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