When he was a small child growing up in the Hague during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, director Paul Verhoeven remembers driving home from visiting family with his father and the Germans forcing them to take a different route than usual. He recalls, “We were forced to pass the bodies of Dutch citizens that were taken out of prison by reprisal, because some German officer had been killed on that street. The Germans would take something like 20 or 30 people out of prison — political prisoners, resistance fighters, sometimes just criminals — and they would put them at the spot where the German soldier was killed, and they would execute them. And so that had happened in the street next to our house, and my father and I were forced to pass the dead bodies as an act of terror.”
After an extraordinary 15-year run in Hollywood that includes such films as RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers, Verhoeven took a long hiatus and reemerged in his native Holland with the 2006 WWII thriller Black Book. His childhood memories inform the film in various ways, but true to provocative form, Verhoeven’s tale of Dutch resistance isn’t the expected wartime adventure. Following a Jewish singer (Carice van Houten, better known these days as Melisandre in Game of Thrones) who uses her powers of seduction to get close to an SS office and provide vital information to the resistance. But when the war is over, she’s identified as a traitor by her countrymen and treated to harrowing public humiliation and violence. With Black Book, Verhoeven boldly indicts the mob mentality that seized the Netherlands after the war, but he also implies that war doesn’t often reveal heroes and villains so unambiguously, especially among ordinary citizens, who are whisked along by the forces of history.
I thought of Verhoeven and Black Book often during the stunning final 15 minutes of “Dyatkovo,” which confront Philip and Elizabeth with similar truths. As soldiers for the Soviet cause, they were brought into the spy game through the same manipulation and us-versus-them propaganda they’re currently deploying on their own daughter. They have enough experience by now to know that the world isn’t so black-and-white, but not so much that they question the righteousness of a mission to kill Natalie Granholm, a woman charged with helping the Nazis lure over 1,000 Russians to their death at a pit on the edge of her hometown. As it’s explained to Philip and Elizabeth, Granholm fled justice through a German hospital, where she was being treated for venereal diseases for bedding so many Nazis. They’re told that she’s now living a comfortable, privileged life in the States, never having answered for her crimes.
For Philip and Elizabeth, the biggest concern about the mission is getting it wrong. They still haven’t recovered from killing an innocent lab technician over the super-wheat mix-up, and the one photo they have of Granholm, when she was just a teenager, makes identifying her a disturbing uncertainty. They trail her. They take surveillance shots. Elizabeth brings herself to admit their target sort of looks like the woman in the photo. But it’s ultimately up to their bosses to give them the green light, which leaves them in the position of confirming the call in the moments before they shoot her. (Which raises another question about how they can let her and her husband live regardless, since their own identities would be compromised. But that’s not really at issue here.)
In typical Americans form, they face the unexpected worst-case scenario of being right: They’ve found the woman charged with these atrocities, all right, but their understanding of her motives at the time is woefully lacking in context. In her one-off turn as Granholm, Irina Dubova is startlingly good at playing multiple levels of emotional trauma at once: the immediate prospect of KGB assassins exposing the truth to her husband and killing them both, and still-vivid memories of watching her family get murdered as a teenager, then forced into unimaginable physical and psychological violation by the Nazis. When her husband gets thrust into this confusing and horrifying situation, he joins Granholm in begging for their lives, but his deepest concern is for his wife’s soul. She’d kept this a secret from him, she says, because “I wanted to be the person you thought I was.” His heartbreaking response: “I know who you are, Natalie. I know you are good.”
Philip can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. Elizabeth bails him out by finishing the job. But while driving away, it’s clear that even she has found her limit. “I want to get out of here,” she says. “We should just go. I mean it. Let’s go home.” Natalie Granholm could have been her — could have been any young woman in that situation — and there’s no argument to be made that killing her is just. Elizabeth could squint hard enough to see the super-wheat project as salvageable, one that cost an innocent life but may save many more if this pest-resistant strain helps feed a starving country. Killing Granholm and her husband offers no such outs: It confronts them with the toxicity of their actions, just as the pages of Pastor Tim’s diary did last week. They don’t know the full story. They never have. And hearing it from a target shrinks their moral authority to nil.
Back home, Oleg gets the same message. After doing a near-season’s worth of legwork on rooting out corruption in Russian food distribution, Lydia Fomina, the bureaucrat they catch with gifts and an incriminating ledger, gives it to Oleg and Ruslan straight: “You have no idea what you’re talking about.” Threatened with 15 years in prison, she doesn’t flinch, claiming that this system is how the country operates and it isn’t going to change no matter what they do. Lydia doesn’t know anything like the trauma Granholm has lived with, but they’re making a common argument: They may appear guilty, but there are (or were) larger forces at play that they can’t (or couldn’t) control. The people standing in judgment of them don’t have a clue.
Hammers and Sickles
• On top of everything else, Henry gets what might be his best episode. His FBI visit prompts the return of a fan favorite, the Mail Robot. (“It’s a mail robot.” “What does it do?” “It delivers mail.”) That leads to the delightful irony of Henry enthusing with his parents over all the cool, secret stuff he saw there — nothing truly juicy, though, which allows Philip and Elizabeth to smile along with him, rather than harvest information. Then Stan punctures Henry’s impression of “the coolest job in the world” by telling him what a spy’s life is really like: “I can’t explain it to you, Henry, because I can’t trust you. You are the greatest kid in the world, but I have to think of you like you could be a spy. That’s what the FBI’s like.”
• Claudia confirms the Jennings’ worst fears about the weaponization of the biochemical sample they extracted from William Crandall’s body. Word that it’s called “Variant V” for “Vitaly,” Crandall’s Russian name, likely doesn’t bring them comfort — and would horrify Crandall if he were alive.
• Philip asks the obvious about last week’s darkroom scene: “Do you think Paige wanted us to see those photos?” He suspects that she wanted them to read Pastor Tim’s diary in front of her. And she’s surely right on that count.
• Two episodes left, and only one season after that. If Elizabeth is serious about going back home, it won’t be easy for the Jennings to uproot themselves. (The head swims just thinking about it.) And that’s assuming the offer is still on the table.