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‘Fauda’ Review: Netflix’s Thrilling Israeli Spy Show Matures Into Ambiguity During Season 3

The show's moral implications gain texture, as its undercover agent becomes more of a problem than a solution.

Fauda

“Fauda”

Courtesy of Netflix

In the five years since it first launched in Israel, the espionage series “Fauda” has generated a lot of hot takes. Co-creators Lior Raj and Avi Issacharoff were credited with providing a thrilling look at Israeli operatives who go undercover to track down Palestinian terrorists. But like the country’s acclaimed spy show “Prisoners of War” — which was adapted to America’s “Homeland” — the show faced backlash for one-sided depictions of its enemy, painting all measure of Palestinian characters with the same crude brush. In its clumsiest moments, “Fauda” embodied the racism and xenophobia plaguing Israeli culture more than the heroism it tried to invoke along the way.

Now on Netflix with its third season, the show displays some measure of maturity, tossing the notion of good and evil in the Israel-Palestinian conflict with new shades of ambiguity. While the centerpiece of the show remains counter-terrorist operative Doron (Lior Raj), the destruction he causes in an attempt to take down his enemies and expose their plans suggests he may be more the villain than he’s willing to acknowledge.

As Doron’s situation grows more dire, people close to him die and others distance themselves from his path, and he finds himself in an inescapable downward spiral. By the devastating finale, the show has more in common with “Breaking Bad” than “Homeland,” as Doron finds himself making a bad situation even worse. The show empathizes with that struggle, but also implies that the moral implications of Doron’s mission lead him to an irredeemable place.

Doron has been suffering from the tradeoffs of his profession throughout the show, ruining his marriage along the way, but Season 3 marks the first time he has to confront the implications of his work on a human level. Until now, the bulk of the Palestinians in his sightline were people plotting to cause widespread harm. But that’s not the case for Bashar (Ala Dakka), the plucky young boxer whom Doron trains at a Gaza gym while posing as a covert terrorist. Doron’s main goal is to track down Hamas operative Abu Fauzi (Amir Hativ) before he’s able to mobilize his network and “light up Gaza” in a spectacular show of force. However, the potential for a massive attack figures less prominently in “Fauda” than the impact of Doron’s efforts to stop it. While he may think he’s just doing his job, Doron finds himself drawn into the role of paternal mentor for Bashar, even though that relationship is doomed to fall apart.

And boy, does it ever. The closing moments of Season 3 rank among the most jarring series of developments the show has yet to offer up. Rather than saving the day in any traditional fashion, Doron seems fated to reinforce the cycle of hatred and violence he’s assigned to prevent. Bodies pile up on both sides, a hostage crisis goes awry several times over, and Doron struggles to reconcile his real-life priorities with the performance he enacts on duty. Failed as a father and husband, he leans on his job as the only true means of justifying a hopeless existence. “It’s who I am,” he admits in the finale. “That’s my curse.”

As “Fauda” finds its way to these sobering moments, it seems as if Raj and Issacharoff want to peel back the artifice to reveal the more sensitive observations lurking within Doron’s situation. Beneath the cheesy music cues and stock villains, the show presents an intimate look at the psychological toll of the work at hand. Despite some well-staged shootouts and car chases, much of the show unfolds in unflattering closeups, with Doron’s bald and battered face epitomizing the world-weary tone.

In the past, “Fauda” has been criticized for lacking an authentic depiction of Palestinian life (and would be a lot bolder if it allowed some Palestinians into the writers’ room), but Season 3 shows some effort toward situating the drama at the center of a Palestinian community where life under occupation is not exclusively tied to shady backroom dealings and stereotypical bad guys. It doesn’t give Palestinians equal screen time, nor come anywhere close to an emotional understanding of the motivations behind terrorism in the moment-to-moment fashion on part with some of the best Palestinian cinema in recent years (the films of Hany Abu-Assad in particular).  

Instead, “Fauda” lingers in the awfulness of the other side. The show settles into a template where the terrorists matter less than the mania of a system engineered to treat them all the same way — how the very people supposedly keeping Israel safe may in fact intensify the danger on both end. The Season 3 climax registers as a powerful wakeup call about the nature of the situation, leaving Doron reeling from anger and grief with no discernible solution. He may be compelled by a righteous sense of purpose, but that only sends him careening further into a black hole of own design. No matter what happens in Season 4, Doron’s damage is done. In the process of trying to rectify another grim us-versus-them situation, he allows it to mutate into something much worse. And that’s a keen metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict indeed.

Grade: B+

“Fauda” Season 3 is now streaming on Netflix.

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