Ugly “American”? part 2: Why we can’t ignore Sarah Caulfield’s “Americanness”

At a meeting in London’s Highgate Cemetery, Elizaveta Starkova (Paloma Baeza) informs Lucas North (Richard Armitage) of his first task as a Russian double-agent within MI-5 in Spooks 7.2. Source: Richard Armitage Online

As I argued previously, Sarah Caulfield’s accent was largely a red herring, something that (perhaps especially U.S.) viewers fixated on in their criticisms of Genevieve O’Reilly. At the same time, however, as the obvious code for Sarah’s Americanness, it was something that the script simply did not let us ignore in the way that we could brush off Paloma Baeza’s problems with the Russian accent. It’s true that Elizaveta’s Russianness was essential to the plot line of Spooks 7, as it made her susceptible to the offer to spy for Russia, but it also put her in a position to save Lucas from prison, and not even Lucas believed her statement, “I love Russia, too,” which was at least part of why he had to appear suddenly in her kitchen at the end of Spooks 7.2–he has to use her knowledge to verify that his version of the past is not a lie. And we saw Elizaveta’s personal life and ethics take on shape apart from her national or cultural loyalties in 7.4 when Lucas inadvertently trapped her with himself in the “Coventry dilemma.” In contrast, we could never simply conclude, “Sarah’s the villain, and she happens to be an American.” Instead, the script repeatedly placed the fact of Sarah’s “Americanness” at front and center not only of our perception of her, because it influenced her motivations for acting (which is not surprising), but more problematically in terms of its actual execution, her relationship with Lucas. The statements Sarah offered about her ethical position were made while esconced in a hospital bed in 8.8, shortly before she died, so that they had the lame effect of an ex post facto explanation. Oh, yeah, that’s why she was such a creep. But those sentiments, too, coded her aggressively as an American. It often seemed to me that Sarah was never allowed features that couldn’t be attributed to that fact about her character. It had to be, as it was almost the only major clue that viewers had to explain her behavior.

It’s certainly true that the nationality and culture of the partners play a significant role in how interactions can play out in a romantic relationship, and perhaps one reason I watched this relationship with attention is my curiosity over the years about the role my own Americanness plays in intimate relationships with natives of other countries. In my opinion, however, the way the Spooks writers handled this theme added a level of complexity to Sarah’s interactions with Lucas that overburdened not only the script and perhaps the actress, but also frequently scuttled our ability to figure out exactly what was going on at any given point between the two characters. 

I think this argument is going to be controversial, but not because it’s hard to see what I am talking about if you look carefully. Rather, I am having a hard time assigning responsibility to a single agent for this situation, and I find myself alternately fingering the script, the director, the actors, the core audience for the show, and myself as viewer. Part of the problem is that all I can see is the final product, not the documents about how it developed — and that’s the kind of thing that drives a historian crazy. We don’t like to speculate about responsibility, we like to pin things on people or say that we can’t. Talk about overdetermined! So we’ll see how it works out. Maybe you’ll think I’m nuts.

Knowing Sarah, knowing Lucas

In order to explain how it became the case that the most important clue we get as to who Sarah is her Americanness, I’m going to start with the question of how we can know who Sarah is. Yeah, identity and what we can know about it again. Well, at least Richard Armitage says things about himself, quite a lot of them, in fact, and other people who are in a position to know say things about him, too. In the case of Sarah, however, she’s given only a brief opportunity to introduce herself as the successor of Libby McCall and apparently a representative of the new U.S. administration. Other than that, when she speaks in an official capacity, she pushes the official Obama State Department line. And a strong proportion of the few pieces of content we learn about her from others are either mistaken or outright lies. So the most direct path to characterization is barred for this character, and we are always having to guess and / or make assumptions, and indeed the script relies on our propensity to do so in a way that must have created problems for Ms. O’Reilly. I’m sure she came up with a backstory for the character, but the lack of information in the script itself must surely have raised questions for her about how she was supposed to play Sarah.

In terms of knowing Sarah, one clear script failure was the insufficiently drawn relational aspect of the character. To understand her relationship to Lucas, we needed more information from her interactions with others so that we could contrast her different relationalities. Yes, she was a rogue CIA agent and she was supposed to be mysterious. But just as pudens functions by pointing to the hidden, paradoxically, mystery is created by the judicious disclosure of information. We don’t really live in a world “before interpretation.” Everything we learn gets put into the context of things we already know. If what we learn is incomplete, context takes on an ever greater role in explaining new information to us. The lack of specific information about the character made Sarah confusingly unknowable, so that we never understood why she was behaving the way she was from her perspective or those of others. We did not have enough information to understand what she was doing even when she was interacting with her Nightingale controllers. This failure was severe, as it’s the point at which we can assume the character to have been conforming most closely to her actual motivations and thus offers a baseline for understanding who she was.

