Spy films and TV shows always make for compelling viewing. From iconic agents, such as James Bond and Jason Bourne, to new espionage thrillers like The Gray Man, the action-packed, subversive, and tension-filled appeal of this genre remains steadfast.
With Treason, a new spy series starring Marvel actor Charlie Cox, Netflix isn’t looking to reinvent the genre’s established formula. Instead, the world’s best streaming service wants to kickstart an evolution of the spy genre – a process that, curiously, might make this class of movies and shows more relatable to audiences.
"Spies are normal people," Treason creator Matt Charman tells TechRadar. "They have great cover stories, but how they conduct their lives is no different to you or I – they might sit next to you on a train or live a few doors down. The domestic is such an interesting part of a spy’s story. How do you balance your home life? How do you give your kids as normal a life as possible? What does being a spy do to your marriage? It’s the day-to-day reality of an ordinary person doing an extraordinary job that’s so fascinating to me."
Enemy of the state
Treason stars Cox (Daredevil, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law) as Adam Lawrence, the deputy of MI6 chief Sir Martin Angelis (Belfast’s Ciarán Hinds). When Angelis is near-fatally poisoned by Russian spy Kara Yerzov (Black Widow’s Olga Kurylenko), Adam assumes temporary command of the UK’s foreign intelligence service.
However, Adam’s home and work lives quickly unravel when secret documents concerning his past – and ties to Kara – suggest he betrayed his country. Charged with high treason, Adam flees with his family, including his increasingly suspicious wife Maddy (Game of Thrones’ Oona Chaplin). As the lines between home and work life blur, and other shocking revelations emerge, Adam, Kara, and Maddy are forced to confront difficult truths about themselves, each other, and their country.
The UK’s celebrated history of spy fiction – Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, and John Le Carré’s acclaimed works immediately come to mind – gave Charman plenty of influences to draw from. However, it was co-writing Bridge of Spies, the Steven Spielberg-directed Cold War drama, alongside the Coen Brothers that really informed how Charman shaped Treason.
"We’re brilliant at traditional spycraft in the UK," Charman says. "The way someone like Le Carré writes his books is that they’re like chess matches and everyone makes these really careful moves. But I also love what you get from the American spy genre, which is a little bit more propulsion, action, and a sense of messiness. So I was excited to fuse them and showcase the best of both traditions."
Similarities between Treason and Bond – both British productions rooted in the murky world of foreign intelligence gathering – means comparisons are inevitable. The James Bond movies are renowned for their morally gray characters, unpredictable story beats, and other classic spy genre elements. With 007’s cinematic franchise spanning multiple eras – be that Sean Connery's James Bond films or Daniel Craig's recent stint – it casts a long shadow over homologous projects. How, then, does Treason differentiate itself from the legendary spy’s analogous adventures?
"Audiences turn out for Bond because they’re excited by the stunts, locations, plot, craziness of what villains might try to perpetrate, and how Bond measures up against that," Charman muses. "With a limited series like Treason, you’re going to spend longer with the characters. You’re going to take a deep dive into their psychology to understand their motivations. We’re playing on the same pitch as 007, but our characters operate at a different level. They’re more complex and eventually open up more than those in the Bond franchise."
Caught in the crossfire
A large part of what separates Treason from Bond (and many other spy genre projects) is the duality of its makeup. That being, it’s a family drama dressed up as an espionage thriller.
The Bond franchise tentatively explored the concept of 007 being a family man in 2021’s No Time to Die. Even so, it was a plot thread that supplemented No Time to Die’s primary (and unsurprisingly) positioning as a spy movie.
By contrast, Treason’s exploration of family dynamics, particularly from an evolutionary perspective, is the backbone of the miniseries. In that sense, its espionage elements are secondary to its core familial drama – an intentional creative decision that grounds Treason in real life and ties into the "spies are normal people" angle Charman is aiming for.
"It gives that sense of competing loyalties," Charman explains. "If you’re employed by the state to be an operative or spy, your loyalty is to your country. But, as human beings, your loyalty is really to the people you love and have built a life with. From the beginning, I knew there would be competition within Adam between the things he’s agreed to do for his country and for his family. That makes him flawed.
