A common feature of John le Carré stories is that the global stakes are high, but not visible. We witness spy games and backroom deals with the understanding that the human costs are substantial, but rarely get a tangible sense of how a covert operation can affect the lives of those innocents who have nothing to do with it. Le Carré deals with an elite class, no matter their political allegiances or moral character, and no matter the risk of personal violence they might assume. Their triumphs and tragedies are quiet, and their losses are discreet. When someone like, say, Juan Apostol, is found murdered in his bedroom, the ramifications of his death may be substantial, but they’re also fundamentally unknown.
That’s why it was so important, for a brief moment, to hear Angela Burr tell the story of why she’s so obsessed with bringing Richard Roper to justice. Asked about the personal sacrifices she’s made with regard to her husband and the possibility of a family, Burr recounts a United Nations mission in Iraq, where she personally witnessed the deployment of biological weapons on ordinary people. In an open field on “sports day,” Burr saw a peaceful afternoon ruptured by the dropping of two shells — one mustard gas, the other sarin gas — that were combined to keep people from getting masks on. “That was the first time I saw Richard Roper,” Burr says. Even though he wasn’t responsible for the attack, it inspired him to start selling sarin: “He saw what I saw, 112 children and 58 adults, and he thought business.”
In typical le Carré fashion, Burr describes this scene from some tech dungeon in a major European city, where she and another operative are quite literally in the dark. (Credit director Susanne Bier for not attempting to illustrate it with a flashback.) But Burr’s words alone are enough of a window into Roper’s business that we can see him as a proper villain, rather than an arch sophisticate who makes $600 million arms deals by shuffling around some paperwork. Without the consequences made explicit, everything is abstraction, the banality of evil expressed in contracts, invoices, and bank statements. This is what makes it easy for men like Roper to lounge in Mallorca while the world burns. He gets to boast about the power he wields — “How does it feel that, in the next 24 hours, we’ll transport enough weaponry to start a war?” he asks Andrew Birch/Thomas Quince/Jonathan Pine — but he doesn’t have to witness the destruction firsthand.
Perhaps that explains, to some extent, why Roper suddenly feels more comfortable with Pine in his inner circle rather than Corky, his fiercely devoted thug-in-chief. Yes, Corky is an impulsive drunk, given to unpredictable behavior like the ugly scene he makes over a lobster salad at a three-star Michelin restaurant. But Corky also has dirt under his fingernails. He doesn’t have the air of wealth and civility that makes a smooth operator like Pine such a natural fit with elites like Roper and Sandy Langbourne. He’s the crude battering ram that Roper deploys when ugly business needs getting done. Roper may not fully trust Pine, but he recognizes the promise of a man who can exercise force when necessary and carry himself like a gentleman the rest of the time. Corky is too uncouth.
It’s certainly fortunate for Pine that Corky has fallen out of favor so quickly with Roper. If not, he’d likely be dead by now. Corky’s instincts about Pine are keen — and supported by evidence of an affair developing between this usurper and Jed — but they’re too easily dismissed as the envy of a small man bruised by his second-tier status. Still, Corky remains the biggest threat to the operation, tied possibly with Jed herself, who’s so consumed with despair that she’s willing to risk her life (and Pine’s) on a fling. If the possibility of being caught is a turn-on for sexual risk-takers, then Jed and Pine are having the best sex of their lives and anyone else’s. This episode finds them stealing away for a quickie while Roper and Langbourne slip off to an hour-long meeting, and Jeb even sneaks into Pine’s quarters at night while her partner is out of town.
In an hour consumed by issues of trust, Burr finds her faith in Pine shaken for the first time. Burr catches wind of the affair after Jed brazenly phones Pine at his hotel room in Istanbul, and she comes to the reasonable conclusion that if her people are capable of finding out about it, then Roper will have no trouble, either. Rather than risk losing the entire operation, Burr decides to yank Pine immediately, but Pine defies his handler, either out of his intense feelings for Jed or his conviction that he can still bring Roper to justice. What he doesn’t understand is that Burr’s efforts could unravel whether he slips up or not: Roper has invested millions in protection money from intelligence agencies, and now the creeps at the River House have gotten wind of Jed’s activities. He’s not in total control of his own destiny.
With only two episodes to go, The Night Manager heads into its back third with each of Pine’s relationships in a volatile state: Corky has smelled a rat from day one; Roper is still figuring out if he can be trusted; Jed is throwing caution to the wind; and Burr’s considerable faith in him has been shaken. He’s out on the ledge now, alone and untethered.
- For a character who’s had three different names assigned to him, it’s surprising how little the show has done with Pine’s confusion of identity. Then again, it’s such a cliché for deep-cover thrillers to center on heroes who forget their true selves that maybe it’s for the best that Pine is focused on the operation. (Jed aside, of course.)
- These recaps haven’t spent much time on Rex Mayhew, who may be the only intelligence operative in a stickier place than Burr. Supporting her while working around the leaks at River House isn’t easy, and it’s a shame that The Night Manager doesn’t have enough time to explore his situation more fully. The focus on Pine and Roper has given the intrigue at River House short shrift.
- The Russian transporting Roper’s arms from a shipyard in Istanbul is like a summa cum laude graduate of evil school. “Great enthusiast for tractors and agricultural materials? Want to feed the world like Bono, eh?” Even in character as Andrew Birch, Pine is having none of it: “Let’s get on with it, shall we?”
- Don’t let Corky give the toast at your wedding.