This lack of relational information is significant for the question of any “Lucas and Sarah” chemistry not only because of what I understand about the constitution of a self, i.e., that we become different selves with different people, but also particularly because of how Mr. Armitage puts together his characters — to experience inner conflict as aspects of themselves collide when they encounter others. From the beginning, we do not ever see clearly how Sarah appeared (or appealed, something many commentators noted) to Lucas. And if Sarah did not have a discernable profile for Lucas, it could not be clear to him or us how he felt about her; indeed, it’s notable how often Lucas offers her glances of bewilderment. Which pieces of Lucas are colliding because of his attachment to Sarah? Attraction and obligation? Though that’s the most obvious answer, we can’t tell, really. If the dilemma is loyalty to Harry (read: to the principles that make MI-5 Lucas’s “home,” as he articulates in Spooks 7.2) vs. attraction to Sarah (read: to a return to a more human world in which love and loved ones matter, sometimes more than truth or principle or mere professional obligation, a problem the discussion at the opening of Spooks 8.4 raises and which is an echo of the questions raised in 8.1 by the murder of Ruth’s Cypriot partner, George), it’s surprising (a) how naive that makes Lucas look, since in the very first encounter with Sarah he states more or less that he believes she will lie to him; (b) how quickly Lucas abandons Harry for Sarah, given how important those principles and the feeling of home were to him for so long, and (c) how easily, later in the series, when he discovers what he must have known all along, that Sarah is a professional liar — just like him (Spooks 8.7)! better than him! what a surprise!– he abandons his lover to return to his principles. Even if we reduce this conflict to the conventionally masculine “balls vs. brains” dilemma, the script makes Lucas either a much more boring or a suddenly much more desperate character in series 8 than he had been in series 7. (Maybe the latter was part of what the script was seeking, and I’m bookmarking this possibility to think about more, later, but if that was the case, the project wasn’t pursued with much energy or conviction.)

Lucas North (Richard Armitage) glances after Sarah Caulfield as she leaves the morgue following their first encounter in Spooks 8.1. My cap. Is he evaluating her suspiciousness as a wily American operative, or her butt? Very subtle playing here — we can’t tell immediately. There’s just a tiny little quirk on the left side of his lips for a fraction of a second before the camera cuts to the next scene.

Oops, there it is, a split second later, along with a slight appreciative widening of the left eye. The guy is nothing if not subtle.

The lack of relational or other information about Sarah makes it hard to understand Lucas or his behavior; if we can’t see what aspects of Lucas Sarah is influencing, we learn little about her. But if we can’t interpret what Sarah is saying, we have to look to Lucas, because Lucas is her most consistent, sustained interlocutor. He is the figure in position to give us the most information about her. In Armitage’s characterization, a fair amount of what Lucas “says” always comes from things he doesn’t say, but it’s difficult to deduce what he’s “not saying” if we can’t figure out what Sarah is saying. The script thus puts us as viewers in a trap, in which we turn our head in confusion from one character to another, looking for some piece of interpretive context, and after watching this series again, I suspect it puts the actors in the same trap.

The viewer, at any rate, is stuck, because Armitage is a heavily relational actor in general (before you get angry, this is a compliment!) and his style is hyperexploited in Spooks, where all the characters are more likely to convey their opinions with their eyes than with their lips. In multi-person scenes in Spooks, the camera frequently catches him looking at the other characters and indeed such shots are used to bind conversations or tie pieces of information together (this happens a fair amount in Strike Back, as well). So our interpretation of his body language and signals is perhaps unusually reliant on context, but we get very little information from his context with Sarah. Admittedly, one could say that this script demanded a more declarative, open acting style than Armitage usually offers his audiences. But read from our spectator’s perspective, the regular and occasionally jarring use of handheld cameras in the tete-a-tete scenes to create an impression of extreme intimacy would have made a more explicit range of facial gestures read as overacting. Significantly, such explicitness would also have constituted a major departure from the strongly controlled, perhaps hyperdisciplined gestural and expressional repertoire Armitage established for Lucas in series 7. The occasional problems of characterization Armitage experienced with Lucas in series 8 are not, in my opinion, related to a failure to make Lucas’s emotions sufficiently open; on the contrary, they stemmed from playing a Lucas that was, given the character’s history, suddenly frighteningly open about his emotions. One wonders whether Armitage was tempted to throw out his entire prior characterization of Lucas and start over; luckily he doesn’t, but from time to time, one sees it fraying at the edges, unable to expand to make it describe not only himself, but Sarah as well.

Tying these two strands together: as viewers, because of the lack of information about Sarah, which is a script problem, and due to the relational quality of self, a cognitive problem of human existence that is underlined by Armitage’s acting style, how we feel about O’Reilly as Sarah becomes inseparable from how we feel about Armitage as Lucas. From my perspective, given the absence of reliable character clues in the script, our growing awareness of Sarah’s deviousness was developed much too heavily by giving the character of Lucas an ever greater vulnerability that eventually came to be too much. As the series proceded, this window into Lucas’s vulnerabilities snowballed into an almost lascivious voyeurism into his psyche with which I grew increasingly uncomfortable given what I learned about the boundaries of his persona in series 7. As I suggested above, charitable viewers could potentially read series 8 Lucas as more open than he had been in series 7, more ready to return to the world. The way that the script handled this personal development, however, by insisting on drawing the Sarah character almost exclusively through our impressions of Lucas and thus exposing every last minute of his pain about her, made it seem as if the script had lost respect for the character by insisting that he expose all the wounds that were obvious to any viewer but whose concealment in turn made up a vital part of Armitage’s stunningly convincing characterization of Lucas in series 7. An essential piece of Armitage’s professional toolkit is his preternatural awareness that we don’t have to see everything about a character to know that it is there–only clues. The series 8 script seemed to deny him this possibility in characterizing Lucas but apply it in a ridiculously exaggerated form to Sarah.

We learn so little about Sarah from the rest of the script that most of the time we are seeing her via the mirror of Lucas. In this sense, it was hard to avoid understanding the Sarah character as first and foremost a plot device for illuminating Lucas. I read Lucas in series 7 as noble but tortured — as Armitage said in the extras on the series 7 DVDs, “damaged”; in series 8 the writers seem to be trying to move him in the direction of seeking normality, but their treatment of the “noble/moral” aspect of his character was not developed in parallel with the “damaged/normal” axis of the character. Thus we can’t tell if Lucas is constitutionally unable to find an adequate partner for himself (damaged vs normal) or ran aground here on the basis of some unspecified ethical dilemma in which he found himself (the ultimate consequence of trying to be moral is that one fails).

