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Episodic espionage

Oleg Gordievsky (Richard Wayman/Alamy)

Television

Episodic espionage

Docuseries Spy Wars blows the cover on real-life spy stories in quick, bingeable chapters

Dead drops, code names, double agents, daring escapes: the stuff of great spy novels. Somehow, the eight-chapter docuseries Spy Wars (Amazon Prime, TV-PG) manages to pull off all the intrigue and complexities of a riveting espionage tale in each 45-minute episode.

With British actor Damian Lewis narrating, each true story reconstructs the biggest spy schemes of the last 50 years.

Through believable reenactments, Lewis explains complicated, suspenseful plots that often spanned decades. The accounts are fast-paced, shot on location in London, Moscow, and Israel.

Former spies and officials from the CIA, KGB, MI6, and Mossad share insider memories of how spies were recruited, used, and exposed—sometimes rescued, other times executed. We learn reasons they reconnoitered, secrets they stole, and damage they did. An ex-KGB colonel talking about Soviet turncoats as traitors, while the CIA and MI6 laud them as heroes, exemplifies the great divide in worldviews that continues today.

If you lived through the Cold War, watching episodes of the CIA’s infiltration of KGB files, Soviet placement of sleeper cells in American communities, and the hunt for a mole in a U.S. intelligence agency will evoke images of Checkpoint Charlie and dismal East Berlin. If you aren’t familiar with that era, you may suddenly understand the lure of John le Carré stories and why James Bond movies remain popular.

The first episode shows how Oleg Gordievsky—a Russian spy in Copenhagen, then London in the 1980s—“fell in love with freedom.” He found the West completely different from what the Soviets brainwashed him to believe. For ideological reasons, not money, he risked interrogation, torture, and death to steal classified KGB documents, including lists of Soviet agents. He covertly passed them to MI6, and they eventually reached Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan. His story displays spy craft at its best: espionage, a furtive escape from the USSR, avoidance of potential nuclear war, and a subsequent award from the queen. 

Another chapter divulges how the West thwarted a terrorist threat meant to rival 9/11. In 2006, MI5 discovered a radicalized British citizen mastermind and co-conspirators making liquid bombs for bringing down transatlantic flights. Through surveillance and subterfuge, British agents and the CIA capture the entire terrorist cell.

One episode traces how the United States uncovered Robert Hanssen, the mole behind one of America’s worst intelligence breaches. Another recounts threats against double agents by former KGB operative, now Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and tells how in 2018 authorities found a Russian mole poisoned in London by a KGB nerve agent. Britain then retaliated by ousting Russian diplomats.

And the spy wars continue.

Comments

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  • T&
    Posted: Fri, 05/15/2020 08:25 pm

    This is available for purchase, by the episode or season, but not included free with Prime.

  • Ed8r
    Posted: Sun, 05/31/2020 08:17 pm

    I see I am not the first person to come here to make this comment.

    The writer mentions this is available on Amazon Prime but fails to specify that it requires PURCHASE not just a Prime membership.

    That should have been made clear in the review.