Tehran takes the action, and the politics, up a notch [Apple TV+ recap] | Cult of Mac

Tehran takes the action, and the politics, up a notch [Apple TV+ recap]

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Tehran recap: Glenn Close joins the cast for another season of subterfuge.
Glenn Close joins the Tehran cast for a second season of subterfuge.
Photo: Apple TV+

When Apple TV+ spy thriller Tehran returns Friday, the show picks up right where it left off after its taut first season. Mossad agent/hacker Tamar’s crimes catch up with her as she waits for extraction from Iran. And humbled Revolutionary Guards chief Faraz is still seething over his seeming defeat by Mossad, with the eyes of the Iranian government on him.

The spy-on-spy action remains good, but Tehran is playing a dangerous game in dramatizing the Iranian government as the greater of two evils. I’m hoping there’s a little more lip service paid to the idea that, though Iran is the villain on this show, Israel is the aggressor. It’s something the show forgets when convenient.

Tehran recap: Season two opener

In this week’s episode, Tamar (played by Niv Sultan) and her boyfriend Milad (Shervin Alenabi) are hiding out in Tehran after her espionage mission. Milad is trying to pay someone to get them across the border, but her handlers come for her first. They were the pilots flown in to destroy Iran’s nuclear reactors, but they failed to complete their mission after Tamar laid the groundwork for them (the plot of season one).

If Tamar can save the last survivor of the mission, her government will get her and Milad safely to Vancouver. Milad doesn’t know Tamar works for Mossad. So he drives around the city trying to scare up enough money to pay off the coyote who will smuggle them out of Iran.

Faraz (Shaun Toub), the Iranian agent tasked with thwarting Tamar’s plot, is living in disgrace because he let her get away with so much that the aerial assault was almost a success. He hasn’t forgotten Tamar. Indeed, he’s obsessed with the idea of catching her, even if it means potentially ending his whole career (instead of just doing damage to it).

Off with the lights

Tamar hacks the power grid that runs the prison in which the Israeli pilot is being held, just as the pilot self-induces a seizure. Mossad swoops in as the pilot is being transported to the hospital, replacing him with a different patient who they can kill on the operating table.

Faraz hears about this and immediately pieces together the operation. He sends one of his former deputies to the hospital, but he’s too late. The Mossad squad gets away after a messy firefight.

Tamar gets lost in the hospital but finds help from an enigmatic stranger named Marjan (Glenn Close). As Tamar starts her escape, Qassem (Vassilis Koukalani), the new commander of the Revolutionary Guards, holds a press conference. He’s done playing nice with the Israelis. He kills the people who hosted Tamar during her initial stay in Tehran on national TV.

The pure Iranian state

So … when Tehran premiered in 2020, some people called it Israeli propaganda designed to make Iran look bad. The first season, I thought, baked in enough reasonable doubt to stave off claims of a huge political bias because, well, everyone was a bastard on this show. The Iranians and Israelis looked equally bad.

But ending the season two opener with a bloodthirsty general hanging innocent people on TV … that’s pushing things past “we’re all bad” and into, “Wow. look how terrible Iranian justice is.”

This strikes me as a bridge too far. Especially considering that, in the two years since the last season, Israel has continued to perpetrate unspeakable crimes against Palestinians.

Against that real-world backdrop, it isn’t enough to play devil’s advocate — not when you’re having the head of the Revolutionary Guards performing executions on the 6 o’clock news. The Iranian penal system is, indeed, outdated and horrible. The country’s human rights record, and its habit of executing dissidents and punishing artists, is well-documented.

Israel, however, does not have the upper hand because of this. It is and always has been an apartheid state, content to shove Palestinian families into camps or outright kill them.

Taking sides

Thus, I don’t buy this version of political entertainment, even if I’m somewhat curious why so many Iranian actors would agree to be in a show that demonizes Iran. Maybe they all agreed this was a narrative worth spinning?

The second season did just start so there’s room to see where they’re going with all this. Still, there’s no denying that we’re meant, in this instance, to side with Tamar over the Iranians. Glenn Close shows up to council her and make sure Tamar can complete her next assignment, which amounts to little more than revenge at the potential cost of hundreds of lives and the total destabilization of the reason. All in all, Tehran seems much more concerned with Tamar’s safety and integrity than with Faraz’s.

After all, you’re not really privy to the crimes of the Israeli government on this show, beyond its interference in Iran. Close’s character explicitly says Israel’s actions are for the greater good, and that necessarily goes unchallenged. If Iran sent an agent to Tel Aviv to disrupt the power grid, what would be found there? Something to think about, because Tehran won’t ask you to think about it. I wish it would, because this can be a very gripping procedural at its best.

The acting is all first-rate, the cinematography is weightier than last season’s, and the score remains excellent. I just need a little less of this and a little more of that if I’m gonna make it through this season.

 

Watch Tehran on Apple TV+

Season two of Tehran debuts May 6 on Apple TV+. New episodes follow each Friday.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.