Thursday, August 11, 2011

Covert Affairs Season 2 Finale Review

It's no secret that I love this show, and if it is, I haven't kept it very well. The premise is pleasing, the stories are excitingly ambitious and relevant yet contained, the message is hopeful, moral and patriotic, and the cast is fantastic. In particular, naturally, the work of Piper Perabo as main character Annie Walker has been terrific.

Tuesday night saw the finale of the all-too-brief second season and showed us Covert Affairs in peak form; a CIA mission that deals with a legitimate, contemporary geopolitical issue, and a personal upheaval in the life of Annie and her loved ones.

Read a full review after the jump, but before proceeding verify that you are classified as a Level 4 CIA operative and thus are able to view full spoilers.

Annie's mission involves a Chinese scientist, Shen Yu (spelling?) with whom she has been corresponding online via encrypted email for the past three months. Shen is eager to defect to the United States, and as Annie as been his primary contact in the CIA, she is chosen as the point agent of the mission (much to Jai's chagrin.)

Posing as his translator (turns out she's fluent in Chinese as well, no wonder they recruited her) Annie meets Shen for the first time in person and accompanies him to some sort of symposium/conference in Washington D.C. In the middle of the dinner they quietly leave together, and pull off a simple, fairly flawless extraction, transporting Shen to a safe house.

"I didn't know soup in America was supposed to glow."

However, upon Annie's return to her sister's house, she gets a call from the CIA that Shen has been taken to Georgetown hospital due to radiation poison. Obviously Annie herself must go in as well and submit to treatment in their basement labs for possible radiation poisoning. It's found that Shen has been dosed with Polonium, most likely in his soup, mirroring almost exactly the famous, and arguably first ever, Polonium poisoning of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, though his was apparently in his tea.

Annie is cleared by the doctors, proving Shen to be the main target, and despite the orders from her superiors, which originated from a conflict with the State Department, Annie tries to track down the perpetrator. It doesn't take her very long as she goes to meet Xi Peng, Shen's alleged friend who greeted him at the dinner, where he works at the Asian Cultural Organization. Yet another reason to love this show is their uncanny ability to reveal the ease with which evil men hide in plain sight, merely behind politically correct words and thus are implicitly given government protection. 

But Annie could care less about diplomacy, protocol, or orders. Not only is Shen a valuable asset to the CIA that she worked hard to get, he became her friend, with his manners, kindness, and love of baseball. While he courageously tries an experimental antidote to the polonium back at the hospital, one that has a 20% chance of success and will otherwise 'hasten his demise', Annie is determined to find his betrayer. When in the room with Xi Peng the meter the hospital gave her to detect radiation beeps repeatedly, indicating the presence or proximity of a radioactive substance. If that weren't enough, Peng reveals a knife on his desk bearing the insignia of the People's Liberation Army Special Forces. Armed with this information, though not enough proof to convict, Annie and Auggie try to find more. But they don't, until the inevitable and emotional demise of Shen, who nonetheless leaves a parting gift for Annie, including reams of data, plans, and proof of the uranium mining in China by a company whom Peng has a huge share in.

Never %$@#! with my wife.

Cut to the story of her superiors, Joan and Arthur Campbell, husband and wife, both major players in the CIA. Joan is being strong-armed by the State Department to back off the poisoning case, and while Joan is fiercely protective of her own people, she seems at first cowed by the threats. Eventually she goes to her boss, who is also her husband, the fantastic Peter Gallagher, who gives her a short and sweet pep talk, essentially saying "You work for the CIA, not the State Department. You run your division as you see fit, end of story. But you knew that already didn't you?" Not only is the straightforward, tough love, unconditional support of their marriage a lovely thing to see, but in the end Joan turns to her husband for help, a sign of their maturing professional relationship, and Joan's intelligence when it comes to using her assets. Arthur goes to see the State Dept. guy, shows him their ironclad proof that Peng is guilty, and informs him they have a team in play taking him down. The State guy gets mad, and throws a punch, but he doesn't have Arthur's training, and Arthur slams him against the wall, tells him to never come after his wife or his agency again, and walks out with a big ol' job-well-done smile.

Meanwhile, Annie's on the ground with eyes on Peng as he gets in a limo. The CIA team follow the car and corner it, attempting to take him in, when it's revealed the car is empty and Peng had slipped out early on. That's when Annie catches sight of him, and we get one of those lovely foot chases that hearken back to the pilot of the show. Interestingly, this is not the only element of the last 10 minutes of the finale that directly echoes the pilot.

Annie training with Auggie.

Once the chase ends, with Annie leaping over obstacles in pursuit, hand-to-hand combat is joined. Substantially longer than most of the shows' fight scenes, as well as more violent (at one point Annie gets a pretty solid punch to her head) Annie holds her own for the most part, until Peng gets her back over a balcony railing and his hands around her throat. As he squeezes the life out of her, she turns her head to the side, eyes blurring, exactly as she did in the pilot when the Russian assassin was choking her on the subway platform. Back then Ben Mercer showed up and killed her enemy, saving her. This time, no one was there but her, and remembering the close-quarters combat training Auggie was giving her at the very beginning of the episode, Annie snaps back to reality, breaks Peng's grips, backhands him, palm strikes his throat and slams his head against the wall. She saves herself and he falls to the ground unconscious.

