In the fourth episode of The Little Drummer Girl, the subversive new adaptation of John le Carre’s espionage novel now screening on Foxtel’s BBC First, two of the main characters, English actress turned infiltrator Charlie Ross (Florence Pugh) and her Israeli recruiter Gadi Becker (Alexander Skarsgard), do as fictional spies in life-threatening situations have long done: they fall into bed together.
Because the director is Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, one of the finest visual stylists working today, the scene begins at a coolly maintained charge that matches the existing tension between the two characters. Park’s tenderly lit medium shot of the two actors slowly pans in, before cutting to an erotically charged and slowed down close-up of the pair’s mouths as lips and tongues graze. But then the camera cuts to face-on view of Gadi’s mouth opening as he climaxes, and as the camera enters Charlie’s eye appears and fills the frame.
It’s almost certain that this Hitchcock-via-Freud final moment, with its reality-defying jolt, acute psychological overtones, and sudden deepening of key themes, wasn’t in the script. But for Park, whose previous features include Oldboy, Stoker and The Handmaiden, the script is a starting point, and what he does with episodic television is emblematic of the fundamental changes that have taken place on our screens this year.
This is the year that ambitious television drama found new ambitions. It starts with the director’s role, which has long been subordinate to the stamp of the writing and producing showrunner. In recent years, however, showrunners have taken to the director’s chair to add a visual stamp to their vision via select episodes: see Noah Hawley’s baroque flourishes on Fargo and Legion.