Ugly “American”? part 3: Anti-Americanism as plot element
[Yes, I know The Guess Who have stated repeatedly that they did not intend this song as anti-American.] On the assumption that we’re together on the previous argument that due to script problems, Sarah’s Americanness is the most decisive or at least a very decisive element of the character as played by Genevieve O’Reilly, I move on to today’s question, which was raised at the end of the post yesterday: How do prejudices about “Americans” affect portrayals of them by “non-Americans” in “non-American” shows, specifically Sarah in Spooks 8? To provide a basis for talking about the script and characterization problems that emerged for Sarah / O’Reilly, I am going to define anti-Americanism briefly and give an example to demonstrate how it might be influencing portrayals of Americanness in the episodes of Spooks that I’ve seen, and thus Spooks plotlines. That means series 7 and 8; I’m not commenting here on Tom Quinn’s relationship to a CIA agent named Christine, about which I am totally in the dark. Also, terminologically, I will refer to U.S. citizens as “Americans,” although I recognize that citizens of many other countries are also Americans. Naturally, stereotypes about these Americans are separate (the reason so many U.S. student backpackers in Europe in the 1980s stitched Canadian flags patches onto their backpacks) and not so much at issue in Spooks. It’s just that there’s no good way to say “U.S.-ians” as there is in Spanish (estadoünidenses, itself admittedly a somewhat awkward noun) and anglifying the German variant (US-Amerikaner) seems awkward to me, too. Let me know if there’s a better option.
The United States of America has been the most important world power since the end of the Cold War. [Grammar mavens -- note an exception here to the rule about collective nouns in U.S. usage, where the plural name of the state nonetheless takes a singular verb!] Some historians see this situation obtaining as early as 1917, when the European powers had exhausted themselves in ways from which they were never to recover, and U.S. entry into World War I tipped the balance for the Triple Entente, a result that reflected a growing industrial and economic primacy that had been developing in the U.S. since the 1870s. Even in the bipolar world of the Cold War, historians are finding today in the wake of its ending, the U.S. was usually superior, even if this was not obvious at the time.
Inevitably, ongoing U.S. political superiority creates not only admiration and good feelings, but envy and bad ones, and all kinds of shadings in between. Americans can afford not to care about what happens in any individual African or European or Asian or Middle Eastern state — or at least they think they can — but the same is not true for citizens of those states, whose experience of globalization at the hands of forces currently driven by the U.S. forces them to form opinions. Given that such a distribution of political power makes a cultural and economic impact, a phenomenon that its critics refer to as Coca-colonization, Americans who live away from home for any length of time are inevitably confronted with images of the U.S. drawn from local culture that respond to the political, economic, and cultural position of that locality to the U.S. I’ve only lived for any length of time in two countries other than the U.S. (Germany and México), but portrayals of and prejudices about Americans immediately came into play as soon as anything about me revealed that I was a native of the U.S. These stereotypes affected the sort of expectations that local interlocutors placed on me in all kinds of situations, not alwas in ways that I understood immediately. (And of course the reverse is true; I am not without my own stereotypes about Mexicans and Germans, and though these ideas grow more complex with time, and get corrected, honed, and reformulated as my experiences expand, they never go away completely.)
These cultural codes are by no means always negative; rather, they can be incredibly complex. One of the most common complications, in my experience, is the “present company excepted” motif: “Americans are ________ (fill in the blank with stereotype), but you are not ________ (stereotype).” Another second common complication: “Of course the U.S. government is ________ (fill in characteristic), but we know that you can’t do anything about that.” No question that positive sentiment about the U.S. can be found easily in the outside world as well. But given the relative positional subordination of those who express such views, they are often negative, and this stance we term anti-Americanism. My point here is not to write a treatise on that prejudice, to complain about it (it is the price Americans pay, for good or for ill, for our country’s dominance), or even to whine about its effects on me (on the whole, despite occasional negative experiences, I’ve profited much more than lost from the accident and privilege of being an American). I just want to discuss a bit how anti-Americanism and its complications in the U.K. may play into understanding or misunderstanding Sarah as played by Ms. O’Reilly based on what I know about it, which is certainly not comprehensive, and how I see it played out in Spooks 7 and 8.
