Tyrant "State of Emergency" Review: Blood Is Everything in This Place

By Cory Barker

Jul 02, 2014

Tyrant S01E02: "State of Emergency"

We expect second episodes to struggle a little bit, particularly when they seem most interested in restating the premise and the relationships between the characters. It happens. However, one feature of second episodes that we don't see quite as much is when shows make such a clear effort to walk back a particular story decision or even a characterization. While Tyrant's second hour didn't do much of the familiar restating of the premise, "State of Emergency" instead went to great lengths to revise its most troubling—read: completely terrible—character, Jamal. In doing so, the episode strains too hard to make Jamal a softer presence, which only discards some of his terrible actions in the pilot.

I was certainly disturbed by Jamal's seemingly rampant sexual assault in the pilot, but was perhaps willing to roll with it a bit just to see what Tyrant would do with it in subsequent episodes. Though I wouldn't say that this episode just ignores what happened, it did focus much more of its Jamal-related energy on humanizing the character, or at least acknowledging that he had a screwed-up relationship with his father, just like Barry. Just like last week, Ashraf Barhom was definitely up to the challenge in bringing out these different (and mostly drug- and despair-induced) sides of the character, particularly in the scene where Jamal gave the "from the heart" speech about his father. That was a legitimately cool moment. 

Unfortunately, the quality of the moment came at the expense of any tangible consequences of everything Jamal did in the first episode. You might argue that the kidnapping of his brand new daughter-in-law counts as consequences and I'd be willing to hear that argument, but this episode treated that development as little more than a device to illustrate what kind of influence Barry could have on the family operations, and perhaps on the country as a whole. And while I'm not expecting the show to drop the hammer down on the third lead for some awful actions in episode one, it was hard to ignore how this second hour hustled to make the audience at least reconsider some of their early feelings of Jamal. That makes sense on some level, but when you consider his actions, it's a little harder to let go. If you're going to have a scumbag character sexually assault multiple women in the first hour and then ask us to look at him from a different angle in the second hour, the signals are mixed at best. It certainly made the gross and cheap use of sexual assault feel even more gross and cheaper. 

There were other things in "State of Emergency" that worked somewhat better. Adam Rayner's performance as Barry is still something of a work-in-progress—I guess he's decided that the best actorly tic to bring to the role is Barry's constant looking down near, but not at, the ground—but his mini-journey from LET'S GET OUT OF HERE to maybe I'll stay for a little bit had its moments. As I mentioned in my preview and review of the pilot, it sure feels like Tyrant is going to be much more enjoyable if you can view it as some kind of soapy drama. It's not especially good at that yet, but viewing sequences like Barry walking directly into a serious hostage situation with country-wide implications and simply talking a trio of misguided and gun-toting kids to free his niece is much easier when you know that Tyrant isn't striving for a realistic picture of Middle Eastern politics. In fact, that sequence was pretty dumb without that context. However, it worked just well enough that I started to understand why Barry might want to stick around for more than to care for his injured brother. (He never seems particularly concerned for his mother does he?) So he wants to try to save people, particularly the young people trapped in a cycle of guns and murder and terrorism? OK, sure. I can buy that well enough, execution aside. The general's decision to execute the kids, even after Barry talked them into releasing his niece, was a solid touch that emphasized that Barry won't be the Great Light-Skinned Hero immediately.

This episode also gave Moran Atias' Leila more to do, which is something that I'll always support. Leila is fairly jaded by her husband's antics by now—another reason why Jamal got off the hook more than he should have—but there were a couple of moments that displayed how she's not afraid to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. The first was that brief flashback with Leila and Barry where, as expected, she tried to seduce him into staying in the country instead of fleeing to the United States. The fact that Barry was able to actually leave for the U.S. after Leila pulled the old "cliffside panty drop" was probably the biggest indictment of his home life that we've seen thus far. The other scene was the kind of humorless stuff that Tyrant seems to be really into, but anytime you can have a character threaten a doctor into keeping silent about something by exclaiming that "We can have this getting out on Twitter!" I'm going to love it. Wouldn't it be great if that was Leila's thing all season—just always worried about stuff, however relevant, getting out on Twitter.

Both Leila's Twitter line and Barry walking right into the hostage situation were indicative of the primary reason this episode didn't work as well as the pilot: it provided a handful of ludicrous moments, but also treated those moments very, very seriously. That's not a particularly good combination. I think Tyrant wants to be a pseudo-prestige series about the allure of power and nature vs. nurture and all that, but some of the sillier moments don't really fit with those big goals. Conversely, while the show might actually be better if it embraced the sillier moments or the places where it wants us to extend disbelief, the desire to be taken seriously makes things stiff at times. 

