May 25, 2018
Allegiance: The Unexpected Pleasures of a Failed Series
It may surprise some to know I don’t own a television machine. Shockingly, given my status as a semi-professional television recapper. I mostly watch online—legally streaming—or if on deadline, from my “standing desk”—the elliptical machine at my apartment complex’s fitness room, where no one else watches the shared televisions unless it’s Super Bowl time.
So Friday evening, having finished the excellent Grace & Frankie on Netflix, I checked out the options on Hulu and came across Allegiance—a show I had referred to on these virtual pages as a Frankenstein’s monster, an obvious rip-off of The Americans, with a damaged-genius detective like Homeland/Sherlock/House, etc., plus whacky Get Smart-style top secret spy meetings in the depths of Grand Central Station, and a ticking time bomb plot like 24. What a mess! No wonder it only lasted five episodes before being replaced by the meh-blandness of The Slap.
But why were there 13 episodes—an entire season—on Hulu? I’d missed the memo that the series continued online before being killed dead permanently. For the hell of it, I picked up where I’d left off, episode five, the last one aired on broadcast television. Then came six. By episode seven I knew I wouldn’t get to sleep and plowed through to the satisfying conclusion over Saturday breakfast.
It wasn’t just not bad. It was pretty damn good. It turned out the superficial similarities to The Americans were just that—superficial. It’s no more a rip-off or a riff on The Americans than Scandal is a clone of The West Wing.
First off, it takes place in the present day, which seems counterintuitive. Back in the 1980s, when The Americans is set, the Soviet Union was, per our acting-President Ronald Rayguns, “the Evil Empire.” The clock was always stuck at one minute to nuclear apocalypse. Today, even with Putin pounding his waxy chest in the Ukraine, the Russkies are much less scary unless you happen to be on a commercial airliner passing over disputed territory. So the idea on Allegiance that the no-longer-Reds are planning some big bloody mysterious operation on American soil—codenamed Black Dagger—seems way too silly.
That was my initial view. Except once the nature of Black Dagger becomes apparent, it turns out to be an acceptably plausible MacGuffin in an action-packed thriller and a twist we haven’t seen a gazillion times before. I won’t spoil things with more details. The show capitalizes on the idea that post-soviet Russia is a mess—a gangster-state controlled by oligarchs—not exactly far from the truth, and that the SVR (the new KGB) is no longer guided by either ideology or patriotism, but operates very much like an organized crime gang under the control and subject to the whims of evil billionaires.
Not all the operatives are happy with their new role in the new world order. While that may or may not reflect the reality of modern Russian spies, as a premise it makes for a surprising amount of nuance and shades of gray in what could be stock characters. The show creates a world where the CIA assists the FBI in tracking down these gangster-operatives on the mean streets of New York (mostly Brooklyn). Because the CIA isn’t supposed to be operating on American soil, they do their work very covertly. Hence the goofy meetings many levels (literally) underground. Why New York and not DC? Who cares when they use iconic city locations and offer side trips to Roma as well?
Allegiance is certainly more real-world based than a James Bond film or other major film franchises. On television, it’s less ridiculous than the Marvel Comics universe, or for that matter the world created in Scandal where the evil, powerful, top secret B613 (It’s not a vitamin!) isn’t even known to the CIA. As the series develops, the depth and level of characterization makes suspending disbelief easy. My only complaint is the slow start to the series and that they probably could have done it in nine episodes rather than thirteen.
The spy couple, who are not always at the center of things, are the 50-something O’Connors, who seem much closer to the type of people actually caught as Russian agents in 2012 than the Jennings family of The Americans do. She is a Russian emigre. The backstory is that as the daughter of a KGB chief, she was forced into the family trade and was supposed to recruit Mark O’Connor—an energy expert and US citizen working in the old-time Soviet Union. They fell in love, and she failed. They made a deal involving their doing something for her evil masters—what exactly is kept a bit vague—and she was allowed to emigrate. They were both forced to work part time for the KGB. But they hated it and wouldn’t have done it if they weren’t blackmailed and threatened. At some point, they were able to get out, or maybe they fulfilled their contractual obligations, but once their son Alex joined the CIA, the KGB tried to blackmail them into recruiting him. To complicate matters further, their oldest child, Natalia, was also involved in the spy game. She seemed to enjoy it, never stopped, and became involved with Victor, their handler. While what they were doing was technically treason, it didn’t seem to involve stuffing bodies into suitcases or forcing old ladies to take lethal overdoses of their medication. In fact, even though Katya, as a protective mother, often talks about killing people, she admits to never having actually done that in the past. She’s a doctor, damn it, not a someone who crushes men under cars!
The family, knowing about Black Dagger, has to act to stop it. They can’t go to the CIA/FBI because they’ve found out there’s a mole within one of those agencies, and besides, without solid evidence they’re going to be arrested for their previous activities and nobody will listen to them. Their aim is to find solid intelligence, both to stop the attack from happening and to bargain for immunity from past actions, but every time they get close, something goes wrong though they gain another piece of the puzzle.
Meantime, there are rifts inside the KGB, and Victor, who is a bad ass, may not be a bad guy. The suspense builds. First, they hope to keep their CIA analyst son from ever learning the truth. When he finds out what his parents and sister have been up to, there’s the fear that he may turn them in. He doesn’t, but it takes a while for him to trust them. What’s fresh and original is the idea of a family—two parents and two adult children—working together, and also trying as hard as they can to protect each other and the youngest daughter, as well as to stop the imminent disaster from happening.
The danger comes from the KGB agents who might kill all of them, the mole within American intelligence, the race against the clock, and the big bad once he enters the picture. Enough characters get killed along the way for the viewer to be unsure if all the family members are going to come out of this alive.
Things start to pick up at right about the point when the series left broadcast, which would be episode six. Then, in episode seven, we reach a whole new level when the mastermind hired to pull off Black Dagger is introduced. That character, Oscar Christoph, played by none other than Giancarlo Esposito, is the second great television villain Esposito has created. More emotional than Gus Fring, this Columbian super-bad guy/international-man-of-mystery would be a worthy opponent in any billion dollar movie franchise.
Character development and acting is another of the pleasures of the series. The super-smart but weird Alex is not a Sherlock-like smart ass. He comes off more as a naif who doesn’t get the joke rather than an arrogant why-is-everyone-else-too-stupid-to-see-what-I-do prick. His vulnerability is endearing. After it’s discovered he’s been sleeping with his hot female colleague, the FBI investigator quips, “The guy who couldn’t even check a box for sexual orientation?” The fact that he is so special isn’t a quirk; it’s integral. It explains his mother’s fierce protectiveness and creates more tension: Will he break under the pressure of having to mislead his superiors to protect his family? The show’s title is not careless. There are many characters whose “allegiance” we can’t be sure of. It takes a while for the mole to be revealed. Could it be Sam Lutrell—Alex’s patient and super-competent boss and mentor? Or maybe it’s FBI Agent Michelle Prado, Alex’s (probably first) love interest?
Alex’s differently-abledness deepens Hope Davis’ portrayal of his mother, Katya. She’s not your average helicopter tiger mom. She’s more. She’s had to protect and mold her exceptional boy from infancy. Other standouts in the cast include Morgan Spector as Victor—and surprise, the actor is American. He only plays Russian on TV.
As a whole, Allegiance “reads” more as a mini-series that reaches a satisfying conclusion than a continuing series that’s following a seasonal arc. You can enjoy it without fear of feeling cheated that there’ll be no second season.