Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Spies Like Us, Eh?

During the years of World War II before the United States entered the conflict, Canada proved to be a very useful partner in below-the-radar connections between the US, which it bordered, and Great Britain, of which it was a part. One such connection was Special Training School No. 103 on the northwest shores of Lake Ontario, colloquially known as "Camp X." Several hundred people were trained there for covert operations behind enemy lines during the war, taking full advantage of its prime location for relaying shortwave radio messages and its proximity to a wealth of French-speaking recruits in Quebec. A joint Canadian-Hungarian television show, premiering in 2015, showed a fictionalized version of the camp and the work of some of its recruits. X Company ended a three-season run in March.

The show focused on one team of agents operating first in France and then, for the final season, in Poland. It also involved a German officer and his wife, as well as agents back at the main camp in Canada. The hook for the first season was the attempt to integrate Alfred Graves (Jack Laskey) into the team, in order to take advantage of his photographic memory. But Alfred also suffers from synesthesia, and sudden loud noises or shocks can render him nearly catatonic. The gruff commander, Duncan Sinclair (Canadian TV mainstay Hugh Dillon), pushes Alfred onto a team over the objections of its leader Aurora Luft (√Čvelyne Brochu), propaganda guru Tom Cummings (Dustin Milligan), muscle man Neil Mackay (Warren Brown) and radio/tech whiz Harry James (Connor Price).

The first season concerned operations in the French countryside and near Paris in 1941 and early 1942. Different German leaders or scientists are about to develop something that could strengthen the German war effort and team members must discover their secrets or end their threat by more lethal means. The backdrop storyline is the risk Alfred's strengths and weaknesses pose for the team and the realization that a lost comrade may not be lost at all. Countering the work of the spies is Gestapo officer Franz Faber (Torben Liebrecht), who with his wife Sabine (Livia Matthes) has a son with Down's Syndrome -- something at best shameful and at worst treasonous for the perfect race of the Third Reich.

Season two picks up the pace as the team tries to gain the trust of the Fabers and gain intelligence from Franz. Aurora pretends to befriend Sabine by taking advantage of the young woman's loneliness, and other agents seek ways to protect the Jews remaining in Paris from being completely rounded up and sent off to a fate that rumor and whisper are beginning to suggest is unspeakable. The Germans mount a covert sabotage operation against Camp X, bringing some of the camp staff into play alongside Sinclair, especially his aide Krystina Breeland (Lara Jean Chorostecki). The arc of the season bends towards sabotaging Geman intelligence and strengthening French resistance groups to prepare for the August 1942 raid at Dieppe. With the right combination of circumstances, the Dieppe raid could have been the prelude to an invasion of Europe, but its disastrous results only showed the Allies how far they still had to go to be ready for that kind of move. The team is left shattered and separated in the wake of Dieppe's failure.

The final season opens with the remainder of the team at first working to establish new leadership for the French resistance, but that plan and storyline disappear by the second episode and we turn to a secret plan to increase German fuel production based in Poland. Franz and Sabine are being forced to work with the Allied spies, although not entirely unwillingly as they have come to realize the horror that the Nazi regime has imposed on their nation and its values. Aurora and Alfred must deal with their feelings for one another, and Neil faces the reality that brute strength alone can't solve the problems he's dealing with, either internally or externally.

Season one is easily the best, as Alfred's synesthsia more or less disappears in the final two seasons unless a writer remembers it. Both it and his eidetic memory are hinges for major plot and character issues for the entire team over the course of these eight episodes. Season two tries to deepen the characters as it introduces conflicts into their established roles and worldviews, but most of this is done without much grace and although talented, few of the cast can exceed their material. X Company definitely offers the idea that there were honorable German citizens who only wanted to serve their country and had no knowledge of the horrors behind the Nazi curtain. But it's a tepidly-made claim that relies mostly on supporting players. And its role in Faber's actions is made secondary to blackmail.

Season three is a hot mess, throwing aside much of two years' worth of character development in favor of a wrapping-up storyline that takes 10 episodes to tell a story better suited to five. Never rigorous in its concern with actual intelligence tradecraft, in season three X Company abandons all pretense of being about real spies instead of entertainment-biz spies. It abandons its connections to real or realistic WWII events for a glaringly fictional thriller MacGuffin that never convinces.

The season is salvaged by the same strengths that propelled it during the first two -- the world-class acting from the core of its international cast. The Canadian Brochu, English Laskey and Germans Liebrecht and Matthes are much better than the material they're handed and do much more with it than it deserves. Liebrecht and Matthes especially, with the greatest distances to bring their characters, are worth watching in the middle of the fast-forwarding that the rest of the season invites.

Which in the end is a very Canadian thing -- to politely offer the best part of something to someone else. And while this quartet, with some support from Brown, Chorostecki and Dillon, can't completely redeem a wrecked third season, they do enough to put the show as a whole into the plus column.

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