This review contains many spoilers for season one of “Traitors” on Netflix.
Netflix’s “Traitors” seems to have all the ingredients of a really great television show. It’s a period drama about spies with a dynamic cast and rich characters, the pacing is sharp, and talented writers are contributing to the effort. Unfortunately, “Traitors” made a catastrophic error in execution, taking an ill-researched political stance and building the entire story around it.
The first season unfolds over six episodes, all set to seemingly misfit folk music. It’s the end of World War II and the United Kingdom faces the daunting challenge of recovery in the aftermath of a war that left the victorious but shelled country in financial straits. Feef Symonds (Emma Appleton) is the bright, young, patriotic Brit who had dreamed of a life in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), and readily identifies as a conservative Tory.
Sadly, the end of the war squashed her dreams of danger and espionage in occupied France. Feef is also having an affair with an American soldier named Peter who is empathetic to her disappointment in not being able to serve her country. He introduces her to his mysterious boss, “Rowe” (Michael Stuhlbarg) who offers Feef an opportunity to fight the communists in the impending war with the Soviets by spying on the British government. She happily agrees.
Soon, however, Feef’s beloved Peter meets an untimely end and Feef is left to plod through her new life as a spy without guidance as Rowe is shown to be—wait for it—not quite what he seemed. His gusto for fighting commies seems to be fueled by a blinding obsession with capitalism, which has turned him into a psychopathic monster. Meanwhile, Feef has found love again in a star of the new Labour Party government, Hugh Fenton.
Hugh is initially disgusted by Feef’s conservative ideology and her lack of interest in the new, trendy socialist politics he adores, but softens towards her after they dance at a party. He continues to try to persuade her to join the ultra-liberal postwar generation, and it doesn’t take too much for her to start seeing cracks in her beloved capitalism.
As Rowe becomes more and more unhinged, willing to do anything and kill any person for his love of capitalism, clunky flashbacks show Fenton’s humble transition into socialism as he “saw the light.” By this point it becomes abundantly clear that the show is a disastrous effort to draw parallels between 1945 and 2019, with America cast as the villain in both.
Not only are the communists cast as something other than bad guys, they’re the misunderstood heroes. This is where the previously mysterious folk music begins to make sense. The style of music has long been tied to the socialist Industrial Workers of the World and was quite popular after World War II among communists in many nations.
The show goes completely off the rails near the end, with side characters developing stories about communism saving the world from racism and more evil Americans showing up to torture whomever they need to in the name of greed and power. The older, more conservative members of Parliament are even shown to laugh at the plight of 100,000 stranded Jewish refugees as they meet to discuss the future of Palestine. Only the young, idealistic socialists are shown to have passion for restoring the Jewish homeland.
The conclusion shows that darling Feef failed to learn her lesson, now recruited by her beloved home country to oversee acts of espionage in Israel in the name of protecting British oil interests. Her arc concludes as she clears the way for Operation Embarrassment, an actual declassified act of British spies meant to sabotage ships designated for the passage of Jewish refugees from Italy to Israel.
It certainly was not Britain’s finest hour, but it also not the act of genocide the show might have you believe. Of course, historical accuracy is not always necessary when creating fictional narratives, but suggesting, even vaguely, that the British killed Jewish refugees headed for Israel is fairly egregious.
“Traitors” was created and developed in the United Kingdom by Bathsheba Doran in her first series “created by” credit. Doran previously wrote for shows like “The Looming Tower,” “Masters of Sex,” and “Boardwalk Empire.”
In the show’s haste to make its point, the script faltered, producing a level of dialogue that didn’t rise to the level of high-end television for which Netflix originals have become known. While Feef was played aptly by the relatively unknown Appleton, other performances by older actors like Michael Stuhlbarg felt hallow and broad in their delivery.
Doran’s story in “Traitors” is totally mired by a compulsion to advance a political agenda rooted in ignorance and misunderstanding. What a terrible way to waste a period show about heroes and espionage.