Lucas North (Richard Armitage), a/k/a “the beautiful,” in blissful post-coital contemplation of what he’s going to tell Harry Pearce about his relationship with Sarah Caulfield, in Spooks 8.4. Source: Richard Armitage Central Gallery. Coordinating the sheets with Mr. Armitage’s eyes was a nice touch, if exploitative of the viewer’s aesthetic sensibilities. Would as haphazard a housekeeper as Lucas really think about such things?

Perhaps as a consequence, in series 8 much more so than 7, I felt exploited on a base level. It seems that the script sought to appeal to the lowest common denominator of the Armitage fan contingent: our desire to peek behind the curtain that Lucas (and perhaps by metonymic extension, Richard Armitage) puts between himself and us. Putting Lucas together with a pretty woman; dressing him strikingly; offering us a chance to see him naked from behind; and posing him topless in bed, gracefully initiating foreplay against a color of bedclothes that drastically underlined the ethereal extremes of Armitage’s complexion  — all these decisions made us into voyeurs who gaze at him, both vulnerable and aroused, as he initiates his first relationship since the end of his captivity. This strategy might have bothered me less had Sarah worked out for Lucas, but the decision of the script to hurt him so badly not only in terms of his still raw emotions but also in terms of his professional judgment ultimately made me extremely uncomfortable with viewing his shame. I wanted to look away from the screen, but could not. These elements make for great Lucas North fan fiction, I suppose, but we expect a bit more from this character and this particular drama. In particular, I suspect, we wanted to see Lucas with a woman we could respect — even if she was evil, Given that Lucas had a longer backstory with a surplus of reasons for us to find him credible despite occasional inconsistent scripting or problems in characterization, it was up to the scriptwriters to focus their attentions on creating a worthy opponent, and this they did not do.

Realistically speaking, there was no time for them to do so in only eight hours of television. As many viewers commented, the entire Nightingale project never really took on shape. All we saw were its concrete outcomes. Its aims, goals, and participants remained largely in the dark, so there was also little information coming from that direction for us to interpret. All this should make clear that the script had too many strands, a series of “too muches” that overwhelm the interpreter and which left many huge questions in the mind of the viewer. This conclusion, in combination with what I’ve written above about characterization, should make obvious that understanding Sarah made us much more heavily dependent than usual on contextual clues like stereotypes and common-sense assumptions. Writers frequently take advantage of such notions in crafting thriller scripts, but here this technique had additional implications for O’Reilly’s choices in playing Sarah Caulfield because most of the clues we could glean from the show related to her Americanness. Most of the time we could not learn enough about her to believe anything about her statements or actions. But what we did learn about her depravity again pointed to her Americanness.

So whatever she did with Sarah, O’Reilly had to make her “American.” It was practically the only option given to her by the script for any sort of detailed characterization at all. But I think the problem there, the reason that she was not convincing in her quality as an “American,” was much broader for Ms. O’Reilly than the mere matter of the fumbled accent. In “being American,” she had to deal not only with what the scriptwriters provided and her own characterization of Sarah, but also with audience expectations about how an American should be. That’s really the topic for tomorrow: how do prejudices about “Americans” affect portrayals of them by “non-Americans” in “non-American” shows, specifically Spooks 8? In turn, the way that she, the script, and the directors of these episodes defined and understood “American” and the way that O’Reilly played it created significant screen chemistry issues for Sarah and Lucas. I hope to get there the next day. Then, if you and I are both still interested, we can do a blow-by-blow of the relationship and the choices the actors appear to have made.

~ by Servetus on June 24, 2010.

59 Responses to “Ugly “American”? part 2: Why we can’t ignore Sarah Caulfield’s “Americanness””

  1. I hope no one takes this as controversial in a negative sense. As a Canadian (who through an accident of birth, also has British nationality – my brother was born in the States, and sister in England and son in Vienna; why can’t we just stay put?) I do find much irony in the manner in which any nationality is portrayed. And various cultural/political biases. “The Mounties always get their man!!” Stereotypes. Please keep exploring this issue. I think it has value.

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    • If you want to go the whole hog, and say that Sarah is not really a character, and that in her function as a mirror for Lucas she is a disaster, the only feasible way to read the whole plot strand as successfuly, is as an allegory about the British – U.S. relationship. I’m not going that far, myself, but the heavy reliance on stereotype of American sort of points us as interpreters in that direction.

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  2. I like Genevieve O’Reilly. Can you tell a put down is coming. I don’t really mean it as a put down but rather an assessment of reality. With the lack of relational information, one thing would have done a lot to explain Lucas’ inflammatory reaction to Sarah — having a drop dead gorgeous woman play her. I think O’Reilly is pretty, but she is not the kind of woman that would explain Lucas’ reaction sans the more in-depth exploration of her.

    I agree heartily that O’Reilly was relegated to “American” being the primary substance of her character. What a shame, and sadly, she she seemed to infer that a woman with clout is akin to John Wayne in a dress; otherwise, how to explain her swagger?

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    • Not a put down. I worried about that in this series as I had to criticize her work but didn’t want to do it in the way a lot of the brief comments on the web have. Given what I’ve said here, I’d reply to your comment about O’Reilly’s physical attractiveness is that “if the only reason that could explain why Lucas is attractedt to her is her appearance, then we must conclude that Sarah is the physiognomic type that Lucas finds attractive.”

      I agree that the swagger is weird as it’s neither American, Bostonian, attributable to her class background, or really very female. I inferred therefore that it was a political statement. Of this more in the next post.

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  3. I have only seen a few clips because I am waiting for the dvd release but in my opinion Sarah’s accent does not sound American (coming from an American). In The States, not everyone has the same accent, it is a regional thing. You have the Dixie Accent, the New England Accent which is the one Sarah is TRYING to mimic, Creole Accent, and the Western Drawl.
    I have to wait until I have seen the entire series before I can respond to the rest.

