Some shows take their time finding themselves. Some never find themselves at all. For the first two seasons of Covert Affairs, I was fairly confident it was a clear-cut example of the latter.
Then season three happened.
From the very beginning of the season three première, Covert Affairs went out of its way to show it meant business, almost as if killing Jai was not only the beginning of a season-long arc, but also a declaration that all the old rules established in the first two seasons no longer applied. This is the best thing the show could have done, because all of the old rules were pretty much complete failures.
Complete failures might be taking it a bit too far, I suppose, as Covert Affairs was never a terrible show. It was just aggressively mediocre, and seemed to be completely content existing in that mediocrity, which was somehow almost worse. The biggest problem was always the strange stasis the writers insisted on keeping Annie’s character in, where she was always simultaneously the agency’s go-to spy for missions, yet she never got through one without letting her emotions allow her to go off-book and almost ruin everything. So while central character Annie was never tasked to change, but only to occupy her time going on various disconnected missions, the show attempted to generate interest elsewhere by shifting the secondary characters around her, with ever-diminishing results. Auggie, with his interesting backstory and sympathetic performance by Christopher Gorham, was always a pleasant presence, but other core characters such as Arthur, Joan, and Annie’s sister Danielle simply floundered.
But this was not so this season. The biggest, smartest change the writers made was to give Annie a purpose, a tangible season-long arc that finally made the central character the most interesting aspect of the show. Then, with Annie under control (and Auggie comfortably by her side, as always), Arthur and Joan could recede to existing to mostly support Annie’s endeavors and Danielle could be completely jettisoned without leaving any holes to fill.
It helps that Annie’s season-long arc has been so great. Before, her missions were always just entertaining enough, often fulfilling only the barest essentials of USA network-level spy blandness, despite some clever location shooting. But reassigning her to a more rogue division and tasking her with seducing Russian operative Simon Fisher (the perfectly cast Richard Coyle) elevated the entire season beyond what I ever imagined Covert Affairs was capable. Suddenly, not only were Annie’s missions interesting, they were dangerous, they were sexy, and Annie’s tendency to get her emotions intractably intertwined with her work finally served a narrative purpose. Simon falling in love with Annie, her confused reciprocation, and their eventual betrayal by Annie’s boss and double agent Lena Smith (played by never-trust-this-spy Sarah Clarke) was plotted and paced to near perfection.
Which brings us to “Let’s Dance,” the last episode before the show takes a strange month-long break before returning to finish the season. This episode is serious business, a level of seriousness that if the show had attempted it a year ago, it would have seemed laughable. But now there are stakes to this story. There’s emotional and personal history behind every increasingly insane action Annie takes, and it works. So when Annie finally does what we’re all hoping she will do and kills Lena, it feels like catharsis, not only for the character but for the audience as well. We spent an entire season watching Annie at her most competent, only to have her and lover shot and left for dead, and then professionally discredited by the person who shot her. If Annie hadn’t killed Lena, after the whole season built to that moment, it would have felt like a cheat.
Now, we wait to find out how Annie will extract herself from Russia and how everything she’s been through in this ordeal with affect her as a person and as an agent. In past seasons, I would worry this would be swept under the rug quickly to make way for another useless mission to some far-off land. But after seeing how far Covert Affairs has come in these past 10 episodes, those worries are gone.
Stray observations (for the season):
- Piper Perabo has been great this season. Excuse me, Golden Globe nominee Piper Perabo.
- Covert Affairs has never particularly impressed with its visual flair, but the two-part episode prior to this one was ambitious on a level not previously attempted, and it mostly worked. I especially liked the coma dream-sequence callback to the horrible, horrible credits, so at least those awful things are now good for something.
- Parker sure did let Auggie’s job scare her away pretty quick, huh? The correct answer to your fiancé telling you he’s a spy is not “NOOO!” but “SWEEEEEET!”
- I really loved Simon Fisher, and more specifically Richard Coyle in the role. Here’s hoping he gets another gig on American television soon.
- Lena: “Mysterious bad boy with a clarity of purpose? Don’t tell me you don’t have a type.”