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Spy/Master Review: A Wildly Uneven But Intriguing Espionage Thriller

  • Excellent depiction of Cold War Eastern Bloc atmosphere
  • Commanding performance from Alec Secareanu
  • Inert and uninspiring middle run that kills momentum
  • Thinly drawn supporting characters

With James Bond reaching the end of an era, we've seen a shift of spy dramas onto the small screen. 2023 has already been inundated with espionage thrillers, from "Citadel" to "White House Plumbers" to "The Night Agent." But there's always room for one more, right? "Spy/Master" is the latest limited series from HBO, an international production that pulls together collaborators from Romania, Germany, and the United States to tell the story of a high-ranking Eastern Bloc official who makes the gargantuan decision to defect from his homeland. Although its leading man (Alec Secareanu, who you might recognize from starring alongside Josh O'Connor in "God's Own Country") is pure class, the series suffers from a lagging second act that steals most of the momentum built up by its two excellent opening episodes.

Victor Godeanu (Secareanu) is the right-hand man of Nicolae Ceaușescu (Claudiu Bleonț), the dictator of Romania who lives life in a perpetually paranoid state and is always convinced — as so many dictators are — that he is surrounded by enemies. Godeanu begins to chafe under the increasingly volatile orders from his boss, as he demands greater and greater loyalty from his subordinates. But what's more, Godeanu, who has been secretly running black market operations while also working as a KGB operative, is feeling the rope start to creep around his neck. 

So when he is sent to Bonn, Germany, to help negotiate a repatriation program for Romanian-Germans, he seizes the opportunity to make contact with officials at the American embassy, offering up something priceless to the U.S. in the midst of the Cold War: The highest-ranking defection from a Soviet-controlled country in history. But the business of defecting is not easy — if it were, everyone would do it. Godeanu's efforts to flee his homeland are fraught with peril. He is hunted by Romanian operatives and left uncertain of his future by noncommittal American politicians, who are so invested in making sure the Camp David Peace Talks don't collapse that they're not eager to take on any additional diplomatic headaches.

Alec Secareanu's star turn

Alec Secareanu has immense confidence in the leading role of Godeanu, creating an antihero who is immediately compelling and yet often impenetrable. We get glimpses of his background as a former revolutionary from a poor upbringing who, more than anything, has been trained to survive. If Don Draper from "Mad Men" was a Romanian double agent, this would be him. Through Godeanu, "Spy/Master" offers up the perfect introduction to a Romania controlled by fear and lies, capturing the spirit of Eastern Europe during the Cold War.

The show begins on a strong note. The first two episodes are filled with intrigue and tension as Godeanu makes contact with American operatives and announces his intentions to defect. We are treated to messages hidden on business cards and wine labels, secret rooms behind seemingly ordinary clothing stores, and shady liaisons between Godeanu and Ingrid (Svenja Jung), a Stasi agent. There's even a little moment where Godeanu puts a hair over the handle of his briefcase before leaving the hotel room to see if anyone is going through his papers. We're talking about the great hits of the espionage genre. And if more of the show was comprised of this, it would be perfect.

A weak second act

But "Spy/Master" makes a fatal mistake by putting Godeanu in the hands of the Americans too early. As a result, any dramatic tension built up in the first two episodes quickly fizzles out, and it doesn't recover until almost the very end. Alec Secareanu is a magnetic leading man fully capable of carrying "Spy/Master" singlehandedly, but the show strips his character of his agency, turning Godeanu from a double agent orchestrating his own escape into a person who things happen to.

There's so much repetition in the middle section of this series, where Godeanu is stuck in a holding pattern, unable to act. At the same time, his American contact Frank Jackson (Parker Sawyers) continually lies to him about what the United States is willing to do for him. Godeanu makes his demands, Frank stalls for time; wash, rinse, repeat. It's frustrating that the show spends so much time on this, when it leaves so many of its supporting characters paper-thin, failing to establish them beyond broad archetypes. We could say that the show would have benefited from having more time to establish relationships between Godeanu and the other key figures in the narrative, but the truth is that "Spy/Master" has plenty of time — it just doesn't use it properly. Because of this, it's difficult to care about what happens to any of them, outside of Godeanu.

"Spy/Master" has a lot going for it. The show has two, maybe three, near-perfect episodes that serve as examples of the spy genre at its best. It's interesting, tense, and dripping with Cold War atmosphere. It's just a shame that the middle part of the series lets it down so badly, failing to capitalize on its strong beginning. Still, Secareanu continues to impress, lending a quiet charisma to his enigmatic character and proving that he deserves much more attention than he has received thus far.

"Spy/Master" will premiere on HBO Max on May 19.