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  4. It will be interesting to hear you take on it. My take on it is in her attempt to get the Boston accent, she vacillated between Mississippi and the Bronx.

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    • When I first heard her, I thought “Bronx trying to sound like western Chicago suburbs or inside the Beltway.” On the second hearing I heard “Boston mixing with unspecified southern drawl.” Part of it, too, is that she rarely speaks in extended enough stretches for us to diagnose a real pattern. A linguist could probably do better than I will.

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      • Yeah, I hear an overall attempt at Boston, maybe, but instead of the highbrow “ah” sound “pahk the cah, dahling,” she starts dropping “g’s” and throwing in “honeys.” Unspecified southern is perfect! She’d do best aiming for midwest like they teach all American broadcasters to do when they lose their regional accents.

        The very best thing she could do would be to drop British expressions like “I might have done,” “the CIA are…, “she’s still in hospital,” “I’ll get it sorted.”

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        • Thanks for the comment and welcome. Theoretically (cough) I have one last post in this series where I want to extend things. It’s one of my theories that she’s actually adlibbing from the script because there are so many errors in American usage. As I’ve rewatched Spooks 8 several times now, I’ve come to see that the other Brits playing Americans don’t get things anywhere near as wrong as she does, which makes me think that there was a decently Americanized script that she diverted from.

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  5. Interesting article.So if I understand from your final comments you are implying/stating that if Sarah had been played by an American who would therefore (due to their cultural background) be able to define and understand what being an American meant, then Sarah’s character might have been (or would have had a much better chance of being) successful, and not just from the point of view of a better accent.

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    • Yes, really good thinking–that is a definite consequence of what I am saying! Though it goes a bit further than that. Sarah would have to have been written by someone who didn’t rely on anti-American stereotypes to fill in those big holes. This is actually the second time you’ve gone the next intuitive step with me in your comment on a heavily analytical post. Are you a Meyers Briggs “N”?

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      • I don’t know! But funnily enough I did several psychometric tests including Meyers Briggs only last week, but I won’t get the results until August, so you will have to wait for a proper answer until then!

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        • I think you’re an N. 🙂 (I’m an INFJ).

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          • I’m not quite sure what I think of the MB testing. I’ve been tested twice in my life, and it changed a little from thse first to the second test, which makes some sense. I was an ENTJ the first time, and an ENTP the second. I like to think I was not such a b*ll buster the second time around. 😉

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            • IMO its usefulness lies in its utility as a tool for thinking about how the different aspects of one’s personality may fit together, not in its absolute statements / predictions about one. The first time I was tested, the big revelation to me was that I was an “I.” Most people who know me think of me as an “E.” Also it was interesting to compare my profile to those of my parents. I share only 1 characteristic with my father, for example, which according to MB explains a lot of the tension between us.

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  6. I’ve often wondered why films and series don’t just have American actors playing these roles for the sake of authenticity. There must be available actors in London or nearby. I never have the same expectation that they will get Russian or Eastern European accents right as I assume it is quite difficult mastering an unfamiliar accent in a few weeks.

    About casting Americans as devious, could this be an attempt to balance out the Russian/Middle Eastern/Oriental terrorist angle that has been done so many times before? I think it’s on a par with the fact that many crooks in American block-busters seem to speak with an upper-class British accent while their reasons for their dastardly deeds are obscure.

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    • I don’t know how they do their casting. If you listen to the Russians some are native speakers (or at least children of native speakers), while others are clearly native speakers of British English. Maybe it’s whoever they happen to have access on a given day.

      Americans as devious: this was not a problem for me except as it ended in stereotype. I fully accept that a CIA agent is doing things I’d find distasteful. On some level (no matter how I feel about it politically), that’s what the U.S. government pays her to do. I.e., it’s realistic, even if it’s unethical. A fair amount of the portrayal of Americans in non-U.S. tv reflects anti-American sentiment. I would read this as more legitimate, I think, if the anti-American sentiment didn’t so constantly read as stereotype. Although on some level this is just what the Russians got all through the Cold War, and it must be much worse for “Middle Easterners.”

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  7. BTW there was a very mundane reason for the blue sheets: Lucas’ tattoos would rub off as blue/green stains on white sheets, at least when some bed-action is involved and not just sleeping.

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    • that makes sense, and is good to know.

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      • I admit that the blue sheets are a nice touch but they don’t always choose the sheets so carefully. In a later episode there is scene with Lucas just sleeping peacefully and the sheets are white and there is on shot of his flat that shows the bed covered with a really horrible blanket with a flowery design a man like Lucas would probably never choose.

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        • Can you tell me which episode with the flowery blanket?

          One thing that bugs me about Spooks 8 is that there do seem to be glaring continuity errors. We have the flat in 8.4 with the coordinating 🙂 sheets. At the end of that episode Harry tells Lucas he’ll have to move because he took Darshavin there. In 8.5 at the beginning we see him sleeping in a different location, but the captions don’t tell us where. I assume from the extreme sterility of the furnishings in the kitchen that it’s some kind of extended stay hotel. Grey sheets. Later in the same episode, the captions tell us that we’re in Lucas’s flat and show the exterior of the flat from 8.4, but we appear to be in the interior of the venue from 8.5. Again the grey sheets.

          I guess what I’m asking is, when do we know or when can we assume that Lucas would have picked the sheets vs. just using sheets that are alredy there?

