Photo: Jonathan Olley/AMC/Ink Factory
If there’s a lesson to be learned from Charlie’s largely successful time undercover, it’s this: If you’re going to tell a lie, make it as close to the truth as possible.
Until this moment, Charlie’s spycraft has come with training wheels. Even when she was working alone, she was under the protection of Israeli agents like Becker and Rachel, who could intervene whenever danger emerged. Now, Charlie is at a training camp in Lebanon — and under the watchful eye of Fatmeh, who presumably knew her own brother well enough to sniff out any inconsistencies in Charlie’s fictional account of their love affair. So when Fatmeh quizzes Charlie about the last time she saw Salim, Charlie is wise enough to draw upon her actual memory of Salim nude and drugged on a bed. “Honestly … he was vulnerable and he could barely move,” she tells Fatmeh, a completely accurate statement that Fatmeh interprets as a shy euphemism for post-coital bliss.
Given her battle-tested improv skills, it’s no surprise that Charlie quickly establishes herself as one of the standout recruits at the training camp. In a rapid-fire montage, we see her firing handguns, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades; building bombs; and competing in a clearly unwinnable wrestling match against a man who’s way, way bigger than she is. As he body-slams her over and over again, it’s clear that the exercise isn’t about beating him. It’s about refusing to stay down.
But for all the challenges Charlie faces in the actual training, her biggest threat comes from a fellow trainee. Late at night, a deranged fellow recruit slips into her room for a “conversation” that carries the implicit threat of sexual assault. The man eventually reveals his real name — in strict violation of the camp’s rules — as Arthur Halloran, and begs Charlie to help him send a message to an American embassy that might help extract him from Lebanon.
Charlie — who over the course of The Little Drummer Girl has wisely learned to be paranoid — suspects that this disquieting encounter with Halloran might be another test. And in a way, it is. When their conflict comes out into the open, Captain Tayeh, who runs the camp, orders both Charlie and Halloran to testify. And when Charlie openly reveals all the private information Halloran shared with her, he flees. Charlie follows, and in a dramatic display of loyalty, she fires her gun at him. When she misses, a nearby guard shoots Halloran dead.
Following the incident with Halloran, Fatmeh admits that Charlie is an unusually valuable recruit to Khalil’s cause: She has a “pretty white face” and a clean Western passport, which opens all kinds of doors that would be closed to a native Palestinian. But what’s more striking is how readily Charlie throws herself into her role: completing such difficult training, ingratiating herself with the locals, and soldiering on through a march that turns deadly when Israeli planes fly over and bomb five camps (against the strenuous objections of Kurtz, who pleads for more time to let Charlie conduct the more “surgical” strike against Khalil that he pitched in the premiere).
And here, The Little Drummer Girl makes a fascinating pivot. Since the very first episode, we’ve been in Charlie’s head. Now — immediately after a bombing that could be enough to make her switch sides for real — the show shuts the audience out. When Charlie returns from her month-long stint in Lebanon, sporting a fuzzy wig and glasses, she leaves no message at all for Kurtz and his team. The closest we get to gauging her state of mind is a casual remark that it “feels like [she’s] never been here in [her] life.”
But while Charlie has been away, Kurtz and his team have been tracking Helga, Anton, and Rossino in an effort to determine Khalil’s next target. All signs point to an Israeli professor named Irene Minkel, who is scheduled to give a talk about the contemporary political climate between Israel and Palestine. The Israeli team watches as Charlie swaps the professor briefcase for an identical one, but when they open the case Charlie left behind, they discover there’s no bomb in it. Meanwhile, Kurtz — acting on Becker’s suggestion — lets Charlie leave the area without tailing her.
And as the plot nears its climax, Kurtz goes to discuss the situation with a British intelligence officer named Picton (played by Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance, to a surprised and delight squeal by me). Picton’s late emergence in this complex plot is a reminder that Kurtz — for all his apparent mastery — is operating in the much greater ecosystem of the intelligence community. Unlike Paul Alexis, Picton sees through Kurtz’s pseudonym instantly, and sneers at Kurtz’s clever little scheme as a variation on something the Brits invented. In return, Kurtz asks Picton to let the bombing plot unfold without any intervention, and promises that the British government can have all the credit if Khalil’s attack is successfully foiled.
But Picton’s introduction isn’t just a plot point; it’s a thematic one. It’s Picton who spells out exactly why this story is called The Little Drummer Girl in the first place. It’s in the middle of a story about a brutal interrogation Picton conducted with an Israeli kid who had been taking potshots at British soldiers. Recognizing his subject’s youth, Picton assumed he would be the weakest link. But despite his best efforts, the kid never broke, and Picton eventually realized he would only grow firmer in his resolve. “God, if I ever made a little drummer boy right here,” Picton recalls. “Ready to bang his gong into the next battle they find for him.”
The point is simple: When you’re dealing with a certain kind of person, any attempt to break their spirit will only push them into new extremes. And the people who refuse to break, no matter how hard they’re beaten, often turn into the people who will go on to inspire legions to follow their example. It’s how Kurtz, having survived the horrors of a concentration camp, has won the loyalty of his close-knit team. It’s also how Khalil manages to convert all kinds of people to the Palestinian cause.
And it’s a question worth keeping in mind as Charlie enters the final phase of her mission — now, for the first time, largely inscrutable to us — as she finally comes face-to-face with Khalil, who has actually surfaced in England so he can meet with her. With just one episode left, we’re finally poised to learn what this incomprehensibly difficult experience has done to Charlie, and what she plans to do about it.
• Here’s a question to mull over: Did Charlie miss shooting Halloran on purpose? She’s crossed a number of moral lines since she started working for Kurtz, but refusing to personally kill anyone seems like a standard she still plans to hold.
• One little detail I liked: Just days after Salim’s death, Fatmeh is already screen-printing Salim T-shirts. Yes, Kurtz and his team took out one of Khalil’s major players, but they also created a martyr.
• When you’ve got a character who spouts dialogue like “Taking a bloody great shit all over me without even giving a weather report,” you gotta call Charles Dance.
• The 1948 Deir Yassin massacre, which Picton alludes to in his “little drummer boy” speech, is one of the defining moments of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Many of the details remain in dispute today — so much so that it’s easy to find reams of recent arguments arguing that the historical incident has been either exaggerated or unjustly overlooked — but here’s a relatively straightforward account of what happened from the New York Times.
• This episode’s Most Park Chan-wook-ian Moment: Becker’s surreal (and frankly, kind of goofy) dream, which sees him dropping his gun and shaking hands with his enemy … who promptly goes up in flames, leaving Becker holding a dismembered hand.