There is nothing subtle about the second episode of The Little Drummer Girl, which gives the dueling stories of two prisoners and invites us to interrogate the similarities and differences of their situations. One is Salim, the Bad Godesberg bombing suspect who was abducted in the premiere, and now wakes up in a small cement cell.
The other is Charlie, whose abductors were a good deal gentler with her. To get to this point, Charlie has: (1) Met a handsome stranger on the beach; (2) received an expensive-looking dress and taken a ride in a cherry Mercedes; and (3) enjoyed a private night tour of the Acropolis. It’s like Kurtz and his team were setting a mousetrap with caviar.
Don’t get me wrong: I would much, much rather be in Charlie’s situation than Salim’s. Her captors are still captors, but they’re being uncommonly nice about it. Her palatial mansion is a prison, yes — but it’s still a palatial mansion, complete with a swimming pool. And if the circumstances of Salim and Charlie’s captures are different, it’s because their situations are different. Kurtz needs Salim to break. He needs Charlie to perform.
So it makes sense, on some level, that Charlie’s “capture” doubles as an elaborate seduction. But let’s not forget: A gilded cage is still a cage. Kurtz attempts to enlist Charlie in his mission with lavish praise and repeated assurances that what he’s actually offering is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But the boundaries of this situation show themselves when Charlie goes to the bathroom, with Rose and Rachel on her heels, and is gently told she can’t even close the door while she poops.
And as in any interrogation, Kurtz also entraps Charlie with her words: What she says, and what he pretends he doesn’t already know. Much like an actual acting audition — a comparison that, frankly, The Little Drummer Girl is a little too obvious in making — Charlie is invited to improvise as extensively as she likes. But the subject here is the story of her life. She spins an elaborate narrative about her rich father being incarcerated, and dying as she stood waiting outside the prison in the rain.
It’s only when Charlie finishes that the ever-patient Kurtz reveals that this Dickensian backstory is completely false — a dramatic-sounding origin story to make up for her fairly humdrum life. Charlie is humiliated by the revelation. But isn’t this exactly what Kurtz wants? Someone who, when being ruthlessly interrogated, won’t stop spinning lies, no matter how much she’s pressed on them? Traumatized or not, she passed the test. She’s part of Kurtz’s crew now — even if it’s not totally clear that she ever had a choice in the matter.
And then there’s Salim: Stuck in a windowless, soundproof box, which might turn out to be the last place he ever sees. With the possibility of another bombing on the horizon, Kurtz’s time is very short. He needs Salim to talk — so, true to form, he orders a series of tricks instead.
Literally everything about Salim’s situation is a lie. His captors dramatically overstate the strength of their hand, acting like he’s been extradited to Israel and his brother Khalil — the leader of their movement — has already been captured. Salim’s only “ally,” Miss Bach — who introduces herself to him as Joanna — is pretending to be a representative from the International Aid Alliance who is there to ensure the terms of his capture are humane. In reality, she’s there to feed him a constant stream of false information and one drug-infused orange, which makes him woozy and suggestible enough for Kurtz’s squad to trick him and break him.
And in the end, it works. Salim reveals a key bit of information that Kurtz deems actionable: a bombing planned for a train station in Salzburg. Kurtz later learns that Salim’s confession might be false — but by then, it’s too late. Charlie and Becker are bound for Salzburg in a Mercedes loaded with enough Semtex to build a dozen bombs. The goal is as high-risk as it is simple: Have Charlie deliver the Semtex, earning Khalil’s trust, and use her as an inside woman so Kurtz can get one step ahead of Khalil and take her down.
The problem is that Charlie doesn’t know that’s the plan. As far as the spies tell her, she’s delivering a dummy car loaded with absolutely no Semtex. And that’s what she would continue to believe if Becker didn’t break his orders, revealing the truth about how risky her mission will actually be. And that’s the real value in Becker’s final gesture as the episode ends: For the first time since Kurtz set his sights on Charlie, someone is telling her the unvarnished truth, and letting her decide what she wants to do about it.
For Your Eyes Only:
• In addition to the actor/agent thing going on between Charlie and Becker, The Little Drummer Girl obviously wants us to suspect that an actual romance might develop between the two as they play the “romance” between Charlie and Salim. I don’t want to spoil what the book and the 1984 film adaptation do with this part of the story, but I will say that the miniseries hasn’t done nearly enough to convince me of a genuine romantic connection between these two yet.
• That said, I like how director Park Chan-wook keeps shifting between the real-life Becker and the idealized image of Salim as Becker, spinning out the false backstory of Charlie and Salim’s love affair. Again: If you want to make your spy thriller look extra stylish, pay Park Chan-wook whatever he’s asking for.
• Becker also explains some of the odd mysteries from the premiere. The empty box Charlie received after Saint Joan will, to anyone who saw it, look like a gift from Salim. And the elaborate date at the Acropolis could, to any witnesses, be regarded as a grand gesture from the smitten Salim.
• The revelation that Becker was in the audience of Saint Joan “playing” Salim as he fell in love with the leading lady is a clever bit of mirroring: An agent, tasked with a bit of acting, watching an actor who will soon be tasked with becoming an agent.
• They don’t come right out and say it — this is not that kind of miniseries — but in broad strokes: Kurtz’s scheme is to pretend Becker is Salim, carrying out the mission Salim was on before he was abducted, with Charlie in the role of Salim’s convert girlfriend. Charlie is smart enough to know this won’t stand up to close scrutiny — she almost openly remarks on the difference between Salim’s brown eyes and Becker’s blue ones — but presumably they’re only going to use Becker when they’re not around people who have met Salim before, with Charlie taking the lead the rest of the time.
• Kurtz gets off a few solid burns about Charlie’s politics — which are, by her own admission, only quasi-informed — but even I winced when he mocked her as “extreme center.”
• Charlie gets to decide how good Becker-as-Salim would be in bed. For the record: “Enthusiastic, but he lacks technique.”