Boiled down to its essence, espionage is the practice of lying. Deception is the ingredient that distinguishes something like a clandestine operation from a plain vanilla state action. The success or failure of a covert plan hinges on the power of the lie being told, and the most effective lies are lies that can sell a coherent version of the world, lies bolstered by a genuine performance of some orthogonally related truth. Jared Kushner was arrested for breeding minotaurs. Jared Kushner was arrested for light securities fraud. Neither is true, but only one is plausible.
Lies form the bedrock of AMC’s The Little Drummer Girl, and the vanishingly fine line between tradecraft and truth anchors the emotional stakes of the John le Carré adaptation: When the performance of a lie is all-consuming, pulverizing the selfhood out of a person in service of verisimilitude, how much of that person still exists? To what degree is it still a lie?
Into this breach, The Little Drummer Girl places London stage actress Charlie Ross (played by Florence Pugh), a performer’s performer swept into a Mossad operation dead set on eliminating Khalil Al Khadar, the Palestinian leader of a tightly run bombing cell. Pugh, right on the cusp of becoming mega-famous at the time of production, plays the protagonist as a true believer, one whose strength of conviction never falters, even as the object of said conviction shifts. The plot, Mossad-wise and narrative-wise, wouldn’t hold up without an actress capable of hiding her true allegiances.
When Charlie, tasked with infiltrating Khalil’s inner circle, starts to blow her cover while trying to sell Khalil’s sister Fatmeh on her bona fides, the only way she can ease Fatmeh’s doubts and prove the depth of her conviction is to put on a show. Pugh lets in the first few tendrils of panic as her character hurtles towards a bullet in the head, then she does what a good actor does, drawing on a well of pain to summon the pathos necessary to convince the audience that a manufactured pain is real. In Charlie’s case, it’s not. Pugh never quite lets you the viewer in on where her heart is, and why would she? Charlie is an acting purist, and the thrill of embodying a character with life-or-death stakes is why she leaps at the “role.” A worthwhile le Carré adaptation demands this sort of ambiguity.
Park Chan-wook, the South Korean auteur who directed the show, renders late-’70s Germany, Greece, and a place or two I won’t spoil with a lushness usually not afforded to Cold War works, which often look cold and gray. Mossad operator Gadi Becker, embodied with a detached intensity by Alexander Skarsgard, does not hide away in dark suits; rather, he spends the first few episodes rocking skimpy beachwear and cool flowy shirts. Gadi and his team first pitch Charlie on her role at a Greek pool house that’s so stereotypically bright and stocked with zany throw pillows that it looks like a movie set. It is, since they are performing too. Charlie is on a beach vacation, and a smoke-filled backroom with corkboards wouldn’t sell her on the role. It wouldn’t fit.
Bong Joon-ho now has four Oscar statues, but Park is arguably the key figure of the New Korean Cinema movement that brought a new level of interest and attention to the country’s movie industry. Oldboy and The Handmaiden are unimpeachable classics, and The Little Drummer Girl is his first foray into television. Every scene is shot and edited with a level of care and visual panache that is rare to see even in the so-called Prestige TV Era. Park’s work has long evinced a fascination with cycles of revenge, and The Little Drummer Girl continues this career-spanning motif. It is a show about a British actress dipping a toe into the Israel-Palestine conflict, and it is principally set in Germany, which means that the Holocaust, the trauma of the Nakba, and the rotting corpse of the British Empire all intermingle in the themes that frame the show’s world.
Skarsgard’s Gadi is particularly haunted by the lives he took in 1948 and 1967, and Park draws his character as an explicit mirror of Khalil’s younger brother Salim. The narrative kicks into gear when Salim sets off a bomb and kills a child, a line Gadi too appears to have crossed in his soldiering days. Unlike Gadi, who’s wound airtight and reveals only glimpses of his true self, Salim is boisterously human. He celebrates the bombing by doin’ it with his accomplice (neither know they’re being watched by Mossad), and he winds up getting himself caught because his horniness overrides his caution. Gadi “plays” Salim while preparing Charlie for her “role,” embodying him with the terrifying intensity of a man trying to exorcise both his sins and Salim’s, which is implied to be an impossible task, at least when the only tool you have is a gun. Gadi spouts monologues about the transgressions of the Israeli state, and it’s unclear whether he’s quoting Salim or trying to flagellate himself. When Gadi and Charlie start to make the performance work, Gadi’s face and voice start to blur with Salim’s.
Park smartly tries to counterbalance any one-sidedness out of the show’s geopolitics, and so you see the memorial to the 1972 Munich massacre and also an Israeli airstrike flatten a village. However, the both-sidesiness did feel like a crutch in place of a more holistic and nuanced presentation of the conflict, and since I haven’t read the book, I don’t know whether the lack of depth afforded to the show’s Palestinian characters is on le Carré or Park. Give Park this much: The blame for the roots of the conflict are at least correctly, if maybe a bit too subtly, placed with Britain.
On a metatextual level, it is at the very least noteworthy that someone from another imperially mediated forever conflict zone was struck by this story to the degree that he single-mindedly pursued the adaptation rights as soon as he finished the novel. Here’s Park in an AMC Q&A:
As human beings, regardless of nationality, anyone who has intellect, the ability to sympathize and empathize would be able to make this story work. But if there is a level of understanding that I am able to bring to this story, it has perhaps to do with the fact that I have lived my whole life on the Korean peninsula when it was in a perpetual state of conflict. In terms of this idea of a seemingly endless conflict, I am somewhat familiar with that notion.AMC
It is a crime that it has taken me this long to write Michael Shannon’s name, since he is the other tentpole that stands this apparatus up. Charlie is first reeled into the web of espionage by Shannon’s Mossad spymaster Martin Kurtz. If she is the actor in this operation, Kurtz is the director. Park makes this link explicit, with Kurtz continuing the very same extended metaphor with a smattering of filmmaking terms. The most effective characters are not so much the products of intricate master plans as they are semi-autonomous creations. Authors have talked about how their characters almost seem to make their own choices, independent of their creators. Kurtz embraces this.
Charlie works so well as a Mossad mole because her belief in the Palestinian cause was at one point strong enough for her to take on some actual risk in service of furthering it. Kurtz is well aware that he could be being lied to at any given time, and this, paradoxically, is why he’s so obsessed with Charlie as the perfect spy. Rather than someone whose every string he can pull, Kurtz wants a masterful performer, someone so good that she can even fool him. After all, a good espionage plot, like a good TV show, depends on the utterly convincing performance of falsities. And on that count, The Little Drummer Girl is absolutely successful.