For the first two episodes, directed with crisp immediacy and vintage charm by “Booksmart”’s Susanna Fogel, Miep is just an ordinary girl trying to grow up in difficult circumstances: She’s a twentysomething layabout with few prospects, no job, and no husband (unless, of course, she marries one of her adopted brothers). Luckily, she meets a nice, sensitive boy named Jan (“Gangs of London”’s Joe Cole) and uses her considerable charm and stubbornness to land a job working for Otto Frank at his company. But whispers of Nazi advancement turn to stark reality, and within a couple of years (and by first episode’s end), Miep finds herself smuggling the Franks to the annex above Otto’s Amsterdam offices one at a time.
We see her cunning pretty early on, as she and older Frank sister Margot (Ashley Brooke) must bike past a Nazi checkpoint. Faced with her first real obstacle (of many to come), Miep does what she does best: Think on her feet and muddle through. “You are so much stronger than you think you are,” she coaches Margot before making their gambit past Nazi officers. She might as well be saying it to herself.
Powley’s work across all eight episodes is tremendous: “A Small Light” is basically a coming-of-age story for Miep Gies, whose own growth into a self-actualized adult coincides with the life-or-death circumstances she faces. She plays Miep with heaps of witty effervescence tinged with cynical practicality, defusing even the most harrowing scenarios with welcome wit. It’s a delicate tonal tightrope to walk—“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” by way of “The Pianist”—but it manages to avoid the funereal pitfalls of a lot of Holocaust stories without turning it into the twee nonsense of “JoJo Rabbit.”
Of course, Mieps’ journey is not the only tale of heroism we follow. Jan’s own efforts to sneak ration cards to the Franks end up getting him recruited to the Dutch resistance. There, he sees the other ways, both direct and indirect, his countrymen resist the Nazis—and the little sacrifices they must all make along the way. Cole and Powley’s chemistry is palpable, especially as their doe-eyed naivete gives way to a hardened recognition of the things they must do to save others (and the secrets they have to keep from each other) over the course of the series.