Hollywood still has a long way to go with giving leading ladies their due, but the spy thriller genre has given us no shortage of strong female characters in recent years. From TV hits like Alias, Nikita, and (more recently) Killing Eve to big-screen action movies like Atomic Blonde and Salt (and yes, even Marvel’s Black Widow), audiences have ample proof that the spy game is most certainly not a man’s world.
Netflix series In From The Cold joins that crowd with a story that casts Margarita Levieva (Adventureland, The Deuce) as an American single mother whose European vacation with her daughter is dangerously derailed when her past life as a Russian spy is exposed. Forced to work for a ruthless CIA agent, Jenny Franklin (Levieva) must reconnect with the deadly skills — and superhuman abilities — she thought she left behind.
Over the course of In From The Cold‘s eight-episode debut season, Jenny finds herself in a deadly, international game of cat-and-mouse that keeps the tension high and the story compelling, primarily due to Levieva’s strong performance.
Created and written by Adam Glass (Supernatural), In From The Cold unfolds across two narrative timelines separated by decades. In one, we watch Jenny reluctantly put her espionage talents — and a superhuman ability to change her appearance — to work as she infiltrates and investigates a terrorist group led by a mysterious villain who seemingly controls the minds of innocent targets, compelling them to commit violent acts. As that story unfolds, we’re also shown the traumatic events that led to Jenny fleeing Russia and creating a new life for herself in the U.S.
This dual narrative is deftly handled by Glass and the show’s creative team, with Ivanna Sakhno portraying the young Jenny — formerly Anya — on a mission that changes the trajectory of her life and impacts many of the events unfolding in the show’s modern-day timeline. Although each episode shifts back and forth between the two timelines, the connection between the narrative threads feels consistent and organic throughout the season, culminating with plot points that bring the events of Jenny’s past and present crashing together.
Jenny’s return to the spy game is further complicated by a familial drama that has her teenage daughter — played by Lydia Fleming — struggling with her own set of social and emotional issues during the pair’s time abroad together. The strained relationship between Jenny and her daughter is juxtaposed against that of teenage Jenny/Anya and her handler in the Russian intelligence agency that recruited her, and although the comparison between their relationships isn’t executed as smoothly, it does offer another interesting dynamic to the series.
As with most entries in the genre, though, In From The Cold leans heavily on its lead actor’s ability to sell the espionage story and the high stakes for everyone involved, and Levieva’s comfort level in doing so while also delivering a believable performance as an eternally overtaxed single mother carries the show and makes it feel unique in the genre space it occupies.
Whether Jenny is fighting her way through a gauntlet of intelligence agents or trying to forge a stronger emotional connection with her daughter, Levieva feels fully invested in the role and the wide range of talents and emotive qualities it demands. That’s no easy ask of any actor, and the series’ first season wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining with anyone who didn’t commit to Jenny’s conflicting past and present as fully as Levieva does.
In a supporting role, Sakhno also covers a wide range with her performance as Jenny’s younger self and does a nice job selling the emotional weight of her actions and how they inform her decisions later in life. As Jenny’s gruff CIA handler and his hacker assistant, respectively, Cillian O’Sullivan and Charles Brice play their somewhat familiar characters (for this genre, at least) capably, checking off all the traditional boxes for their archetypal roles while keeping the focus squarely on Levieva.
Something old, something new
It would have been easy for In From The Cold to go all-in on Jenny’s shape-shifting ability and the show’s sci-fi aspects, given the unique layer they add to the show. Fortunately, Glass doesn’t overuse these elements and keeps the show grounded on Jenny as a person — frustrations, flaws, and all — instead of turning her into some sort of superhuman hero. At a time when superheroes are everywhere you look in the media landscape, In From The Cold never feels overly reliant on its most fantastic story points, and keeping that balance serves the story well.
Fueled by an excellent all-around performance from its lead actress and a story that delivers each narrative twist and turn at a satisfying pace, In From The Cold is a compelling series that delivers the high levels of drama, action, and mystery that define modern spy thrillers, with plenty of elements that make it feel unique in a crowded genre.
Season 1 of In From The Cold premieres January 28 on Netflix.