Richard Armitage + John Porter status games: A glimpse at Strike Back: Origins
It seems fitting, on the evening of John Porter’s (re-)materialization on Cinemaxx, to write a little more about the striking qualities of Richard Armitage’s work in Strike Back (now Strike Back: Origins). The following discussion comes from a scene I looked at again more closely the other night, when I was recollecting my first glimpse of John Porter. I didn’t watch this scene a lot immediately after seeing the show, but I see in it now some of the themes in Armitage’s work that I’ve been most interested in just recently — particularly the question of status and how an actor plays with it.
This kind of performance demonstrates what you get when the first criterion for the actors you hire is the quality of their dramatic training and their capacity for subtle execution of mood. Richard Armitage always puts a scene over, especially when he’s made to look ugly. In this case, Armitage actually productively exploits the ugliness that the script makes Porter inhabit.
In this scene, we glimpse Porter years after the ignominious ending of the Bratton extraction in Basra. He’s left the regiment, looked unsuccessfully for well-paying work, become estranged from his wife, and been spurned by his painfully teenaged daughter. He’s training, still, living in a shared lodging of some kind, and working as a security guard (apparently a job that Collinson has arranged for him). One day, he catches the news of Katie Dartmouth’s kidnapping on his television, recognizes the scarred face of the child he’s saved (later identified as As’ad), and marches in to MI-6 / Section 20 to press his case with Collinson — that the kidnapper is the boy he saved, that it’s possible the kidnapping is connected with Sword of Islam, and that he, Porter, should be allowed to go to Iraq to pursue the matter.
[All caps are mine.]
We begin as Porter enters the Section 20 offices, where he must get past doorkeeper Layla (Jodhi May, cast here strongly against type). Note Porter’s posture as against Layla’s. I’ve written before about how the script and Armitage’s posture and head and eye motions function to involve women as the tools of his honor / dishonor conflict. At first, it looks like he’s standing in almost even status with her, but then, as our perspective changes, we can see that Porter drops his head to speak to Collinson. So the hierarchies of gender are reproduced.
Armitage makes a nice play here, using the sturdy, decisive Porter walk, but still managing to signal his unfamiliarity with the office, and hence his awkwardness, with a bit of a hitch in his gait at 0:14. The experienced soldier — between his dress and his walk, and his glance firmly trained on the floor — thus signals his lack of belonging in an office where everyone is much better dressed than he. He places his file of materials firmly on the desk, simultaneously asserting his authority and reassuring himself of his own case.
The conversation begins at 0:21, and Porter’s first glance at Collinson is once again not direct, but at best sidelong:
and even as Porter presses his case by accelerating his speech, his head is still lowered compared to Porter’s full normal standing posture:
In comparison, Collinson is able to stand at his assertive full height (albeit helped by the fact that Lincoln’s shorter than Armitage):
Porter continues the insistent buildup beginning at 0:35, but his head never comes up — rather, and interestingly, the more determined Porter becomes, the more he wants to assert his authority as someone who sees through the fog of the situation, the more willing he seem to be to lower his head, as at 0:41 —
At this point in the scene, the status game playing out here — Collinson’s superiority to Porter, and its outcomes for the potential realization of Porter’s wishes — serves to make Porter look even more strung out, ever more slightly unhinged, as the scene goes on, in part because Armitage asserts Porter’s authority from below.
“He was there!” an aggrieved Porter insists, and this is the highest Porter gets his head in the scene so far, almost maybe in the whole scene:
But watch Collinson’s supercilious, negating response, almost as if he’s saying, “don’t shout if you want me to listen to you” —
And immediately, in response, Porter — now caught in the impossible, irresolvable dilemma between asserting the truth of his hypothesis and being taken seriously by Collinson, lowers his head a touch:
Here, Armitage moves the energy of the scene forward by giving Porter an accelerating delivery of detailed data about al-Naziri, apparently in the attempt to assert that he has enough knowledge to speak on this issue. Not necessarily the strategy of persuasion that we’d expect from a soldier, and the subtly jittery feeling it generates underlines the extent to which Porter’s experiences have undermined his confidence, setting up a personality baseline that makes Porter’s move toward self-redemption (sorry, I can’t bring myself to call it atonement, I still think that was a huge script fail) in the remainder of the series both more believable and more inspiring. I also find myself wondering about his pronunciation of “Sunni.” Although this may be a British pronunciation of the term, for me anyway as an American who learned to use the long vowel, (whether intentionally or not) the short “u” tended to make it look, just like the rapid-fire data, as if Porter was trying to punch above his political and intellectual weight.
