The Little Drummer Girl
The Little Drummer Girl has been so coy about Khalil (Charif Ghattas) that I had begun to wonder if he would be cut from the miniseries altogether. But there he was, at the end of episode five, emerging from the shadows to help Charlie complete the final phase of her very first terrorist attack.
We’ve heard a lot about this man over the course of the series. In the first episode, Kurtz called him a “genius” and compared him to Mozart. We know Salim idolized him. At the rally in Lebanon, we saw an entire crowd leap to their feet and applaud at the mere mention of his name. And now he’s here: A bearded, soft-spoken man with striking blue eyes. When Charlie describes him later in the episode, she settles on the word “beautiful.”
This is the logical culmination of The Little Drummer Girl’s airport-paperback riff on the Israel-Palestine conflict. A self-righteous avenger like Kurtz can also be a callous monster; a terrorist like Khalil, who masterminded the series-opening bombing plot that counted an eight-year-old among its victims, can be uncommonly warm and kind. Both sides are passionately dedicated to their cause, and justifiably furious at the actions of the other. Neither can claim to have consistently taken the high road.
And that leaves us, as always, with Charlie teetering nervously between the two. The stage for the final act of The Little Drummer Girl is set by her first face-to-face encounter with Khalil, which comes with an odd, unbalanced intimacy to this encounter that’s worth unpacking. In Khalil’s mind, Charlie is both the ex-lover of his late brother Salim and a promising new recruit whose tutelage he personally supervised. At the same time, Charlie knows all about Khalil, but her knowledge comes from his enemy, Kurtz, not his hero-worshipping brother. And the two things that bring them both together — their personal affection for Salim and their political zeal for Palestine — are, in Charlie’s case, predicated on lies.
Of course, The Little Drummer Girl wrings suspense out of whether Charlie’s method-actress sympathy for the Palestinian cause has actually turned into something real. The whole series has followed Charlie as she gains unparalleled access to the inner workings of Khalil’s network. That makes it easy to overlook how dangerous it could be that she has the exact same access to Kurtz and the rest of his team. A different version of this show might have Charlie in the catbird seat, now a true sympathizer with the Palestinian cause, killing Kurtz and his team with the very real bomb planted in the briefcase.
But The Little Drummer Girl doesn’t go quite that far. Charlie delivers the bomb as ordered, stiffly playing out a scripted exchange with Professor Minkel that she’ll later describe as a spontaneous exchange to Khalil. In her subsequent conversation with Kurtz, Charlie also delivers a different kind of bombshell: Khalil has already begun to fall in love with her.
Kurtz is unsurprisingly thrilled at this unexpected development. He imagines a new phase of his mission in which Charlie spends years as a deep-cover agent at Khalil’s side, allowing the Israelis to gather enough intel that — when they finally strike — they can take out every contact and cell in a single coordinated attack. Becker, whose stake in Charlie’s fate is both professional and personal, is horrified by Kurtz’s insistence on doubling down on a bet that will, inevitably, come up bust someday.
As part of the process designed to entrap Khalil, Kurtz and his team allow Charlie’s bomb to be detonated, spreading a false story about Minkel dying in the attack. It’s enough to complete Charlie’s seduction of Khalil, who rewards his successful recruit with a private candlelit dinner in the countryside. It’s a little bit like “The Weekend,” Homeland’s most celebrated episode, which similarly zeroes in on the unexpected intimacy between two people who must know, on some level, that they’re taking a stupid risk by letting the other person in.
The difference, of course, is that Charlie knows the clock is ticking, because Becker and the rest of the team are lined up outside the cabin the entire time. Kurtz’s plan is to close in on Khalil and Charlie, but deliberately let them escape, which will ensure that Charlie remains embedded alongside Khalil for whatever he has planned next. As always, Charlie has a role to play, but this time, the ending has already been written.