"He’s somebody who’s not always going to come up with the right answer in the moment. Protecting your family is the instinctively emotional response to make as a human being, but it’s a terrible decision from a secret agent perspective. You get to test every character’s sense of who they are and where their real allegiances lie."
For Cox, the way Treason initially positions Adam as a duplicitous individual is what attracted him to the role. As the story unfolds, though, it’s the numerous twists and turns – throughout the plot and key characters’ arcs – that Cox not only thinks will keep viewers engaged, but frequently test their loyalty to Adam and his family.
"We need to feel like he’s our hero and that the audience wants him to succeed," Cox suggests. "He’s out to prove his innocence, which makes for a great spy drama, but what’s interesting is this isn’t a simple black-and-white situation where he’s been framed.
"He had a morally ambiguous past. He’s made decisions that weren’t made with the strong moral center you think someone in his position would have. In such a high-pressure job, it’s very difficult to know whether you’re making the right call. So him struggling with that and questioning himself over it is what makes him such an interesting character."
Of course, Adam’s issues begin with his MI6 promotion, which the mysterious Kara has a major hand in. The triangular relationship that forms between that duo and Maddy becomes the fulcrum for Treason’s story, with Adam torn between his job, nation, family, and – without spoiling anything – making amends with his past, which includes Kara.
The saying "your past has come back to haunt you", then, feels apt for Adam’s situation. Despite being a complicated and flawed character, Charman and Cox made sure that Adam’s intentions and decision-making were sincere, regardless of the impact they wind up having.
"When I spoke to Matt, it was very clear Adam’s motives are not Machiavellian," Cox reveals. "His decisions come about through high-pressure circumstances, which aren’t the right ones for everyone involved.
"He loves Maddy and he’s loyal to her, but he’s got a past with Kara, which suggests there was more than just a working relationship between them. So there’s emotional drama alongside the plot. You have an inciting incident that leads to some form of exciting action sequence or surprise revelation. In our show, once that happens, we go back to the family, see the fallout from that, and how they manage the perilous merging of these worlds."
Dealing with a delicate situation
Treason is an espionage tale grounded in reality, but nobody could have predicted how real-world events would add an extremely uncomfortable dimension to its narrative.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 began as Treason was being filmed. Suggesting that Treason had been placed in a precarious situation outside of its control, then, would be a grave understatement.
Understandably, Charman is acutely aware of the delicate position Treason finds itself in. Some viewers might be turned off by Russia’s seemingly antagonistic role in the miniseries. Equally, Ukrainian national Kurylenko’s portrayal of a Russian spy may make for awkward or even distressing viewing. Charman, though, hopes audiences will give Treason a chance and don’t see the Netflix show as "piggy-backing on a horrible situation".
"We were very sensitive about what was going on in the world," Charman says. "We have Olga and we have Danila [Kozlovsky, who plays Lord Anton Melnikov], who is Russian. was fully aware of what they were going through each day when they checked messages from their family and friends, who are involved in the most awful situation. So I was sensitive to it, in terms of pastoral care and making sure they were okay.
"On another level, it’s very easy to make the Russians the bad guys. They’re perpetrating an illegal war in Ukraine, so it’s very easy to beat up on them. I think it’s too easy to do that in our show. It’s more interesting to understand how people have competing agendas and how what’s going on somewhere in the world can have an impact on the world we’re living in here. You try to find a way for it to feel like it’s in dialog with what’s going on without diminishing real-world events, which you have to be really conscious of."
Disturbing and upsetting as Russia's invasion of Ukraine is, Charman hopes people will watch Treason and enjoy what it has to offer. Currently, Treason is billed as a miniseries, but the British screenwriter has ambitions of turning it into a fully-fledged show if it proves popular enough with audiences and becomes one of the best Netflix shows.
"The act of treason or crossing a line is something we see people do again and again for the right reasons," Charman adds. "The idea of telling a story where someone puts themselves in a position to tell the truth and go against their country or government is ripe for drama. I love this world and I’d love to come back to it."
Treason launches exclusively on Netflix on Monday, December 26.
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