Covert Affairs’ third season, as Carrie Raisler previously acknowledged on this site, was something of a revelation. Stripped of its civilian characters and committed to serialization, the season started off with a tight 10-episode arc that had real stakes, didn’t shy away from the consequences of people’s actions, and featured some strong performances from Piper Perabo, Richard Coyle, and Sarah Clarke.
After Carrie wrote that review, though, Covert Affairs returned for a six-episode arc that struggled to make the same impact. With only a few episodes to work with, the series cooked up another arc, this one involving the CIA’s fractured relationship with Mossad intersecting with Annie’s friendship and partnership with Eyal (Oded Fehr). Although the performances remained solid, and the series continued to nicely balance its “Toronto for Everywhere” production strategy with some strategic location shooting in Amsterdam, it suffered from a sense that it was one long epilogue, a way to kill time until the show could bridge the death of Annie’s criminal love interest Simon and her eventually falling into the arms of her inevitable romantic partner Auggie. The episodes were watchable, but they lacked the sense of urgency the previous 10 episodes had developed and saw the show slipping back toward the affable middle-ground so emblematic of USA programming.
As it returns for season four with “Vamos,” Covert Affairs somewhat benefits from the third season’s momentum issues. Completely ignoring any of the third season’s individual storylines (with no mention of Simon or Eyal except for the latter being referenced in the “Previously On” sequence), the episode instead focuses on the two season three cliffhangers in which Annie was approached by Gregory Itzin’s Henry Wilcox about her boss’ ties to terrorists and then approached by Auggie about his feelings for her. It’s a solid combination for the series, as it connects the introduction of a brand new narrative arc—Wilcox’s allegations about Arthur appearing mostly out of thin air—and the resolution of the long-simmering romantic tension between Annie and Auggie. The most effective part of the third season’s epilogue-like conclusion was that it purposefully separated the two characters, with numerous missed connections and delayed conversations; while the series never suggested Eyal as a serious love interest for Annie, the writers nonetheless used his partnership with Annie as a barrier. Once lifted, the show moves quickly into something the writers have been delaying for the entire series, and it offers a sense of catharsis to see the two characters in a relationship.
And yet while the consummation of Annie and Auggie’s tension marks a key moment for the series’ long-term character development, there’s a point at which a fresh start can seem too fresh. Narratively speaking, “Vamos” has a lot of work to do establishing stakes for the season, and it never escapes the feeling we’re watching an hour’s worth of exposition. Annie and Auggie’s trip to Medellin, Colombia introduces us to Hill Harper’s Calder Michaels, and Manolo Cardona’s “Puma,” and that’s what it feels like: an episode designed to introduce these new characters that will be central to the season’s arc. What we learn about these characters—and Arthur’s complicated dealings in Colombia that involved Auggie—is fairly boilerplate espionage intrigue, taking good advantage of location shooting in Medellin but at times relying on the exotic locale to sell the sense of danger, excitement not inherent to the situations or characters.
The episode also relies on its in medias res opening, as we see Annie engaged in a shootout with Michaels at the top of a skyscraper as she finishes an emotional phone call with Auggie. I’ve never been a huge fan of this structure, at least not played out as generically as it is here: While the recurring beat of “heart-to-heart” was a nice touch, it seems an acknowledgment that the show is struggling to start from scratch with a new narrative. Rather than making the introduction itself as thrilling as possible, the idea of it becoming more intriguing in the future is used to justify the somewhat slow start. Alias worked hard to ensure that what was once considered an innovative storytelling structure would eventually be seen as a tired generic trope for spy series, and Covert Affairs’ attempt to steer into the skid ends up being watchable but transparent.
If there is one intriguing kernel in the episode, though, it’s not that Arthur has a secret son who’s become an international terrorist or that Joan is pregnant or even that Annie and Auggie are holding secrets from one another. What’s interesting about “Vamos” is that it isn’t content to simply tell stories about Annie and Auggie working as CIA agents. Taking them off the books untethers them from the normal procedural engine, choosing instead to make this a personal mission for Annie to help exonerate Auggie from potential prosecution. It’s established too quickly to have any significant weight, but as Annie bandages Auggie’s gunshot wound he says she also wants to follow the chase, to pull one over on Wilcox. In an episode that adds to our understanding of what drives both Arthur and Auggie to hide the truth about their Medellin mission, it also asks—if somewhat indirectly—what Annie has to fight for other than the men in her life. For over a season, nearly every decision Annie has made has been tied to her lover (Simon), her friend (Eyal), or her partner in more ways than one (Auggie). The show doesn’t go so far as to critique the question directly, but watching the scene I realized Annie’s motivations have become untethered in the rise of the series’ serial storytelling. The show has gotten better, and Piper Perabo has done some solid work in the role, but who is Annie other than a vessel of the series’ narrative?
“Vamos” doesn’t get particularly far in answering that question, but it at least implies that the season might be interested in finding an answer. While the third season began with a fairly rich setup in which Annie’s loyalties were pulled in multiple directions within the safety of the series’ procedural framework, the fourth season is operating without a net, relying solely on the characters to sell this story. The show has evolved enough for it to work on a basic level, but it’s a more ambitious undertaking that isn’t matched by ambitious storytelling in the season opener.
- If you want to sell your friends on the show, promise them the Beverly Hills Chihuahua reunion they’ve always dreamed of—both Perabo and Cardona appeared in the film.
- I’d be curious to know if the writers purposefully designed this season as an entrance point for new viewers, given how much it ignores everything that can’t be explained quickly in the “Previously On” sequence.
- Without a clear role of authority, the Joan and Arthur material honestly bores me. I like both actors, but Joan’s pregnancy reveal didn’t land at all, and Arthur’s mystery phone and secret meetings feel really generic.
- Cardona and Harper seem like good additions, although they’re currently good additions untethered from the central focus of the series—the writers laid groundwork for Harper to end up in D.C., but I’ll be interested to see how they integrate them long-term (especially for Harper, who’s a series regular).
- I’ll never entirely object to Gregory Itzin hamming it up, but I find Henry Wilcox dull; I also found Jai dull, which is probably part of the problem. I’d much rather the show focus on finding some fun comic relief like Barber in the CIA ranks than more of these kind of characters.
- Medellin? *Insert Entourage Joke*