In a particularly upsetting scene, Sarah Caulfield (Genevieve O’Reilly) tells Lucas North (Richard Armitage) that she believes she’s beginning to get the hang of the “special relationship,” as Lucas, now about to test the information he’s gotten at work about how she’s been lying all along, reveals a brief but murderous stare that indexes his feelings of betrayal, in Spooks 8.5. My cap.
Viewers of Spooks can’t help but notice that the tension within the U.K. government and its secret services over the U.K.’s relationship to the U.S. –the nature and bounds of the so-called Special Relationship, a term Sarah uses at the beginning of the scene pictured above– is an ongoing subtheme and indeed a plot machine for the drama. The significance of this plot strand makes the way that American characters behave in Spooks a central matter of concern in the script. This significance lies not just in the mere superiority of the U.S., which troubles the British characters, though that carries many negative outcomes; it’s also manifested in the ways in which the U.S. characters express their superiority to their British counterparts and enforce it upon them. For the former emperors now imperialized, the perspectival change is sweeping, and like any imperialized group, they express their powerlessness in various ways, one of which works via the exploitation of stereotypes about the imperial power to their own advantage. (Interactions on this basis are a frequent theme in colonial fiction about imperial situations; it shows up a lot in Anglo-Indian fiction, for example.) Sometimes these are painful, at other times funny, but what unites them is that for the vignette to be believable to the core viewership of the series, BBC viewers in the U.K., then, the U.S. characters in Spooks have to conform not so much to American definitions of Americanness (how Americans are) but to British expectations about Americans (how the Brits see us).
I was talking to someone at dinner last night about the question of “the American villain” on U.K. television and she diagnosed the stereotypes of such characters as symptoms of British post-imperial angst, so what I’m about to say may be obvious to people whose knowledge of British TV is wider than mine, but of course I don’t want to take the risk of being misunderstood. In order to make this point about the scriptwriting clear, before I move on to talking about how this problem affected the writing and characterization of Sarah specifically, I want to discuss a neutral example that doesn’t involve O’Reilly to demonstrate how the exploitation of stereotyping works. In this scene, I think that the Spooks 8 writers and actors got the British-American interaction exactly right with regard to the believability needs of the core audience for Spooks, so we can use it to see clearly how the characterization of Americanness works without complications from our attitudes about the characterization of Sarah or Lucas.
Random: This scene was on my mind recently anyway as I had an email exchange with a friend who just returned from a trip to use the finest libraries in England for her research. The libraries were great and she loved London and Oxford, etc., etc. She only had two complaints about the trip: the bizarre flavors of potato chips (“crisps”) in the U.K., and –well– the English, especially what she termed their infuriating passive aggression. To her credit, she searched for info about the “crisps” and discovered that the strange flavors are not even necessarily beloved by every Brit. (Oh, and can I say that I’m sympathetic to her on this issue because the ubiquitous potato chip flavor in Germany is called “Paprika,” which is a sort of sweet red pepper taste, and the major other snack option beyond the pretzel is the Erdnussflip [like corn puffs except with peanut flavor instead of cheese], and so Germany is always really great for cutting my snack consumption.) Setting aside the chips, then, that leaves the (ahem) alleged passive aggression.
Lucas North (Richard Armitage) involved in a covert operation to obtain data about about entrances to a former undisclosed CIA location in London in Spooks 8.5. My cap.
Yes, it’s the famous “glove p*rn” scene in Spooks 8.5 — and I think we don’t look at it too closely because we love seeing Mr. Armitage bite that glove off his fingers. He also draws that moment out rather deliciously (starting here for the five [!] caps). I also admit I like it because he smiles so seldom in this series that it’s a relief to see him as a cheery, average bloke, even if Lucas is only acting.
In this scene, Section D is trying to obtain more information about what happened in the building where Sarah’s boss, Samuel Walker, died, because they question the official story that his death was a suicide. (We as viewers already know differently, because we watched Sarah murder Walker.) They need information from a card swipe machine in the entrance to the CIA Counter-Terroism [sic] Surveillance building. Lucas dresses up in biker gear to masquerade as a messenger delivering a package to the building. As he walks into the building, with what I as an American, and thus potentially the “Americans” in the scene, are supposed to read as average London working bloke bravado and corresponding gait, he encounters an African American security guard (played by Bentley Kalu). Lucas informs the guard that he has to deliver a package. A fellow security guard, in this case a white female, stands and observes in the background. The “package” Lucas drops on the scanner is a receiver / transmitter of some kind that Tariq, back on the Grid, uses to steal information from the scanner. The point of the ruse is that the package needs to be close to the scanner long enough for Tariq to upload the necessary information once a phone line to the Grid has been established.
