As we head into the Christmas break, it seems like a good time for my semi-annual review of in media res openings. You know, that thing where something exciting but confusing happens for a minute or two at the top of a TV episode and then you get a “Two Weeks Earlier” title card.
You see them all the time and most of the time, I hate to say, they’re not very good.
It comes down to
Your average British spy hijinx.
As I see it, there are exactly two right uses for one in media res opening.
Use one: present a scene so bizarre and packed with bizarre details that curiosity is inevitable. A man wakes up in bed. The camera pulls back to reveal he’s been spooning with Dr. Ruth. The camera pulls back to reveal that the man and Dr. Ruth are surrounded by the corpses of 50 adorable white rabbits. The camera pulls back further to show the bed is actually outside and on the observation deck at the Empire State Building. The man looks down at Dr. Ruth. He’s confused. “GRANDMA?!?” he out. Hard cut to ‘One Week Earlier’.
This is a situation that utterly calls for explanation, and if you promise me a satisfactory solution, I will watch 15 seasons prelude to reach that destination.
Use two: the in media res event and the situation we recoil from are so diametrically opposed that curiosity is inevitable. A woman with bright fuchsia hair is tortured by men who yell at her in Mandarin. She seems helpless and terrified under the pressure. About the same woman, now a brunette, in an ornate but reassuring college exam room, facing the pressures of… finishing an exam. Yes, that’s the first two minutes of Alias and it’s one of the best two-minute pilot openings in television history.
Nobody did in media res openings as well as JJ Abrams and company op Alias (at least for a while), which is part of the reason why the in media res starters for a few new Netflix spy shows are so overwhelmingly disappointing and unnecessary. If Abrams A-Liasthat of Netflix The recruit and treason are actually C+-Lias – not exactly bad, but inevitably in the shadow of a superior original available for streaming if you turn to Hulu instead.
Both shows also make the same mistake in their respective ones in media res openings – an error pointing to central flaws in both shows. They launch their pilots with a completely unremarkable, thoroughly genre-standard espionage beginning – a man running with a gun in the snow, two people ominously observed by a sniper – so completely forgettable that by the time the main story caught up to the opening, I forgot that the in media res opening did not exist at all.
A good one in media res opening must be unforgettable. It has to be something where 20 percent of your brain is always thinking, “Is this the part where the show is going to explain the 50 cute dead white rabbits?” Otherwise you’re just using the structuring device as a superficial excuse to kick off with some action to buy yourself 40 minutes of subsequent exposure, which is absolutely what both The recruit and treason are doing.
That ends my lecture on that in media res openings. To treasonwhich, if I’m honest, is probably more of a C+ version of 24 than a C+ version of Alias But 24 had its own structuring device that allowed it to tell instantly gripping stories without ever resorting to “two weeks ago” shenanigans.
Charlie Cox plays Adam Lawrence, Deputy Chief of MI6 or possibly Deputy Chief of MI6. It’s unclear if this would be a real distinction or if the show cares if it would be a distinction. Adam’s boss is Sir Martin Angelis, an intelligence legend played by Ciaran Hinds, who gets the “Met” title here – two facts that should immediately be minor spoilers.
Martin is soon poisoned by a mysterious Russian woman (Olga Kurylenko). She’s Kara, she has both a professional and personal past with Adam and she’s invested in Adam’s rapid rise to the top of MI6 (something that again makes little sense under the circumstances, but you either agree or you do it doesn’t).
Adam must find out Kara’s motives and if she’s the only foreign agent targeting him and his precarious department. Evidence is beginning to misleadingly suggest to all but the public (keeping viewers too well informed is another weird choice) that Adam may have been endangered, as he could commit the title of the show.
Adam’s wife Maddy (Oona Chaplin) is worried about the risks of his new job, son Callum (Simon Leakey) is excited about the benefits of his new job and gruff teenage daughter Ella (Beau Gadsdon) is a teenager in a television political thriller. so her only personality traits are “sullen” and “kidnappable.” And that’s hardly a spoiler, because this is really the only purpose teenage daughters have in shows like this, especially in countries without an available supply of menacing mountain lions. Long live Kim Bauer.
Created by Matt Charman (Bridge of Spies), treason is only five episodes long and each episode is less than 46 minutes long, making it one of those shows where brevity is both the best and the worst quality. No doubt it races along – and would race with the same momentum without the in media res opening – with characters constantly rushing to secret meetings at various locations in London, apparently selected for the presence of large signs identifying places like Soho Square and the Borough Market. It’s not quite condensed to that 24 level, but the events of the story take place in possibly two or three days and manage to be too distracting for the show to earn much credit as plot-driven and too rushed to succeed as character-driven.
There are elements of political intrigue, set against a British election, but nothing deep enough to count as nuance. There are elements of contemporary resonance, with Russian intelligence as a nefarious adversary, but nothing with enough depth to count as nuance. The presence of a completely random CIA operative (Tracy Ifeachor’s Dede) making a mess of everything might count as a commentary on the state of American imperialism, but nothing the character does in five episodes makes any sense. treason too often relies on the well-known genre trope of supposedly smart people doing stupid things – a major point of distinction with Apple TV+’s spy drama in London Slow horsesin which characters do stupid things, but those stupid things are based on character-driven flaws and balanced nicely by the smart things being done.
The treason main characters each have one trait or backstory detail and the supporting characters are just… there. Adam has at least three or four colleagues in his MI6 inner sanctum who barely have names let alone personalities, a fact that takes away any weight or surprise when one turns out to be surprisingly corrupt and the other surprisingly honorable. You can’t have a character reversal if there isn’t a set starting point to return from.
The characters may be thin, but the cast is good. Cox conveys a general sense of everyman decency – although, even though he’s not as compromised as his enemies think, he’s more compromised than the show thinks. Kurylenko is basically unfathomable, though the series doesn’t give us the information needed to judge her, let alone understand her. Chaplin probably gives the best performance in the series – with the possible exception of Hinds’ effortless cold-blooded arrogance – despite a character defined solely by having served in the military at some point.
Netflix calls treason a “limited series”, but the finale sets up a second season, one that could be more interesting and distinctive than the first. I’m still more interested in finding out what happened to those cute dead rabbits.