The golden age of spy series is over: 24 is a distant memory, The Americans ended this year, The Bureau is too confidential, Homeland is nearing an end… Luckily, we can count on the small American cable networks to surprise us with a few summer treats. Audience Network began to do so in 2017 with the (excellent) thriller Mr. Mercedes, and is now back, tackling the spy genre with Condor.
The show is an adaptation of the novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady, which was already made into a movie in 1975 with Robert Redford in the starring role. For the series, the creators and showrunners Todd Katzberg and Jason Smilovic (My Own Worst Enemy) decided to adopt a more contemporary setting for the plot, which takes place in Washington. Here, we re-encounter Joe Turner, a young, idealistic analyst at the CIA, who finds himself caught up in a huge conspiracy after creating software able to recognize terrorist profiles and discovering financial irregularities within the intelligence agency.
My name is Turner, Joe Turner
There's no point beating around the bush: Condor is a classic political thriller in form, but with a hugely powerful plot. The series is reminiscent of the grandiose early seasons of Homeland, where well-placed cliffhangers kept us watching until all hours of day and night. Todd Katzberg and Jason Smilovic have succeeded perfectly in transforming this 1970s imbroglio, in which Richard Nixon and Richard Helms, President of the United States and director of the CIA respectively, are engaged in a battle of egos endangering the nation, into something realistic and contemporary.
This conflict was marked by historic scandals: the MKULTRA project (mind control, truth serum, human experimentation) which inspired Stranger Things and, of course, the notorious Watergate scandal. The Condor series doesn't aim to reconstruct the original story but instead to modernize it, transposing it into a context of anxiety linked to fear of terrorism and the unpredictability of these criminals.
The terrorists in the series go as far as to infiltrate Joe Turner's ultra-secret group, which narrowly survives the slaughter of his department. A breathtaking game of cat and mouse ensues between him, the government and the group of terrorists in the ranks of the CIA. Condor stars Max Irons (The White Queen), son of Jeremy Irons, an impeccable actor with a palette ranging from the coarse, cold genius inspired by the hero of Mr. Robot to the touching fragility of Carrie Mathison.
While the young actor doesn't have Daniel Craig's imposing physique, his explosive acting, the infernal chase which ensues and the stakes affecting the entire world (a chemical weapon capable of spreading as fast as the plague) are a clear reference to James Bond. Max Irons is surrounded by highly convincing secondary roles, from the imperial William Hurt (A History of Violence) to the stunning Katherine Cunningham (Chicago Fire), to the quirky Brendan Fraser (The Mummy trilogy), on top form since his comeback in the biopic Trust.
But unlike The Americans and Homeland, Condor too often makes the mistake of over-relying on pathos and focusing too little on political criticism. The episodes are often elongated by an excess of very wordy dialogue which slows the speed of the thriller. While the budding love story between Joe and Kathy is credible and intriguing due to the Stockholm Syndrome which emerges between them, we could have done without an entire episode in the young woman's home, which ends with her high-speed getaway when the special forces arrive after an unrealistically long period of time.
The series as a whole lacks coherence at times, but the range of characters is truly fascinating: analysts, bureaucrats, soldiers, double agents, all trapped in an international conspiracy with which they are ill-equipped to cope. With a modest budget and solid cast, Condor succeeds in bringing to light the ageing, predictable security machinery of a paranoid America, reviving the memory of the Cold War among its population. Symbolized by the trap which closes in on Joe Turner despite his best efforts to escape, these memories are nothing more than the result of a protectionist policy which has succeeded in isolating its citizens and limiting their vision of the world. A disturbing story which we're excited to follow.
The first season of Condor was released in the US on June 6.