The spy genre has been cemented in fiction for generations. It is no surprise that from characters such as James Bond to George Smiley, the job of a spy has been filled with mystique, and all sorts of arcane characteristics that really make every single story worth watching at least once, and on top of that, even discussing them. Now HBO Max is ready to add some more spy flavor to their roster by acquiring a fascinating show called Spy/Master, coming straight from Romania to give us our fix of secrets and betrayals.
The series is the birthchild of showrunners Adina Sadeanu and Kirsten Peters. A combination of several real-life stories has inspired both writers. It has delivered a series that really managed to depict the stressful job of being a spy, especially one that involves working on the orders of a truly evil tyrant. The series stars Alec Secareanu, Parker Sawyers, Svenja Jung, Ana Ularu, Andreea Vasile, and Alexandra Bob. The series tells us the story of Victor, a high officer working for the Romanian intelligence officer who has been working for the KGB and now looks to get out of the country before he is discovered.
From the moment Spy/Master starts, you can feel that this will be a good show, especially for those who are fans of the genre. For many decades, spy fiction has been a bit trapped regarding mainstream consideration within the action genre. Films like The Bourne Supremacy, all the Bonds, and, of course, all the Mission Impossibles go full in on the action. This is not to say those films are doing a bad job; not at all. They are some of the best in the business, but they are definitely a twisted version of what a spy’s job entails in real life.
Spy/Master goes more in the direction of something like the very efficient Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, or Spy. The story focuses on the ins and outs of getting and providing that information to the people who should have it. Spies deal in information more than in their abilities to kill an entire room full of people, and Spy/Master tries to project the true nature of the job in every single one of its episodes. It feels fresh, and I might say we haven’t had such a grounded and high-quality spy show since The Little Drummer Girl.
Spy/Master then presents the character of Victor, who is very good at his job. He is so good, in fact, that he has been able to make an entire life while being a fake version of himself. Of course, at some point, everyone makes mistakes, and soon Victor finds himself trapped behind walls that are getting closer and closer to each other. He knows he needs to escape and fast if he wants to be able to save himself and his family in the process. Of course, Victor deals with dangerous people on all sides, so he doesn’t have many options and must do with what he has.
Victor is played with great confidence by Alec Secareanu. The actor has cultivated a fantastic film and television career in the past decade. Still, there is no exaggeration in saying that the role of Victor in Spy/Master will open many doors for the actor. Secareanu has the looks and gravitas required to carry the story on his shoulders from beginning to end. As the story progresses, his early cold look gets dismantled as things become more complicated. It is a great performance that millions of people will be able to see, thanks to the show being on HBO.
The rest of the cast is just as equally good, and they support Secareanu’s character on his journey but also have enough screen time by themselves to shine their own light. Parker Sawyers, who plays another intelligence officer but this time working for the USA, is also a standout. Both spies start a wonderful relationship that evolves into very satisfying territory as the show ends. Sawyers have often been named around thanks to his likeness to the former president of the USA, Barack Obama, but this time Sawyers will also shine in a role that will give him recognition.
The female cast is just as equally good, and they are quite relevant in the show. The female characters not only have the roles of daughters, wives, and mothers, but they also play a part in the spy game, and their plays are quite deadly and calculated. It is often forgotten that women were and still are excellent spies. They have an advantage thanks to social conventions that place them as innocent creatures when, in reality, they can be just as ruthless as any man. Ana Ularu as Carmen and Svenja Jung as Ingrid make for formidable players in the spy game, which is exciting to see.
Regarding the technical aspects of the show, Spy/Master also excels. Christopher Smith directs all six episodes of the show and does well, preserving the look and feel that tells you with just one look that the story is set during the Cold War. Every scene is also filled with tension, and when the releases come, they come hard. Smith complements the writing well. There might not be much creative camera work or even shots that could be considered iconic or beautiful, but this show doesn’t need that. Smith and his team go straight to the point, and it works.
If there is something to complain about in Spy/Master is the repeated problem of being maybe a bit too complicated at the start of the story. The names of people and factions go around in the air, and it is hard to filter out what is important and what is just jargon. As you get used to the scenario the show presents, the stakes and the players become easier to recognize. Still, Spy/Master is a fantastic example of what the genre can achieve when done within the confines of reality and outside the exaggerated action films that have represented it most of the time.