Sometimes it’s a matter of mental heath. You need the distraction and relaxation of indulging – by binge-watch or otherwise – in a multipart thriller. You need a puzzle to solve; you need escape into another country or another period in time. Strong characters, a compelling story and occasional pauses for sensuality. Those are the ingredients.
Right now, we’re in a lull period when much of what is new on streaming services is fantasy or horror. And if the supernatural and the fantastical are too much for you, herewith, three fine thrillers now available – one British, one from Mexico and the third from Italy.
Traitors (now on Netflix Canada) is a six-part Channel 4 production set in the immediate postwar period and the context is paranoia about Soviet influence in Britain. Specifically, American suspicions that Communists or their sympathizers are all over the place, infiltrating the government and multiple areas of influence. When Britain elects a Labour government under Clement Attlee in 1945, the paranoia increases in intensity.
The central character is an unusual figure for this type of period drama. She’s Feef Symonds (Emma Appleton), a young woman from the fringes of the upper class who has enjoyed the freedom that the war gave her: A career, a taste for danger and sexual freedom. As the war ends, she’s offered a secretarial job in a government ministry. To add to her disappointment, the married U.S. army officer she’s been sleeping with (sex is a strong dramatic undercurrent in the series) is about to return home. But somebody spots her as a potential spy. That’s a shadowy American figure, Mr. Rowe (Michael Stuhlbarg, familiar from Boardwalk Empire and Coen brothers’ movies), from the Office of Strategic Services, which was the CIA before it was called the CIA.
For Feef, spying on her own government is at first almost noble. She comes from a solid conservative family and sees the rejection of Churchill and rise of the “socialist” Labour, as a betrayal. As the drama unfolds, there is a well-textured portrait of the immediate postwar period, with its austerity and seething unease about what happens next. The Feef figure is fascinating: Sexually liberated and bored by peacetime, she’s a cunning woman, and far from sympathetic.
Tijuana (now on Netflix Canada, in Spanish with English subtitles) is a good political thriller that’s really about the media and about Mexico as it is now. That is, as a voice-over tells us, a country where 115 journalists have been killed since 2000.
Set mainly among the staff of Frente Tijuana, an independent newspaper, it follows two interlocking storylines. One of the paper’s founders was murdered years before the action starts and his nephew Andy (Ivan Aragon) is making a documentary about his life and death. While he’s doing this, the paper is enthusiastically covering the rise of a local candidate for governor of the state, Eugenio Robles (Roberto Mateos), a former factory worker with a left-wing message. When Robles is assassinated, the story the paper is covering gets murky and very dangerous.
In several aspects, Tijuana (in 11 parts) is at the level of prestige-cable drama. It has a propulsive quality that transcends occasional earnestness. (A newspaper photographer reacts to being told that her photos are as beautiful as art, by saying, “My job is to denounce, not to decorate a house.”) The formidable danger of working as a journalist in Mexico is at its core, but these are not saintly or glamorous figures – they are driven, sometimes obsessive people angry at what Mexico has become. It’s all very contemporary, with the bodies of dead migrants from Honduras and El Salvador turning up in the fields and drug traffickers taking brutal revenge against nosy reporters. As a political thriller, it doesn’t really have subtext. What it has is an in-your-face depiction of a barbaric kind of corruption.
Carlo & Malik (on Netflix Canada, in Italian with English subtitles) was titled Nero a meta (“half-black”) when it aired recently in Italy. It’s the most conventional of the three thrillers cited here, in that it’s essentially about mismatched cops going about their work. A veteran cop in Rome, Carlo Guerrieri (Claudio Amendola), is paired with an upstart rookie, Malik Soprani (Miguel Gobbo Diaz), who was born in the Ivory Coast. Carlo seems a decent guy but he’s old-school racist. He sees most immigrants as criminals and believes anyone not born in Italy, or anyone with parents not born in Italy, is not Italian. As the pair try to forge some sort of working relationship, racism in Italy is very much on the surface.
This adds a vital element to what is, often, a traditional police procedural. The acting is excellent, the two leads are very solid and the scene-stealer is Rosa Diletta Rossi as Alba, Carlo’s daughter who works as a medical examiner. Her journeys round Rome on her scooter act as a crucial, street-level portrait of the city. And the city is a real main character in the 12-part series. While the format feels familiar, the specificity of Rome is both startling and charming.