The Little Drummer Girl is a strange beast.
The first episode was a compelling exercise in world-building and made for nerve-shredding television, backed up by gorgeous visuals and a cast of intriguing characters.
And then the rather lumbering second episode, although just as gorgeous (this show will never not be wondrous to look at in terms of production design), spent a little too much time with more world-building.
It was like travelling back in time to watch your bigger brother spend all of Christmas Day making a huge castle out of Lego… using only the colour brown.
When it comes to spy thrillers, John Le Carré is the master builder, but the BBC adaptation of his novel The Little Drummer Girl is perplexing viewers in a way its version of The Night Manager never did.
There’s nothing wrong with keeping viewers in the dark – no one wants to know exactly what’s happening, do they? – but The Little Drummer Girl is yet to promise a worthwhile pay-off.
You can argue that this will come in later episodes, but there has to be something gripping in the journey to the finale that keeps viewers hooked. And so far, The Little Drummer Girl hasn’t cracked it, despite having Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) in the director’s chair.
So after an eye-opening first episode and an eye-closing second, how would it fare as it reached the halfway mark of the series? Let’s find out…
WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Episode 3 of The Little Drummer Girl.
1. Good time Charlie
I can’t remember the last time a television show turned me against a character so quickly. In the opening episode of The Little Drummer Girl, triple threat Charlie (actor/guitarist/leftie) was a strong, feisty and intelligent person who seemed utterly determined to plough her own furrow in life.
Two episodes later and she has become a malleable plaything, a dressing-up doll ready to slip into whatever lavishing new gown that comes within Israeli intelligence’s clothing budget.
The only thing that happened quickly in the laborious second episode was convincing Charlie (Florence Pugh) to throw her lot in with Mossad against Palestinian terrorists, which seemed a bit of a stretch for someone who was portraying Joan of Arc in an English pub a few days earlier.
And bar a brief scene in this episode in which she gets a bit freaked out in a public toilet, she displays no fear of her highly dangerous predicament, even singing along to the radio while driving… a car filled with Semtex.
I’m hoping there will be more to Charlie than meets the eye in later episodes, but at this point she remains a frustrating audience cipher.
2. Style over substance
Look, I’m as superficial as the next person. There are days when I choose to listen to Duran Duran rather than Spandau Ballet, and once I even hailed an Uber Exec instead of a plain old UberX. I love a bit of style over substance. But everything in moderation.
Visually, The Little Drummer Girl is a stunning piece of work, full of bright colours and weird camera angles. And that’s absolutely fine, but if they don’t move the story forwards or tell you something about the characters, what’s the point?
Take this episode, for instance. It begins with Charlie hurtling down a road in an explosives-laden red Mercedes, music blaring. She goes to light a cigarette, and we, the audience, do what we’re supposed to – we gasp. ‘Semtex and cigarettes are a bad mix!’ we Gogglebox at the telly.
And then the action rewinds abruptly and we cut to Mossad Man of Mystery Gadi Becker (Alexander Skarsgard) giving Charlie her instructions before setting off in the aforementioned vehicle. ‘I wouldn’t light a cigarette in there,’ he jokes. Soon after we’re back in the present and back in the car with Charlie, and – GASP! – she opts not to light up.
Playing with flashbacks and flash forwards can be fun, but does it really add anything to the drama here? Or reveal anything about Charlie?
Later in the episode, we watch a faraway fight, the camera choosing to keep its distance, cool and impassive, resisting the temptation to bring us closer to the action. It all looks wonderful, but what is it for?
3. ‘You are not made for this fight.’
The plot pace quickens a little in Episode 3. Charlie drops off the car in a square in Kleinalm – not Salzburg – and there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Le Carré himself as a waiter at a bar.
You’ll blink and miss it because you will be guffawing at Gadi disguised as a priest at the next table. ‘Thank you, Father,’ says Charlie, when he pays for her drink, in a not-too-subtle nod to her daddy issues.
The car is picked up by Anna (Iben Akerlie), the rather unhinged lust interest of Palestinian terrorist Salim (Amir Khoury), who is still being held by Mossad.
The Israelis, who are watching, tail Anna through the German countryside for a bit, but it’s all a bit too Celebrity Hunted to be genuinely riveting. When they do catch up to her, she gives Litvak (Michael Moshonov) an unwanted love bite on the ear before being captured.
We later get a bitter taste of just how ruthless the Israelis can be, when they drug Anna and Salim after they’ve served their purpose, put them back in the car and blow it up. You didn’t think they’d keep them alive after the pair murdered that little boy at the start of the series, did you?
4. ‘This is important for your role.’
Before Salim meets his end, however, Charlie has to take a good look at him so her undercover story as his girlfriend checks out. A really good look. Expect the size of his appendage to be a crucial plot point in later episodes.
Dumping a car full of explosives into the hands of terrorists is fine, you see, but being asked to remember a murderer’s scars and birthmarks is too much for poor Charlie, so she hits the bottle hard, then flings herself at baddie Gadi, only to pull back after hallucinating that his Mossad mates are all watching, before he turns into Salim. Confused? Only Le Carré himself must know what’s going on.
The soon-to-be-dead Salim then breaks the fourth wall and tells the audience that terrorism is lovely, actually. It’s not quite a jumping the shark moment for The Little Drummer Girl, but Fonzie has definitely just pulled on his water skis.
This visually gorgeous but emotionally empty series has some serious work to do in its final three episodes to fully engage its audience.