New Drama “The Honorable Woman” Portrays a Powerful Woman on the Edge of a Breakdown

maggie gyllenhall, in the desert, wearing a headscarf, in The Honorable Woman

Like Homeland, it’s closest cousin in the world of prestige dramas, new drama The Honorable Woman places a powerful-but-unstable woman in the midst of one of the great geopolitical crises of our time. While Homeland’s Carrie Mathison tries to preempt terrorist plots in the aftermath of 9/11, the woman at the center of this latest drama, Nessa Stein (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), has the power to mitigate the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. For all their critical thinking skills, both protagonists are volatile and psychologically distressed, leaving viewers worried they might fall apart at any moment. With so few representations of powerful women on television, it is a curious coincidence that those that do make an appearance are so often on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

The Honorable Woman debuts in the United States this Thursday on Sundance TV (the show is co-produced by the BBC) and could not come at a more timely moment, as headlines this week are full of news about Israel shelling a UN shelter in Gaza. I previewed the first four episodes of this eight-part thriller, which tells the story of a wealthy Jewish family living in the United Kingdom whose history is intertwined with the crisis in the Middle East. At the center of the narrative is Nessa Stein who, together with her brother Ephrah (Andrew Buchan), must decide how to spend the fortune left to them by their father, a man who produced weapons for Israel in its earliest wars against Palestine. 

The show is crammed with impenetrable plots involving international espionage and political intrigue. The story would be utterly bewildering if it weren’t for the compelling relationships between members of the Stein family, which serve as a thread running through the narrative. The Honorable Woman starts off violent: the very first scene of the show is a flashback to when Nessa and Ephra were small children, sitting in silence as a terrorist violently murdered their father in a well-appointed London restaurant. Years later, the siblings have chosen to use their inheritance to bring prosperity to Palestine by setting up schools and laying data cables, in an effort assuage their guilt over their family’s personal involvement in that country’s tragedies. The series tracks how quickly Nessa’s naive optimism in her ability to foster peace in the Middle East explodes as she confronts the realities of corruption and violence on the ground.

When we meet Nessa as an adult, she is already broken, spending her nights sleeping alone in a panic room and given to spontaneously bursting into tears. Yet, on the exterior, she is poised in her roles as the public face of her family’s business and as a newly appointed member of the House of Lords. Part of the show’s tension involves watching the two parts of Nessa’s character—her competence and her fragility—play out. This dynamic is reminiscent of Carrie in Homeland, who walks a similar tightrope between brilliance and collapse. The weakness in these characters is particularly apparent because so many of their male counterparts seem to be able to keep it together in the face of equally demanding situations.

nessa stein wearing a cloak of the house of lords

In The Honorable Woman, Ephrah experiences many of the same anxieties as his sister, but unlike her, he is able to maintain the trappings of a family life, with a wife and children. Much like Carrie, Nessa is alone in a sanitized world except for intense, stolen moments with men that she’ll never seek out for long-term relationships. Indeed, all the powerful women in Nessa’s world appear to be alone, which is perhaps a reference to how much harder it is for a woman to pursue a demanding career than it is for a man. A less charitable explanation would be that TV writers do not believe that a married woman will be taken seriously as a player in high-stakes geopolitics.

As the show’s name indicates, Nessa has unfailingly good intentions, which is another thing she has in common with Carrie. While both characters sometimes makes bad choices, their motivations are always good, making them somewhat less interesting than the male anti-heroes that fill prestige television shows. Unlike Tony Soprano or Don Draper, Nessa Stein is largely monochromatic, which seems like a wasted opportunity since Maggie Gyllenhaal is masterful at portraying nuance and complexity. She’s a warm-hearted crusader, not someone with darkness to bury. Given Nessa’s predictability, the show’s drama comes less from anticipating what she will do next and more from watching what others do to her. For all her wealth, titles and ambitions, she is someone to whom things happen, rather than someone who shapes the world around her.  

The real-life horrific events that are currently unfolding in Gaza this week provide the backdrop to the U.S. premier of The Honorable Woman. The show provides context and sheds light on how deeply connected those of us in other nations are to what is happening in the Middle East. It also throws into relief how women are particularly affected by war: a hard to forget scene in the fourth episode shows exactly how rape is used as a weapon of warfare and illustrates how women’s bodies are often tied to contested territories. Ultimately, the show leaves viewers with the sense that for all the attempts to bring women into the halls of power, men still rule the world.

Related Reading: The Likability Trap — Why We Root for the Antihero but not the Antiheroine

Elizabeth Segran, is a writer who lives in Cambridge, MA. She contributes to The Atlantic, Fast Company, Salon and Foreign Policy, among other publications. 

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