The Little Drummer Girl, director Park Chan-wook’s sleek adaptation of the John le Carré novel, premieres on AMC on Monday night. In what seems like an attempt to approximate binge-watching, the network is airing all six episodes on consecutive nights, two episodes per night. Two episodes a night sounds like a reasonable amount: a generous serving of ice cream, but not the whole carton. But if you’re anything like me, though, two hours won’t be enough. I wanted to eat the whole thing at once.
The series begins with a 1979 bombing in the West German capital, Bonn. A Mossad team led by Martin Kurtz (Michael Shannon) descends on the grisly scene and quickly deduces that it’s the work of a Palestinian terror cell comprised of various Westerners and Michel (Amir Khoury), the younger brother of the mysterious bomb-maker Khalil. Kurtz concocts a plan to infiltrate Khalil’s network—a plan whose most important player is a young British actress with no experience whatsoever in counterintelligence.
Charlie Ross (Florence Pugh) is a bohemian living in London, playing Joan of Arc with her theater troupe, putting up with a dickish boyfriend, and espousing period-appropriate leftist politics. Her troupe gets an opportunity to go to Greece, where they encounter a tall, scar-flecked, mysterious Adonis in an itsy-bitsy bathing suit whom we already know to be a Mossad agent named Gadi Becker (Alexander Skarsgård, playing tortured and a bit wooden). Charlie hates him, until she doesn’t. He woos her, peels her off from her friends, takes her on a private and dreamy tour of the Acropolis—and then springs a spy scheme on her. The Israelis want Charlie, an actress with no ties to Israel who is not even a Jew, to perform in what Kurtz likes to call “the theater of the real.”
Appealing to Charlie’s interest and skills as an actress—it will be her greatest role! The greatest role an actor could ever play!—the Israelis present a plan that, in the words of Cher Horowitz, is a full-on Monet: Up close, it’s a big old mess. From a distance though, thanks to Park Chan-wook, everything looks misty and beautiful (the color mustard has never looked so elegant!) and zips sexily along. The Israelis explain to Charlie that they want to pass a fiction off as fact, to convince Khalil and his associates that Charlie is Michel’s lover and political disciple, a woman who can be trusted. In order to sell this ruse, she and Gadi travel through Europe with him playing Michel, leaving a trail of evidence of their coupledom. Gadi even plays Michel with Charlie, drilling her on his history and personality so that she will be able to more fully inhabit her character, a woman deeply in love with Michel and devoted to the Palestinian cause. It’s all spy improv: high-stakes, three-dimensional foreplay, in which fiction, lust, control, and strategy are as impossible to untangle as a ball of string after it’s been set upon by a pack of feral cats.
All these psychosexual, world-building spy games take up the first half of the series, which I realized as I was scarfing it like popcorn reminded me of nothing so much as the first two seasons of Homeland. Don’t run away! I believe that this, like the word zaftig, really can be a compliment, when applied under the correct conditions. Like those early seasons of Homeland, it’s a realpolitik spy drama with some ludicrous plotting (and foreign accents) that thrums along on the sexual chemistry of a spy and a handler, the espionage ostensibly at the center of the story becoming the backdrop for a romance between brilliant, tortured people who ought to know better. If everything gets a little cheesy sometimes, you’ll have to find someone who hates rom-coms a lot more than me to complain about it.
The back half of Little Drummer Girl separates Gadi and Charlie. Kurtz’s plan works: Charlie is approached by emissaries of Khalil’s outfit and taken to Palestine for further training. Will she remain an Israeli agent or turn against her handlers? I hadn’t read Little Drummer Girl in years, and my foggy memory served this adaptation well: I didn’t mind that it was so much lighter than the book. In the novel, Charlie’s experiences in Palestine are deeper, more lasting, more taxing. Playing both sides eventually fractures her psyche. It’s not that Charlie whistles and grins through the final episodes of the series, but she never seems entirely undone either. This is partially because of the very charming Pugh, who projects an unsinkable moxie, the kind of can-do competence of a woman who could anchor an action franchise. She’s only 22, the same age as Charlie is supposed to be, but she seems older, tougher, steadier, more assured. I found her extremely appealing and am looking forward to seeing her in whatever she does next (including Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women), even though her spirited sanity undermines the tension around her character’s psychological torment.
Pugh is helped in all of this by the script. The series is surprisingly tough on the Israelis (though nowhere near as tough as the novel). The protagonists are working to stop a terror cell that considers innocent civilians acceptable collateral damage, but the Mossad agents, and particularly Kurtz, are deeply, grotesquely compromised, committed to achieving their ends no matter the means. They favor targeted assassinations over bombing campaigns only in some circumstances—and only because they possess the resources to make the distinction between the two. There are only two somewhat fleshed-out Palestinian characters, but despite being terrorists, they are not demonized, and the history of the Israeli-Palestine conflict largely comes from their perspective. The series’ end promises only that the escalating conflict will continue indefinitely, a never-ending war—and yet by lessening the psychic damage done to Charlie, the series eases up on those who did the damage. Things gets sunnier still with a concluding hint of romance that borders on fan service. Charlie’s lasting thing for Gadi doesn’t make much sense—but, as the series ended, I decided the best course of action would be to watch the whole thing over again, just to figure out how little.