Photo: Jonathan Olley/AMC/Ink Factory
There was always going to be bloodshed, right? This is a series that began with the bombing death of an 8-year-old boy, and the Israeli spymaster Kurtz vowing to punish the people who were responsible. We’ve spent the past two episodes watching Kurtz maneuver all his chess pieces into place; now, it seems, it’s time to start knocking a few over.
So it’s really no surprise that The Little Drummer Girl’s third episode ends with Kurtz and his team staging Salim and Anna’s deaths in a fiery car explosion that will undoubtedly be written off as an accident. What is surprising is that the show seems to think we’ll be surprised by this decision.
The problem, I suspect, is that the show wants to make sure we’re fully immersed in Charlie’s point of view, even as it twists her into knots to move the plot forward. Even after all of Kurtz’s head games, I’m not fully satisfied that she would have agreed to this mission so readily. And while her grasp on global politics has been revealed to be somewhat unformed and naïve, I refuse to believe she actually thinks Salim will be freed or put on trial. Has Kurtz given any indication he would jeopardize his all-important mission out of compassion to agents from the other side?
But in the moment, she seems to buy it, which means Charlie’s inevitable disillusionment will need to wait. “Episode 3” begins as Charlie drives off alone with the Semtex, which will serve as the bait in a trap intended to snare Khalil. Given the two hours of buildup to this moment, it’s almost anticlimactic when Charlie’s first big mission goes off nearly without a hitch. She drives the Mercedes across the border into Yugoslavia, and eventually into Austria. When the border guard notices Charlie’s nervousness, he checks the trunk and discovers … a case of bootleg moonshine (and promptly confiscates it, completely missing the much more explosive contraband hidden deeper inside the car).
Shimon leads the surveillance mission, which eventually bears fruit when the car is picked up by Anna Witgen — the young Swedish woman who delivered the bomb in the series premiere — and Rossino, who Shimon sneeringly describes as “a petty little left-wing journalist.” It’s one step closer to Khalil, which makes it the team’s biggest break to date.
But before they can keep moving, the team needs to contend with the ugliness of the evidence left in their wake. In a smartly shot and genuinely disturbing sequence, they descend on Anna, who bitterly fights back until they jab a syringe into her neck.
And then there’s Salim, who Kurtz manages to break by abandoning the illusion his team has built — the sounds of other prisoners, the capture of Khalil, even the location of his captivity — by showing him the reality of his situation: two days in a drugged-out stupor in a custom-built cell in Munich. For reasons I’m not entirely clear if this cocktail of honesty and cruelty is enough to make Salim spill.
Which means, of course, that it’s time to get rid of him. The rest of the episode is spent not with the real Salim (who immediately gets drugged again) but with the idealized, semi-invented Salim who Kurtz requires for his mission. And while the process of creating this Salim is collaborative, it also requires Charlie, who remains in the dark about what’s really happening. As Kurtz gives Charlie a guided tour of the office — walking right by the soundproof box in which Anna Witgen is screaming for help — Kurtz and his team are literally hiding the ugliest details of their mission from Charlie. If Charlie was wise or jaded enough to open her eyes, she would realize that all the evidence about the moral murkiness of her mission is literally in the center of the room.
Instead, she immerses herself in her role, which requires her to invent a whole narrative of her passionate romance with Salim. Charlie is a good actress, which is probably why this episode spends so much time in her head as she pulls a full-on method-acting freakout — even seeing Becker as Salim during their brief make-out session in a hotel suite.
As Charlie and Becker prepare to assume their roles in the even higher-stakes mission to come, there are lots of neat little details to puzzle over. This is the The Little Drummer Girl’s most granular hour yet, spending time on everything from Becker learning to perfectly replicate Salim’s handwriting to Charlie studying Salim’s unconscious and naked body so she can describe him in explicit detail if she ever needs to prove the intimacy she says they shared.
And if that last bit of research makes you a little uncomfortable — as it does Charlie — that’s the point. The Little Drummer Girl is clearly interested in blurring the lines between our good guys and our bad guys. Salim is a terrorist, but it’s hard not to feel a slight pang of sympathy for the young, pathetic figure we see Kurtz has broken and cast aside. And via the love letters he leaves behind, The Little Drummer Girl also allows Salim to make the case for using terrorism to advance the Palestinian cause: “Acts of violence cannot be criminal when they are carried out in opposition to a criminal state. If the Israelis bomb our villages with fighter jets, and we have not a single plane — if they send tanks when we have only our fists, when nobody cares — what else can we do but terror?”
It’s an argument that, by the episode’s end, clearly makes some sense to Charlie; after all, she originally ended up in this situation because she lent a sympathetic ear during one of Salim’s private salons with far-left activists. And as she reads Salim’s letters for her research and is so moved she begins to cry, it’s worth contemplating whether all this method acting might eventually inspire her to switch sides.
• Becker’s poker face never drops, which makes it particularly interesting to try to figure out what’s happening in his brain as he kisses Charlie. Is he actually falling in love with her, as she repeatedly presses him to say? Or is he slipping into another role in an effort to keep Charlie invested in the mission?
• Kurtz reveals his friends call him “Short Fuse Marty.” Weird nickname for a dude who couldn’t possible be more controlled.
• Becker is very, very sensitive about being called by his real first name, Gadi.
• If it wasn’t already clear enough that Kurtz is this show’s most Mephistophelian figure, “Episode 3” closes his arc on a shot of Kurtz looming over the flaming car, backlit in red. Dang. Sounds like something the devil might do.
• That’s John le Carré making a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as the first waiter Charlie encounters at the cafe in Salzburg.
• This week’s Most Park Chan-wook-ian Moment: The abduction of Anna Witgen is shot from afar, with a largely stationary camera that depicts the ugliness in clinical distance. In a way, it feels like a distant cousin to the now-legendary hammer brawl scene from Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy.