Review: 'X Company' ends stellar season with devastating 'August 19th' Special

Posted Apr 7, 2016 by A.R. Wilson
The Camp X spies lose one of their own and Faber makes a stunning choice as X Company's outstanding second season comes to a close.
Courtesy of CBC Television
"You'd have been so proud." - Neil, "August 19th"
Let's be perfectly clear: The second season of X Company has been something special. The series evolved from an entertaining but uneven show in Season 1 into something far more nuanced, challenging, and gripping in Season 2, starting strong and consistently maintaining (or exceeding) that high quality week after week. Last week, CBC rewarded the series with a third-season pickup, and, frankly, it would have been a travesty of justice if it hadn't.
There have been two main arcs this season: The military buildup to the 1942 Dieppe invasion and the back-and-forth espionage match between Aurora (Evelyne Brochu) and Faber (Torben Liebrecht). The show's premise revolves around the secret history of Canadian spy training school Camp X, and Season 2's exploration of the Dieppe invasion has done a literally bang up job — with thrilling gun fights, prison escapes, and exploding tanks — of bringing another little-known chapter of Canadian history to light. Meanwhile, the focus on the addictively intriguing entanglement of Aurora, Faber, and Sabine has pushed the series to the next level, with domestic spy interplay reminiscent of The Americans. While history dictates that the Dieppe storyline comes to a devastating conclusion in the finale, "August 19th," — written by series co-creators Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern and directed by Jamie Stone — the espionage tale gains tantalizing new life heading into Season 3.
First things first, Tom (Dustin Milligan) becomes the first of the core spy group to die, tumbling over a cliff while fighting off German soldiers at Dieppe. It's heroic, expected, and completely necessary for the show to maintain a realistic sense of jeopardy going forward. But despite the fact that Tom's fate was foreshadowed several times over the course of the season, when the moment arrives, it still hurts like hell. The sight of Tom — the wise-cracking ad man who, last season, believed he could talk his way out of every deadly jam — dying on a rocky beach as he struggles to speak is awful, and the sound of Neil crying out, "Tell me what to do," is even worse. The rawness of Warren Brown's performance here is gut-wrenching, and he's matched a short while later by Connor Price when Harry tearfully breaks down. Both actors fully commit to the overwhelming sense of loss, desperation, and bone-deep fatigue their characters are faced with and they do justice to the horror that occurred on that very beach (that portion of the episode was filmed on location in Dieppe) nearly 74 years ago. It's hard to see the very appealing Dustin Milligan go, and that's the point. His departure honours those who really died, and this story could not be properly told without genuine loss.
Given the true-life drama that is depicted at Dieppe, it is all the more impressive that the Aurora/Faber storyline matches it. This arc has been jaw-dropping, and it already provided the best scenes of the season with the claustrophobic train confrontation in "Fatherland." The pay-off here is nearly as good, as Aurora and Alfred (Jack Laskey) go to Paris to make Faber and Sabine (Livia Matthes) a risky offer: Spy for the Allies and save your souls. X Company has gotten tremendous mileage out of its efforts to humanize the Fabers. That decision has not only led to incredible psychological drama, but it has underscored the horrors of the Nazi regime in ways that having cookie-cutter German baddies could not. By making the Fabers so relatable, X Company pulls viewers into an uneasy world of comparison, forcing them to consider what they would do in the Fabers' shoes. Child murder and falling under the sway of an evil regime has rarely seemed so accessible.
But it would be impossible to drum up empathy for characters that are beyond saving, and Torben Liebrecht has brought so much depth, complexity, and heartache to Faber that it has been tempting to root for him even while he's committing horrendous acts. His confession about killing Ulli because he couldn't bear the thought of not being able to protect him is such a soul-crushing thing of beauty that it's almost easy to forgive him as he viciously threatens Aurora, who overplays her hand by suggesting he betray Germany in his son's name. She couldn't have known that Oster also cited Ulli as a primary reason for promoting Faber earlier that day, but the audience does, and the fact that everyone is trying to play his family tragedy to their advantage makes his actions understandable even as he places a gun to Aurora's head.
Courtesy of CBC Television
Of course, Aurora recognizes herself in Faber, as evidenced by her description of him as "someone who is doing his duty, trying not to feel," and that gives her attempt to flip him over to the Allied side a fascinating personal spin. Unlike the admirably nihilistic The Americans, X Company has room for heroes and hope. After all, the spies are fighting against undeniable evil in a conflict known as "the last good war." But part of what makes the series so compelling is its willingness to infuse melancholy and moral ambiguity into that supposedly righteous fight. Every member of the team has fought guilt and despair over their darkest deeds this season, so even as Aurora tries to manipulate Faber by mentioning Ulli, her offer of redemption is real. She knows how powerful the need for soul cleansing is. Whether Faber's shocking choice to work for the Allies is genuine or not — unbeknownst to the team, he has just been handed a great deal of power and could easily betray them for his purposes — his need to unload his guilt certainly is.
Meanwhile, Evelyne Brochu continues her standout season by not only infusing Aurora's confrontation with Faber with the perfect blend of confidence and fear, but by also letting her genuine compassion for Sabine shine through. What started off as a mission to use Sabine for intelligence has become something vastly more complicated, and Aurora radiates conflicted concern even as she belts her would-be friend. Brochu excels at showing Aurora's vulnerability even when she's being a bit badass, and that extra bit of relatability often tilts the screen in her direction. And Livia Matthes, who was little used in Season 1, has been a revelation this season. Sabine's innocence and blind acceptance of the world has been shattered, but Matthes makes her newfound resolve appear as wobbly as the legs of a newborn fawn. How will this formerly sheltered woman fare in a world of espionage next season?
X Company has a stellar ensemble cast, which includes not only those playing the five main spies — er, four spies now — but also the fine Camp X team of Hugh Dillon and Lara Jean Chorostecki and the outstanding European guest cast. However, there is no denying that the chemistry between Brochu and Liebrecht and Matthes has been magical this season. The task Ellis, Morgenstern, and the rest of the X Company writers will have as they approach Season 3 is playing up that chemistry while still doing justice to the rest of the characters. Based on Season 2, they are more than up to the job.
X-tra observations
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Where is Scubaman?
The scene of Aurora changing clothes with Alfred is lovely, as the pair shares a moment of chaste but utterly trusting intimacy that is (finally) sealed with a kiss.
Krystina is heartbreakingly stoic in learning that Tom has died, which serves as sort of a sad continuation of the brave denial that haunted the rest of the team all season.
Harry hugging Aurora and Alfred at the end of the episode after only shaking their hands when they parted earlier brings his arc full circle. And Neil delivering the news of Tom's death by simply saying Aurora and Alfred would be "so proud" is agonizing. If killing the German radio operator in Season 1 left Neil a mess this season, where will he be without Tom in Season 3?
Alfred tells Sabine that he knows Faber through work, but she counters that she's never met him. "I was his prisoner," he replies. "Oh," she says, stunned. Priceless.
The way Aurora repeatedly spits "Franz" at Faber in a German accent throughout the season is hilariously contemptuous.
Was Tom hinting at a marriage proposal to Krystina in his final letter? Now we'll never know.