Towards the end of the second season of the superlative legal drama The Good Fight, Diane Lockhart is informed where she might find the solution to her giant, president-shaped problems. “Follow the women,” she is told. And when it comes to Channel 4’s snappy spy drama Traitors, viewers would be wise to take the same advice.
Traitors takes place in 1945, immediately after the war has ended. Our lead and possible heroine – though nothing is quite so morally straightforward – is Feef Symonds (Emma Appleton), a Mitford-esque aristocrat with pluck and verve who is recruited as a spy by the Americans to root out a possible Russian infiltration of the British government. Or at least, that’s how it seems. The first two episodes put the fun into functional, but they only hint at what makes the show stand out. You wait years for a series with car headlights blinking meaningfully through fog, repressed sexual yearnings in tea dresses and some attempt to find contemporary relevance in the geopolitical landscape of 1940s Europe, then they all come along at once. A Das Boot here, a Mrs Wilson there, everywhere a costume department putting historical research to good use.
At its halfway point, though, Traitors kicks into gear, and it does so by finding its women. Government and espionage do not appear to have been the most inviting environments for women in the first half of the 20th century. Symonds is of course front and centre, but much of the story, to start with, is constructed around her by a rotating cast of men in suits whom I began to distinguish as much by moustache as accent. When Feef and the stern Miss Garrick, played with the usual finesse by Keeley Hawes, are pulled into the centre, the show starts to set out its vision of what power, manipulation and deceit might look like. There is a particularly barnstorming speech from Miss Garrick about what it takes to thrive in a world that is so inherently ill-suited to women (“women have to be twice as good as men”); there are complicated questions about what would be expected of women in order for them to play the boys’ games. She plays up her dowdiness, she explains. Being plain is a visual trick to get her access to the room. When one of the moustaches calls Feef a “clever little thing”, Miss Garrick replies coolly, “She’s actually quite tall.”
The creator and writer, Bash Doran, who cut her teeth on Smack the Pony and wrote for Boardwalk Empire and Masters of Sex, has established an unusual and unapologetically contemporary tone. The conversations often feel modern, and timely parallels are rarely subtle. “The far-left of the Labour Party are robotic ideologues and they’re taking orders from Moscow whether they know it or not,” says Symonds’ handler Rowe (a chewy Michael Stuhlbarg, savouring each scene), sounding every bit as if he’s just been commenting on This Week. When Symonds is tasked with infiltrating the archives to find records of old cabinet meetings, she wonders how, as a lowly secretary, she can get it done. “You’re upper class. Every gesture you make screams entitlement,” says Rowe. “That’s why you’re perfect. No one will question you.” Feef has checked her privilege, and decided to use it against the impending commie invasion. And everyone is having affairs all over the place, from Feef’s romance with her ex-Tory now-Labour boyfriend to her brother’s illicit gay encounters. It’s all jolly good fun.
Faithful reenactments are all well and good when it comes to historical dramas, but Traitors offers something a little bit different. It is occasionally cartoonish, and those moustaches can be perplexing – is that a goodie’s tache or a baddie’s, and which side are they on, again? – but once it hits its stride, the episodes begin to gallop. All of its characters have weaknesses, and they’re all out to exploit the secrets they uncover, in cunning, dastardly ways. Stick with Traitors – it builds into a rollicking ride of double-crosses and deception.