The first episode of The Little Drummer Girl left us with many, many unanswered questions – but now the John le Carré thriller is starting to reveal its secrets.
From Alexander Skarsgård’s new “role” as Michel, to the revelation about Charlie’s past, here are the big talking points from episode two.
1. Sorry, but Alexander Skarsgård does not look like Michel
See the man on the left? That’s Salim Al-Khadar (or “Michel”), a Palestinian revolutionary played by Amir Khoury. On the right? Israeli agent Gadi Becker (Alexander Skarsgård), pretending to be Michel.
But if this were a spot the difference puzzle, you’d have to admit it would be pretty easy to find a few dissimilarities.
To recap: the spy plot at the heart of The Little Drummer Girl has now been revealed, and it hinges on kidnapping Salim/Michel and having Becker take his place. Skarsgård’s character has to slide smoothly into the role of Michel, wearing his clothes, adopting his mannerisms and following his travel plan in an effort to pull off a great infiltration.
He also has to adopt another of Michel’s habits: womanising. Michel is a playboy who uses Western girls to help with his bomb attacks. That’s where Charlie comes in. Having agreed to take on the role of a lifetime offered by Kurtz, our protagonist must pretend that Becker is Michel and that she is his lover, infiltrating the terrorist network.
Unfortunately, when she finally clicks that Becker is posing as the real-life Salim/Michel, Charlie has one (very valid) objection: “You look nothing like him.”
“It’s not just what they see, it’s what you believe,” says Becker.
Is it, though? In the original novel, the impersonation seems just about plausible, as Charlie’s friends are confused about his ambiguous ethnic background and suggest he is “semitic”. But Swedish actor Skarsgård is decidedly Western, with blue-ish eyes and very pale skin. Put simply, he does not look Palestinian, and he does not look like this Palestinian character in particular.
Will he be able to fool the people he meets – and will viewers at home be able to suspend their disbelief?
2. Charlie is the liar Kurtz is looking for
At the end of episode one, we wondered why Kurtz had selected Charlie in particular. Now we have our answer
Kurtz originally spotted Charlie in a photograph from the “Solidarity Against Imperialism” forum in Dorset, one of a crowd of revolutionary young people taking part in weapons and combat training and listening sympathetically to the personal tale of a young Palestinian (Salim/Michel). Despite her later denials, she visited the forum no less than six times.
Intrigued by her connection to Salim (younger brother of terrorist kingpin Khalil), Kurtz posed as an American casting director and called her in for an “audition” to test her out. Next, he called Becker out of retirement in West Berlin and sent him to England to see Charlie’s shows – and then to Greece to recruit Charlie for the cause.
Charlie has a convincing schtick about how her rich stockbroker father was jailed for fraud. Her private school kicked her out, bailiffs took her home, her mother turned to drink, and on 15th July 1975 her father died in prison as she stood outside the gates in the rain. It’s a moving story.
But suddenly, the big reveal: none of it is true.
Kurtz and his team have done some extremely thorough digging into Charlie’s background, and have discovered Charlie actually grew up in a loving home. Her father never went to jail, but died – more mundanely – of a stroke. Rejecting this backstory, our protagonist now wants to escape her “ordinary suburban reality.”
Kurtz is able to construct a plausible story about Charlie’s relationship with “Michel”, from the moment they met at the forum to the (imagined) meetings after her theatre performances in England. He also reckons her politics are malleable enough to shape to his liking.
So far he appears to be correct: Charlie is intrigued enough to take on the role, and agrees to drive the Mercedes (stuffed with explosives) to Austria.
3. Michel may be playing his own game
Kurtz’s agent Miss Bach puts on a great show as “Joanna, an Observer for the International Aid Alliance”, who tries to extract information from Salim in the guise of helping him.
She drugs Salim with an orange, and tells him a week has passed – at which point he reveals that he usually checks in with his sister Fatmeh every three days, and never in the same way. She tells him he must write to his sister, and so the team forges a letter back claiming that he is being abandoned to his fate. Then Kurtz’s man Daniel tells him they have also caught his older brother Khalil, and shows him a doctored photo.
Salim appears to buy all this, screaming and wailing in distress.
But when it comes to giving Daniel the information about where he was meant to drop off the red Mercedes (at Salzburg train station in Austria), there is some doubt about whether that “confession” is correct. Is Salim playing the Israelis at their own game?
4. Does Becker actually like Charlie?
Becker clearly has conflicted feelings about Charlie, which perhaps can be traced back to a passing comment to Kurtz when he was being persuaded to take on the job. It sounds like he took early retirement after his previous operation went wrong, condemning an innocent girl to her death.
No wonder he’s conflicted.
Becker can be seductive and demonstrative, but is this in character as Michel, or coming from his own desires? In the bedroom, he’s determined to avoid Charlie’s advances – but does that come from his professional obligations, or does he really not want to sleep with her?
“It’s supposed to be blurred, and you’re never quite supposed to know what’s real and what’s pretend and what he’s putting on and what he’s not,” actress Pugh explained before the series premiere.
“And that’s the whole point: that’s why she gets so confused, that’s why she hates him and loves him all in the same sentence. It’s difficult: he can’t tell her the truth, and he can’t tell her that he likes her, and he can’t tell her that he doesn’t like her. That’s why you should never go on a date with a spy!”
The Little Drummer Girl continues on Sundays on BBC1
This article was originally published on 4 November 2018