“Terrorism is theater,” wrote Brian Jenkins, an expert on the topic, in 1974. John le Carré’s novel The Little Drummer Girl takes this famous–and, in 21st century America, self-evident–observation to its logical extreme, following an actor recruited to infiltrate a terrorist cell that is planning its next lethal show.
In AMC’s adaptation of the book, a co-production with the BBC that will air on three consecutive nights starting Nov. 19, the year is 1979 and the actor is a young Londoner named Charlie (Florence Pugh). Despite her bewitching performances, she’s still awaiting her big break when she meets a mystery man (Alexander Skarsgard’s Becker) in Greece. He whisks her away, supposedly for a private getaway but really to recruit her for a renegade squad of Israeli spies scheming to take down a Palestinian terrorist leader. The group’s obsessive boss, Kurtz (Michael Shannon), fancies himself a director in the “theater of the real,” and he’s cast Charlie as his leading lady. She has a history of pro-Palestine politics, but the team is betting that her sympathies will only lend authenticity to her charade.
As in all le Carré stories, there’s a lot more going on here–enough to mire the first third of The Little Drummer Girl in exposition without providing much insight into the characters. Only after Charlie’s mission begins does thriller master Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), who directed the miniseries, pick up the pace.
But later episodes are worth the wait. Suspense builds against a backdrop of ’70s interiors so bright, they’re sinister. Charlie’s moral dilemma, fraught by her feelings for Becker, speaks volumes about British interference in the Middle East. There are nuanced characters on both sides. Yet it’s Pugh–an actor playing an actor improvising her way through the role of a lifetime–who makes the show work. By capturing Charlie’s ambivalence, she creates a truly unpredictable heroine.
This appears in the November 19, 2018 issue of TIME.