The Muddled Politics of ‘Tehran’
The spy who came in and out of the cold or not or whatever on Apple TV+
June 17th sees the premiere of the final episode of the second season of Tehran on Apple TV+. Tehran is an Israeli spy thriller in the style of John le Carré. The first season introduces us to Tamar, a rookie Mossad agent with an Iranian cultural background who’s snuck into Tehran to assist with an Israeli operation to bomb a nuclear plant. Originally just Israeli television from June of 2020, Apple+ TV licensed Tehran internationally in September, and renewed it for a second season in January of 2021. Apple+ TV was and still is in the midst of its ongoing strategy of becoming the prestige brand streaming service worldwide, and Tehran was an obvious show for them to champion thanks to its slick production values. In November of 2021, it won the Best Drama at the International Emmy Awards.
Much as was the case with Pachinko, there’s still a good chance you’ve never actually heard of Tehran, since as an internationally-minded Apple TV+ show it’s a niche within a niche. The show’s unavoidably hardline politics also make it a bit difficult to discuss in any kind of fashionable woke context. The marketing copy for Tehran describes the show as a mix between 24 and The Americans, which feels pretty apt.
Like 24, it’s often very difficult to keep track of what names the characters have since the story-driven script almost never uses them. And like The Americans naturally favored the U.S.A., while we can see some light criticism of Israel, there’s never any doubt that worse people run Iran. The first episode of the first season prominently features a corpse in a public gallows. The first episode of the second season escalates that by having Iranians execute Tamar’s whole family in similar fashion for no real reason.
That escalation neatly encapsulates most of the problems with the second season, which go beyond political into the aesthetic. The political commentary in the first season may not have been subtle, but it also wasn’t usually that relevant to the plot except as misdirection. The finale of the first season actually features a fairly clever twist along those lines. Inspector Faraz has spent the whole season chasing down Tamar, occasionally frustrated by how his superiors don’t seem to be taking Tamar that seriously. We eventually find out that there was a good reason for this–Faraz’s superiors were running a major counter-intelligence operation over his head that actually relied on Tamar succeeding. This is a solid le Carré-style twist, culminating a huge mess because while everyone’s being uncommunicative, it’s never clear what the reasons are for that or if they matter.
This is an important part of the platonic ideal of spycraft. Ideology shouldn’t actually matter, and good spies don’t have opinions. Tamar is a questionable lead because she’s still enough of a rookie to actually think morality matters. When she seduces fellow hacker Shervin, it’s deliberately hard to tell how sincere she is, and this tension persists as the two are still alive at the start of the second season, though it’s not totally clear why Tamar is really keeping Shervin alive. But by the end of the second season nearly all of this ambiguity is gone. Tamar straight up says she broke all the rules by falling in love with Shervin in a line that would be cringeworthy even in a romantic drama, let alone an espionage thriller.
Considering how nearly two years separates the two seasons of Tehran, the poor quality of the script is genuinely baffling. The first season ends with all sorts of strong hooks, with the attempted bombing of an Iranian nuclear plant causing an international incident. There’s the desperation of Tamar and Shervin trying to get out of Tehran, a place which clearly isn’t safe for either of them. Inspector Faraz has his long suffering wife Shila back after an abortive kidnapping subplot. The show ignored the first plotline after the second episode when the Iranians free the captured Israeli pilot. The second one seems to be a problem in theory, but in practice Tamar and Shervin are even able to get into police stations without anybody recognizing who they are.
The show addresses a third plot strand, Shila’s PTSD, but…not in a good way. One benefit of having Apple TV+ take on the second season of a drama is they can use their connections to land big Hollywood stars. In this case, that’s Glenn Close, who plays Marjan, a psychotherapist and Mossad agent with surprisingly good access to the upper crust of Iranian political society, given that she’s a foreigner.
In one of Tehran’s many mixed messages, the show repeatedly reassures us that the big reason why the Iranian government is bad is because they’re so xenophobic, using the threat of foreigners to oppress their own people. Yet if anything Tehran makes it seem like the Iranian government isn’t xenophobic enough. Even aside from the Glenn Close character, the show portrays Shervin and nearly every younger Iranian character in Tehran as a useful idiot, highly susceptible to Tamar’s charms because they fetishize foreign culture.
This worked out well enough in the first season, when these younger characters were drug dealers and political dissidents. The second season, not so much, since most of our new characters are the well-connected children of big-shots in the Iranian government- about the last people you’d expect to complain about the economy or have a rosy view of foreigners. Imagine living in the United States during the Trump years and concluding that Americans don’t really hate Iran that much. Many of these characters meet an unfortunate fate anyway despite their sympathetic political ideology. Yet oddly enough not as bad as Tamar’s family, who cooperated with Iranian government authorities and were executed anyway. The intent of this scene is obviously to make the Iranian government seem evil, although the show really just frames the situation to make them look dumb.
Throughout the second season that dumbness persists. These aren’t the sophisticated antagonists of the first season who somehow either planted their own operative in Mossad or turned her into a double agent. Time and again they buffoonishly screw up easy opportunities to grab Tamar and Shervin, and by the end of the season Faraz is explicitly the only investigator they have who even knows anything about Mossad at all.
That’s just the intentional incompetence in the script. The Israelis don’t really look much better, from a critical perspective. In the first season, the show presents the kidnapping of Faraz’s wife as a hard red line. Even the guy the Israelis were trying to rescue is mad about the escalation, in part because Faraz immediately turns the tables by threatening his family too. Yet in the second season Glenn Close has exactly one trick, threatening Faraz’s wife, which she keeps doing to improbable effect. It’s not just the laziness of this trick that bothers me. By making Faraz out to be so important, Tehran retroactively ruins the big twist of the first season, which was that neither Faraz nor Tamar were actually that important in the grand scheme of things.
Where is Tehran without that kind of sophisticated plotting? Well, it’s just typical shoot and cry nonsense, where everyone acts like their actions have a purpose despite the show doing a poor job of explaining the exact mechanics of what they’re trying to do. The first season was straightforward enough. Tamar thinks it’s bad for the Iranians to have bombs, so she’s on a mission to keep them from getting bombs.
But the second season’s goal just ends up being an elaborate assassination scheme that’s somehow going to make Iran a better place because, I guess, once the bad old guys are out of power the good young ones, who understand that freedom and democracy are good because they collaborated on a tech start-up in Los Angeles, will take over. It’s all just very stupid, plotting so bad that no amount of money Apple TV+ can throw at the show for stunt casting can whitewash it.
One thought on “The Muddled Politics of ‘Tehran’”
Whilst I respect your opionion, I could not disagree more. It is excellent TV and has rightly been getting lots of rave reviews. It’s the most enjoyable series I have watched in years.