Note: there are some mild gestures toward plot points in this commentary, so those who wish to watch the series entirely unspoiled should go do that, and then come back.
Whom do you trust? How do you know you can trust them? How can you do good in a labyrinthine world of pervasive, mutual sin? How can you do good when even your good becomes tangled up with evil?
The BBC/Sundance TV series The Honorable Woman (written, produced, and directed by Hugo Blick) asks and answers all of these questions with careful crafting and pacing, haunting cinematography, and an ultimately redemptive note. Although the series' run is now completed, it is available for purchase on streaming services, including Amazon.
The Honorable Woman centers around two women whose fates are inextricably linked. Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a dual Israeli-British citizen, is the daughter of Israeli arms dealer, Eli Stein. Eli was murdered in front of Nessa and her brother Ephra when they were children. Palestinian Atika Halabi (the fierce Lubna Azabal) meets Nessa years before the main story arc begins and serves as her translator in the West Bank and then in Gaza. They continue their friendship over almost a decade, both in the Middle East and in Britain, where Atika eventually becomes housekeeper to Nessa’s brother’s family.
The series begins as Nessa, now grown and in charge of her father’s company, announces a new initiative to provide Internet access to the West Bank. Speaking to a gathering at the very restaurant where her father was murdered, Nessa explains why her refugee father became a key arms provider for Israel (“no home could survive unless it was surrounded by strong walls”), and then seamlessly pivots to the company’s new direction. Because Israel finally has strong walls, Israel’s greatest danger to the homeland has now become Palestinian poverty (“Terror thrives in poverty. It dies in wealth. And so we decided that instead of mines, we would lay cables”).
A wide-eyed idealist, Nessa has determined to become part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Underneath her idealism, however, is a simmering fear and dread. Since her father’s murder, she has never felt truly safe, not even for a moment. Every night she retires to her sleep chamber, a sterile and empty panic room of sorts with three computerized locks bolting into place behind her.
More than just childhood trauma threatens Nessa’s sense of safety, leaving her suspicious of everyone around her. The story, of course, has a secret nestled into its core, the hub around which all the rest revolves. The murder of Samir Meshal, a communications contractor to the Stein Group, and the abduction of an innocent child lay Nessa’s secret bare, and link her to her translator, Atika.
As the story circles further inward to the core, the truth comes into focus: everyone in this story is hiding something; everyone is both sinning against each other and being sinned against. The toxic mix of retribution and revenge has catapulted the Middle East into chaos for millennia. But more surprising is the way in which several key characters in The Honorable Woman attempt to do good, only to find their good bound up with sin as well, echoing the prophet Isaiah: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”
The series is refreshingly fair about the sin found on both sides of the Middle East conflict. Ephra’s wife, Rachel (Katherine Parkinson), wisely points out that the Steins’ desire to “save the world” is actually vanity, however well-meaning it may be. Atika is trying to do what is right, but as circumstances unfold we find that she too has become entangled with some very evil acts. Nessa’s motives are immaterial; she is part of the problem. She cannot separate herself from her family’s prior acts of sin. Not only that, but her current do-goodism misses the point. “I tried,” she wearily tells a friend. “With what?” the friend replies. “Cables? We need a nation.”
In the final episode, Nessa faces the man who has caused her lifelong pain. He says to her, “If there was a knife on the table between us, what would you do?” He places a paring knife on the table. “The hatred you feel for me right now only matches that which I have felt for your people all my life,” he says. Rather than defend herself, a broken Nessa sobs, nods, laughs nervously. “I deserve it,” she says. “All of it. No matter what I do.” She cradles a piece of a bomb bearing the Stein name in her hands, a piece of weaponry that killed many innocent people including the family of a dear friend. In her admission (“I deserve it. All of it.”), she leans into repentance, a repentance that comes about with no preconditions or excuses.
The final episode unapologetically faces up to the reality of sin on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the sin between its two primary female characters. It is pessimistic about peace being brought about between two peoples, but cautiously hopeful about the peace that can be found between individuals.
To be sure, peacemaking is a high calling; the Beatitudes include a blessing for peacemakers, “for they will be called sons of God.” But it makes sense also to be realistic about how broken our world is, about how sin has found its way into every person, every relationship, and every nation and people. Sin is embedded in history and in the present. And in the Middle East, history stretches back an extraordinarily long way.
And whether or not we’re involved in the Middle East conflict, The Honorable Woman is a sharp reminder that while we ought to do good, these embedded layers of sin in everyone mean that even our attempts can result in unintended consequences. Nessa’s result in more violence, more compromises being made, and more distrust being formed.
With all this in mind, it’s easy to get jaded and discouraged and end up doing nothing at all. But The Honorable Woman calls its viewers to be honorable—which first includes repentance. The problem with the world isn’t just “out there”; each of us are part of the problem with the world. And then it means serving those around us: forgiving them for wrongs against us and giving of ourselves for them. Only when individuals begin to forgive and serve their neighbor—however different he or she may be—can peace of any kind come about. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
The honorable women in this series display a willingness to lay down their lives for each other in sacrifice. And the show—while acknowledging a broken, messy world—illustrates an individual call: we can’t save the world, but we can do good to our neighbor, the one who is before us.
The Honorable Woman is rated TV-MA and includes all of the content you would expect from such a rating, including sexuality, some nudity, language, and violence (including sexual violence).