Of course, this is just the second episode and second episodes are almost always mediocre or worse. This wasn't a full-on disaster by any means. But Tyrant is going to have to figure out what kind of show it wants to be sooner rather than later. 


– Big ups to the writers for recognizing that they had to explain their awful/borderline offensive choice of casting a white British dude in the lead role. OH, he watched so many hours of American TV that he doesn't sound like anyone in his family? Cool. And he doesn't look like them because? That piece of dialogue came in the middle of rough exposition dump involving Barry and Molly, where she added something like "I can tell you were hiding something deep inside. Don't you remember, I wanted to call you Bassam; what a beautiful name." It'd be nice if Jennifer Finnigan had something to do.

– The kidnapped niece almost negotiated her own release by appealing to her teenage captors' deepest and most important desires: seeing real, fleshy female breasts. Not a bad strategy. 

– Say what you will about this show, it looks GREAT. Michael Lehmann was behind the camera this go-around and he got some great exterior shots, particularly when Sammy and Emma were skeet shooting. The palace is beautiful in its own right, but let's stay outside!

– Justin Kirk's John Tucker didn't play much of a role this week, but like Jamal, it felt like the writers were trying to dial down John's sleaziness. Everyone is awful, but not as awful as you thought!

What'd you think of this second episode? Are you going to keep watching?

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  • topcat1957 Jul 20, 2014

    The critic speaks as though he feels entitled to demand that Jamal face certain consequences for committing habitual rape as depicted in the pilot episode. Why? Does he expect fictional TV dramas to conform to "PC" parameters? If so he should get over it. The story revolves around a totalitarian government, a dictator, and his family, Jamal being 1st born son. Things happen differently in such countries, which is I think one of the points being driven home by the rape scene. No civilized person approves of rape. And no libertarian approves of dictatorships. But the criticism of the show's depiction of them is just infantile leftism. The critic feels there were insufficient "consequences", as though the writers should be pilloried for failing to punish the Jamal character sufficiently. Are we censoring fiction writers in America now?
    "Abbudin" is a fictional country but one which is meant to reflect the culture of some real ones, like Saddam Hussein's Iraq. One of Saddam's sons was a rapist who escaped any real consequences for years, until the father of one minor victim of his attacked him, inflicting injuries which left him impotent (like Jamal in this story). Why not simply take the show for what it is: a fiction with realism about a middle eastern dictatorship where life is far different than what we expect in America.

  • peterspoor33 Jul 06, 2014

    I think this mess of a show could become a perverse favorite of mine, the reluctant son of the Godfathe...err..Tyrant who's has just the right ingredients to be the successful ruthless Machiavellian dictator he doesn't want to be.
    I'd be interested to see a poll where people decide which character they dislike most, the rapist murdering Jamal or members of Barry's clueless family, which is the greater crime deliberate viciousness or complete blind ignorance to those same situations.
    I think the writers had to take it easy this episode and come up with the right scenario that Barry had to intervene in and could not too easily dodge from a moral perspective.
    The pilot had Barry inviting the family members of an agitator to attend the wedding to complicate/prevent an attack was very cunning but came out of desire to not see a man have his fingers severed in a bath house, I definitely want to see Barry think his way out of some corners with some ruthless surgical like decisions.

  • AssandroJourn Jul 06, 2014

    Wife character is beyond belief. Does she think that she's in european country or something? Or she doesn't read newspapers at all? She keeps making confused and perplexed faces all the time when her hubby tells her to get da hell out of this country. He says - his father wanted him to stay - and she was like - Do what? Seriously, writers? Are u fucking kidding me? Is it so hard to put two and two together and realize that after one brother's potential demise her hubby gonna be next for king's sit? Why do they keep making wife character so gullible and ignorant? It's insane. And beyond belief. Even rednecks know how things are in the middle east.
    And I don't understand - is mother of main character a british lady? She is definitely played by one. But how is it possible? So then Barry's mother is english and that's why he's light-skinned looking half-middle easterner? Coz that english actress doesn't look like middle easterner.

