The Honourable Woman Review: “The Empty Chair”

(Episode 1.01)

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<i>The Honourable Woman</i> Review: &#8220;The Empty Chair&#8221;

The Honourable Woman, The Good Wife, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter—based on the title alone we know that the new Sundance eight-part series will likely bring us a complicated notion of what it means to be a member of the so-called fairer sex. But in the pilot episode, Hugo Blick’s complex plot deals more with the implications of race and culture in the political sphere, than womanhood—but the results are powerful, and one can expect gender issues to play a larger role soon enough. Of course, the series’ American debut comes at an interesting time; the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is inspiring constant debate and discussion, and The Honourable Woman could very well participate in such conversation. The narrative is fictitious—it’s a British spy thriller—but the political bent is based on historical and contemporary issues in the Middle East. So it has all of the makings for a fascinating television experience.

Vanessa “Nessa” Stein (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) is an Anglo-Israeli business woman whose father’s corporation (The Stein Group, which she now runs) cannot escape the political ramifications of Middle East conflict—largely due to the work he did before his murder, when he was known as “the sword of Israel.”

“What a difference a war makes,” Nessa says in an opening speech. After she is made a Baroness, she acknowledges that Israel has thrived while Palestine has fallen victim to poverty—something she seeks to change. Stein seems like a good guy, as Gyllenhaal breathes a regal but appropriately exhausted air into her personality. She may be the honourable woman, but there’s something in that green and black leopard-print dress—and in the whisperings of other characters—that tells us she has her secrets too. That feeling of unease—which we also feel towards her brother Ephra Stein (played by Andrew Buchan) and, well, everyone on the series—is intentional. Stein finds herself in hot water throughout “The Empty Chair,” as she thinks for herself and makes decisions that are (whether she wants to accept it or not) translated into political statements. That the man she appoints for a huge and highly-anticipated collaboration is found dead (the result of a suicide that is likely not a suicide), and that old friends are full of resentment towards her (while others promise her that those secrets are safe), all adds to seemingly endless amounts of intrigue.

Indeed, it gets to be a bit much at times. Each character is presented in such a way that they inspire more questions than answers—many more questions. None of them seem to be minor—two men conspiring in an elevator, the nanny to Ephra Stein’s children, another woman who shows up at an event and gets Ephra all worked up. Ness aopened the episode asking us “Who do you trust?” and by the end of it, we have no idea! But the performances have been so well delivered, and the mysteries are compelling enough that we definitely want to know. Perhaps more than wanting answers, we want an understanding of all these characters, who clearly have personal issues that are also taking a toll on their work.

“The Empty Chair” (titled, presumably, for the chair in the audience that Samir Meshal never got to sit in when Nessa announced her choice, as he was already dead) also sets up a certain concern for childhood innocence. The opening was a beautiful and carefully crafted scene (something as simple as the preparation of a bread basket is presented with great poetic movements), where we saw a man brutally murdered in front of his small son and daughter. It was Nessa and Ephra twenty-nine years earlier— with Nessa seemingly getting the brunt of the attack. Her brothers face remains clean while her fathers blood splatters against hers. And the episode ends with another attack on the innocent. Nessa’s nephew gets kidnapped (the second kidnapping of the episode, though Nessa and her friend were shown in a flashback sequence on the Gaza Strip). In powerful moments like this The Honourable Woman earns that “spy thriller” label and Gyllenhaal is great. Nessa runs until she vomits, trying to save her brother’s son, but it’s too late.

While we don’t know who—if anyone—is honorable on The Honourable Woman, it’s clear that we can trust the writers and director. Hopefully, we get some answers in the next episode about these characters who we expect will become far more interesting as their veils get lifted.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.