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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Little Drummer Girl stumbles as it moves the final pieces into place

Charlie (Florence Pugh)
Charlie (Florence Pugh)
Photo: Jonathan Olley (AMC)
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Any way you slice it, “Episode 5” suffers under the sheer weight of what it’s expected to accomplish within the macro narrative. Claire Wilson’s script immerses Charlie in two Palestinian training camps, where she’s potentially radicalized after witnessing the violence they face, as well as further Kurtz’s investigation of Khalil’s next attack. It’s operating within a dense procedural and emotional thicket, and unfortunately, Wilson’s script relies on a lot of hoary character details, explicative dialogue, and rushed pacing to get the series where it needs to be in time for the finale. While not terrible by any means, “Episode 5” represents The Little Drummer Girl at its weakest, and illustrates the narrative strain six hour-long episodes has on a complicated emotional framework.


The weakest elements are Charlie’s initial experiences in the Lebanese training camp, which occasionally feels like a half-baked Full Metal Jacket crossed with generic terrorist cosplay. The majority of the Palestinian players are painted with too broad a brush, defined primarily by their zealotry and explicitly designed to stand in sharp contrast to Charlie’s “pretty white face.” The whole debacle with Arthur Halloran (Mark Stanley), an American trainee desperate to prove his favor to the camp leaders while also clearly losing what’s left of his sanity, feels torn from the pages of a much weaker series. His murder at the hands of camp guards only occurs out of narrative convenience and doesn’t shed much thematic or emotional light. It’s so Charlie can reunite with Fatmeh and the rest of the cell.

Charlie’s story improves when she arrives at the second camp, but marginally so. Case in point: There’s a sweet moment when a young girl futilely tries to teach Charlie basic Arabic. It’s purposefully designed to humanize the Palestinian community in the eyes of this sheltered British girl, her flirtation with radicalism aside. However, the series’ narrative demands ultimately render it a cheap scene when an Israeli bomb murders that specific girl on a cliff. The Israeli bombing of the camps, following the murder of an Israeli journalist in France, instills conflict within Charlie’s heart, but there’s too much basic TV nonsense for it to be communicated effectively.

Meanwhile, back in London, Kurtz’s team tracks Helga, Anton, and Rossino across the city trying to decipher where and when the next attack will occur. They seem to hit a brick wall until Becker blows the whole thing wide open when he deciphers the postcards they’ve been sending to one another. It turns out that the next attack will occur on the anniversary of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War in London and will target an Israeli professor. Bluntly speaking, the rushed pacing absolutely kills Becker’s reveal and most of the code-breaking scenes. Their discoveries feel like magic rather than earned results from an intense procedural operation. Not to make an unfair comparison, but whenever the detail in The Wire cracked another piece of the puzzle, it felt like the product of painstaking hard work. But because there’s only one episode to move things along, it’s a necessity for Kurtz’s team to discover the truth as quickly as humanly possible.

The best scenes in the episode are those that actually treat the emotional and political complexity seriously. Kurtz’s meeting with Commander Picton (Charles Dance, fantastic), who proceeds to needle Kurtz for his harsh tactics complete with not-so-veiled anti-Israeli rhetoric, stands as the episode’s finest moment because it doesn’t exclusively serve a plot purpose. Kurtz successfully gets Picton to collaborate with their team to stop the attack, but he’s also required to sit there and take some shit from the old man who’s been around the block longer than he has. Picton tells a story of how he violently interrogated an Israeli kid before the ’48 war to retrieve the names of his fellow attackers, except the kid doesn’t budge. “When I let him go,” Picton says, “I thought to myself, ‘God, if I ever made a little drummer boy right here, ready to bang his gong into the next battle they find for him, I don’t know what I’ve done.’” It’s a neat way to plant the idea in Kurtz’s head that his, and his country’s, actions are intentionally radicalizing a whole generation of Palestinians. It’s so successful that Kurtz requires an aspirin and a sit down when he returns to base.

The other great scene features Charlie and Becker making eyes at each other in the Polytechnic. I’ve sung the praises of Pugh and Skarsgård before, but their chemistry really imbues a small moment like this with immense power. Before Charlie switches the professor’s briefcase so as to plant a bomb, she grabs a drink at the bar and she and Becker make glances at one another. With their romantic liaison in the rearview mirror but their feelings for each other as strong as ever, all that can be communicated is yearning mixed with concern. Charlie’s bracelet has been replaced with threads; it’s unclear if she’s been turned or not. As Becker vouches for Charlie’s loyalty to Kurtz, she receives instructions to meet a mysterious man by a church out of town. Sure enough, it’s Khalil (Charif Ghattas) holding Becker’s bracelet in his hand, ready to return it to his brother’s radicalized lover. Where do her loyalties lie? All Becker has is a look, but sometimes, a look is enough.


Stray observations

  • The partial list of Don’ts in a Palestinian training camp: No drugs, no nudity, no swearing by God, no masturbation, no use of outside names, no fornication, no questionable reading, no personal medication, no leaving the camp boundaries, no lateness, no personal food & drink.
  • Such a great line, courtesy of Commander Picton: “You see, it’s one thing to piss on my leg and tell me that it’s raining. It’s quite another to take a bloody great shit all over me without the courtesy of a weather report.”
  • When Charlie and Rossino enter the Polytechnic, Rod Stewart’s “Pretty Flamingo” can be heard in the hall. It’s linked below for your listening pleasure.

Vikram Murthi is a freelance writer and critic currently based out of Brooklyn.