I’ll lead off by saying how delighted I am that FOX is giving Lie To Me a full season! Shawn Ryan’s tweaks to the format of the show have paid off hugely, if not yet in ratings, then in critical praise. The show deserves the support it’s getting and this week’s episode is a great example why. “Secret Santa” tosses away any expectations of a warm and fuzzy episode by sending Lightman to Afghanistan to figure out the loyalty of a captured American who may know the location of two missing marines. The show doesn’t hold back on showing the grittiness of war and it’s a superb backdrop for the exploration of loyalty on many levels.
The episode opens with a look at Cal’s relationships. His daughter Emily, possibly taking her cue from her parents’ insistence on a family Thanksgiving dinner in last week’s episode, is determined to throw a Christmas party for The Lightman Group. She is perhaps hoping all the good cheer will smooth her introduction of her boyfriend Rick to her dad. Cal refuses to indulge in Christmas sentimentality or politeness to Emily’s suitors, but it’s clear he’s enjoying Emily’s enthusiasm for celebration as he picks out a name for Secret Santa. Unfortunately, any attempt he wants to make to support his daughter’s plans is thwarted by a woman working for the president. The theme of divided loyalty raises its head as Cal realises he has to go to Afghanistan to help find the two missing marines and he can’t even tell Emily why.
Cal lies to his daughter and says he’s going to Florida for work, but Foster is in the know and she hints that Cal has some wartime experience as she tells him, “You can’t go back to that place again.” “That place” is not Afghanistan particularly, but rather an emotional place, and it sets the tone for the investigation Cal has to pursue once he gets to the Marine hideout in the war torn country. He must get inside the head and heart of the captured Franco, who looks far more Taliban than American military, in order to know if the marines can trust his information on where the two missing men are being held. The issue of trust is a thematic thread throughout the episode, as nothing is quite as it appears at first glance.
Lightman has to establish a sense of trust with Marine commanding officer Parks, and fortunately, the writers allow belief in Cal’s science to develop quickly, permitting the real focus to shift to everyone’s loyalties. As Franco talks to him about his aunt Wendy, Lightman quickly notes both a desire on Franco’s part to connect with him and a hatred of all things Uncle Sam. I liked the realistic touch as Cal tells Parks he’s 70% certain Franco’s location for the missing men is a lie, because “it’s not an exact science.”
The imprecision of the science matters very much, as Cal tries to determine how Franco defines himself. He’s American by birth, but has been part of the Taliban for years. Is he a traitor trying to save his skin by any means or is he still loyal to his birth country? Lightman defines the question as “Either he’s protecting some long term deep cover operation or he’s been out here too long and flipped to the other side.” The problem is, are the two choices necessarily oppositional?
Cal suspects Franco is special ops in long term deep cover and he was abandoned in Afghanistan, leading to his joining the Taliban for real. What he needs to determine is whether Franco has any loyalty left to his original mission and hopes. His captive, however, is a game player, too, and he tries to establish a bond with Cal through a tit for tat game: he answers a question truthfully, Cal answers a question truthfully. As Franco slowly discloses the real location of the Taliban hideout, Cal reveals he served in Bosnia as an intelligence agent for MI-6. He too faced a crisis of loyalty, but not to his country. He betrayed himself by getting so caught up in the life or death thrill of war, he played executioner to an innocent man.
What might seem a rather clunky device to introduce back story on Cal actually works very well, because not only do we get the very welcome details on Lightman, we realise Franco, against all reason, still has hope he can go home and be safe. And that’s very sad, because no matter how he was treated undercover by his handlers, he will never be forgiven for shooting American troops. Cal has to point out to the man going home is not a realistic goal and all that is left is how he will choose to play out this last battle, asking him, “Which side of the fight are you on?”
Figuring out loyalties gets even more complicated when Ed Komisky, a Pentagon relic from the previous administration, joins Foster, Loker and Torres back at The Lightman Group. The team has been following Cal’s interrogation via live feed, and Torres soon notices Komisky does not wish Lightman or Franco to see him. In one of the few lighthearted moments of the show, she spills a drink on Foster so they can withdraw to talk privately. Foster drily notes they need to work out a system of codes to save her clothing budget.
Lightman spots the new player in the room and quickly deduces Komisky must be the handler who abandoned Franco in Afghanistan. Franco is actually Glen Welsh, recruited to special ops while serving time in the brig for manslaughter. Franco/Welsh gives up any hope for rescue and instead asks Lightman and Parks for his story to be told. Parks shows his loyalty to the chain of command as he replies, “It’s above my pay grade, pal.” Cal has a different system of loyalty, and he promises, “It’s right at my pay grade, if your story’s true.”
Franco’s trustworthiness is soon successfully put to the test as the marines use his directions to rescue the missing men. Unfortunately, while doing so, the marine hideout comes under attack. Adding to the misfortune, Emily walks in the room with the Lightman team just as a bomb severs communication to the marines and Cal. Not only is she horrified at what might have happened to her father, she has to accept he lied to her about his plans.
I liked the way Cal’s personal relationships were tied into the main theme, and Hayley McFarland is a delight as Emily. But I was a bit bothered by the logic of this story thread. If the situation is so top secret, never mind so possibly fatal, why would Emily have access to that room? I would think Foster would know to keep a sixteen year old out of that situation by locking the door. It certainly would have saved her from having to ask this teenager why she doesn’t break the news of Cal’s predicament to her mother, as if this is a reasonable thing to ask of her.
In Afghanistan, the stakes are now very high indeed and Cal cuts Franco open with a knife to see if his special ops story is true. Sure enough, the man has a transmitter implanted in his back. However, Franco’s own betrayal does not balance out his breach of loyalty to the military and Cal tells Franco he can either die by a bullet from Parks or he can fight the Taliban when they storm the cave and allow the rest of the men to escape. It’s the ultimate test of where Franco’s loyalty lies. He chooses his American special ops identity as his final identity and dies shooting his former Taliban comrades. Cal is thankful to have helped rescue the missing marines, but he’s honest enough to know he again played executioner, and though Franco was not exactly innocent, he was himself betrayed and put in a situation most people never face.
Komisky’s handling of his covert operation clearly was flawed, and Foster and Torres both show anger as they confront him about abandoning his agent. But Komisky feels his greater loyalty was to his country—after 9/11, everyone wanted to do something. The transmitter battery died early and he lost contact with Franco. To Komisky, that possibility was an acceptable risk, not a betrayal. Cal has his own thoughts on what is owed to Franco/Welsh. He goes to the Welsh’s house to let his parents know their son’s story. Refusing to allow the narrative to resolve into easy answers, Komisky eventually joins Lightman, telling Welsh’s parents himself.
The episode is a showcase for Tim Roth’s ability to project intensity and a sense of danger, and the Afghanistan setting is believably gritty and frightening. The only caveat I have about the fast paced, chaotic and loud scenes is that I sometimes had difficulty catching all of the dialogue. Since the dialogue reveals the intricately tangled loyalties of the major players, that’s a problem. It wasn’t a big enough issue to prevent me from enjoying the episode, however. The performances, from both regular cast and guest stars, were solid.
“Secret Santa” ends as it began, with Lightman and Emily at the Christmas party. Emily accepts her father has loyalties to his job as well as to her, though I wonder whether his willingness to lie to her will have future repercussions. I also noted and appreciated how close Gillian and Cal appear throughout the episode, with Cal very comfortable hugging and kissing his partner. I am so pleased we get a full second season to explore the tensions and connections among The Lightman Group.