‘A Spy Among Friends’ Ending, Explained: What Happened To Kim Philby And Nicholas Elliott?


In the final episode of the series “A Spy Among Friends,” at a dinner scene where two of our primary protagonists are talking to each other, one of the guests remarks that he is “not quite following what is going on.” That sums up our feelings about this show. The cleverness that was shown with the dialogues was sorely missing from the story building, making this close to an insufferable watch. “A Spy Among Friends” is an adaptation of a book of the same name and is based on real events. Needless to say, we haven’t read the book, so our judgment is solely based on the show. From what we could gather, we know that some creative liberties have been taken. We don’t know the extent of them except for the fact that the character of Lily Thomas did not exist. In this article, we will not be judging the story itself because we believe that it wasn’t delivered with proper justice. What we will be judging is the presentation of it, which has proved to be the real culprit of the narrative. This is how it all unfolds.

 Spoilers Ahead

The Investigation Of Nicholas Elliot And Kim Philby

Let us start with a brief introduction to the matter at hand. Nicholas Elliot and Kim Philby have been best friends for over 20 years and have also been colleagues at the SIS, that is, the Secret Intelligence Service. It has only recently come to light that Kim was, in fact, a double agent for Russia. A person named Golitsyn, who we later came to know was a KGB defector, had identified Kim, and it was also supported by testimony from Mrs. Flora Solomon, who was a good friend of Kim’s ex-wife, Aileen. As soon as this news breaks out, all hell breaks loose, and it becomes a matter of getting the confession from Kim as well as knowing everything they had ever corresponded about. But there is an issue of bureaucratic politics here. Should Kim be apprehended by the SIS or the MI5? That would also decide who would be the one to interrogate Kim and bring him back. It is eventually decided that since SIS is for the purposes of foreign intelligence and MI5 is for a criminal prosecution, considering the sensitivity of the matter, it is better for SIS to take the lead. Nicholas is chosen to talk to Kim in Beirut. He does that, and after four days of interrogations, Kim gives him a complete written confession, but he also escapes. Therefore, once Nick comes back to England, he is under the purview of suspicion as Kim escaped on his watch.

When Nicholas is back, his entire conversation with Kim, which has been recorded, is analyzed, and he is repeatedly questioned on the basis of it. The reason for the distrust is quite layered. Their friendship of over two decades makes the SIS think that letting Kim go could have been Nick’s final act of friendship. Then there is also the fact that almost 10 years ago, two other agents named Burgess and Maclean had turned out to be Russian spies but escaped before they could be caught. Kim was suspected at that time, but Nick vigorously defended him. The SIS and MI5 are not sure whether patriotism can really turn the staunchest ally into the harshest persecutor. When Nick is asked how he could have let Kim escape, we receive an answer so vapid that we are convinced that this man has some tricks up his sleeve. He says that he had “simply not believed that Kim would leave as he had been offered complete immunity and secrecy, along with a nice little retirement with his family, in exchange for the confession.” Apparently, even Nick was surprised that Kim had chosen the Russians over such a great deal. Acting stupid was the dead giveaway that Nicholas Elliot was hiding something. There is also frequent talk about not letting the news reach Americans. Why, though? How are the Americans involved in this? Did the writers stop to consider that their audience would be people like us who would not know the details of history enough to get the point? We might still have Googled it had the show been remotely interesting, but we just kept losing interest as the episodes went by.

As the second episode of “A Spy Among Friends” rolls in, we get a glimpse of the personal life of Kim Philby when he was pretending to loyally work for the SIS. As previously mentioned, Mrs. Flora Solomon was the best friend of Aileen, Kim’s ex-wife. They both suspected that Kim was having an affair and asked Nick to confirm it for them. While he initially rubbishes it, he follows Kim regardless and finds him going for lunch or dinner (who can tell with the British weather?) with a woman. As Nick is narrating this to Lily Thomas, he admits that, in retrospect, it is possible that Kim knew about him being followed. Either way, Nick believes that Kim might actually be involved with someone outside of his marriage. But a few days later, his best friend tells him that he helped a woman escape the Nazis by moving some papers, i.e., by faking a marriage with her. Her name was Alice Litzi. With these new facts, Nick was convinced that his friend was innocent after all, and any suspicions that Aileen had were just due to the nature of Kim’s job. He says as much to her, to the chagrin of Flora. The matter appears reasonably settled except that it raises the question of how someone like Nick, who, in Flora’s words, “never ever lets his guard down,” was so unaware of Kim’s real intentions for over 20 years despite being his closest friend. This makes us recall his account of how he met Kim for the first time. They had been in a club when suddenly, it was impacted by a bomb. Nick recalls it as being the first night of the Blitz. We Googled this and found that it was the intense bombing campaign undertaken by the Nazis against the UK during World War II. The Blitz lasted from September 7th, 1940, to May 11th, 1941. Nick says that even after such a nerve-wracking incident, Kim seemed unbothered and went on to ask for a drink from the bartender, of course, after checking that all his limbs were intact. This easy charm and camaraderie with Kim were what had attracted Nick’s friendship and hero worship, as he admits. We have often believed that we might still admit the fallacies of our friends, but we find it impossible to accept that the people we have placed on a pedestal do not deserve that position. It feels like a personal affront to our tastes, our judgment, and what we consider ideal, which is a much harder fact to digest than just our friend doing something wrong. That is what was happening in the case of Nicholas and Kim. Nick has said multiple times that Kim had the gift of becoming friends with anyone he wanted. We often admire in others the qualities we desperately want to see within ourselves. Nicholas was a reserved and charming man, but we doubt he had the chameleon-like quality that attracted people. He saw that in Kim and knew that he wanted to be his friend. The people around them, while they may not have had the exact word for it, must have sensed how much Nick adored Kim, hence the suspicions that followed.