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  8. Thank you for your wonderful article.
    It made me realize, that I interpreted Sarah Caulfields role in Spooks 8 quite differently. But I still think your ideas and analysis are just brilliant! Thank you!
    I am from Germany and was not so much disturbed by her strange American accent. I just found, some words sounded funny. So it did not lead me to her being an American as main topic.
    In my opinion, Sarah Caulfield could have been situated in any national context, except for obvious reasons in Russia. But as Britain and the U.S. closely work together and Caulfield had to be situated in a crucial position of power, the U.S. were the most obvious of choices.
    The failure of Lucas North to characterize Caulfield more, in my opinion does not result from his private life or relationships. I do not think he is very open with his private life in series 8, he just collapses, when he is confronted with his torturous 8 years in prison together with the obvious betrayal of Sarah Caulfield. On the contrary, I even think he tries very hard to keep his private ideas and goals quite secret, even from Hugo Prince and the team. I had the impression, after series 7 the team does accept him and his loyalty to MI5, but they do not know him very well. He is very efficient at work, but does not easily give a glimpse into his private life.
    What brings Caulfiled and North together, is their way of life. They do not have something except their work (so there was nothing to show of Caulfield’s private relationships). Both are
    – Workaholics of the worst sort
    – Control freaks
    – Without any private life
    – Independent
    – Free thinkers
    – abhor systems
    – Use systems to their own advantage or ideals (at least after Blake I very much suspect that of Lucas North)
    Their relationship is a dance of control where always one or the other tries to get the upper hand. I find it very significant, that both did not clear the relationship with their bosses. It shows us that they had no clear intention of really setting up a relationship.
    Sarah Caulfield in her own character already mirrors her need of control – in her relationship to Lucas North – in her work for Nightingale, which tries to control the world order.
    Lucas North is a mirror to her need of control. He is so similar to her, that she honestly believes, she can turn him to go with her to Bolivia, because he very well could understand her reasoning.
    Lucas North tries to control Sarah Caulfield, as he suspects her of deeper intentions right up from the beginning. He wants to have the upper hand on the ongoing motions at work.
    Sarah Caulfield wants to control Lucas North, as she senses a strong character, not easily fooled or suppressed. At least not even 8 years in prison could destroy him, though Lucas himself accuses his torturer of doing exactly that. Her work for Nightingale gives additional motivation for her need to control Lucas North.
    Their game of mutual control is most obvious, when they get together for the first time and Sarah Caulfield outmaneuvers him with their arrangement to meet at her booked hotel room.
    So in the end, I really think, both actors, Richard Armitage and Genevieve O’Reilly did an extraordinary job, to get the cool calculation and the overlaying motivations just right.
    Sorry for my long explanation. I had the feeling otherwise my line of thinking would not get through.
    Thank you for your wonderful blog! Please keep up the fantastic work!

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    • Herzlich Wilkommen, CDaart! I’m intrigued to hear that someone liked and understood this relationship, and I was glad to read the extended list of reasons why. I think much of what you say is convincing (and indeed, might play better with audiences who aren’t bothered by the accent issue) as an ex post facto or derivative reading of the script, i.e., a “this is how it must have been” reading, if we put all the pieces together after we’ve seen 7 and 8 and try to explain things. Your explanation also has the charm of being extremely elegant and I like the extrapolations you make. My issue with it would be, if you’re right, why do we find all this information out in such an incredibly piecemeal way? — i.e., it’s a problematic explanation from the ways in which the script unfolds. For instance, do we have any evidence other than Elizaveta’s statement that Lucas is like Blake? He seems, for instance, to be fairly well integrated into a pretty serious system by working for MI-5. I don’t think her statement is implausible, indeed, I think Lucas’s statement in 7.6 that he’s the son of a minister offers some fertile ground for speculation, but I felt like we needed some more information there. Assuming that we take that reading of Lucas as visionary, etc., there’s still the question of how he can know or sense about Sarah what she only reveals at the very end of Spooks 8, i.e., her vision — and then also why he doesn’t respond to it more positively.

      Another thing I like very much about your thought-provoking reading is that it seems like it raises a lot of questions for the series that’s being filmed right now. It points a number of problems that have to be resolved!

      Again, thanks.

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      • Thank you for your nice reply and German welcoming message !
        I see the problems you mention in Spooks 8. I think I read an interview with Richard Armitage before I even saw the sequences. His way of mentioning Lucas North’s relationships in series 8 somehow tipped me off into this route of interpretation. I tried to find the interview, but cannot find it right now. I will keep searching.

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        • Ich hatte keine Ahnung, daß es soviele deutsche RA-fans gibt!

          I think this was in an interview with Ian Wylie, that I linked to in the first post on this topic, CDoart. One thing I like about Ian Wylie is that he quotes people saying exactly what they said, i.e., no tidying up for syntax or grammar, but I have to confess that I found Mr. Armitage’s own explanation in that interview slightly confusing! 🙂

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          • Thank you. It indeed is the Ian Wylie interview. I just found it as well and reread the passage.
            I see both Lucas North and Sarah Caulfield fighting for dominance. They want to proof to each other, who is the better spy. Here I even see Sarah’s American’ness as a form of disguise or cover she uses to get others to misinterpret or simplify her motivations and only see her as a not very subtle American woman (Sorry for that ! I am not (very) biased and have wonderful American friends.).
            Richard Armitage states, that Lucas North was really tempted to turn sides. I do not see that so clearly, but when Sarah Caulfield spares Lucas in her apartment, I think he was close. He even says “Take me with you”.
            I am looking forward to Spooks 10, as like you, I think that a lot of open questions and motivation threads remain to be discovered further.
            I very much hope that a British fan will have mercy and put the show on YouTube, because I do not think I can await the DVD-release date. Certainly not after Richard Armitage’s comments about Lucas not beeing who we thought…
            (I honorably buy the DVDs as soon as they become available, so do not worry.)

