Netflix Taps into Old-Fashioned Spy Drama with Confidence in Fun The Night Agent


Netflix’s newest spy thriller “The Night Agent” reminded me of ‘90s and ‘00s projects like “In the Line of Fire” and the Bourne movies. That’s a compliment. While the world of high-concept television has largely moved on to twisty plots and cultural commentaries, there’s something enjoyable about just watching a well-made, old-fashioned thriller play out over ten episodes. Nothing about “The Night Agent” breaks any molds, but that shouldn’t be the standard for every streaming series. Based on the novel of the same name by Matthew Quirk and created by the legendary Shawn Ryan (“The Shield”), this is a confident show, one that doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence with a pile-up of contrivances as much as set a plot in motion and follow it through to its bloody end.

“The Night Agent” opens with a bombing. FBI Agent Peter Sutherland (an effectively square-jawed Gabriel Basso) is on a train when he sees someone leave a bag behind as they deboard. He checks the bag, finds a bomb, and pulls the emergency brake, saving lives by getting passengers off the train before the bomb goes off. For his trouble, he’s basically branded a suspect in the bombing and demoted to a thankless desk job manning a phone that never rings. Peter is assigned the Night Action desk, which means he sits in front of a phone for hours every night and then goes home again. The phone is a hotline for agents in the field when something very serious has gone wrong. It’s only to be used in an absolute emergency when an agent can’t reach his handler or fears they may have been compromised. Sutherland doesn’t really expect it to ring. Of course, it does.

On the other end of the line is a former CEO named Rose Larkin (Luciane Buchanan), who was given the number and a code to activate Sutherland by her aunt and uncle, who Rose thought were just a pair of ordinary suburbanites. They were not. When they told Rose that they were going on cruises, they were actually on missions, and they’ve just returned from a doozy, discovering corruption that goes all the way to the White House. For their trouble, they’ve been burned and executed by a pair of assassins named Dale (Phoenix Raei) and Ellen (Eve Harlow). Rose saw Dale’s face, and Sutherland knows he needs to protect her from whatever happened to her aunt and uncle. He brings her in, going to his closest ally in the White House, Diane Farr (Oscar nominee Hong Chau, compelling as usual). Can they keep Rose safe and get to the bottom of what her aunt and uncle had discovered? And how is it related to the train bombing that got Sutherland into this mess in the first place?

After a couple of episodes, “The Night Agent” reveals a parallel plot involving the Vice President’s daughter Maddie (Sarah Desjardins). Her security detail is run by a tough agent named Chelsea Arrington (the engaging Fola Evans-Akingbola) and a new addition in Agent Erik Monks (D.B. Woodside), who took a bullet to stop an assassination and is basically restarting his career with what should be an easy gig keeping a college student safe. Of course, it’s not. When Maddie becomes a target herself, the season eventually intertwines the Arrington and Sutherland arcs into an explosive series of final episodes.

“The Night Agent” is a great example of how to juggle multiple narrative purposes in a spy thriller. On the one hand, it’s a survival story—keep Rose, and later Maddie, alive by staying one step ahead of the people trying to kill them. On the other hand, it’s a mystery about why Rose’s relatives were executed and what enemies want with Maddie in the first place. How does Sutherland get to the bottom of something fishy at the top level of world government and keep Rose alive at the same time? Ryan and his writing team calibrate each episode to do a little of Column A and a little of Column B, filling in the background of these characters as they go on this incredible journey.

It helps to have a solid cast who understands the assignment, and Basso graduates from playing younger guys into a mature, adult role in this show. He’s very effective as a modern Jack Bauer, finding the right balance of FBI stoicism and morally upstanding passion in this character. Basso is well-balanced by Buchanan, and it helps that the two also have some excellent chemistry. Evans-Akingbola knows how to balance commitment and suspicion in someone who takes their job very seriously, and there are nice acting choices in the supporting cast, too, including the odd couple of assassins in the strong-but-silent Dale and eccentric Ellen.

As with many Netflix shows, there are times when the 10-episode requirement of a show like this drags “The Night Agent” down. Thrillers are so dependent on momentum that it can be hard to maintain over such a long running time. It’s fair to say that “The Night Agent” sometimes sags, but nowhere near as much as many modern shows like this one. It doesn’t spin its wheels as much as slows its speed more than it arguably needed to. There’s a difference.

The success of “Yellowstone” has led to many shows that seem designed to tap into a similar, older audience looking for more traditional storytelling. “The Night Agent” won’t find that kind of success, but I hope it does hit its target and doesn’t get buried by Netflix’s awful interface. While everyone loves the ambition of shows like “Barry” or “The Last of Us,” sometimes you just want to see a thriller about good guys, bad guys, and those who play both sides.

On Netflix today. Eight episodes were screened for review.


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