Like so many spy stories before it, The Little Drummer Girl starts with a bang. The year is 1979. The city is Bad Godesberg, West Germany. And the key motif is a nerve-jangling collection of ticking clocks, which collectively count down to a terrorist bombing. (The target was, apparently, an elderly Talmudic scholar, though an 8-year-old boy ends up caught in the explosion because he stays home from school sick.)
But after opening with this nail-biter of a sequence, The Little Drummer Girl almost immediately cuts away from the horrifying carnage of the explosion itself, and it’s worth thinking about why. In the end, this isn’t a story about the random people who end up as collateral damage in these types of attacks. It’s a story about people who meet in boardrooms or anonymous flophouses, plotting the attacks and counterattacks and counter-counterattacks that make up an impossibly elaborate political chess game.
The bomb plot, we quickly learn, was masterminded by Khalil, an elusive Palestinian terrorist who has plotted and executed a series of attacks on Jewish leaders. Kurtz (Michael Shannon), an Israeli spymaster, has made it his personal mission to take Khalil down. And while the stakes for Kurtz are clearly political, they also turn out to be deeply personal. In a conversation with an ally, Kurtz reveals a tattoo that indicates he survived a concentration camp when he was a child. Later, he takes a younger, more reckless member of his team to a memorial for the Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian terrorists in Munich. Kurtz recounts, in vivid detail, how one of the Israeli athletes was castrated before he was killed. “Grow up and hold onto your balls,” he counsels.
In fact, Kurtz’s zeal for terrorist-hunting is so all-encompassing that it has consumed his identity entirely. Kurtz is so driven by his mission that he’s unmoored from his own sense of self. He can’t even recall which fake name he’s supposed to use with one ally, Paul Alexis, which raises the question: How many fake names does he have?
And because The Little Drummer Girl is a story that acknowledges the realities of collateral damage, it’s also clear that Kurtz’s response to the bombing is likely to have nasty consequences for some, if not all, of the people in his orbit. Enter Charlie (Florence Pugh), the closest thing The Little Drummer Girl has to a heroine, unwittingly manipulated and maneuvered into taking the starring role in Kurtz’s dramatic scheme to take Khalil down by exploiting his penchant for using pretty young Western women in his terrorist plots. In the middle of the episode, we see Khalil’s brother Salim (Amir Khoury) get captured when he stops to pick up a pretty hitchhiker (Simona Brown) who’s actually working for Kurtz. By the end, it seems clear that Charlie is poised for a similar role.
So why does Kurtz give Charlie — a civilian with literally no experience in the world of spies — such a pivotal part in this high-stakes plot? It starts with her talents as an actress. We eventually see her onstage, playing Joan of Arc in a production of Shaw’s Saint Joan, but a more revealing performance comes a little earlier. In the middle of an audition, Charlie is encouraged to tell a story about her life. She spins a wild yarn about winning a pub fight, which culminated in a passionate kiss with a dashing man who was falling deeply in love with her.
But here’s the thing: Her story is a lie. As Charlie monologues, director Park Chan-wook reveals glimpses of what actually happened. Charlie drunkenly rushed to defend a friend who she thought was being insulted for being gay; in reality, he had puked on a pool table. The kiss — which Charlie described, vividly, as “so hard that his teeth hit mine” — was a total fabrication.
Charlie, like Kurtz, is constructing her own reality, with herself as the romantic heroine at the center of it all. And maybe that’s what makes her the perfect woman to play the central role in Kurtz’s plot. Charlie isn’t recruited in a conventional way; she’s manipulated into a bizarrely intricate plot that leaves her unsettled and isolated by the time the episode ends.
It starts with a mysterious stranger who offers to bankroll Charlie’s entire theater troupe on a trip to Greece. It’s exactly the kind of too-good-to-be-true offer that’s impossible to turn down, and before long, Charlie is whisked away. On the beach, her friends become fixated on a mysterious and stupidly handsome man (Alexander Skarsgård), who lingers nearby reading Regis Debray’s The Chilean Revolution: Conversations With Allende. He irritates and intrigues Charlie in equal measure — and when he invites her to join him on a jaunt to Athens, she agrees to go along.
