‘The Honourable Woman’ Episode 8: ‘The Paring Knife’ review

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After last week’s instalment, in which Hugo Blick ramped up the sex and death to Doorsian levels, one might be forgiven for thinking the final episode was more a coda than anything else: when the music’s over, turn out the lights. Yet while ‘The Paring Knife’ is less incendiary than its predecessor, it matches – possibly even surpasses – it for intensity.

The plot to kill the Steins appears to have succeeded. Believing Israel responsible for the deaths of Nessa and Ephra, the US Government announces it will not veto any future application for statehood from Palestine. Nessa (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has become a martyr to the Palestinian cause – only she isn’t actually dead. The blast in the West Bank has left her injured but alive, and once again a hostage.

Somehow, she manages to dash off a quick voicemail to Shlomo Zahary (Igal Naor). With the intelligence community now aware of her survival, Head of MI5 Julia Walsh (Janet McTeer) looks to Palestine to release her (they won’t) and Israel to rescue her (they won’t) before deciding it’s up to the British. (‘The British,’ Arab terror boss Zahid Al-Zahid wheezes contemptuously. ‘They should never have drawn that line in the first place.’)

The Honourable Woman

Walsh leaves it to Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Stephen Rea) to find a solution. He suggests sending in housekeeper-turned-adulterer-turned-freedom fighter-turned-quadruple agent Atika Halabi (Lubna Azabal). Realising that saving Nessa is now as important to the Palestinian cause as killing her in the first place, Atika agrees and returns to her homeland.

The reunion with Nessa is almost amusing in its awkwardness. They were nearly lovers; now one is ostensibly a prisoner of the other. It’s like a marriage guidance meeting without a counsellor. Atika brokers Nessa’s release with Al-Zahid – but it’s a trap. The CIA, in association with ambitious uberbitch agent Monica Chatwin (Eve Best), intends to push the original martyrdom plan through by killing Nessa.

But they’ve reckoned without Atika. Having killed Al-Zahid (receiving a knife in the guts for her trouble), she rescues Kasim, saves Nessa and ends up plugged with bullets by a US agent. ‘Get off my land,’ she hisses with her dying breath, giving a listening Hayden-Hoyle time to latch onto her coordinates and atomise the American with a smart bomb.


Nessa and Kasim make it safely to the consoling arms of Shlomo (who isn’t the bad guy he appeared and thus will never be the victim of a long-planned and excruciating pun on the phrase ‘slow-mo’) while Sir HHH can look forward to a peaceful retirement – thanks in part to Julia Walsh, who browbeats the Americans into not pressing charges for the death of their agent. ‘In a room full of pussies, I’m the only one with a vagina,’ she tells the US Brigadier-General.

At the very end, Shlomo and the Stein children gather around Rachel (Katharine Parkinson) and her new baby, Kasim as much a part of the family as the rest. They’ve experienced horror and heartache beyond imagining and yet the dogged resilience of humanity remains: they can still take joy in the creation of new life. Only Nessa stands apart, her face a mask embossed with the lyrics of John Mellencamp’s ‘Jack and Diane’: ‘Life goes on – long after the thrill of living is gone.’

Whether she can break through the barriers of loss and pain to take pleasure in existence again, we will never know. The final image of Nessa, of the entire series, is a flashback to her kidnap in Gaza: an honourable woman dishonoured by politics, family and history, locked away in a basement, the sound of war ringing in her ears. One wonders whether the guns will ever stop.

The Honourable Woman

Now the music really is over. With sadness, we must bid a final farewell to The Honourable Woman. Some grumbled that early episodes were slow, but these complaints were as hollow as a gambler’s piggy bank.

If anything, the series moved too quickly. It was over too soon – and it’s unlikely anything of a similar quality will appear on our screen for some considerable time.


Aired at 9pm on Thursday 21 August 2014 on BBC Two.

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