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            • Yeah, I am not convinced from the way Lucas behaved in S9 that he was ever really tempted to switch sides. Perhaps S9 will make that clearer. I am planning to do exactly as you predict with the DVDs — hope to watch on the internet, buy the media as soon as they become available, and hope it’s not an entire year!! 🙂

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  9. The stereotyping is the rather objectionable aspect. The CIA officer Laurie, in Spooks 7 appears to have been written mainly as a catalyst to Harry’s funny facial expressions.

    It’s problematic to explain just what was the “purpose” of a non-American actress as Sarah. Particularly as script and make-up seemed designed to make the least of any potential allure. Where does all this leave the Lucas character?

    Did the production really miss the boat on S8?

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    • I felt like Laurie was essentially only a caricature, but she shares important similarities to Sarah, and indeed, some of those similarities were what pushed me down this interpretive road. Would we really accept that Lucas could have had a relationship with Laurie? And yet in important ways Sarah’s character is not that much more developed.

      I think that S8 was trying to make a much bigger statement than S7. S7 fully achieved its aims, while S8 did not. But failed projects can be equally interesting and seductive to the viewer if one is willing to accept the failures.

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  10. Just afterthoughts (takes a while to put intuitive reactions to a more analytical mode): that lack of Sarah characterisation/real backstory definitely confused the issue. An immediate reaction was that poor Lucas is finally having the meltdown/”nervous breakdown” following Russia, torture, the loss of Elisavieta, and questions about Harry, that he has been resisting. Still trying to analyse ….

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    • Yes. And IMO the biggest mistake that the S8 script made in terms of our understanding of Lucas’s behavior was to drop the ball hit at the very end of S7. After Connie says she was the one who was responsible for Lucas’s betrayal to the Russians and gets blown to smithereens before she can say more, Lucas says he has to talk to Harry. Then they discover Harry’s kidnapping and we’re off to the races with 8.1 and never come back to that point. So that conversation, if it took place, did not happen in our presence. To me it’s only that conversation that really has the potential to explain why Lucas didn’t raise the issue of Sarah with Harry much earlier. We have to assume that it was a highly unsatisfactory conversation for Lucas, at least, if it took place, BUT WE DO NOT SEE IT. Grrrr.

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      • You are preaching to the choir. This is one of the issues I have with Spooks S8 and covered it in my diary entries which I haven’t posted yet. I liked S7 much better than S8. I felt very cheated by S8. I also felt manipulated, and it wasn’t even fun. Oh, there were some performances and some plot threads that were very interesting, but not enough for me to call this a memorable series. I also am biased by the first three series, which are far and away the best of Spooks. As much as I like RA, S7 and S8 come nowhere near those, but really that was a different show. Spooks took a turn, and I don’t really like the turn it took. (ducks)

        None of that takes away from my RA love, but that’s my candid opinion about the show.

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        • I have only seen the first four episodes of S1 and nothing else, but I have occasionally wondered if some of the ground that 7 and 8 cover hasn’t already been explored, and so long time viewers of the series feel less need for explanation of things than I do. Long-running drama series do have the issue that there are certain issues that are going to be raised repeatedly (the big one here seems to be the way the spooks cannot have personal lives because they are professional liars) and the challenge is to do so creatively. I loved ER when it started, and I liked a lot of the characters/actors in the sort of second generation fo the show, but I felt that by the term the 3rd generation characters were well established that they were just repeating themselves.

          I almost always feel manipulated by TV; I think that’s part of why I’ve detached from it so much.

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        • Well, maybe they will start S9 off with a heart to heart between Harry and Lucas. Not likely, but we can hope?

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  11. Servetus, love this analysis. As a Brit I’m presumably the audience that stereotype Sarah was written for, and have to admit I’m cheerfully unbothered by accent or grammar. As an acid test I’m trying to imagine Spooks 8 with Sarah as a non-American character, a kind of tough sassy Ros – would the relationship still have been so unsatisfactory? I’ll get back to you on that.

    I really miss the Lucas of Spooks 7 – witty, stoic, principled, touching. The Lucas of Spooks 8 seems an entirely different character to me, much less congruent and appealing. The self-containedness of Lucas 7 becomes almost mannered and robotic (when he’s not being wildly emotional of course).

    I can see how it seemed a good idea to the writers to explore the emotional effects of Lucas’s imprisonment. In these PTSD-aware times it bothered me that Lucas had been able to snap back into being an effective MI5 operative (I know, I know, it’s only a story, but…). You’ve described so well the awful asymmetry of his non-relationship with Sarah – her always enigmatic and ubercool, rattling his cage, ruffling his feathers, compromising his integrity, while he’s going through the emotional wringer and suffering eyewatering humiliation at work. Even when she apparently drops her guard (eg her anger in ep 4) we’re set up not to take it at face value. As you say, we see too much of her dastardly ways and too little of her inner life and emotional world. We get no sense of what she or Lucas gets from this relationship, and it’s a huge flaw in the script.

    The other flaw, as you’ve implied, is showing Lucas being humiliated and vulnerable on two fronts, with Sarah AND the Darshavin relationship. A twin-pronged shedload of control, manipulation and humiliation – no wonder Lucas unravels. But this relationship to me is totally compelling, though as you say, uncomfortably voyeuristic at times. I did get a sense of something mutual, however twisted or dark, between the two characters (and of course the scenes were brilliantly played by both actors).

    So why did Darshavin-Lucas work, with so little screen time, relatively, and Sarah-Lucas not? Maybe it’s back to the American stereotype. I’m looking forward to your next posts.

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    • Counterfactuals are always good thinking tools, I feel, feefa. Could Sarah have been of a different nationality? Maybe the script required her to be American, but could she have been a bit more subtle, a bit less inclined to display a huge number of the long catalog of sins evident in stereotypes of Americans? The thing about stereotypes is that they are approximations — that’s why they are so seductive. If she had been stereotypically American some of the time as opposed to all of the time? Would that have worked.

