One might detect a hidden agenda behind “The Last Post,” in which an imperial Western power tries to maintain its foothold in a Mideast land, fights an Islamist insurrection it doesn’t understand, resorts to torture, and embarrasses itself in the eyes of the world. But one would be wrong. There’s nothing hidden about it at all.
The Last Post
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Attempting to mirror more contemporary political catastrophes, the six-part series, arriving on Amazon by way of the BBC, is set in 1965 Aden, now in Yemen, but once a British Crown Colony (and, as the crackly old newsreel intro says before each episode, a place where “the sand is warm, and the sharks are not always hungry”). The socio-sexual side of the story is the real point of it all, and there’s a certain sauciness therein. But the military aspects of the tale are almost too familiar—what’s depicted in Aden is, in microcosm, the British crisis of colonial conscience, one that separates the more enlightened members of the happy breed from their myopically monarchist and hidebound compatriots. In some ways, in fact, “The Last Post” might make tidy companion viewing with “The Crown”: While Elizabeth Rex is perspiring over Prince Philip’s philandering, her subjects are sweating up the desert, trying to hold her kingdom together.
But for all the political déjà vu, we do get characters we don’t quite expect, courtesy of writer Peter Moffat, whose “The Night Of” was so rich in complicated people and circumstances. Lt. Ed Laithwaite (Stephen Campbell Moore), for instance, is that uncommon thing in fiction, outside of George Smiley: a sympathetic cuckold. He’s been passed over for the captaincy of his Aden-based Royal Military Police unit, which enjoys a rather beachy Sandals lifestyle when not being shot at or beheaded. But Ed’s not really a team player anyway: Developing his own investigative sources and urging a policy of persuasion/seduction over enhanced interrogation, Laithwaite is making real headway against the insurrectionist National Liberation Front and its ruthless, bespectacled, Zarqawi-esque leader, Abdul-Kadir Hakim (Aymen Hamdouchi). His biggest obstacle, of course, is institutional pigheadedness. That, and his wife.
Alison Laithwaite (Jessica Raine), slinky and unsatisfied, may be only the second-most-interesting character in “The Last Post,” but she sucks all the air from whatever room she stumbles into. A scene-making alcoholic—she seems to have bottles everywhere—Alison has been sleeping with the unit’s commanding officer, Nick Page (Joseph Kennedy), and is more distraught about his transfer than about the fact that her behavior may have cost her husband his promotion. She also takes great joy in “educating” Honor Martin (Jessie Buckley), an almost implausibly naive newlywed whose husband, Joe, is Page’s new replacement (in the unit, not the bed) and who himself exhibits the kind of pugnacious insecurity that is sure to lead to trouble. That would include the kind of trouble presented by Martha Franklin (Essie Davis), a Gellhorn-y American journalist who shows up in episode 2 and comports herself like nothing short of an Arab-speaking, Southern-fried hooker.
Not very subtle, no, which is unfortunate because you expect more sophisticated things from Mr. Moffat. A bit obvious, too, are the reasons for television’s current attraction to the stories from the 1950s and 1960s in which viewers can watch the oppressed—notably women—with a knowledge that times will change, however glacially. Conflict equals drama; sexual conflict equals more drama; conflict without a surfeit of nuance is even better. “The Last Post” has it all.