Watching The Game is like learning to appreciate good single malt.
It’s a complex and carefully-crafted thing that you’d probably love to drink faster, but which you’re meant to just sip at, as the plot unfolds at its own pace. If you want a spy drama you can chug, The Game is not for you.
What whisky would The Game be? I don’t know, that was the previous paragraph. The whisky metaphor has ended. Anyway, this is a vodka-drinking world we’re watching now, comrade, with an extra chaser of secrets. And a maraschino cherry of possible sexual attraction.
The Reds are under the bed, in the bed, possibly plotting to blow the bed up, and MI5 is scrabbling to keep the bed made but can’t quite get a grip on the location of the duvet. We’ve stumbled into a bed metaphor. End of bed metaphor.
The Cold War feels like it hinges on a battle of the sexes this week, both on a scale that may obliterate millions of lives or, in the case of Sarah lying to her Q-branch Womble husband Alan about matters of conception and contraception, sow the seeds of destruction for something as simple/complex as a marriage.
A woman named Kate Wilkinson (Rachael Stirling, being both fabulously coy and aggressive all at once), is identified as an activated sleeper agent for the KGB. She may be planning to sabotage one of the US nuclear missiles secretly stored on firm, dreary British soil. Joe Lambe is ordered to interrupt his flashbacks to his past and tail her, which leads to some quality old-school ‘Spying 101’ tactics and a revelation between strangers on a train.
Kate’s MI6. Or is she? Or isn’t she? Where is she in relation to our reactivated metaphorical bed? In it? Making it? About to sell the bed’s secrets to Mother Russia?
Joe can’t tell, not even after a sexually-charged interview over a bottle of wine. Kate is too sharp, too sexy, and (whoever she works for) far too better at this than Joe. She maintains her innocence even as secret plans are found in her flat and she is threatened with a trip to Reading. Crumbs if I were threatened with a trip to reading I’d spill. But I’m not a spy. Kate is, but we’re still not sure for whom…
Meanwhile Daddy (Brian Cox) tries to help prevent his balletic lady-friend, Chen Mei, from being deported back to Communist China; an insignificant act with significant consequences. It’s a chance for Bobby Waterhouse (Paul Ritter, still the show’s best asset) to move behind Daddy’s back and at once be a ladder-climbing little shit and still do the best thing for the interest of the service and the nation, especially when Daddy discovers that Chen Mei is married.
Suddenly Daddy is less the almighty overlord of the beige glamour of MI5 and more the vulnerable old man fighting the eternal-afternoon monotony of a life lived on a pension.
Like history itself, it all sounds so neat and rapid when summed up here, but The Game unpacks its stories at a far more intricate and deliberate pace. A pace which allows for fully-realised characters and some incredibly tense moments, but which leaves the viewer feeling isolated in the slower moments.
It’s a sipping speed drama (yes, the whisky metaphor is back), yet once you get used to that you realise what you’re sipping at is very good indeed.
Aired at 9pm on Thursday 14 May 2015 on BBC Two.
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