      I am in total agreement with you on the differences between Lucas 7 and Lucas 8. In the end I became used to Lucas 8, but I missed Lucas 7 and wondered where he went. Perhaps there’ll be opportunity to write more about this. Thinking in response to your comment, I really found it awful how Lucas kept being humiliated at work. Given that that’s all the character has (and maybe one of my personal identifications with Lucas!) it makes Spooks 8 very painful for me to watch.

      And Darshavin. I have to think more about that. I don’t know off the cuff what role the stereotypes I accept may play in my view of that relationship, but you’re right that Sarah and Oleg are two weights on the pendulum of the Lucas clock in 8.4. Hmmmmm.

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    • feefa – I agree, the Darshavin/Lucas relationship did work. They actors managed to convey pretty clearly that they had feelings for each other and that 1) they were not the same feelings and 2) they were not purely love or hatred. When Lucas gives Darshavin back to the FSB, there’s a moment there when I feel his betrayal and rejection of his bizarre possessive love for Lucas, and it’s painful to watch. The actors manage to get that across in a handful of scenes together. I found it far more compelling than the Sarah/Lucas relationship and betrayal.

      A note: Oleg’s name is not pronounced O-leg. It’s ah-LIEK. Lucas would certainly have known that.

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  12. Because of this post, I watched Spooks 8/8 last night, which promoted my husband to say to me,”You are watching Spooks again?” I didn’t mention I was watching so I could provide my input for this blog. Somethings are just better unsaid.

    Spooks is not genre I would normally engage in, but after season 7, I was hooked and it wasn’t just because of Mr. Armitage either. Spooks is a tightly run machine. The production value, the writing and the acting, all top notch. (side note on the writing, there is a lot of exposition, telling not showing, but I forgive that because they are trying to pack a lot of backstory into one hour to provide the viewer with the necessary context). As for Sarah, he is my determination, that she was miscast. She simply wasn’t the actress for the part, and because the acting is so strong on that show, it really made her stand out like the proverbal sore thumb.

    As for the protrayal of Americans, as an American, I find it interesting to see how the rest of the world perceives us. And it isn’t always pretty. Stereotypes do exist for a reason, and are shomewhat based in reality, so I would rather see the UK perception of America instead of a sanitized politically correct verison. At times, on Spooks, it does go into comicbook villan territory, but it doesn’t really bother me.

    Sarah’s boss in 8/8 Price was his name, I believe, his accent was Jack Nicholson all the way, which I found hilarious, because no one in the whole of the United States sounds like Jack Nicholson, except Jack Nicholson.

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    • I’d never have watched Spooks without Armitage having been in it (I haven’t seen a single episode of 24, for example) but I agree, once you watch it, you get drawn in by the generally high quality of the shows.

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  13. Actually, I tend to think of the Ugly American portrayal as the PC version. LOL! But hey, that’s just me.

    Seriously, I also like to see how others perceive us and not just how we would like to be perceived. But I also realize that it’s the perception of the producers of Spooks and not necessarily how the masses may see us. If I ever wonder about that, I have my own country to take note of. Not everything that is put out by Hollywood or even the news services is a reflection of the masses in American.

    I wonder how many of us have watched and enjoyed movies and shows that did not reflect our opinions.

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    • If there’s anything I’ve learned living elsewhere, it’s that Anti-Americanism / negative stereotypes about Americans are really complex and they are practiced not only on a social but also on an individual level. One can be suspicious of Americans in general and love a particular American without too much difficulty, I’ve learned, although that means that when the American does something that seems quintessentially American in a bad way, one is forced to confront the problem of “is this a cultural tendency and hence forgivable, or is the person just a jerk?”. And we Americans also take refuge in our cultural patterns in order to justify things that are really questionable. I suspect this is a general sort of cognitive dissonance (you’re American, but you are not like Americans) that people practice out of laziness or because life would get too complex if every interaction involved something genuine. I think of how African Americans are portrayed on tv in the U.S. vs actual African Americans I know. I never saw a black person in real life until I was (I think) 14, by which time I had seen plenty of them on TV. Well, the African Americans I know don’t really bear much relationship to the ones on TV. But I still watch the TV and don’t worry about it too much. Perhaps I should do so more.

      In general, US-ians benefit a great deal from worldwide admiration of and respect for Americans and America. So I tend to not be very worried about stuff like this as a general phenomenon. I was just interested in how it affected our perception of Sarah Caulfield.

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  14. Well, I am relieved there are other people out there who do not have a problem with Sarah Caulfield. I was getting worried I was a meager fan not being possesive of Lucas North 🙂
    Frankly I can’t analyze the series to such a degree as there is already such a suspension of reality. Lucas North could never be a real Spook, he is just too tall and handsome and would draw too much attention. The same for Ross and Jo. Hence I don’t percieve the “bad” characters as representative of their cultures. Nevertheless I enjoy you pondering the issues.
    Growing up in Europe there would always be stereotyping of different nationalities. One learns to take it with humor and it can be funny but there is a fine line where it can be offensive. Just as I am sometimes percieved as a representative of my country and am expected to know everything about it, is equally an impossibilty.

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    • LOL! 🙂 There are a couple of places in SB, too, where I thought, “how does anyone think this 6’2″ white man can possibly disguise himself while walking down the street with short men of olive complexion, even if he is wearing something over his face?” I do think Mr. Armitage’s face is remarkably chameleonlike in his different roles, but anyone of that height is immediately distinguishable.

      I think you make a good point that because this series already stretches common sense assumptions to the near-breakingpoint, there may be little point in trying to apply real-world critiques to its characterizations. On the other hand, that raises the problem of what makes it believable enough for its core audiences to watch it at all?

