A young Westerner is our eyes and ears in Israel in this first episode of the British miniseries, which gets up close and personal with a country too frequently seen from afar. Erin Matthews (Claire Foy) leaves her disapproving mother behind in the UK as she jets off to the Holy Land with her best friend, dual citizen Eliza (Perdita Weeks). Having recently discovered her sick grandfather’s journal written in 1940s Palestine, Erin’s journey is into the nation’s past as much as its present.
The episode weaves the two very different stories together brilliantly. A British soldier during World War II, Erin’s grandfather Len (Christian Cooke) liberates Bergen Belsen, then serves in Palestine during the postwar wave of Jewish immigration. Passionate Len finds himself in trouble with his superior officers, who are far less sympathetic to the Jewish cause, as he smuggles in illegals and falls in love with a Jewish woman.
Once Eliza begins her required military service in the Israel Defense Forces, Erin spends the majority of her time with Eliza’s older, rebellious brother Paul (Itay Tiran). Upon arrival in Israel, days and nights of shopping, clubbing, and watching the sunset over the calm Mediterranean have Erin believing, “It’s like paradise.” But as the episode continues, the naïve eighteen-year-old begins to understand the more difficult reality.
Writer and director Peter Kosminsky uses blank-slate Erin as a tool to educate the audience: her incessant questions allow other characters to explicate local politics in a way that feels natural. Since Erin knows only what she has learned on the news, even simple situations are fully explained, successfully filling any gaps some viewers may have.
Len and Paul, both outliers in their own time, share the spotlight. Pro-Palestinian Paul challenges Erin’s assumptions about the Arab-Israeli Conflict when he whisks her away to the West Bank, calls Israel a military dictatorship in arguments with his more patriotic father, and protests the wall, or security fence, east of Jerusalem. Checkpoints, intense café security, and even pro-peace discussion panels ensure that the Conflict is—at least—as ever-present in The Promise as it is in daily Israeli life.
With Len in the post-war British Mandate of Palestine, the audience uncovers the history of the heavily disputed land as Paul brings us up to speed on what is happening there today. Past and present intertwine flawlessly in the first episode of The Promise, as we are educated alongside Erin, and left as eager as she is to learn more.