In 'The Honorable Woman,' There's No One You Can Trust Maggie Gyllenhaal says she had reservations about taking on the role of Nessa Stein in the Sundance series. The conflict in the Middle East is "really complicated and it goes back so far," she says.
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In 'The Honorable Woman,' There's No One You Can Trust

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In 'The Honorable Woman,' There's No One You Can Trust

In 'The Honorable Woman,' There's No One You Can Trust

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Now for our annual year-end series, The Ones That Got Away. This is where we look at some of the best entertainment that we overlooked this year. The British political psychological thriller "The Honourable Woman," was one of the most critically acclaimed TV shows of 2014. The eight episode series aired on the Sundance channel. This month, Netflix began streaming the series. NPR's Elizabeth Blair tells us more.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The chilling first seen gets you right off the bat. A businessman is having lunch in a restaurant with his two children. The table is laid with China. The waiter places a roll on each of their plates with silver tongs; first the little boy's, then the little girl's. When he gets to the man, he raises the tongs and stabs him in the throat.


BLAIR: Blood splatters on the tablecloth. Drops hit the little girls face.


MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: (As Nessa Stein) Who do you trust?

BLAIR: Twenty-nine years later, the little girl is the stylish, powerful Nessa Stein.


GYLLENHAAL: (As Nessa Stein) How do you know?

BLAIR: Nessa and her brother have inherited their father's company. He was an Israeli arms dealer, and we never really find out who killed him.


GYLLENHAAL: (As Nessa Stein) It's a wonder we trust anyone at all.

BLAIR: The international whodunit is set in motion. The riddles are everywhere. There's a mysterious Palestinian nanny, an Israeli family friend who might be dealing with terrorists, a world-weary British spy straight out of John le Carre.


STEPHEN REA: (As Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle) Ms. Lantham, why are you lying to me?

JULIA MONTGOMERY BROWN: (As Rebecca Lantham) Oh, honey, trust me. I can get any man to do that.

BLAIR: He's not buying it.


REA: (As Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle) The truth is, I don't believe you've even met Samir Meshal, and I don't believe your name is Rebecca Lantham.

BLAIR: It's not. She's actually an undercover FBI agent. In "The Honourable Woman," British and American intelligence play a deliciously tense game with each other. Everybody's got an agenda. In the middle of it all is Nessa Stein, who is now head of the family business, which is no longer weapons, but communications technology between Israel and the West Bank. She and her brother hope their investment will help bring peace to the region


GYLLENHAAL: (As Nessa Stein) In our view, amongst the greatest threats to Israel is Palestinian poverty. Terror thrives in poverty, it dies in wealth.

BLAIR: Conflicts in the Middle East are so complex and sensitive, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal says before taking the part of Nessa Stein, she had some reservations.

GYLLENHAAL: So many people don't know very much about this area of the world. And it's really complicated. And it goes back so far.

BLAIR: "The Honourable Woman's" writer and director, Hugo Blick, has been curious about the long history of the Middle East ever since 1982, when the Israeli ambassador to Britain was gunned down in front of a London hotel. Blick was a teenager at the time.

HUGO BLICK: Suddenly I felt that the world that seemed so distant was there on our sidewalks, on our streets. His blood spilled there by, you know, those assailants from a very distant place, and here it was, affecting us.

BLAIR: Since then, Hugo Blick has traveled to Israel many times. He says he's always struck by Jerusalem, a dense city segmented by religions.

BLICK: It's like the kernel of our international identities being struggled over in this very, very small and compressed space.

BLAIR: Blick thought, what if he created a single character who embodied those struggles? The result was Nessa Stein.

BLICK: A woman who was at odds with herself, engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian irreconciliation - their irreconcilable differences - attempts to make some progress towards reconciliation, and yet, in herself, unreconciled to her own past and to her own personality.

BLAIR: And that's what hooked to Maggie Gyllenhaal.

GYLLENHAAL: She's very intelligent. She's graceful. She doesn't apologize for that grace and power and intelligence. But, then, underneath that, is, you know, all the opposites of those things.

BLAIR: She can be dangerously naive. She's a binge drinker who's free with her body, and an emotional wreck who shares a secret with the Palestinian nanny.


GYLLENHAAL: (As Nessa Stein) I can't.

LUBNA AZABAL: (As Atika Halabi) Yes you can. We're strong, you and I.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Nessa Stein) What if they find out?

AZABAL: (As Atika Halabi) They won't.

GYLLENHAAL: (As Nessa Stein) They might.

AZABAL: (As Atika Halabi) They will never find out. I promise.

BLAIR: As the TV series progresses, we learn a lot more about the relationship between Nessa Stein and the Palestinian nanny, Atika. It would be giving away too much to say what. But Maggie Gyllenhaal says Atika could also be the honorable woman in the title.

GYLLENHAAL: Atika, also, is a personal, emotional, kind of reflection of geopolitics.

BLAIR: Nessa learns a lot from Atika. We do too. Hugo Blick wants "The Honourable Woman" to give this seemingly intractable conflict a human dimension. As a critic for the London Evening Standard put it, once an episode is finished, its themes linger on, even the news starts to look different. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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