“The only leaders I’ve known that didn’t feel like imposters were imposters.” – René, “Sein Und Schein”
X Company’s “Sein Und Schein” — which translates as “reality and illusion” — is summed up by two beautiful shots that bookend the episode. In the first, René, freshly sprung from three months in a Gestapo prison, closes his eyes and turns his face upward toward the warmth of the sun. In the last, Aurora, in anguish after sacrificing René, tilts her head toward the cool blackness of the night sky. It’s a moving visual shorthand representing the opposite fates of the two leaders — one ultimately freed from his burdens and the other buried beneath hers — and the episode’s exploration of truth and fiction, subtext and subterfuge. It seems that war makes a liar of everyone.
After last week’s high-octane episode, in which Alfred and René were rescued and Faber dispatched Forst in an epic conniption fit, “Sein Und Schein” could have been a major letdown. Instead, it’s one of the finest episodes in the series, bringing the Aurora/René storyline to a devastating conclusion, setting the table for the rest of the season, and ending with a creepy twist. Written by Adam Barken and directed by Andy Mikita, the installment moves comfortably between brisk action and quieter character moments as the gang splits into pairs to avoid the Nazi manhunt set in motion by last week’s events.
Let’s start with Sinclair and Alfred. Trudging through the woods, they stumble upon a Jewish family attempting to hide from the Nazis. Sinclair tells the group — who are city dwellers with no provisions or outdoor skills — that the war will soon end and, in the meantime, not to travel east. Alfred confronts Sinclair on his half-truths and choice not to help the family more, but the Camp X boss shuts him down by saying, “If I have to tell these people whatever it is they need to hear so I can do my job, that is what I’ll do, and so will you.” Of course, that’s exactly the tack Alfred takes when Sinclair later asks him point-blank if Aurora had the shot to kill him before he was captured. He tells Sinclair what he wants to hear because he thinks it’s best for the team, for Aurora, and for himself. That Sinclair rewards his lie by essentially asking him to hide the details of the upcoming Allied invasion from the rest of the team is perfect in its own way. Alfred just graduated.
Shifting truths aside, it’s interesting to see Alfred and Sinclair interact again now that their dynamic has so dramatically changed. Alfred is downright chippy after enduring hours of torture and seeing him push back against Sinclair is satisfying. Even so, the best moment is when Jack Laskey breaks into a proud grin when Sinclair compliments how much Alfred’s grown.
Meanwhile, Neil and Harry trick a group of randy Luftwaffe men into leading them across the border into Vichy-controlled France to visit a non-existent brothel so they can steal the paper needed to make new identification documents. Describing “artistic tableaus” and telling mildly blue jokes, Warren Brown and Connor Price clearly had some fun with these scenes and that good time vibe is passed along to the viewers. Harry and Neil have had more time to bond in Tom’s absence, and that leads to nice moment when Harry finally admits he feels guilty over Siobhan. While “Nom” (Neil and Tom) has become a bit of a thing with viewers, “Narry” is a proving to be a more compelling friendship.
Back in Ontario, Tom and Krystina work out a way to get Faber off the team’s trail by concocting a fake news story about the spies sneaking into Switzerland. It’s a neat little trick to call off the heat for a few episodes and make Tom’s advertising background relevant again, but mostly it’s a way to let the pair shamelessly flirt with each other and come up with sticky stack of double entendres. It’s fun to see Krystina (and Lara Jean Chorostecki) in complete command at work and at play here, but Tom’s former playboy attitude has softened (double entendre alert!) after his near-death experience in France and he seems to be ready for something more. It’s all very sweet, but as this episode makes abundantly clear, wartime romance between spies is a dangerous undertaking, and Tom and Krystina’s reconnection is slightly ominous in that context.
Which brings us back to poor Aurora and René. Viewers only got a small glimpse of what this couple was like way back in the Season 1 premiere, when they shared a kiss and René tried to overcoach Aurora on how to use a grenade (as lovers often do). What the audience knows of René is mostly from overblown tales the team told after his supposed demise and from Aurora’s restrained onscreen mourning for him. So François Arnaud has his work cut out for him during his limited time on the series, needing to both put the lie to the myths surrounding René’s legend while also quickly reestablishing the spark that attracted Aurora to him in the first place. He does this beautifully, especially in a warm street scene where, as they shuffle along, Aurora teases that she needs to take him home to give him coffee and biscuit. “I hate you,” he grumbles. “I hate you, too,” she replies. Connection made.
Things get real, though, when Aurora questions René about Brigitte, the mysterious woman Alfred mentioned last week. René confesses that Brigitte saved him after he was shot and that he gave up all the team’s secrets in a vain effort to spare her from the Gestapo. Aurora angrily demands to know why he didn’t tell her about this sooner, but the irony is that she’s reacting partly out of guilt for failing to shoot Alfred. Both these leaders made the mistake of endangering the group to protect someone they cared about, and the fact that those people are not each other is almost beside the point. This adds a ton of depth to the moment when Aurora must finish off a wounded René while running from the Gestapo. What she does is merciful, and she tearfully whispers “I love you” as he dies, but the implication that René now represents all that she fears about herself and killing him is her penance for not killing Alfred oozes from the scene as readily as René’s blood oozes onto the cobblestone street.
X Company could have badly mishandled the barely-there love triangle between Aurora, René, and Alfred. However, the writers never made Aurora an object to be won or made her feelings for either man a uniquely female flaw to her leadership. After all, René’s feelings for Brigitte and Harry’s affections for Siobhan were used against them, and Neil’s empathy for the German soldier he killed still tears at him. The only point being made is that war depends on the suspension or destruction of human connections. And conversely, instead of Aurora being pushed as a Strong Female Character — a tag so ubiquitous that it long ago lost all meaning — she is allowed to be a complex, deeply flawed, conflicted person who, while surrounded by men, is on her own individual journey. Exactly where the journey of this increasingly haunted woman will end is one of the key intrigues of the series.
* Long, slow clap for François Arnaud and Evelyne Brochu for their excellent work in the episode. They play off each beautifully and both keep their performances simple and subtle for maximum heartbreak.
* Aurora and René’s sex scene is left to the viewers’ imagination, but their near-sensual delight at sharing a chocolate eclair — a wartime rarity — serves as a lovely stand-in for their physical pleasure.
* Apparently, Aurora walks around France with a giant knife hidden in her dress at all times. Good to know.
* Excellent plot twist at the end with a mysterious scuba diver (Trevor White) slithering from a German submarine onto the shores of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec.
* With the X Camp spies ostensibly in Switzerland and the Germans awaiting word from their slithery Quebec agent, Faber is very reluctantly forced to turn his attention toward home. The scene of his wife Sabine (Livia Matthes) packing up all of Ulli’s clothes and toys so it will be just like “he was never here” is both heartbreaking and a chilling reminder of what the Nazi death camps are accomplishing on a massive scale, a point underscored as Faber lays a looted necklace next to Ulli’s photo in his safe.
* Filmed in Budapest, X Company is blessed to have access to a bevy of great European guest actors, who regularly bring impressive depth to even the tiniest roles. In this episode, Brits Jane How and Alex Blake easily fall into a well-worn mother/son relationship that creates some unexpected comedy as Harry and Neil find themselves in the middle of a sudden family feud.
‘X Company’ airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on CBC