All season, Drunk History has saved its best for last. Each episode up until this point has ended with its strongest narrator as well as its most interesting and developed story. “Spies” flips the order and starts with its strongest chapter: Crissle West narrating the story of Harriet Tubman’s days as a Union spy.
West, who co-hosts the podcast The Read, has all the right qualities of a good Drunk History narrator. She’s very drunk, but never sloppy (well, never too sloppy); she brings a distinct voice and point of view to her story and lets that personality show through; and she cares about the story she’s telling and gets very, very excited about it. West has so many quotable moments that her words ended up taking up over half of my notes about the entire episode. And then to top it all off, Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer is the one delivering West’s inspired words as Harriet Tubman, like “I got some dope ass shit planned out” and “bitch, you late.” Spencer isn’t the most spot-on with her lip syncing, but it doesn’t matter, because she’s Octavia freaking Spencer, and she’s a fantastic actress who manages to still give a very committed and enthralling performance, even as West forces her to say ridiculous things.
“She was just dope as hell,” West says of Tubman after her story. That sense of reverence comes through throughout her narration. West injects her storytelling with infectious excitement, and she plainly states right off the bat that Tubman doesn’t get her due in the history textbooks we read in school. West wants you to know what’s up with Harriet Tubman, and she accomplishes what she sets out to do, even as she gets a little distracted along the way. Whenever Drunk History lets someone tell a story that they clearly care about, it captures something truly wonderful. And the alcohol only heightens the passion, making for the best kind of drunk experience.
Claudia O’Doherty hangs onto some of that momentum, though her retelling never quite finds the same magic as West’s. It helps, again, that O’Doherty seems to care about Virginia Hall. And Alia Shawkat gives a stellar performance as Hall, sometimes not even having to say anything to make me laugh. Expressive people are always the best reenactors for Drunk History (think Jack McBrayer and Maya Rudolph), and Shawkat, who also appeared in season two, just has one of those faces that can twist into all sorts of fun expressions.
It’s always fun when Drunk History builds its episodes around a theme rather than a place, and sometimes I wish it did so more often. “American Music” and “First Ladies” were some of the best episodes of season two. “Spies” isn’t the best season three has had to offer, but it has the same strength as those other two thematic episodes: cohesion. Drunk History is intentionally split up into three distinct retellings that certainly aren’t obligated to connect in any way, but the thematic episodes do, obviously, add more of a discernible thread than the city episodes. All three of the stories about spies here have some loose similarities—especially the first two. But all three also tell distinct stories from three distinct perspectives, providing a pretty diverse look at history’s spies. Drunk History rightfully understands there is no dominant spy narrative, though Roald Dahl’s story looks the most like the spy tales of movies, mostly because he’s a dapper white dude who sleeps with a lot of women in his pursuit of secrets.
But perhaps precisely because it’s a story that seems familiar to anyone who has seen any James Bond movie, the Roald Dahl retelling is the most boring segment of the episode. That’s not to say Lucius Dillon isn’t a fine narrator. He has done this before, and his experience shows. More than that, it seems Dillon might get drunk with Derek Waters more often than just for the show. There’s a comfort level there that makes it very fun to watch him and Waters drunkenly play with each other. Will Ferrell also makes a convincing Dahl, but the best part of the third segment has nothing to do with Roald Dahl and everything to do with Dillon and Waters rolling around a bed together.
- Mariners, according to West: “People who work in the water with water shit.”
- West: “Harriet Tubman is coming with her army full of bad bitches.”
- West: “Hey, racist ass white person, here is another racist ass white person…”
- O’Doherty: “Hello, I’m very good spy.”
- West also teaches Waters some Bobby Shmurda lyrics.