As the daughter of a CIA agent, I usually roll my eyes at spy thrillers. They’re highly unrealistic, especially when it comes to portraying family members—like in the Americans when the daughter, played by Holly Taylor, morphs from rebellious teen to becoming a spy like her parents. More often than not, spouses and children are invisible or used only as convenient props, and they are rarely portrayed realistically—that is until NBC’s newest spy thriller, The Enemy Within. While the plot doesn’t break new ground (expect car chases and shoot outs in every episode), the show is surprisingly believable when it comes to spy family dynamics. It’s also surprisingly female-centric.
The premise goes like this: Star CIA operative Erica Shepherd, played by Jennifer Carpenter, is forced by a Russian operative to give up the names of fellow undercover agents, who are then killed, in order to save her teenage daughter. She’s labeled a traitor and lands in a supermax prison. Shepherd doesn’t disclose to anyone why she gave up the names because she wants to spare her daughter the burden of knowing people died so she could live. Three years later, the Russian operative returns to killing CIA officers and Shepherd is summoned by FBI agent Will Keaton, played by Morris Chestnut, to help track down the Russian but also to help stem the tide against a wave of foreign spies infiltrating American society. Shepherd cooperates, but only half-heartedly. Keaton has a chip on his shoulder too—one of the names Shepherd gave up was his fiancé’s. But the show’s emotional terrain starts to open up toward the end of the pilot when Shepherd tells Keaton why she gave up those names. Anguished, she divulges what matters most to her now—and it’s not serving her country. “I want to be close to my daughter. I want to fight every day to earn my way back into her life.”
It’s hard to imagine this line coming from a male character, someone raised to be emotionally disconnected and trained by the CIA to repress or compartmentalize feelings. My father was pretty traditional and I can’t imagine him expressing this, though he certainly might have felt it. And maybe because I’m a spy’s daughter, I hear more in these words than a parent wanting to make up for lost time spent in prison. I hear the deeper toll of what being a spy costs a family—in lost time and broken trust. As a teen, I longed for my spy dad to say this to me or even to a colleague.
But in general, the show is as much about mother-daughter dynamics, specifically spy mother-daughter dynamics, as it is about blowing things up. In the second episode, Shepherd meets with her daughter for the first time since prison. It’s a tense face-to-face sit down in which Hannah, played by Sophie Gennusa, tries to makes sense of her mom’s arrest and how it has upended her life. “What did you do?” she asks her mom. Confusion and distrust flash across Hannah’s face. We aren’t completely sure what she’s asking—why her mother was arrested or why she was released—but what is clear is that Hannah’s life is confusing to her and she wants answers. Shepherd isn’t ready to talk, so Hannah storms out.
I remember wanting to know lots of things about my father’s work too. I wanted to know if he had anything to do with these government takeovers and dictatorships. Was he a nerdy civil servant collecting information, or an arrogant, vicious secret agent bribing government officials and beating prisoners? It took years of research (and a breakthrough conversation with my dad) before I could answer this and it may take seasons before Hannah even asks something like this, if she ever does, but the show seems to be heading in this direction. Not only is Hannah asking questions already as a teen, but she’s getting angry.
Having a female lead at the center of a spy narrative who doesn’t mince words or bother with niceties is also refreshing. There have been female spy leads before—Alias with Jennifer Garner, Homeland with Claire Danes, to name two—but Alias was totally unrealistic when it came to Garner’s character following her father’s footsteps and becoming a spy (again, this does not happen in real life), and while Homeland showed the ugly side of spy work, it didn’t explore or unpack it the way The Enemy Within does.
The Enemy Within offers predictable plot twists and familiar action, but Carpenter is compelling and complex, and she plays her role with a stillness that is truly riveting. For me, and for the spy thriller genre, it will be interesting to see if the show continues to explore the strained mother-daughter relationship at the show’s emotional core. Will Shepherd and Hannah find a way to resolve what stands between them? I’ll be watching.
Leslie Absher is a freelance journalist who writes about human rights, travel and growing up with a CIA father. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Ms. magazine, Salon, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere. You can find her articles at leslieabsher.com