  • totomomo182 Jul 05, 2014

    What I don't like about this show so far is how stupid they made Barry american family
    They just do not seem to grasp where they are ? they are in muslim dictatorship and not in the usa
    The daughter is useless and pretty much think she is on a school trip
    The wife just keep pumping her husband to stay in a country where they kill kids
    The son thinks he is in the usa he can just go around and go on a date with a guy
    (he does not even consider what they do to gay guys in muslim countries and how much danger he puts on his all family)

  • haroven Jul 05, 2014

    OK I'm gonna try n excuse Bassam's wife's actions (from a dramatic point of view) whilst tipping a bucket of the stinking stuff over the show as a whole and the premises it operates from.

    We know nothing of the roots of Bassam's relationship with his missus so whenever he has put up his weak attempts to not visit his birthplace or, once there, return to the US and been put down by the old 'trouble n strife' for doing so, I decided that she is a calculating greedy piece of work who only married old Bas because he was number 2 in line for the throne of a ME potentate.

    As others have noted she doesn't give a flying f... about her kids.
    Her son is as gay as a three ringed circus (something she surely cannot have failed to notice) yet she seems content to let him go off and play knowing he will get into a big mob of trouble.

    I reckon she sussed it that if Junior is set up to be embroiled in some god awful mess, Bassam will have no choice but to step up and take over running the country - yeah yeah I know that scenario is not anything like how the transfer of power works anywhere in the world, much less a nation such as an old school ME regime where the bloke in charge stays in control by managing an incredibly complex web of arrangements between lots of different and competing clan leaders, while also trying to placate the leadership of western imperial interlopers, so their nation retains its political and economic autonomy.

    Of course that reality is precisely why the image most people in the west have of these leaders - that they are some sort of omniscient, all powerful, always obeyed, near 'god' is so inaccurate and untrue - but I guess it is hard to demonise someone whose job is trying to make the least worst choice from somewhere between a rock and a hard place. . .

    So Bassam's wife (sorry I don't remember her name or that of many of the other characters or the 'nation' - which should indicate how much this shallow story has engaged me) is a schemer not unlike Bassam's mother.
    An important soap trope - blokes always marry their mother.

    Hollywood makes a terrible mess of covering other cultures, even those that americans empathise with, so when it comes to a ME Islamic culture - forget about it. Even if the writers actually had a realistic understanding of what they were writing about no network would allow the show go to air.
    Those who aren't personally influenced by 25 + years of full on propaganda would still be worried that just about everyone else did believe Islam=woman hating evil assholes.

    Corporate geeks scared of commercial pressure from paranoid corporations not wanting to 'tarnish the brand', loony toon grandstanding hawk pols promising to seek redress for "all our boys and girls who died protecting the freedoms these guys loathe" and religious pressure from self aggrandising evangelists eager to raise their profile (and income) by beating up on the show. Network execs worst nightmares - so the show has taken the easy way, a soapie set somewhere hot and sandy featuring actors who have set the tanning machines to 'overdone'.

    This makes the writers' gig easy since they don't have to show any realistic motivation for their characters - whenever they get in a hole explaining why who did what, they can dig themselves out with "that is how those people behave".

    It makes me want to puke, I barely got through ep 2 except for the vain hope that maybe something realistic may yet surface. I will probably grok one more episode to make sure my take was onto it. Honestly I can't see me making to to a 4 episode test though.

  • TBA2 Jul 03, 2014

    I am disappointed. I had hopes for this series. I defended the Adam Rayner casting choice after the first episode as I felt a lot of the criticism was based on peoples' own stereotypes about what a person from the Middle East should look like and also ignored the fact his character was supposed to be half British and half Arab. After the second episode I don't see much development though. The language issue is a BIG turnoff. It is very jarring hearing English in contexts where it does not fit, and it inhibits the level of believability necessary to really enjoy the show. In many countries it is very normal to have TV shows in other languages with subtitles for the viewer. For some reason there seems to be resistance to that in the U.S., perhaps because the corporate entertainment industry in Hollywood is more established, entrenched in its ways, and less open to risking change. It almost seems like someone (maybe Gideon Raff) came up with an idea for the show and then had it torn to shreds by Hollywood executives in the name of making it palatable for American tastes. I think it shows how out-of-touch Hollywood is with America. I would much rather watch Raff's excellent and believable series Hatufim (Prisoners of War) with subtitles on TV than this fluff Hollywood thinks we want. The U.S. is good at making films but they are generally sub-par when it comes to handling other languages in film. Two of the most common mistakes are using English in contexts where it does not fit and hiring actors who are inadequately fluent in the language their characters are supposed to speak (knowing Chinese, I have seen this a lot with Asian American actors in American media). This is one area where I would really like to see U.S. film and television improve. That being said, I am really looking forward to Raff's next series "Dig" about archaeologists in Jerusalem's City of David. I really hope that "Dig" will not make the same mistakes that "Tyrant" has, especially with regards to the language issue.

