Elisabeth Moss’ ‘The Veil’ Is the Silliest Spy Show in Years


The Veil tells a story that audiences have heard numerous times before—and in infinitely better fashion. A spy saga that requires one absurd leap of faith after another, hinges on inconsistent and unbelievable characterizations, peddles ridiculous plot twists, and loves clichés more than the French adore baguettes, this six-part FX limited series (premiering April 30) from Peaky Blinders mastermind Steven Knight and star Elisabeth Moss is something of a unicorn, in that it boasts not a single original, convincing, or compelling element. To endure it is to risk baldness from all the outraged hair-pulling it inspires.

In a refugee camp on the Turkey/Syria border, Adilah (Yumna Marwan) is fingered by others as a famed female ISIS commander who goes by many nicknames, including the “Djinn of Raqqa.” This attracts the attention of the globe’s intelligence agencies, and results in Imogen (Moss)—an MI6 operative working with France’s DGSE agency and, in particular, her former boyfriend Malik (Dali Benssalah)—being sent to the outpost to learn if Adilah is “the most wanted woman in the world.”

Thanks to an attempt on Adilah’s life and some even more oh-so-convenient developments, Imogen gets Adilah out of the camp alive, and as they take to the road, they bond over their fondness for poetry and Shakespeare. Adilah additionally explains that she’s a single mother who once dreamed of becoming an engineer before circumstance led her into European modeling. While she won’t divulge how she subsequently landed in a refugee camp, she does confess that she covets a reunion with her adolescent daughter Yasmina (Keyla Bara).

This is the groundwork for what comes to be the most preposterous fictional character in recent memory, unless one sincerely believes that Middle Easterners turn to suicide-bombing jihadi terrorism not out of ideology but because they’ve been blackmailed, and all they really want to be, in the end, are good mommies. The Veil indulges in such ludicrousness with a straight face, and then goes several steps further, initially by paralleling Adilah with Imogen, a superspy who has her own daddy issues (as evidenced by flashbacks to both her childhood and her adult romance with a mystery man played by James Purefoy) and seems to deeply understand Adilah’s maternal devotion (“We are the same!”). Imogen flip-flops between kindness and hostility at a moment’s notice, and though that’s meant to indicate that she’s a master at playing chameleonic mind games in order to extricate the information she needs, it mainly makes her seem unhinged.

The Veil wanly keeps Adilah’s true nature and allegiances up in the air for its first few installments. The bigger question, however, isn’t whether she’s a terrorist but why she’s gravitated to political mass murder. Knight eventually provides answers via climactic speeches in which Adilah espouses justifications that would make Osama Bin Laden proud, and stunningly, the show strives to elicit sympathy for her as a victim of multiple nefarious forces intent on keeping her from her baby.

Those include her ISIS pals as well as the West, which is here embodied by a series of caricatures that also negate the proceedings’ seriousness. Chief among them is Max (Josh Charles), a CIA bigwig who arrives in Paris and immediately lives up to Malik and his boss’s opinion of Americans as arrogant, violent blowhards. Max spends the majority of his time badmouthing the French, and amusingly, his critiques are validated by the wholesale incompetence of Malik and his Parisian cohorts, who merely fret, pout, and grapple with the fact that they’re always three steps behind everyone else.

As Imogen and Adilah continue to quote the Bard to each other, The Veil reveals that a plan is in motion to detonate a bomb on a ship headed for the United States’ Eastern Seaboard. Much sniping and SIM card swapping ensues, not to mention action that strains credibility to the breaking point; for all of Moss’s stern gazes and strutting about, there’s no universe in which she knocks out an assassin (fully, so that he’s unconscious) by twice punching him in the face. Every subsequent step along the way is littered with something that elicits an eye-roll, be it Imogen and Adilah taking time out of their mission to play chess in an airport, or the two chatting about their shared interest in “the annihilation of the self,” or Imogen growing so fond of her terror-suspect captive that she begins opening up to her about her own traumatic past and her confused-by-espionage identity (“I’ve played so many people in my life, I don’t know where I belong anymore”).

A photo including Josh Charles in the series The Veil on FX

The Veil is bursting at the seams with groan-worthy dialogue, and it practically explodes from all its inane blather during its final two episodes, when Adilah goes all-in on her victimization routine and the series doubles down on presenting the French, American, and British as this affair’s genuine villains. The material’s myriad stabs at subverting expectations fall cornily flat; 24 long ago made such narrative right-turns and loop-de-loops old hat. Meanwhile, Moss does so much crying and grimacing that Imogen comes across as borderline bipolar, and certainly far less formidable and adept than the quasi-007 she’s supposed to be. It’s a shaky performance, and much of the blame for it goes to Knight, who imagines his heroine in the same type of laughably fanciful manner—tough but broken; smart but careless; cagey but an open-book—as he does Adilah.

Despite its race-against-time tale, The Veil is too busy being silly to be suspenseful, and it wholly crumbles in its conclusion, when its clunky parallels and unpersuasive bathos are compounded by the lamest of revelations about both Adilah and Imogen. It’s frustrating enough that these spooks always take the least effective course of action; to suffer through them articulating their inner thoughts when their entire lives are about secrecy, however, is ultimately a bridge too far. “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here,” intones Imogen at the end, quoting The Tempest. Yet this misfire is truly summed up at outset, when a relief agency worker greets the British spy with, “Welcome to the shitshow.”



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