The other, perhaps more important and dramatic, story of the finale deals with Annie's sister Danielle, played by the talented Anne Dudek. For weeks now Annie has particularly struggled with the issue of "reading her sister in" and finally telling her about her job in the CIA. She always hated lying to her, especially living in her house with Danielle's two lovely daughters, and claiming to be constantly going off on trips for the Smithsonian, but only recently has the toll of secrecy and distrust begun to wear down Annie's spirit.

Early in the episode she tries to do it, but chickens out. However after being called into the hospital for the radiation suspicion, the CIA has to send a team to the house to do a sweep and confirm nothing was contaminated. Thus Annie has to tell her sister not to come home. When she is eventually allowed out of the hospital and returns to Danielle (and her safe home) Danielle asks what it was all about. Annie answers with little hesitation this time. "It was a standard radiation sweep. I am a covert agent for the Central Intelligence Agency."

Boom. Just like that. With little sugarcoating, though with fear on her face, Annie breaks the news. Danielle's reaction is fairly expected. First, disbelief. Second, shock and disbelief. Third, anger and feelings of betrayal and curiosity. Fourth, stronger anger and feelings of betrayal, manifested in packing up all of Annie's belongings and kicking her out of the house, where it is not safe for her to live as a spy in the same place as her daughters. And finally, in understanding of the things Annie faces and deals with. In the end she tells Annie how much she respects her, how brave she realizes she is, the sacrifices she makes for her country and that she loves her...but that she still needs to move out.

This show could have put off the big reveal of Annie's secret to her only real family member for several more years, but they didn't. They could have had Danielle walk in on Annie killing a man or hiding her fake passports, but they didn't. They could have had Danielle, upon finding out, either freak out and sever all ties entirely with her sister, or be an angel and accept it implicitly and let things continue in greater honesty and love. But they didn't. Instead, they endeavored to make things as real as possible. The scene of Annie's revelation was not at any particularly dramatic part of the show, it just happened. Danielle's reactions involve more walking out of the room than talking, coming back a few scenes later when the natural shock has finally subsided and some legitimate questions and concerns have surfaced. And the maturity of Danielle getting to a place where she realizes so much more about Annie's life and her strength of character, the little sister she thought she always knew, and yet knows without a doubt that to be a good mother she can't let this danger stay in her home, is entirely real and heartbreaking and logical. Annie, meanwhile, shows how much she has matured not only in being honest, but in accepting the inevitability in Danielle's decision, no matter how much it hurts her.

Blonde with extra ticket due to untimely death taking blind guy to baseball game.

The final scene of the show yet again references the pilot, with Annie and Auggie walking to the baseball game that Shen will never get to enjoy, and Annie asking her best friend the big question: "Is it worth it?"

Hey Auggie? Let's deal with our great romantic tension next season, ok?

Well, Annie, I don't know about being a spy and the toll it takes on your personal life. But what I do know is that this show is honest, entertaining, well-made, and surprisingly profound in its own quiet way. So please, continue fighting the good fight, risk your life in service of our country and the big picture, and I'll keep watching.

Extra special bonus? At the end of the show they announced that Covert Affairs will return this Fall. What?! I don't understand. Is it some truncated special Fall series? A two-part Doctor Who like season? It doesn't make sense, but honestly? Why look a gift horse in the mouth? I don't have to wait till next summer for more Annie Walker goodness. Covert Affairs will be back on TV in a few short months! God Bless America.

I really want these sweet shades.


  1. Great review, Capt'n!

  2. Excellent review. A couple of nits: Annie's statement to Danielle was "It was a precautionary radiation sweep by an Ops team. I'm a Covert Officer for the Central Intelligence Agency. I have been for two years." That part was done superbly by both Perebo and Dudek. But Danielle's response "Prove it!" Followed by the scene where Annie places the pile of passports and foreign currency on the side of the window seat with a perceptably trembling hand and then says with the perfect combination of trepedation and firmness "I'm a spy ... this is my life" together with Perebo's portrayal of the answer to her sisters question "Why do you choose to do this?" "I'm good at it ... I love it." was awesome. The two of them played this sequence right out of the park into low earth orbit. Loved it.

    My wife and I really enjoy this series. The fall season of 6 episodes is like an early Christmas present.

  3. Sorry about my inexactitude but I think my point was the same as yours--they pulled off a difficult, emotionally, highly anticipated and potentially hugely anticlimactic scene very well, rather unlike in the first season when Ben Mercer and Annie finally met face to face in present time.

    And THANK YOU!! I had no idea that 6 was the magic number!! That's, like, an entire season. That's nuts. Especially when USA makes 10-episode shows. Must be quite a hit! All the best shows split their seasons up these days (coughDoctorWhocough). Can't wait. Thanks for reading!

  4. The creators do a great job mixing action/adventure with the real-life emotions and interactions of people who are close to each other. Piper Perabo is great as Annie - I have loved her since seeing her in 'Lost and Delirious'.

  5. I've heard a lot about that movie and how good she was in it, but I have yet to see it. I must admit I grew fond of her from Coyote Ugly, but I absolutely knew I'd love her forever after seeing Imagine Me & You. (And the same goes for Lena Heady...also it turns out they're best friends!)

    And I agree, they balance crazy spy show with cool outfits and locations and missions with ordinary human conflict, fortunately not overloaded by sentiment. And Piper's pitch perfect.

    Can't wait till the new episodes coming in Fall.

    Thanks for reading Stefanie!