Kurtz (Michael Shannon) and Charlie (Florence Pugh)
Photo: Jonathan Olley (BBC)

Early in “Episode 2,” Charlie, Rachel, and Rose step outside Kurtz’s luxury Grecian villa for a smoke break. Kurtz and Shimon have interrogated Charlie about her troubled home life, featuring a con man father, a desperate alcoholic mother, and sustained rebellions with the stage and leftist politics. Charlie and Rachel, sporting eye-popping yellow and red dresses respectively, look out over Athens, lit by a muddy blue sky. Park Chan-wook frames Charlie in close-up as she smokes and ponders the efficacy of her lies while Gadi Becker watches from the balcony behind her right shoulder. Park eventually shifts focus to Gadi as he decides to tell Charlie the whole truth regarding just how much they know about her.

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It’s a small, blunt moment but one that effectively communicates the insidious omnipresence of Kurtz’s team. In the simplest terms, a spy must always be two steps ahead of their subject, but pretend like they’re one behind. At the end of the first hour, Gadi, whom Charlie still only knows as Peter/José, tells her that the good news is he lied to her as little as possible, but that’s only because he said very little. Yet, Gadi has seemingly always been there, just out of sight, watching Charlie from behind as he assesses whether she’s right to play the role of a lifetime.

After the first hour’s table-setting structure, “Episode 2” benefits from a more focused episodic story and tighter action. Writer Michael Lesslie juxtaposes Charlie and Salim’s interrogations, illustrating Kurtz’s different approaches to information retrieval and manipulation. For Charlie, Kurtz and Shimon rely on gentle theatricality, befitting Charlie’s acting background, easing her into the harsh realities of what’s expected. Salim, on the other hand, doesn’t receive such kind treatment. Miss Bach (Clare Holman) and her team adopt a mechanically precise way to extract what they need from Salim. Poisoned oranges always come with a smile.

Lesslie also neatly reframes scenes we’ve previously seen, employing reveals sparingly and to great effect. Kurtz and Rachel were both present at Charlie’s audition, gathering intel about a possible new recruit much earlier than previously thought. We learn that Gadi Becker is a retired famous Mosad agent who had taken up architecture before Kurtz convinced him to return to the field. “No killing. Autonomy,” he demands of Kurtz, suggesting a similar mission had gone wrong years prior, but Kurtz promises nothing of the sort. They’ll just do it right this time.

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In the Salim scenes, le Carré’s procedural style comes out in full force. Lesslie doesn’t waste time establishing Miss Bach, Daniel (Daniel Litman), or Schwilli (Gennady Fleyscher) through any other means but action. They just quietly and assuredly break down Salim, drugging him until he’s loose-lipped, and then convincing him that his family has left him behind. Lesslie doesn’t shirk on the merciless nature of their work, e.g. Miss Bach insisting that Schwilli pump Salim’s orange with more sedative because “he’s not a puppy.” There may not be a better illustration of le Carre’s moral compass and political ambivalence than the wide shot of Kurtz’s team casually sucking on popsicles while discussing how best to gril Salim while his screams ring low in the mix. These people may be our protagonists but they’re not necessarily “heroes.”

Meanwhile, Kurtz uses Charlie’s superficially pro-Palestine politics to convince her that she can play the part of a terrorist double agent. After listening to her sob story about her childhood, Kurtz and Shimon reveal that they know she attended a forum meeting, “Solidarity Against Imperialism,” which featured a PLO speaker preaching about revolution. Charlie initially plays dumb but they have snapshots of her holding weapons and a record of six visits to the meeting space. In reality, Charlie has more of an unaligned centrist outlook (pro-peace more than pro-revolution), but because her rebellious young adult life has taken her to radical corners of the ideological world, she’s more than able to fit her assigned part.

Yet the moment that both Charlie and Kurtz are convinced that she can be the double agent they need comes halfway through the episode when Becker reveals that they know the full truth about her childhood. Her father wasn’t a con man, but just a bourgeois suburban man with a normal wife and daughter. She wasn’t kicked out of her private school because her father’s imprisonment meant they could no longer afford it, it was because she slept with a local boy. There was no scene in the pissing rain by the bus station while she waited outside the prison gates as her father died behind bars. She lived a regular, comfortable life but manufactured an entire new one defined by struggle because it fit her outlook better. “We love you for it,” Becker says slowly, “because we are just the same.”

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The back half of “Episode 2” follows Becker as she teaches Charlie how to be Michel’s lover and recruit. He immerses himself in the Michel character and reframes their entire meet-cute in Charlie’s mind on these terms. Together, they craft a believable fiction about how they met at the forum meeting and eventually reconnected after her troupe’s performance of Saint Joan. They quickly fell in love and are now traipsing around Europe planning on murdering Jews. Pugh and Skarsgård’s chemistry remains necessarily stuck in neutral—he’s firm and mysterious while she’s skeptical but intrigued—which unfortunately gives these scenes a monotonous quality. Nevertheless, these scenes quietly foreshadow Charlie’s inevitable divided loyalties, as both Charlie and Becker are headed for a deeper romance.

However, there’s no time to waste at the moment. After their first day on recon duty, Kurtz sends Becker a message saying that Charlie has to drive to the Salzburg train station in Austria alone, as that was where Salim was headed in the red Mercedes. Though she’s clearly not ready for such an assignment, Becker brings her up to speed about the uncomfortable realities of the mission: She’ll be alone in a stolen car packed with enough Russian Semtex for a dozen bombs. Unfortunately, neither Becker nor Charlie knows that Salim fed false information to Kurtz’s team, which Kurtz learned too late in his meeting with Dr. Alexis. Not only have this ragtag experimental theater company kidnapped a live goat, but they’ve accidentally sent her directly into the lion’s den.


Stray observations

  • “Michel” may like bold colors on his women, but he might as well stand in for Park himself. He wastes no opportunity to brighten his late-70s European settings and almost aggressively opts out of a desaturated color palette.
  • Park resists too many visual flourishes, but it’s nice to see him occasionally cut loose, e.g. the rewound tape at the Forum meeting in the beginning and the canted push-in on Charlie’s face after she realizes Becker was the speaker at the meeting.
  • I like that neither Lesslie nor Park linger on the doctored photograph of Khalil that Shimon shows Salim.
  • My favorite moment: Charlie asks Becker where Michel is now. He replies that he’s with her. Smash cut to Salim impotently screaming in the isolation chamber.
  • If you want to impress Kurtz, make sure the baumkuchen is not too dry.

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