“You wanna make the tough decisions? Then you have to know what it costs.” – Aurora, “Black Flag”
Until its final act, X Company‘s “Black Flag” is a very good episode. It features a stellar guest turn by Urs Rechn; it continues Aurora’s fascinating, multi-layed faux friendship with Sabine Faber; and it has great fun with a black-tie visit to the opera, which gives the boys on the team a chance to do their best James Bond impersonation in a pre-James Bond era. However, “Black Flag,” written by Daniel Godwin and directed by Kelly Makin, becomes a truly great episode in its final moments, depicting a brutal town massacre that uses viewers’ series-long relationship with Franz Faber to remove all distance from the violence. It’s graphic, it’s horrifying, and it spares no one from blame — not even viewers. It’s a stunning payoff, and it completes X Company‘s transformation from good entertainment into Canada’s best drama.
The events that lead to the massacre are set in motion by the intelligence Aurora gained by visiting Faber’s apartment last week. She learns that bigwig Generalfeldmarschall Brandt (Urs Rechn) is coming to Paris but wants to use caution, knowing that bold moves can cause equally bold blowback. After Ville-Marie in Season 1, she doesn’t want reprisals. However, Harry, full of piss and vinegar, goes over her head to get Sinclair’s permission to assassinate him, believing it will give the Allies a leg up on the upcoming Dieppe invasion. Harry’s new conviction that the only good German is a dead German is understandable given what he’s been through lately, but it’s hard to not want to slap him on Aurora’s behalf when he tells her, “René may have been a traitor, at least he wasn’t a coward.” Jesus, Harry. Unfortunately, that’s not the first time that utterance is called for in the episode.
Meanwhile, Faber is put in charge of protecting Brandt when he comes to Paris, which is no easy task. The general is a brash bulldog of a man who has little respect for Faber’s efforts and is champing at the bit to enjoy the fine culture of Paris. Everything, including Ludwig the First-Class Traveling Dog, is a hassle when he just wants to eat, drink, and be merry. As Brandt, Urs Rechn is fantastic, practically tilting the screen with his authority every time he enters a scene, and watching him dismiss Faber’s intelligence about there being a possible Allied invasion is cringe-inducing. Poor, put-upon Faber. (Hold that thought.)
After the team’s first attempt to assassinate Brandt is thwarted by Faber’s choice to use a body double, Aurora sets up another lunch date with Sabine to fish for intelligence. Sabine frets about Franz spending so much time at work and mentions that he is looking after a “special guest.” Finding her opening, Aurora casually mentions that her cousin’s husband claimed similar work pressures before he was caught with his secretary. Watching how easily Sabine takes in that worry and then spits out the intelligence Aurora is looking for — that Faber is accompanying Brandt to the opera — is uncomfortable and more than a little sad. Earlier, Alfred accuses Aurora of getting too close to Sabine, but she manipulates her mark with such skill that it’s the audience left feeling sorry for Sabine.
And then there is the oh-so-slick opera mission that has Tom, Harry, and Neil dress up in tuxedos and sneak in the makings of a bomb to kill Brandt. The sequence is filled with fun spy tricks and near misses that finally lead to Neil placing a bomb next to Brandt. But in a ridiculously badass moment, Brandt see the bomb and stands his ground, calling to Neil that “Only a coward runs.” Are you kidding me? But he apparently knows his own strength because that tough SOB survives the bomb blast and staggers to his feet, shooting at Neil as he makes his escape. Later, the team is frantically trying to cover their tracks since Brandt survived, but Harry is cool as can be. He tells the team he laced the nails in the bomb with arsenic. Brandt is a dead man. “Jesus, Harry!” says Aurora, speaking for the rest of the team and the viewers at home. Worse, the team learns that — despite brilliantly setting up Ludwig’s dog-walker Kruger to take the fall for the bomb — the Nazis are going to blame it on the Resistance and wipe out an entire village as a reprisal.
Which brings us to that truly horrifying ending. Whether purposefully or not, there are similarities to films like Schindler’s List, such as when Faber’s gun repeatedly malfunctions, but instead of watching someone like Amon Goeth, an apparent sociopath who killed with no emotion, we have Faber, a man who — even though brutal in the past with Alfred and René — we have come to somewhat like. He isn’t a Nazi zealot and, in fact, may have only joined to impress Sabine’s family. He loved his son, who had Down syndrome, and tried to protect him. He faces tremendous job pressures and has been ordered to kill the villagers as punishment by his superior. We understand how he came to be standing here, shooting one man, then another, then struggling with his malfunctioning pistol as a third man begs for his life. He is so close to them their blood splatters across his face. He does not enjoy this. This clearly sickens him. But that makes it worse — because he does it anyway. We know this man. He could be us. And he does it anyway. And we also understand the part the team played in making this happen. They took a calculated risk and lost. Problem is, others pay the price. The entire sequence serves as a sort of vicarious viewer indictment. This is humanity. This is what we’re capable of. As Aurora tells Harry, “You don’t get to look away.”
• The shot of the blond boy cheerfully singing as the children are being led to their doom is masterful, and, mercifully, moves Faber to spare the women and children.
• Standing ovation for Connor Price, Torben Liebrecht, and Urs Rechn in this episode. Unbeliavably strong performances. Rechn starred in Son of Saul, the Hungarian drama that nabbed the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film on Sunday.
• Long, slow clap for the work of Evelyne Brochu and Livia Matthes in their cafe scene. These two are so intriguing together. Too bad it’s likely all going to end in (more) tears.
• Awesome kick by Warren Brown on the opera house stairs.
• Poor Kruger. One minute he’s walking Ludwig, the next he’s framed for a politically motivated bombing. Just more collateral damage.
• By showing Klaus the photos of the massacre, Krystina finally seems to break through his resistance to talking. Check mate.
• Where is Scubaman?
‘X Company’ airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on CBC