Elsewhere, with Kim, as he is making his way to Russia, we realize that he is, in fact, not Kim Philby but Agent Stanley. However, contrary to expectations, he is not given the hero’s welcome one would expect. Instead, he is greeted with suspicion and hostility. The same questions plaguing Nick have also followed Kim. How was he able to escape unless helped along by Kim? And if that were the case, it would hint that the double association is continuing, but this time in favor of the SIS. In one of the conversations, he reveals that he started it all with love. He had fallen in love with a woman named Litzi Friedman. Another Google search tells us that she used to smuggle activists out of Vienna with the help of Kim when the government started persecuting leftists. They got married and were together for some time before they had to part ways. But the reason was not the drying out of love but the purpose of espionage which required Kim to stay away from known communists. They continued to stay in touch and only divorced in 1946. While it is all a sweet story, we are mad at the writers for not presenting it better. Seriously, when they showed Litzi, we expected to know a background or something, but they just made it fizzle out disappointingly. Only Google told us about the relationship between Litzi and Kim, not the series, and this is just another example of disappointing storytelling. Something else that is disappointing is the screenplay. The storyline switches between different timelines, and we have no way of knowing which is which. There is absolutely no difference in the characters’ wardrobe, style, or anything at all. “A Spy Among Friends” expects to work on the subtleties of the dialogues, but it severely underuses the required visual imagery, leading to its own detriment.

Let us take a moment to talk about Lily Thomas. She comes up with the idea to let Nick off the hook and observe him in his surroundings to see what he would be doing. She is a strong woman who deals with her fair share of sexism in a male-dominated field while doing her job admirably well. As she is not allowed to talk about her work, there is a strain between her and her husband, as he feels that she might leave him. We believe we understand why he feels that way. When you don’t know everything about the person you love the most in the world, you believe that there might still be a reason for them to not want to be with you. Lily knows this and wants to be a better wife. Meanwhile, she comes to know that a man named Michael Whitney Straight has confessed that he used to work for Russian intelligence in the 30s. He hasn’t contacted them since 1945. But after he turned himself in, a message from the US Embassy in London was delivered to a flat near Nick’s office. She suspects that he might be involved in something a lot more sinister. Her suspicions are only deepened by Nick’s actions. He pulls some strings with his wife to get a private view of the Queen’s gallery, where he runs into Tony Blunt and Lily as well. Under the guise of a slip of the tongue, he mentions Vermehren. An ordinary person would think that it was a mistake, but Lily and Nick’s wife understand that the meaning goes deeper. He even admits that Kim had said something about Tony Blunt, and should that prove to be a lie, his goose is cooked. Later that night, Lily comes to meet him and asks him point-blank who Vermehren is. Nick reveals that he was a “devout Catholic who detested Nazis.” In Beirut, when Nick had been interrogating Kim, he had revealed the name of Tony Blunt as the other double agent. At the gallery, he had mentioned Vermehren to Tony Blunt to verify whether Kim was right or not.

‘A Spy Among Friends’ Ending Explained: What Happened To Kim Philby And Nicholas Elliott?

