The protagonist in “Fauda” may well be the most Israeli character ever depicted on screen.
First, there’s his actual physical appearance: Shaven headed, tanned, permanent 5 o’clock shadow and stocky build suggesting a man who has enjoyed a jachnun or three in his time. Think podgy Jewish Jason Statham.
Then there’s the temperament: Bellicose, uncommunicative, malcontent. He’s that impatient asshole who sounds his car horn a nanosecond after a traffic light changes from red to green; the shmuck who spits out sunflower husks and epithets at a Beitar Jerusalem soccer game; the jerk who litters Israel’s parks with trash.
This is Doron Kabilio and, two seasons in, it’s still impossible to take your eyes off of him for a second.
Season two of “Fauda” (Arabic for “chaos”) aired on Yes earlier this year and has just been made available worldwide on Netflix (although, ironically, not yet in Israel). It has been the subject of much discussion in Israel – a fair amount negative, for political as well as artistic reasons – yet it remains the best white-knuckle ride on television. It’s as subtle as a Domino’s pizza, but it packs a real punch, much like Kabilio himself.
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The show first aired in Israel in 2015, penned by former Haaretz journalist Avi Issacharoff and actor Lior Raz (he also plays Kabilio, for whom every day is a day of rage). But it was only when Netflix acquired the show that it became something of a sensation. Both The New Yorker and The New York Times raved about the first 12-episode season, which saw Kabilio and his loyal gang of Israeli counterterrorism officers – and it really is a gang mentality, whichever side of the divide you’re on – trying to prevent a sarin gas attack by a Palestinian terrorist, Taufiq Hammed (aka Abu Ahmed, aka The Panther).
The show’s uniqueness comes from its use of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – which brings us to the show’s three big problems.
First is the lack of a Palestinian voice in the creative process. While it’s true that both seasons of the show make great efforts to present the Palestinians as real people and avoid any demonization – in a way that’s impossible to imagine if the roles were reversed and an Arab show made a show that included Israelis – it is still a story told by Israeli-Jewish male voices. (For an example of Arab and Jewish talent combining to make a powerful, authentic-feeling story, I’d recommend the 2009 Israeli film “Ajami.”)
The second problem is that the occupation is completely missing from this version of the West Bank: Israeli soldiers are rarely encountered; the separation barrier – which was frequently seen in drone shots in the first season – has now completely vanished; and the few checkpoints look more like a sedate border crossing between Belgium and the Netherlands. By removing the daily realities, the territories simply become “Arabville.”
The third problem is the lack of interest in the mental state of the small unit of undercover soldiers – the mista’arvim who masquerade as Arabs, embarking on missions behind enemy lines – and the damage this may do to their psyches. (Former members of Duvdevan, the real-life elite counterterrorism unit of which both Issacharoff and Raz were members, recently set up a foundation to help former colleagues who may be suffering from PTSD.)
There’s a telling moment in the first season when one of the team, Avihai (Boaz Konforty), says he and his colleagues are merely “attack dogs,” trained to operate without thinking, and another in the second season when two characters joke about how you say “post-trauma” in Arabic. But generally, “Fauda” prefers action to words, making it more “Strike Back” than “Homeland” – or, in Israeli terms, more “False Flag” than “Hatufim.” It still grips likes a vise with its numerous tense set-pieces, but it rarely manages to make you care about the fate of the characters. Season two picks up a while after the first season concluded (FIRST SEASON SPOILER ALERT). Doron has swapped the vineyard for a farm, separated from cheating wife Gali (Neta Garty), and still looks and acts like a bull surrounded by red flags.
After an attempt on his and his father’s lives, Doron returns to his old stomping ground in search of answers. His mood is not improved by having to be in close proximity to Naor (Tsahi Halevi), the colleague who was sleeping with Gali (though she’s since shacked up with a high-tech type in Herzliya, Eyal, who’s more likely to brandish a Peace Now banner than an M-16).
Alongside the rest of the ethically challenged gang – if “Fauda” does one thing very well, it’s to smash that “Most moral army in the world” title the Israel Defense Forces likes to claim for itself – Doron soon learns he has a new nemesis: Nidal, aka “Al Makdasi” (Firas Nassar), the son of the Hamas leader Sheikh Awdallah who met a rather messy end in season one. Nidal has returned from Syria and is now aiming to raise the Islamic State flag in the Palestinian territories.
If a storyline about ISIS already feels somewhat passé (after all, didn’t President Donald Trump defeat them single-tweetedly a while ago?), there is also the personal vendetta angle to drive the plot forward. And given that “everything Doron gets involved in ends badly” – as Nurit (Rona-Lee Shim’on), the sole female member of the team, notes – rest assured that his plot-straining romance with a Palestinian doctor, Shirin (Laëtitia Eido), will never be mistaken for a Reese Witherspoon rom-com.
There are other familiar faces returning, including baby-faced Hamas operative Walid (Shadi Mar’i), Security Services chief Captain Ayub (Itzik Cohen) – he of the three failed marriages, five children and inopportune phone calls from his kids to discuss supper – and Eli (Yaakov Zada Daniel), the team member last seen getting shot in the leg at the beginning of season one. Both seasons of “Fauda” are constructed around the same efficient plot structure: two mavericks – one Israeli, one Palestinian – butting heads against both each other and military frameworks.
In Doron’s case, it is the demands of his commanding officer, which are simply ignored time and again; on the other side of the fence, in season one it was The Panther, who refused to fall in line with Hamas, and in season two it is Al Makdasi, who refuses to, well, fall in line with Hamas. He also takes a leaf out of the Israeli army’s book and starts training young Palestinians to enter Israel dressed as skullcap-wearing Jews – prompting a seemingly irony-free protest of “Jewish imposters!” from one of the Israeli counterterrorism team.
“Fauda” does appear to have one eye on the international audience in season two (as witnessed by the ISIS plotline, and fewer specific Israeli references), and it seems sure to acquire more fans as word continues to spread about the scowling presence of Doron Kabilio. I hate binge-watching shows, but I raced through the whole of season two in a day.
So, despite the show’s faults – its singular voice, its formula, its testosterone-fueled tales – it remains a gripping thriller with a mesmeric presence at its core. But the nagging doubt remains about whether out of chaos we should be making entertainment.