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      • I think THAT is the question. At what point do we choose to dispense with reality and choose to be entertained? If it wasn’t for Mr. A. I wouldn’t be watching this.
        Oh yes SB3 again wearing designer jeans in a place when he’s a diamond smuggler. As a smuggler you wouldn’t want to draw attention. Btw those were HOT jeans. It’s not that I don’t
        like action eg I like the Bourne identity series. I’ve been thinking of a French movie about a drugaddict that gets trained as an assassin and turned into a Femme Fatale; La Femme Nikita by Luc Besson from 1990. Her charcter progr

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        • Her character progression was so well developed I still remember that movie.

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          • Yeah, this was another B-movie project in terms of script, though I have to say that I read the book over the weekend and in comparison to that, the script is practically Tolstoy. And he got a lot out of it. He made Porter memorable. Maybe not as memorable as the jeans, though. 🙂

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  15. For me the problem with her is not so much the “American” she played as it is the lack of character development and her horrendous accent. I am a musician. Have been as long as I remember doing anything, and I’m very affected by sounds. When I took music theory in school, my pitch was tested numerous times. I do not have perfect pitch (almost no one has that; even some who say they have it do not. It really is an anomaly), but I do have the ability to distinguish a lot of sounds (tones). Almost everyone can hear half-tones, most can hear quarter tones, fewer can hear the identifiable smaller increments of tones in-between the quarter tones. These are called cents. There are an infinite number of cents. Although I do not consider myself to have perfect pitch, I have excellent pitch. I can tell within a few cents or closer when something is off (too flat/too sharp), and if we’re talking relative pitch, mine is perfect. So for someone like me, Sarah Caufield’s accent was torture and a huge distraction to her character’s development, which Servetus has already established was very lacking.

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    • Something I think is interesting about feigned accents (we won’t call them “fake”) is what exactly has to be feigned for the characterization to be believable. I’d argue, for example, that Mr. Armitage doesn’t always carry his accents through 100%, for example, in “Moving On,” where in my opinion, if you listen to him closely, he doesn’t really sound like any of the other characters in terms of his accent, though he’s supposed to have grown up with them. He’s got many characteristic vowels right, and a general similarity of speech melody (ups and downs in his sentences), and the right vocabulary, and he often starts his sentences in the same accent as his interlocutors, but he doesn’t always finish in it. But I had to watch the piece several times before I noticed it, because usually by the time the accent is fading, as viewer one is focused on something else. It’s like the accent is the prelude, the ramp into believability in a lot of cases. You get the accent right or close at the beginning, and then hope the characterization takes over, I guess. Something I find interesting about Sarah Caulfield’s accent if one looks at her scene by scene is that she’ll get everything close to right for about four to six words, and then she’ll hit a word that ends in a closing consonant “r”, and after that everything falls apart. It’s like just at the point at which you might be willing to accept that her speech is American she blows it and you can’t stop looking at the errors.

      One of the big benefits of years and years of music lessons (and ensembles) to me has been gaining the ability to listen to things very carefully. It’s a reason that I wish all parents gave their children music lessons. It teaches a practice of attention that is an important life skill. (In addition to adding beauty and wonder to one’s life …)

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      • “…she’ll get everything close to right for about four to six words, and then she’ll hit a word that ends in a closing consonant “r”, and after that everything falls apart. It’s like just at the point at which you might be willing to accept that her speech is American she blows it and you can’t stop looking at the errors.”

        This was exactly the problem, and the inconsistency of her accent created a cacophony that was so distracting I could barely listen to what she was saying. I actually had to watch her parts twice because it was so painful to listen and comprehend.

        Definitely agree about the music lessons, but mine were not all formal lessons in the sense most people think of formal lessons (although I did have formal lessons). At one time I played for money, but that part of my life was so long ago, it almost seems like another person’s life.

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    • Sounds like an affliction LOL but I feel with you. I am not talented but I am sensitive to mundane sounds, the humming of a dehumidifier, game music etc. Guessing these things must affect you even greater.

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      • Most of the time it’s not an affliction, but I figured out a long time ago that I’m always trying to resolve sounds both in their rhythms and their tones. Sarah Caufield made resolution impossible. Arrgggh!

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        • As a constitutional pedagogue, I’ve been listening to those scenes again and again trying to think, “what could I tell her to help her?” I think, though, that the “r” issue signals that someone had already identified that problem (it’s one of the most distinctive cross-accent pronunciation indices) and maybe preoccupied her with it to the extent that she blocked.

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  16. […] 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 […]

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  17. […] the series when I watched it the first time that I haven’t entirely processed, even though, as RAFrenzy has noted, it often felt manipulative. I’ve already mentioned the shame I often felt in watching Lucas. Rewatching Spooks 8 is […]

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  18. […] posting this as an attempt to tie up a loose end. In the post where I argued that the script exploits our basest impulses about Lucas in the course of pursui…, I mentioned that the sheets in the sex scenes early in 8.4 were color coordinated to Mr. […]

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  19. […] […]

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  20. […] someone who clearly has a persona with history with Lucas and someone whom he can really play with as opposed to having to create the characterization for both roles himself. I think that what Mr. Armitage is able to do in this episode also relates to a return to a clearly […]

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  21. […] of this blog– and I don’t mean to suggest that it is not a reasonable position to take. I have also expressed reservations about uses of his physical charms when I wonder whether voyeurism…. (Although, in the scene I was critiquing in the post that link goes to, Armitage was not in fact […]

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  22. […] character or playing games. The most notorious case of this was Genevieve O’Reilly (her admittedly lousy U.S. accent notwithstanding), who got what was in my opinion a lot of unnecessary criticism from us, as Sarah Caulfield was […]

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