What a difference an episode makes.
BBC’s big budget adaptation of spy master John Le Carré’s 1983 novel, The Little Drummer Girl, had been languishing after its third instalment, reflected by the fact it lost almost half its audience – dropping from more than 5 million viewers for the series opener to fewer than 3 million by its halfway point.
You could understand the reason for bailing. While the first episode took a period setting and made it fresh and exciting, the two that followed got bogged down in needless set-up.
But in Episode 4, the set-up gave way to a fluid storyline and intriguing character development. The Little Drummer Girl finally found its rhythm. And in this week’s fifth and penultimate episode, that beat has been maintained beautifully, and we’re all set for a nail-biting finale. Well, the couple of million of us still watching are.
Let’s take a look at what happened in Episode 5.
1 . “You are here to become a weapon.”
At the end of last week’s episode, Charlie (Florence Pugh) had landed in Lebanon and met Fatmeh (Lubna Azabal), the sinister sister at the heart of Palestine’s terror war. Now it’s time for her to earn her stripes.
She’s thrust into a training camp and grappling with machine guns and RPG before you can say, “Didn’t I use to swan around the Acropolis in a flowing yellow evening gown?”
She – and we – are right in the thick of things now, and that sunbathing scene on the beach of a Greek island four episodes ago feels like it was from a different TV series.
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Charlie seems to be fitting right in, biting people’s legs and hitting all her targets. There’s a lovely transition scene where the camera floats through lunchtime then moves into bomb-making 101 – this is the most dangerous finishing school in the world.
It gets even more dangerous for Charlie when a clearly unhinged American recruit (Mark Stanley) threatens to blow her cover, only for her to turn the tables, leading to his bloody death.
Charlie is the undisputed queen of shouting out the right thing to save her life when someone is pointing a gun to her head.
2. “It’s our ball, their court.”
Meanwhile, back in drizzly Britain, Mossad’s finest, led by Marty Kurtz (Michael Shannon), are chasing down a Palestinian terror cell, only to discover there’s another one on the go. The hunt for the show’s Big Bad, Khalil, who we haven’t met yet, just got a little more complicated.
His London cell, made up of Helga (Katharina Schüttler), Rossino (Alessandro Piavani) and Anton (Jeff Wilbusch), are using cryptic postcards to send out instructions about imminent attacks, so the Israelis seek out some assistance.
There’s a brilliantly gruff turn from Charles Dance as British intelligence boss Picton, who shares a love of thick moustaches with his counterpart Marty. The Brits may appear a bit ramshackle, but they know all about Charlie, and they know what might become of her.
Picton tells a story of “a little drummer boy” he once interrogated during the Middle East conflict, and wonders how many more there are like him, inadvertently made into warriors.
In this war, everyone has blood on their hands.
3. “The theatre of the real.”
In sunny Lebanon, Charlie is having a super time, getting to know the people she has been tasked to betray, learning the lingo, laughing with kids.
She plays the part of the slain Salim’s girlfriend with gusto, even wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with his face. “You do not love Salim – you love his death,” warns Fatmeh. “They are the same thing now,” Charlie retorts.
But all this is merely the calm before the incoming storm, and it rains down on the camp in the shape of Israeli fighter jets, whose first victim is a little girl trying to warn the others of the bombers’ arrival.
Like the Palestinians in the series’ opening scene, the Israelis aren’t averse to murdering children.
4. Wish You Were Here
The bombing of the Palestinian camp segues into a bizarre and gruesome dream from inside the mind of Israeli agent Gadi Becker (Alexander Skarsgard).
In the dream, he flashbacks to the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, where, clad in his battle gear, he shakes the hand of a burning Palestinian foe (Gadi has clearly been sifting through his Pink Floyd albums).
But the Palestinians have another word for that conflict – Nakba (the “disaster” or “catastrophe”) – and when he wakes, Gadi tells the rest of his team he believes Khalil wants to launch an attack on British soil on the anniversary of the displacement of his people.
Gadi isn’t a good Mossad agent because he hates his enemy, but because he understands their plight. Things are rarely black and white in The Little Drummer Girl.
5. “I think she’s playing a character.”
In the wake of the Israeli bomb attack in Lebanon, Charlie is shipped back to Britain in a wig and glasses to carry out an assignment. Helga and Rossino are waiting for her, in more ways than one – Charlie politely and rightly declines their offer of the grimmest TV threesome since Series 3 of Peep Show.
The cell hover around a lecture at a college by an outspoken academic, but after a classic game of briefcase switcheroo, Gadi finds the ruse was a decoy, or perhaps practice. There is no bomb in the case this time.
Following Charlie’s lead, he advises Marty to hold off on surveillance. She signalled, as per Gadi’s previous instruction, that she was safe by wearing a bracelet on her right hand – not the fancy blue and gold one he gave her, but a homemade version.
“You bet all this on a piece of string?”, demands Marty’s right-hand man Shimon (Michael Moshonov), who surely has a crucial part to play in the final episode, given he’s been looking so surly for the first five.
6. The man in the van
But maybe Gadi was wrong, because if they had followed her, Mossad would have closed in on the ultimate prize, and in the most unlikely of locations – the English countryside.
Charlie is picked up by a man in a blue van then driven to a deserted forest. But this is no ordinary van driver. This is the elusive Khalil. And he has something for her. A dazzling gold and blue necklace.
Is Khalil on to her? Is this even the real Khalil? Has Charlie been turned while in Lebanon? Will she really go through with a terror attack?
As the leaves swirl around them, Charlie’s fate hangs in the balance. Bring on next week’s finale.