In my judgment, this scene only works at all to advance the plot because “our gang” all know in advance exactly how the Americans will behave, and –which is more important– the show’s core audience also believes that their assumptions are credible. We start with Lucas’s entry into the building, in which Armitage has at least two microexpression moments signaling annoyance. (Maybe more, but the place I am capping from doesn’t let me slow the frames down while viewing.)
Lucas North (Richard Armitage) enters the CIA Counter Terrorism Surveillance Building in Spooks 8.5. My caps.
Lucas starts the encounter with this negative vibe in order to ensure something will happen of which he is already fairly certain: no one is going to sign for this package. “Go’ a package for ya, mate,” he says, not even looking Kalu in the face. Now, of course the CIA guards aren’t going to want to accept the package because there’s no real office there, but a vital assumption that makes this scene work is that the guards also won’t be observant enough even to look at it. (The smart thing to do if they really wished not to call attention to themselves would have been to accept the package with a smile and throw it in a corner somewhere, but Section D somehow knows the Americans won’t do that.) Instead, as Lucas somehow knows in advance, rather than being friendly, the Americans will behave implacably and thus move the encounter to just the confrontation he needs to have happen.
Two CIA security guards (Bentley Kalu and an unidentified actress) react as Lucas North enters the CIA building in Spooks 8.5. My cap. Incidentally, I can’t resist mentioning that, given his shoulder to waist ratio, Kalu would really benefit from wearing a tailored shirt with the typical British waist suppression. Look at the sloppy waist on this uniform shirt. Blame it on the CIA. Everyone knows Americans have no style.
Sure enough, the answer from Kalu: “Place is closed,” shaking his head and already looking annoyed. “W’you sign for it?” Lucas persists. Answer: “Nah. No packages.” Lucas: “Go’a deliver i’, mate.” Consonants are dropping here at a rate that suggests they are dying of sudden heart attacks — how homey! how frightfully English! – and Armitage raises the tone on the end of the sentence to make Lucas sound hopeful and conciliatory, as well as looking optimistic, now that he knows that Kalu is going to do as predicted, i.e., refuse the package.
Lucas North (Richard Armitage) as delivery boy pulls a facetiously innocent face after he’s maneuvered the desired behavior out of the CIA guard in Spooks 8.5. (Mood: “Please, sir, can I have some more?”) Source: Richard Armitage Central Gallery.
Key to this exchange for the British viewer assessing its credibility must be that Lucas the Brit starts off a little brusquely, but becomes more and more reasonable in ways that would be expected to achieve a result if his interlocutor were British, as Kalu the American, who starts off a little suspicious, becomes more frustrated and insistent and even less likely to cooperate, because that is how Americans are. The grounding assumption throughout is that Americans can be manipulated because they are not sensitive enough to understand normal manners. Lucas needs this effect to be reliable because the open telephone line created by the call to his fake dispatcher is necessary to complete the data transfer. We see Kalu insist again, with an expression that shows even a little more frustration, first widening his left eye threateningly:
Lucas’s response is “yeah, yeah, I ge’ the message,” but in fact, he has engineered this message himself in order to force Kalu into a situation where he will have to facilitate Lucas’s desired end. “Just go’ make a call,” he continues. Presumably, the assumption here on the part of the scriptwriter will be that Lucas has annoyed Kalu so much that Kalu will have forgotten any and all training he’s received on the potential terrorist exploitation of cell phones. I mean, what if Lucas had been calling in an air strike here or detonating a bomb? This is a covert CIA location, so presumably that’s the reason there’s no pat down and security scan and depositing of cell phones (“mobiles”) at the door, but even so. This is the CIA Counter Terroism [sic] Surveillance building. The mind pales.
