The Recruit, season one (Netflix 2022)

I finished the first season of The Recruit a couple weeks back. Once I started, it was hard for me to look away. I’m a sucker for spy stories. I enjoyed the characters. And the “CIA lawyer” angle is fun.

The show also had a really tight hold on what I’ll call ”the train-wreck factor.” That kept me staring, with the same sort of guilty, morbid curiosity that goes into rubbernecking. Watching someone get in over their head and then desperately claw their way towards whatever safety they can find (while being incapable of acting on the recognition that they might be in too deep) is fascinating.

Yet as I wrote while I was watching it, the protagonist of the show feels like the wrong person. Spy stories ought to feature more leads who aren’t super-agents, and who aren’t young white men. The SOE understood this during WW2, and a different show will give you a taste of that. The Recruit gets partway there: the lead isn’t a super-agent, and the show has many characters who aren’t young white men… but the young white man is still the focus of the show.

Nothing against Noah Centineo, who plays the lead, but if his character Owen and Fivel Stewart’s Hannah had simply swapped roles I think the show would have been more interesting. Yes, there would no doubt have been more other characters and plot points to rewrite after that, but I think the basic bones of the show were solid. I just would have been more interested if the main character weren’t a young straight white man.

I think the writers knew this. They were self-aware enough, had perhaps heard enough critiques before, to call out the social positions some of the characters occupy and how that shapes their worldview or constrains their actions—especially in comparison with the possibilities open to other characters. Because of that, the show felt at times like it was implying that Owen was able to get away with some particularly stupid shit specifically because of his social position.

But while that seems both honest and accurate, the recognition also feels almost like lampshading. Like, the writers decided to justify their choice of protagonist instead of trying a more interesting and possibly more difficult approach. And that only makes their focus on a very Hollywood-normal protagonist more perplexing to me.

Did the writers look at the option of having the lead be someone else, and then back off? Were they planning for the next season?

I have no idea what pushed the writers to make the choice they did. Perhaps they had well thought-out reasons. Maybe they chose to focus on a young straight white man because nearly anyone else would have been less clueless, or would have suffered greater consequences for their mistakes, or because the writers couldn’t imagine anyone else. Maybe they really wanted to play with specific character dynamics or story beats and didn’t believe they could explore those with anyone other than a straight white man. Or maybe they thought there was no way to have their script and their show greenlit if they chose a different protagonist.

Any of those could be true.

Or, maybe, they fell back on writing a young straight white male lead because they were comfortable with that. The show’s creator, Alexi Hawley, certainly has practice with writing for the straight white male lead, having written for Castle and The Rookie. I suspect he also has a decent idea of what he can get approved and what he can’t, so… yeah. Could be either.

Anyway.

Despite what feels like a missed opportunity, I’m still likely to watch the next season when it comes out.

I found the first season to be compulsive fun, despite not being quite what I wanted. I liked that it’s a spy story where the main character isn’t a highly trained badass. I enjoyed the characters involved. And I’m curious about where they’ll take those characters going forward. I can imagine several courses forward that would be a lot of fun, and would resolve many of my complaints. But that’s all speculation.

So, should you watch it?

If you don’t want to watch another show about a young straight white male protagonist who gets in way over his head and desperately flounders along, you should stay away. If you try the first episode and bounce off, or just feel the rising urge to scream because of the lead character… that isn’t likely to change much.

On the other hand, if you yearn for more spy fiction that doesn’t focus on the Bonds or the Bournes, this show and its frequently-punched main character will give you a little bit of what you want. If you don’t mind the lead character being yet another young white guy, and want internecine intra-department conflict and twisty loyalties, this will give you that too.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be contemplating the love/hate relationship between fanfic and the original text.

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