That doesn’t stop Charlie from playing her part in her typical method-actress style: the eager young radical who, having lost her first love, has moved on to his more mature (but similarly dashing) brother. She and Khalil spend a romantic evening having sex. It’s not until the morning, when Khalil notices the milkman hasn’t arrived, that he realizes something is very wrong.
Finally, after everything she has endured, Charlie’s performance cracks. When Khalil asks her why she set him up — presuming that she has strong Zionist sympathies — the best she can do is cry, “I’m an actress.” And while Khalil could kill Charlie at any moment, he decides to accept his fate instead. She apologizes, and he tells her he hopes it was worth it just moments before Becker rushes in and kills him, emptying an entire clip of bullets into his body in an uncharacteristic (and presumably long-suppressed) display of rage.
With the leader of the cell dead, Kurtz’s team shifts into cleanup mode. In a Godfather-esque climactic montage, we see them expertly assassinating all the major players in Khalil’s cell. Anton is shot dead in his office; Rossino is bombed in his apartment; Fatmeh is killed in an airstrike. Kurtz’s team is victorious — though Kurtz, shrugging “you can’t stop the devil,” is clearly already prepared to choose his next target and start the process all over again.
But there’s one last big question to answer: Where does that leave the traumatized Charlie, who has already exhausted her usefulness, and Becker, who is clearly so fed up with this line of work that he’ll never be useful to Kurtz again?
We get a hint of the answer in the closing scene of The Little Drummer Girl, as Charlie arrives to greet Becker at his apartment. “Who are you? Who am I?” she asks. “One question at a time,” he says. And they go inside together.
I suspect that some viewers will be disappointed by this ending, and I’d understand why. It’s not like Becker has done anything to deserve Charlie’s love. But while Park Chan-wook’s camera resists making any kind of commentary or judgment on what’s happening here, this strikes me as an appropriately grim conclusion. These two people have endured a singularly bizarre, miserable experience that no one else could possibly understand. In the end, they might not be any happier together — but at this point, where else can they turn?
For Your Eyes Only
• There are two times Khalil says Charlie doesn’t need to do something: before she goes off to deliver the bomb, and before they hook up. It’s an elegant capper on The Little Drummer Girl’s fascination with the commonalities between spycraft and sex, and the way that the horniest people end up making the biggest mistakes.
• Khalil has never met Kurtz (and isn’t even sure he exists), but his imagined adversary sounds a lot like the real deal: someone whose mind “has been carved away by decades of battle. He knows me, but I don’t know him. In my head, I have made him a devil. A dybbuk from their texts.”
• As she heads to Khalil’s cabin after the bombing, there’s a nice, ambiguous shot of Charlie noticing a dead animal by the side of the road. Is she thinking about all the corpses, Israeli and Palestinian alike, that have piled up since that initial bombing in Bad Godesberg? Or is she realizing that she and/or Khalil are likely to end up as corpses on the side of that very same road before the day is over?
• For anyone who’s curious, a few more changes as The Little Drummer Girl went from book to screen: In the novel, Professor Minkel is a man. Charlie’s reward for helping Kurtz catch Khalil includes “a large sum of money,” which is explained as an unexpected inheritance from a rich, dead friend of her father’s. Becker’s estranged wife Frankie begs him to come back home, offering to be “whatever you want me to be”; he rejects her, repulsed at the ideal of molding anyone the way he molded Charlie. There’s also an entire length subplot about Charlie’s agent, an elderly alcoholic man named Ned Quilley, who got cut from the miniseries entirely.
• Most interestingly, there’s the fate of Kurtz, who — having finally captured his elusive quarry — immediately descends into a precipitous decline: “His body seemed to shrink to half its size, his Slav eyes lost all their sparkle, he looked his age, whatever that was, at last.”
• This episode’s Most Park Chan-wook-ian Moment: The long, chilling shot of Charlie riding off on the motorcycle while the bomb explodes far in the background, which fits neatly into a whole career full of Park Chan-wook’s tight closeups on characters’ faces as they process indescribably complex emotions.