Having demonstrated his willingness to be conciliatory, Lucas now turns to feigned unconscious escalation in order to start the data transfer, reporting: “Val! I’m at the Gordon Street dropoff. I’ve go’ a job’s [?] won’t sign.” Spooks 8.5, my cap. What I love about this moment is that Armitage’s voice is neutral, but what we see of his facial features just a second earlier suggests that Lucas might enjoy seeing what will happen when he gives this unwelcome message to his dispatcher. [ETA: what Lucas actually says is "I've go' a jobsworth won't sign. On the meaning of the term, which I couldn't hear properly when I wrote the original post, and resulting interpretations, see comments on this post by MillyMe and feefa.]
The camera gives us one more piece of evidence of the Americans’ unreasonability as, now having been reported to an unknown third person as non-compliant, Kalu turns in frustration to his female colleague, as if to say “what part of NO does this guy not understand?”:
and she responds with her own look of impatience at the messenger’s ridiculous behavior. Note the look of superiority in her eyes and the impatient, scornful tightening of the muscle at the left side of her mouth:
(Bentley Kalu and unidentified actress in Spooks 8.5. My caps). She could be saying, “oh, these pesky has-been imperialists!”
If you can look at this sequence on video somewhere, you’ll notice that the glance between Kalu and his colleague escalates the Americans’ sense of insistence and superiority to the last possible point, and it’s almost too much, as if the joke is being drawn out too long. But the interaction has to go on to this point — indeed the female actress seems to be in this shot only for this reason, as she never speaks or does anything else – in order to underline the Americans’ gullibility. That is, every time they insist that they will not take the package, they underline that Section D’s (and by extension the core audience’s) views about the quality and trajectory of their typically American behavior were totally justified.
Once Kalu is on the phone with Ruth, who’s playing the role of Val, the fake dispatcher, the main point of the events in the scene is continuing the phone call until the data transfer is complete. She manages to involve him in a conversation in which she starts on the same route as Lucas by asking him what the problem is with the package. He tones down his annoyance, replying, “I’m not authorized to take any packages,” and affirming in response to a repeated query, “None at all.” Ruth is taking Kalu down the same road that Lucas has earlier, so that when she asks him what she should do with it, he says, “It’s not a discussion, ok? No packages, period,” and she can then continue to escalate, saying, “Well, you’re not being very helpful. I think it’s bloody rude, actually. All I want to do is deliver a package.” All the while, Lucas is nonchalantly looking down, observing the package, and then the camera cuts to give us a brief shot as he stretches out his hand to reorient it slightly on the scanner. And in response to Ruth’s escalation, at the crowning moment of the scene for exploitation of stereotypes about Americans, I think, Kalu offers a classically stereotypical American response:
“That language is not necessary, ma’am. You have a good day,” is the CIA guard’s (Bentley Kalu) response to the fake dispatcher’s use of the term “bloody” in their conversation about the delivery of the package in Spooks 8.5. My cap.
Kalu’s brow wrinkles in strong consternation, and then his face shuts down as he delivers the line. He’s really angry that “Val” has used the word “bloody.” Of course, since the data transfer is not yet complete, “Val” / Ruth has gone too far, and one wonders whether she planned it. She’s pushed the stereotype buttons of calling an American “rude” (stereotype: Americans are always calling other people rude) and unhelpful (stereotype: that’s why Americans believe they are in the world, to help people), and then on top of all that, she plays the obscenity card, which ends the conversation with Kalu. This is the one moment at which I have any suspicion at all that the scene could be ironic. That is: Kalu’s statement is certainly the sort of thing an American would say (“language”) and also the sort of thing that stereotypes about Americans underline — not only a (n often fundamentalist religious) prudishness about language, but also a maniacally petty bourgeois obsession with manners that always focuses on the letter, not the spirit, and ends in overreaction about the wrong things. My only question is whether Ruth intentionally used the word in hopes of annoying him, or said it without thinking and ended up hoist with her own petard. If the former, then this part of the scene falls into the pattern of Section D relying on anti-American prejudice as an operational assumption; if the latter, then perhaps the writers were poking fun at British prejudices about Americans. How we answer that question depends a fair amount on how we read the camera’s brief cut to Tariq’s face as Kalu gets off the phone:
Tariq (Latif Shazad) looks incredulous as the CIA guard ends the conversation with Ruth as fake dispatcher in Spooks 8.5. My cap.
