I had my doubts about "The Night Manager" from the beginning. I'm not a fan of director Susanne Bier, whose leaden, nuance-free direction I sat through for "After the Wedding" and "In a Better World." I was doubly suspicious of her taking on a sensibility as grey as John le Carre's, and the early episodes, with the endless throat-clearing, overly sincere humorlessness and thudding modern updates didn't exactly make me dismiss my reservations. Still, I never thought Bier and screenwriter David Farr would betray the spirit of the source material's worldview as fully as they do in the finale, which takes the novel's ambiguous ending and turns it into empty wish-fulfillment for the show's heroes.
That's not to say that the finale is totally without its pleasures: as things get down to the wire for Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), Angela Burr (Olivia Colman) and Jed Marshall (Elizabeth Debicki) to stop Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), there are a handful of reasonably suspenseful, satisfying scenes. I enjoyed Jed's attempts to get involved and find the code to Roper's safe while pretending all is well, whether she's flirting with her now-hated boyfriend (in a Scarlet O'Hara voice: "Why Richard Roper, I do declare!") or pretending to laugh at Pine's jokes while leaning on him for support, holding his hand under the bar. I enjoyed Pine finally getting back at Freddie Hamid (David Avery), the former boyfriend to Pine's lover Sophie and accomplice to her murder (the way Hiddleston gradually lets his anger shine through as he plies the coke-added Freddie is some of his best acting on the show).
Laurie gets plenty of first-rate moments of menace after he realizes Jed and Pine are in cahoots, giving a devilish smile when he catches her at his safe and a rueful tone when he realizes Corky died because he didn't trust him. And though the big, explosive climax is more Ian Fleming than le Carre, it's still satisfying in a primal sense to see the guarded Roper finally lose his cool, screaming at his Egyptian accomplices after they demand their money back. His shift from half-amused, half-furious contempt for Pine ("oh, you beauty") to livid, arm-swinging self-righteousness ("You'll get your money when I'm good and ready!") is well-played.
But yeesh, that ending. I got a feeling early on that the show would deviate from le Carre's complicated finale, which sees Pine and Jed escaping with their lives but Burr and the Americans disgraced while Roper and his associates get away with their weapons and a profit. This week's episode twists itself a good deal to see that Burr is vindicated: after stonewalling the corrupt members of the British Intelligence community in the opening, she and Pine are able to find proof that they're connected to Roper's operations, forcing them to clam up and refuse to come to the arms dealer's assistance if they don't want to go to prison. In the show's final minutes, it's skewing optimistic, with Burr delivering a monologue about how long she's waited to bring Roper to justice. Still, Laurie is able to undermine a lot of it, both with his dry sarcasm ("Been practicing that in front of a mirror, have we?") and his matter-of-fact assertion that even without his friends in the British government he'll get off with a slap on the wrist. Giving Burr a final kissoff, he comments on her pregnancy: "Wonderful thing to bring a child into this world." It might be a bit sunnier than the novel, but there's a fair bit of "so what, we're still doomed" that marks le Carre's work.
And then...ugh. Instead of being taken by Egyptian authorities, the police vehicles are taken by his business partners, none too pleased that they're out $300 million and the weapons they expected. As he screams in terrified fury, Burr stops her American compatriot from catching them. "He deserves it." In the final minutes, Jed is promised a happy reunion with her son, Jonathan plans to join her, and as he stands alone in the hotel he started the season with, he's asked by a current employee if there's anything he needs. "No thank you, nothing at all."
My frustration goes beyond the deviations from the source material. It's a deviation from reality, which might not bother me so much if this were a James Bond film or knockoff. But Bier and Farr have pretensions to real-world relevance with "The Night Manager," having updated it from post-Cold War to post-Arab Spring, villains from cartels to extremists (none of whom are given real personalities). The show never said anything incisive about modern arms dealing or terrorism, using it as window-dressing for banal international intrigue and a flavorless travelogue. It's galling to see a show so gussied up yet so generic, both in its superficial treatment of its subject and in its tastefully dull direction. It asks nothing at all of its viewer and gives nothing in return.
-Bier's establishment of spatial relationships in the most traditional spy scene (Burr hiding in Roper's hotel room from one of his goons) is so poor that I didn't get a sense of where they were in relation to each other until the very last beat.
-The miniseries is being pitched as Hiddleston's audition for James Bond. I think he'd be a poor fit: Bond's suaveness is effortless, collected, cool. Hiddleston, by contrast, always has to put on the charm, which makes him look like he's hiding something as he tries too hard to please. This quality adds to his best roles ("Crimson Peak," "The Deep Blue Sea," "High-Rise"), but it never felt right in this show (he's so obviously suspicious from the beginning that Roper would likely have killed him early on), and it'd be disastrous for 007. Besides, he's got an interesting enough career without it.
-Did anyone else miss Corky (Tom Hollander) this episode? I sure did.