  • MarlboroMagpi Jul 02, 2014

    I agree the outdoors are cool and well shot but other than that, the show has not much going for it.

    I liked the premise and it has so much potential but I have yet to see much of it. I guess this is a good example of a show who like to take its time to tell a story.

    It took two episodes to come to a conclusion which all of us know from the beginning. He is staying in the country.

    I do not really find Jamal contradicting. The guy is a dictator. A dictator can do anything he wants.

    I think the main theme of the show would be whether Bassam/Barry can change the environment/society or will the environment/society changed him.

    I read that the real life character from Syria the show was based on became the later.

  • Kerkesh Jul 02, 2014

    Well the pilot was a thinly veiled account of Bashar el Assad's rise to power, as I wrote last week.The facts were are as depicted, and here we begin a more fictitious departure for the series and so really crude mistakes on Muslims and our customs begin to surface. Muslims are extremely exact on the the letter of the Holy Quran and relatively less in its spirit, which is not a bad thing in itself as the Holy Scriptures are added on by the Hadith ( The words ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad (Sallah Alleih wa Sallam) from direct witnesses to hearsay .) Then there is the more spiritual interpretations which are represented by the different Sufi schools. So basically, a Muslim who would wish to follow the faith can do so on relatively safe ground. This is the theological background and then there is the Shari'ah which is the canonical law of the Faith, which the Western world confuses with the Faith,and has six major different schools of interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence and known by the name of its founders, from the most liberal being the Hanafi and represent easily 90% of the Sunnis to the most fundamentalist radicals, the Wahabi or Salafi, from where all our trouble springs from.And then there is politics, from the theological (Iran and Saudi Arabia) to the secular (Algeria and most non-monarchical ) regimes in the ME. There is then a continuous struggle between the main religious body of Muslims which are the Sunnis and the strong minority which are the Shiites; and there is another struggle between the religious and secular, usually left wing Marxist/Socialist regimes that have settled in to decades long dictatorships. So bringing peace between all these factions is nearly impossible.
    The fact of the matter is that most of the regimes that have survived are ruled by basically people who only believe in the power structure because truly espousing one side to the detriment of the other factions cannot offer a stable equilibrium of the society. These people pretend to follow the religious customs for the sake of placating the people, but are in effect leaning more towards a strange form of theological atheism, by which they will ape the religious ceremonies but not really believing any of it. So being brutal adulterers who think they can get away with any immoral and criminal behavior is part and parcel of their mental makeup.
    The problem with a series that wants to depict such a complex societal dynamics is that one should really have solid information about the people described, the situation of the country and the inner and outer sophisticated mosaic and multi-leveled politics involved. Otherwise, and very easily, the result will be failure.

  • Talesin23 Jul 02, 2014

    I'm trying very hard to give the show a chance, but the mother and son is making this unwatchable for me tbh.
    I've come to the conclusion that she is not stupid and clueless, but instead think its completly natural to execute children in the street f.ex.
    Because thats the only explanation for only reacting with a dismissive "Its not your fault" when she hears about the childrens fate.
    Which offcourse sounds redicolous, and thats pretty much how her character comes off in the two episodes.

    As for the son he truly is stupid and clueless as what he did this episode can be summed up as: continue to try and hook up with a muslim man in a muslim country, being happy that he finally get to live in the palace that he wanted to, getting annoyed at his sister when she thinks the situation is completly crazy, cause you know everything is cool and normal......

    So yeah cause of those 2 i think i'll just skip this in the future.

  • ToddMurray Jul 02, 2014

    His wife is the worst. I'm thinking Barry pimp-slapped the wrong family member (I kid, I kid!). How can they make her so clueless and naive and expect us to buy into anything about her character?
    Reviled dictator father just died. "I don't understand why you want to leave this place?" Okay....
    Someone just tried to murder his brother. "I REALLY don't understand why you don't like it here?" Seriously?
    Terrorists kidnap his nephew's new wife. "You have run down there immediately and negotiate with them" with zero thought that he might be killed. What the hell is wrong with you lady???
    Soldiers execute the three children whose lives he tried to save right in front of him. "Aww, that's not your fault honey, you did your best." At this point, how is she not going, "Holy shit, that must have been very traumatizing! Why are we not getting the fuck out of here right now!!"
    By the way, the kids are off who knows where this whole time, but she has never been concerned for their safety in this place ONCE. Mother of the year award is in the mail, for sure.

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