In Athens, Becker has a rom-com-ready gesture for Charlie: a private night tour of the Acropolis, with guards paid to stand down while they explore. As Charlie dances around the ancient pillars, with her shadow looming over the city, she wonders aloud: “How will I ever fall in love after this?”
Just moments later, the romantic illusion is punctured. First, Becker coldly backs away from his kiss. After that, he drives them off so quickly and stonily that Charlie becomes convinced she’s being kidnapped and sold into slavery. It’s only when Becker finally pulls up to a house that Kurtz and the rest of his team reveal themselves in full.
Which means, in a way, that the preceding, dazzling sequence at the Acropolis was also entirely superfluous. At this point, Becker has already lured Charlie toward the house where Kurtz and his team are plotting against Khalil. As the plot unfolds, there’s a very real chance that this romantic evening will be part of establishing both a cover story and a trail for Charlie — but there are many, many less bombastic ways Becker could have done that.
So why the grand gesture at the Acropolis? For one, it’s a flashy way to reveal how much power he can effortlessly exert. It also suggests that Kurtz sees himself not as an agent, but as an artist, indulging in at least one needlessly baroque flourish in the midst of his master plan. When he finally comes face-to-face with Charlie, he grandly introduces himself as the “producer, writer, and director of our little show.” And now, at last, he has his star.
For Your Eyes Only:
• Some quick housekeeping: This is a spy show, so there are tons of fake names flying around — but for clarity’s sake, I’m going to stick to everybody’s real names in these recaps. For example: Alexander Skarsgård eventually introduces himself as Peter Richthoven (though Sophie calls him “Action Man” and Charlie calls him “Joseph” or “José”) — but per the credits, his real name is Gadi Becker, so I’m going with Becker.
• Kurtz’s name might sound like a nod to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but John le Carré’s original novel explicitly waves that explanation away as a “laborious reference.” Instead: “The bald truth was that the name was Moravian and was originally Kurz, till a British police officer of the Mandate, in his wisdom, had added a ‘t’ — and Kurtz, in his, had kept it, a sharp little dagger jabbed into the bulk of his identity, and left there as some kind of goad.”
• Another key theme that seems to be emerging in The Little Drummer Girl: Sex is at the heart of the mistakes people make. The young Jewish scholar is disarmed by the Swedish girl who delivers the suitcase containing the bomb. Salim is undone when he picks up a pretty hitchhiker who turns out to be an undercover agent. And Charlie is drawn into Kurtz’s web by her stubborn, almost unwilling attraction to Becker, the handsome stranger whose external iciness is a jarring contrast to the grand gestures he uses to win her over.
• One of the most disturbing things about Charlie’s situation is the way it engenders extreme paranoia. When a hunky suitor like Becker and a new “friend” like Rose both turn out to be manipulative spies, how can she trust the identities or motives of anyone in her life?
• With movies like Oldboy, Stoker, and The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook has established himself as one of modern cinema’s great visual stylists, and his talents are on full display here. The Acropolis sequence in particular is a stunner.
• For all you John le Carré-heads out there, it’s worth noting that a third mini-series derived from his work —The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which was last adapted for the big screen in 1965 —was officially announced back in January 2017, though news on the project has been quiet ever since.
• Diane Keaton and Klaus Kinski starred in a semi-faithful big-screen adaptation of The Little Drummer Girl in 1984, just a year after the book hit shelves. It’s not great.
• Given the prominence of Saint Joan in The Little Drummer Girl, I’d suggest keeping this quote from Shaw’s own preface to Saint Joan in mind: “It is […] what normally innocent people do that concerns us; and if Joan had not been burnt by normally innocent people in the energy of their righteousness her death at their hands would have no more significance than the Tokyo earthquake, which burnt a great many maidens. The tragedy of such murders is that they are not committed by murderers. They are judicial murders, pious murders; and this contradiction at once brings an element of comedy into the tragedy: the angels may weep at the murder, but the gods laugh at the murderers.”