It is at this point that the story gets unsalvageable. It is a lot of people walking around in silence and talking in an obscure manner that might have made sense in the spy world but is proving to be insufferable for the audience watching it. But we still rewatched each episode enough times to gather what had happened. Let us start with Kim. He is called before a council, which demands to know the answers to the questions we have asked before. But the main thing they want to know is whether he really returned empty-handed from England. Kim brings over a piece of paper that was written with invisible ink and tells them that he has brought back some intelligence after all. Now, we honestly don’t know whether we missed something or if it was just another instance of bad writing, but what did they mean when they asked him if he had come back with something? It had been repeatedly said that Kim gave them information over 20 years that helped them sabotage countless operations of the English. What else did he need to bring when escaping from them? On another note, Kim is also missing his dearest friend and constantly thinks about him. Remembering an unpleasant moment from their time in Beirut, he has a panic attack and ends up in the hospital. Once he feels better, he wishes to send out a letter.

Back in London, Lily tells SIS about Kim telling Nick the truth about Tony Blunt. Nick is called in, and they want to know more about what Kim has said. Nick reveals that the reason he kept it a secret was that, after this betrayal by a person in whom he had placed the most trust, he was wary of what else could be unexpected in the agency. From there on, it is a step-by-step reveal of what actually went down in Beirut. Nick and Kim had gotten along just like any two friends on vacation. Until the last day, when Kim invited Nick to dinner. There, he was slightly belligerent and, for lack of a better word, “intrusive.” He realized that the life he had built over the past two decades had come to an end. The friendships he had prized and the family he had come to love—all of them were going to be left behind. And he wasn’t allowed to grieve. While leaving, he gives his signed confession to Nick. Within those documents is a piece of paper that Nick had given to Kim with a list of possible names of other KGB agents. The names of Tony Blunt and Roger Hollis were circled. All this time, withholding this information was to tease out the situation of Roger Hollis in front of everyone, the evidence of his treason. The requirement for this game was that it was just Kim’s word that they had against him. How could they know to trust it and not be deceived into another one of his charming ploys?

Meanwhile, the letter that Kim had written was for Nick. He wanted to meet him one last time. Lily is furious that Nick is considering this meeting, especially since he doesn’t believe his word about Roger Hollis. She thinks he is being sentimental. But Nick has already visited Kim. He looked at him through the glass one last time as Kim waited for him. But before they could meet, he left. He had come to return the umbrella that Kim had given him many years ago, as closure to their friendship. He finally admits to Lily what happened to Kim. He tells her that he forced him to run so that Moscow would never trust him again, which would eventually kill him. Now again, why would running mean losing Moscow’s trust, and by “kill,” do they mean literally kill or that it would eat him up from the inside? “A Spy Among Friends” really needed a better writer. But it ends on this note. From history and what the show told us, Kim Philby did not ever spy again, so Nick was right. He himself retired with his reputation intact. Roger Hollis left the MI5, and an investigation much later proved that the suspicions about him spying for the Russians were wrong.

Essentially, “A Spy Among Friends” is not a story about espionage. It is about the betrayal between friends. Nick and Kim had been friends for close to half of their lives. They had been through it all together—careers, marriages, love, trust, and everything in between. We have often heard that breakups in friendship hurt more than those in love. That is because friendships are built on a trust of ease, unlike the trust of passion in love. Kim’s betrayal was obvious, and it had raised doubts again and again about whether his friendship was ever true. We know that, towards the end, it was. But there are just some things you can’t come back from. While Nick was Kim’s best friend, Kim was the one who had been held in idolatrous adulation by Nick. Nick was not just dealing with the betrayal; he was dealing with a blow to his ideal persona, whose flaws were negligible and whose virtues were magnified in his head. Maybe that’s why Nick wasn’t as ready to forgive. Because the difference in perception between the man he wanted Kim to be and the man he was, was too great. For that reason, it was a sad ending. For the rest, it was as neat as it could be, given the circumstances.

Final Thoughts: What Doesn’t Work For ‘A Spy Among Friends’?

One of the greatest drawbacks of “A Spy Among Friends” is how boring it is. We cannot mince words here. However, we have reason to believe that the book it is based on is far more interesting. And despite everything we have said about the writing, we feel like the dialogues, especially those of Nick Elliot, were written by a different person from the one who constructed the flow of the story. “A Spy Among Friends” could have been such a good show. An espionage thriller with the intrigue, betrayal and the patriotism of it all. But what we get is something so dull and slow that we are really questioning why it was even attempted to begin with. We have said this before, but this story needs a better execution, and we truly hope it gets that soon.

“A Spy Among Friends” is a 2022 Drama Thriller series directed by Nick Murphy.

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Divya Malladi
Divya Malladi
Divya spends way more time on Netflix and regrets most of what she watches. Hence she has too many opinions that she tries to put to productive spin through her writings. Her New Year resolution is to know that her opinions are validated.

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