SVR, the themes remain the same. And it can make for some very good drama.
The premiere began with a group of Russian secret agents immolating a traitor, Mikhail, in their ranks who has stolen files from the US branch of the SVR. This batch of Russian spies are sophisticated: you won’t see them trying to recruit college girls and partying with Uncle Vlad’s money. No, this group has a family under audio surveillance before they reactive them for intelligence work. We’re talking spies on the level of Ernst Blofeld, not Ernie Buttinsky. Anyway, one of their covert operatives in the US is so horrified by a college becoming a human torch she makes contact with a CIA station chief to defect.
Not only does she make contact with the top man, she also does it in a grocery store while they both pretend to look for a good buy. You have to love these Double Indemnity noir moments.
Because the CIA has no way to tell if she’s the real deal or a Russian plant, they decided to call in one of their rising stars in the analyst field. The particular star happens to be one Alex O’Connor (Gavin Stackhouse), who, gifted in languages, can see the big picture with small details. The audience quickly learns a few things about the CIA when young Alex is asked to check his gun upon entering FBI headquarters: CIA operatives aren’t allowed by law to pack heat inside the boundaries of the USA. His boss also reminds him not to use his real name in the interview.
At the same time we’re learning some fun things about Alex’s family. Even with a good Irish last name, we discover the mother, Mrs. Katya O’Connor, is originally from Russia. The other children in the family casually speak to the mother in Russian. There are two other children: Natalie, Alex’s older sister and Sarah, still in high school. Dad is an executive for a defense contractor.
And all of them belong to a family of Russian spies. Moma was ordered to seduce Mr. O’Connor when he was travelling to Russian by her secret service dad, but ended up falling in love with the executive. To get the Russian spooks off their backs, they both had to cut a deal with the SVR and do some clandestine work for them. They’ve had little contact with their handlers from Moscow. Alex and his younger sister have no clue what happened before they were born. But everything changes when an old contact, Viktor, shows up on the front doorstep of their swank Brooklyn townhouse.
The SVR, those dirty nogoodniks, have conceived a plan to take America down a few notches. They know young Alex is working for the CIA. He’s probably working to undermine them now (which he is). So they have a task for the new VENONA target: recruit their son to the glorious cause of world domination or suffer the consequences. In other words, they’ve been made an offer they can’t refuse. And no, we don’t find out what their eviiiil plan is. Just yet.
You see, young Alex is a rare genius. We learn from Viktor later on in the show that the boy didn’t speak a world until he was nearly five. He didn’t read at all for years, but one day his mom came home and found him studying a book by a Russian novelist. Alex is able to use his knowledge of Russian language and culture to conclude Mikhail the traitor was warning his SVR employers he’d stolen a lot more than they realized. Alex is a data base of obscure knowledge, all of which comes in handy during the investigation. But he doesn’t know his parents have been playing for the other team. Funny that.
So Mr. and Ms. O’Connor convinces their Russian spymasters to let them extract what knowledge Alex might have of the investigation. This way, his integrity and future working for the CIA is secure, but the SVR finds out what it wants to know. There’s a bizarre scene where mom and dad casually ask sonny boy on a home visit about the work he’s doing for Wild Bill Donovan’s descendants. All the time they are trying to record everything he says and bug his car. If you have ever wondered if your parents act a little strange when you come home from college, this scene will make you very paranoid.
Naturally the SVR goes a little too far and offs the rogue agent who is on the verge of spilling to the Americans what she knows about their fiendish plan. It’s all meant to look like an ordinary hit-and-run accident, but now the CIA have the proof they need the “dangle” was really going to defect. Too bad they can’t make use of her.
Suddenly Alex the computer puts it all together. He remembers seeing a picture at home of an Uncle Mikhail and himself. Could it be? His parents? Can he trust no one? The premiere episode ends with him confronting his parents in a classic “Are you now or have you ever been?” moment.
The premiere episode may not have been a ratings killer, but it does make me want to tune in next week. At least the narritive doesn’t reset each week, we have an actual story arc here. And the battle lines are clearly drawn: we have Putin’s boogeymen against all that is good and pure. I’m curious how mom and dad spy are going to talk their way out of a bad situation.