Channel 4's new drama Traitors takes us back to 1945. We’re in London, World War II has just ended and Feef Symonds (Emma Appleton) – our privileged twentysomething protagonist – is sleeping with an American army officer. She’s proudly Tory (we’ll come back to this in a sec), with a niggling sense of ambition and adventure that she hasn’t been able to satisfy. Sure, Feef's disappointed that she didn't get a chance to serve in the war effort, but she's also pissed that now it's come to an end, her lover will have to return to the States.
An opportunity does arise, though. One of the American lover boy's colleagues, Rowe (Michael Stuhlbarg from The Shape of Water) suspects that something fishy is going on in the British government. He thinks that there's a Russian agent on the inside, and wants someone to infiltrate the administration and uncover what's really going on. That somebody is Feef. He asks her to take a job in the civil service and feed information back to the US through him. Yes, he wants her to spy on her own country.
What follows are six episodes of slow-build tension and the unnerving suspicion that no one, not even Feef, is quite what they seem. Not only is the reality of post-war Britain piling pressure on the government but when Feef does take the job as a civil servant (and a spy), the Labour party has just been voted in, which proved to be a landmark victory that people really didn't see coming. Change is in the air but danger lurks in the shadows, too. The stakes are high for everyone involved, but no one bears the brunt of this particular period of history quite like the women in the middle of it all.
Appearing opposite Appleton is Bodyguard star, Keeley Hawes, who plays Priscilla Garrick, a prim and fascinating woman who leads a team high up in the civil service. It's clear from the offset that there's a lot to her – she's one of very few women of seniority and operates in one of the most powerful circles in the world. She's unwaveringly good at her job and, although unaware that she's been manipulated into it, takes Feef under her wing.
Beyond the immediate post-war spy thriller narrative, Traitors takes a real look at womanhood, and it's hard to miss all the references to how poorly women were regarded at the time. When Feef and Priscilla first run into each other, the female staff who had been employed by the government during the war are being told that their jobs will be cut so they can fulfil their proper purpose – being at home to care for their sons and husbands returning from the front line. Feef's brother reminds her that she's expected to get married, not run off and work in such an influential arena. And yet here she is alongside a female superior, effecting change at one of the biggest political turning points of the century.
There's going to be some soul-searching for Feef. Despite her early conviction that the Conservative party is the only party worthy of her unassuming respect, she's poised to open her mind. She's young and the backdrop for her coming into her own is both extraordinary and terrifying. The amount she risks for the thrill of adventure and some sort of greater purpose is juxtaposed with Priscilla's fierce commitment to achieving excellence by playing by the rules. And despite their individual assurances, it's clear that there's a lot at stake for both of them.
Traitors starts on Channel 4 on Sunday 17th February at 9pm