+15 | 6 episodes | spy thriller | Aug. 18, 2022
This cyber-attack is like a Russian nesting doll. There is a more dangerous second salvo hidden inside the original code and third even more devastating cyber-worm hiding inside of that. Unfortunately, the only person looking for it is an intern doing a work-study at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the UK’s equivalent of our National Security Agency (NSA, which evolved from the celebrated Bletchley Park code-breaking office.) This is in writer-creator Peter Kosminsky’s six episode “The Undeclared War,” premiering on Peacock.
Sara Parvin (Hannah Khalique-Brown) is the second-best coder/hacker in her class, but she has better inter-personal skills than her on-the-spectrum rival, so they are both offered work-experience internships at GCHQ. However, Parvin only trusts her emotionally troubled father with the news, because she fears the rest of her family would be opposed, due to their political biases.
Those Russian CodersOn her very first day at “The Doughnut” (GCHQ’s “Pentagon”), the Russians launch their code. It shuts down the email hosts, online meetings, and scheduling software, but the damage is curtailed relatively quickly. However, Russia’s social media trolls and bots pounced on it so rapidly, they obviously had advance notice.
While running busy-work analysis of the supposedly neutralized code, Parvin discovers the second, yet-to-launch stage of its attack. That impresses Danny Patrick (Simon Pegg), the head of GCHQ operations. Several cabinet ministers, however, are (somewhat understandably) aghast that an intern caught what all the full-time analysts missed.
Perversely, this leads to more drudge-work analysis for Parvin, but once again she discovers something. In this case, it is an encrypted message, presumably from one of the Russian coders.
Yet, due to GCHQ’s dysfunctional bureaucratic dynamics, the only colleague who will listen to her is American Kathy Freeman (Maisie Richardson-Sellers), the NSA liaison. Due to security compartmentalization, she cannot reveal her dilemma to her unofficial workplace mentor, curmudgeonly cryptologist John Yeabsley (Mark Rylance), the GCHQ’s least prestigious employee and resident grammar-checker.
Evidently, British television has turned a corner because, based on “Undeclared War” and “Red Election,” it is clearly now acceptable to feature Russian villains again. It is a good start, but both series still ignore the threat of Xi’s hostile CCP regime. Frankly, given the way Putin has isolated Russia through his invasion of Ukraine, a lot of the chess master strategy Kosminsky ascribes to him would probably be better applied to Xi.
An Enemy’s StrategyRegardless, “Undeclared War” illustrates a crucial point: Leaders in the West focus on news cycles, whereas our enemies are thinking in long-range strategic terms. This puts the democratic West at a precarious disadvantage. In each episode, the Russians anticipate the moves of GCHQ and the cabinet, because they understand the limits of their political and bureaucratic mindsets.
Likewise, the Russians exacerbate division and polarization on social media, stoking identity-politics that undermine national unity. Using the point-of-view of Russian journalist Marina Yeselova (Tinatin Dalakishvili), the series takes us behind-the-scenes at Glavset, the Federal Security Bureau's internet troll farm, and Russia Global News (RGN) a Russian news network transparently inspired by Russia Today.
Of course, much of what happens at RGN, including sophisticated deep-fakes and overt provocation, would hardly be outside the realm of possibility for Chinese state media either. “Undeclared War” clearly suggests more skepticism is warranted towards the so-called reporting of such state-controlled outlets. A bit more restraint on social media might not be a bad idea either.
Casting IssuesFrankly, Hannah Khalique-Brown is not especially charismatic or compelling as Parvin, either. However, the symbolically expressive sequences that depict her cyber sleuthing as a “Tomb Raider”-style adventuress adds some intriguing imagery to the series.
Simon Pegg plays it straight and convincingly world-weary as Patrick, GCHQ’s top geek. Likewise, Alex Jennings and Adrian Lester bring credible authority to the series, as the cabinet-level director of GCHQ, and his boss, the Prime Minister.
Rather impressively, Maisie Richardson-Sellers manages to play Freeman as a smart and resourceful professional, even when she is mired in mediocre melodrama with Khalique-Brown’s Parvin. As usual, Oscar-nominee Mark Rylance portrays Yeabsley with tragic dignity and eccentric charm, which serves the series well.
There is no question the macro-cyberthriller aspects of “Undeclared War” are better executed than the angsty micro-dramas involving family loyalty and personal relationships. The latter comes across as by-the-numbers stuff, unnecessarily inserted simply to tick off trendy boxes.
However, the depictions of the cyberattacks and simultaneous propaganda warfare are so smartly written and uncomfortably realistic, they cut like a knife. They do not merely redeem “Undeclared War.” They make it required viewing.
Highly recommended as a cautionary thriller, “Undeclared War” streams on Peacock.