The purpose of this shot seems to be to offer a Section D reaction to Kalu’s statements. It’s not clear if the point of it is to say “you’re right, and although I never thought this ruse could work, Americans are so ridiculous that it has” or a more subtle “I really can’t believe he would end the conversation over a mild curse word, what will you do now?” All in all, though, I believe the scene is not ironic, particularly because it ends by restoring order to the British-American relationship in familiar ways. Kalu gives the phone back to Lucas, who continues a brief chit-chat until the transfer is complete, and then tells the guard he’s been very helpful. At this point, whether or not the scene left its initial assumptions behind for just a moment, it’s firmly back on the ground of negative stereotypes about Americans. First, Lucas returns to his mood of the beginning of the scene, which is from frustration to conciliation. Looking at the screen caps as he chatters on to Ruth, we see Armitage giving him the same expressional arc as earlier:
Again, five separate caps from the wonderful people at Richard Armitage Central Gallery show Lucas visibly moving in stance from near clenched teeth to irritation to the struggle to put a good face on things, at a level at which his interlocutor cannot avoid but see it. Then, the crowning British statement of the scene: “Thanks a lot, mate,” Lucas says, taking the package, “really helpful.” Although we as viewers know that Lucas’s words are emphatically not ironic, as Kalu’s willingness to drag out the interaction by insisting on not taking the package got the spooks the data they wanted, Kalu has no way of knowing that. In fact, he has to know that he has just not been very helpful. Thus, this moment in the interaction seems to rely on the old saw that Americans do not understand irony, and indeed, Kalu just looks confused:
The CIA guard is confused but watches the messenger leave the building and we are granted a gratuitous rear silhouette of Lucas North (Richard Armitage) in the flattering biker gear. Both my caps.
[An unresolved question for me that I thus factored out of this analysis: what role does the race of the actors cast in the roles of the CIA guards play in our perception of this scene?]
I admit that I find this scene a bit humorous, as I’ve been involved in some variant of this scenario repeatedly when I’ve visited parts of England outside of London. London seems to be used to deviant behavior. But elsewhere I’ve had the experience off and on of making a request or a response in a casual or formulaic encounter, as at a hotel or on the street, that I thought was within the bounds of reason, and receiving a response that has to be ironical, so that I knew I had said or done something impossible or at least outside the canon of normal behavior, but had no way to figure out what it was as everyone around me was smiling firmly and energetically. It’s not a constant experience, but it happens off and on. And I also get why many of the things in this scene are coded as typically American, and I find some of those same things funny or annoying myself. (And I am emphatically not claiming that Americans are innocent of treating British visitors to the U.S. in line with their stereotypes about the U.K.)
Nonetheless, I think the only reason this scene is bearable and believable is that Kalu himself appears to be a native speaker of U.S. English and so at least his accent does not point aggressively at the exaggerated quality of the stereotypes that he is inhabiting. One also suspects, given the perfection of his American idiom, that if there were U.S. idiom errors in the script originally, that he eradicated them. So he was two steps ahead of Genevieve O’Reilly for those reasons, and also, I think, at least potentially because he was able to recognize the stereotypes as stereotypes and play them in believable ways. In other words, I think he is the main thing that rescues a low-credibility scene in a problematic script, a scene that relies on anti-American stereotypes as the entire motor of its action.
In contrast, I think, in addition to not having mastered U.S. usage or a coherent U.S. accent, the way Ms. O’Reilly plays Sarah (and again, I can’t tell if this is the script, the direction, or her personal choices) shows her falling again and again and again into stereotypes about Americans. Moreover, the character was written in such ways that it could not take advantage of the most frequent personal complications of anti-Americanism that facilitate cross-national relationships (the “present company excepted” or “you’re not the government” outs). People who are supposed to be in intimate relationships like “Lucas and Sarah” cannot rely on stereotypes for their knowledge of each other. I’ll argue in the final conceptual piece of this argument that these stereotypes interfere in a fatal way with the character’s chemistry with Lucas, and thus with our perception that there was ever any sort of meaningful screen chemistry between the actors.
Speaking of national stereotypes, it may take a day or two. Tomorrow is Germany vs. England, which is always a big game for me. Can’t wait to hear those chauvinistic English fan chants. “Two world wars and world cup, doodah, doodah!”