told Jon Stewart that she has not received any backlash about the politics of “The Honorable Woman,” the new show that she stars in. Since it centers on the ongoing turmoil of Israeli-Palestinian relations, Stewart looked amused.

“You have very thoughtful friends,” he said.

Granted, the eight-part mini-series written by British director Hugo Blick is only a few episodes into its run on the Sundance Channel (in the UK, five episodes have aired already). There is still an ample amount of time to provoke both critics and political pundits.

However, for the moment, the series seems focused on avoiding taking a side. The first episode introduced a very complicated political murder mystery. Gyllenhaal plays Vanessa “Nessa” Stein, the daughter of a successful English arms dealer who supplied Israel with weapons and was murdered 29 years ago in front of his children. Nessa, along with her brother Ephra, has inherited her father’s company and has a plan to remodel the business as a supplier of peace, not war. The idea is to bring Internet and phone cables to impoverished Palestinian territories to enable education and communication. As Nessa says, “Terror thrives in poverty, it dies in wealth.”

The plan is jeopardized when a man is found dead in his hotel room. We learn that the victim is a Palestinian who Nessa planned to give a lucrative contract to construct the communication infrastructure. Of course, allegations from both Israelis and Palestinians ensue, and protestors hound Nessa with questions wherever she goes.

At the end of the first episode, a young Palestinian boy named Kasim is kidnapped. Kasim is the son of Ephra’s housekeeper Atika – or so we think. In the second episode, the viewer learns that Nessa and Atika were held captive in Gaza for a long stretch of time, and photos of them with a baby in their cell raise several questions.

Despite how loaded this material might seem, Blick seems very aware of how vulnerable it could be to political critique. The “bad guys” (the murderers and the kidnappers) are nonexistent ghosts at this point, and it is impossible to know if one country or agency is behind the conspiracy. For example, in episode two, members of the British MI6 and the American FBI are involved in a deadly showdown. In the first episode, one Israeli character and one Palestinian character each inappropriately lobby for the right to Nessa’s contract. And although one could assume that the waiter who kills Nessa’s father in a restaurant is Palestinian (because her father was presumably hated among Palestinians for providing Israel with weapons), the viewer can’t be sure. In other words, no ethnicity is guilt-free so far.

Notwithstanding her firm resolve and good intentions, Nessa is frustrated by both sides and weary of the violent chaos of the entire situation. In a meeting in the House of Lords in episode two, a woman counter intuitively tells Nessa that sitting on the fence on the Israel-Palestine issue is dangerous – or it at least makes many people very angry. “A fence is only a fence,” she says in front of the Parliament members, “until it turns into a spike.”

The fact that the show was filmed last year only increases its appeal to those who have followed the latest conflict in Gaza. We can use it as a barometer to test what this summer’s war has done to our perception of the situation: how have things changed since last year? Are we now more prone to supporting one side or another? This year’s conflict seems to have polarized people’s opinions into solidified sound bytes, so any work of art that can hint at the problems of both Israel and Palestine feels refreshing.

The political undertone of the show should not distract viewers from how well done it is: the plot is intricate, the script is tight, and the filming is beautiful (despite the dark subject matter). The first episode felt slow at times, but the second episode showcased a suspenseful sequence comparable to the best moments of “Breaking Bad” and “True Detective.”

Ultimately, however, the real insight of “The Honorable Woman” is how even a well-intentioned attempt to make peace in the region can produce death and chaos. In the Daily Show interview, Gyllenhaal added that she thought art and fiction could help break down people’s fixed ideas on the issue.

“Now maybe that’s a fantasy,” Gyllenhaal said. “But I do think that it’s a fantasy that’s worth having, that’s worth exploring, that’s worth considering.”

It may be a fantasy for now, but it will be interesting to follow the show’s route to its ultimate commentary — or lack of commentary — on Israeli-Palestinian relations.

“The Honorable Woman” airs Thursday nights at 10 pm on the Sundance Channel.


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