When popular action heroes like James Bond and Ethan Hunt have dominated what most people think of as the spy genre, it’s understandable that most people have no clue what spies actually do — namely, infiltrate dangerous places and collect intelligence for the government.
It’s also understandable that most people don’t realize that the enemy is not nearly as clear-cut as Spectre or the Syndicate, well-funded terrorist organizations with the motives and capacity to destroy the planet. All too frequently, the actual enemies are more humdrum: drug cartels, mafias, fanatical terrorists, and Marxist and fascist insurrectionists in the Third World. And usually, those enemies are mixed in with ostensible allies, making a spy’s work both morally and politically ambiguous.
When these two clarifiers are accounted for, it becomes clear that the primary work of spies and the agencies they work for involves far less shooting and parkour and far more data analysis and legal paperwork. In such a context, the real heroes become the lawyers and paper-pushers who are able to somehow navigate through the bureaucracy of today’s intelligence agencies. But how entertaining would a story about a lawyer managing a case for such an agency really be?
In the case of Netflix’s recent series “The Recruit,” it turns out such a story would be quite entertaining and rightly critical of today’s intelligence organizations and their spies. By dispensing with the many tropes that have come to define the spy genre, “The Recruit” offers a refreshing take that returns this world to reality.
The show focuses on a young CIA lawyer Owen Hendricks who, in his first days at the CIA, becomes entangled with a Belarusian spy Max Maladze who threatens to leak classified information if the agency doesn’t release her from prison. As he handles this assignment, he is forced to deal with backstabbing colleagues, rivals from other departments, powerful politicians, along with armed thugs working for a wide array of criminal organizations.
While the show features more than enough action sequences — mostly Owen finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time — much of the show’s interest comes in its Machiavellian (and apparently surprisingly realistic) portrayal of intelligence agencies. Everyone is competing with everyone, every agreement is transactional, and emotional attachments and moral codes are liabilities. No one wants to help Owen because that would expose them to potential risks and certain responsibilities. Consequently, he’s on a constant quest to gain leverage over people and call in favors in order to move forward in his case.
Adding to the intrigue is Owen’s youth. Not only does he lack the experience to shoulder the immense burdens that put his life and new career in jeopardy, but he also lacks the wisdom to understand the moral implications of his actions. On one hand, his inexperience is an asset since his ignorance affords him some bliss in the chaos, but on the other hand, it leaves him vulnerable to everyone taking advantage of him.
Interestingly, the one thing Owen doesn’t really struggle with is his conscience. One would imagine a young man would choose to work for the CIA in order to serve his country or fight bad guys, but Owen is unconcerned with any of that. He only works as a CIA lawyer because he has something to prove (like many of today’s young men, he grew up without a father), and he likes the challenge. While not exactly the best reasons for doing what he does, these motivations make his character much more realistic and relatable.
The lack of ideals also helps explain his otherwise unexplainable social life. Owen is not married, nor engaged to be married, but remains close with his ex-girlfriend, confiding in her, seeking her help on numerous occasions, and even sharing an apartment with her. There’s even a token black gay friend who’s also their roommate. Meanwhile, all three members of this makeshift family cycle through sex partners as they learn how to “adult” in Washington, D.C. For any other generation, this arrangement might seem bizarre and awkward, but for the Gen Z cohort brought up to ditch labels, emotional commitment, and clear boundaries, this kind of living is believable.
The show also highlights the complex social dynamics at play in Washington. Rather than a miserable city made up of homesick politicians, transient bureaucrats, and aggressive political muckrakers, Washington is awash in money, fashion, and exclusive parties. Having many social connections, regularly hobnobbing, and making good impressions are all essential. Americans may like to tell themselves that they have no aristocracy, but “The Recruit” makes it clear that they do, and the rules for advancement are more or less the same as they’ve always been.
In light of this setup, however, there’re times when even the most cynical viewer may wonder what the point of the show actually is. Everyone, including Owen, is morally compromised, and it’s unclear what would constitute a happy outcome. Sure, Owen could succeed in what he’s trying to do, which constantly changes with each episode, but what would this bring? He’s not saving anyone or anything — quite the opposite — and it’s hard to see what he gains besides a pat on the head from his superiors, who, themselves, aren’t particularly good people.
Mainly, the audience roots for Owen because he’s young, charming, and seems relatively less corrupt than the swamp creatures who surround him. All credit for this is due to the show’s excellent writing and Noah Centineo’s amazing performance as Owen. It also helps that the writers steer clear of heavy themes and character studies while focusing on the plot and dialogue.
Overall, “The Recruit” succeeds in its main goal of being interesting and fun to watch, but it also succeeds in conveying a deeper, rather disturbing point: Today’s politics is less the clash of competing ideas and more the messy dynamics of large bureaucracy that is more interested in self-preservation than protecting the nation. We can only hope that this kind of world passes into oblivion since it has no good reason to exist, but until then, we can enjoy a great series inspired by it.