Porter pursues his case with more self-undermining moves, first via the pursed lips, a gesture he’s mimicking back at Collinson:
and then with his own personal tic, the “tongue of concentration,” which here makes Porter look simultaneously determined and nervous (and I assume comes from Armitage’s experience of Porter’s mood and not from his own conscious decision).
Collinson continues to resist, and Porter continues to insist, as Porter tells Collinson what he wants: to be brought to the safe house he’d seen last on that night, seven years ago. At 1:22, he begins to shake his head, and this is a really masterful choice, emphasizing both vehemence about his position and also disagreement with Collinson — but it’s a preemptive disagreement, as Porter already knows that Collinson will not give him what he wants. The shaking head thus also self-undermines; it signals not only conviction or tension but also Porter’s belief that he will not successfully sell his position to Collinson.
It’s fascinating here that as he tries to give Collinson steps in the direction of his plans, Porter lowers his head even more (as Collinson responds ever more negatively) …
… so that Porter’s head hits its lowest point as he becomes most assertive — when he yells, “Look!” Here Porter’s face takes on a fascinating quality in which he first expresses his rage …
… and I can’t resist noting that there’s nothing so wonderful in the Armitage repertoire as the seeing the anger cross his face from left to right, so that the left is angry even as the right remains in a sorrowful, aggrieved shadow — he looks on the left like he’s about to kill, on the right, as if he’s about to cry …
… and then backs off from the force of it by blinking in response to his own shout. (On the whole gender hierarchy issue, note that it’s just at this point that the camera decides to pull Layla back into the scene by showing us Porter’s back as he shouts, from her perspective.)
Of course, Collinson is still dismissive:
and so we see, at 1:33, a nervous swallow, and then a second later, the rapid-eye blink, a standard Richard Armitage move and here indicating his dual shame that he’s both failed to convince and lost his temper doing so:
Along with a jaw move and the shake of his head again, at 1:35, Armitage uses this gesture to slow the scene down, to deliver his last plea, a request tinged as much with weariness as anything else, a mood shown in Porter’s slack cheeks. As he knows that he’s failed to convince Collinson on the points of his case (and doesn’t see through Collinson at all, at this point), that he perhaps never had a chance, but that he still had to try — it would be interesting to compare this scene to Armitage’s performance in the proposal scene in North & South for just that reason — Porter has one card left: calling on Collinson’s sympathy for his needs.
“Just … let me find them,” Porter says, and now he’s not looking at Collinson at all, and the pitch of his voice is tending up, an Armitage emotionality signal, and a strong contrast to the shout of only a few moments earlier, the sudden shock of which is somewhat cushioned by the abject position of his head.
Every line that remains to Porter in this scene is delivered with his eyes positioned below his eyebrows. He opens them, as he repeats his plea:
and then closes them again, saying, “… and then you can send in the lads,”
and his bowed head and fluttering, then closed eyes together, along with the much-more-slowly shaking head, indicate the absolute loss of power. Porter can neither decide to go, get himself there, nor, once he’s there, actually carry out a mission. He is determined that he has to find them — and this determination defines the contours both of his shame and of his low status in the scene. He has no authority, but he’s willing to cede it even further to achieve his goal, if he can, even if his inability to participate in any such mission makes him think of everything he has lost, indeed, of his whole existence before the Bratton extraction. The grief on his face here provides a signature “inward look,” as if when Porter mentions the lads, he is also thinking of his dead comrades and of the permanently disabled Steve. He ends with a last, pleading glance up at 1:48.
Porter is able to lift his head again when he speaks of the theme of honor, the obligation that the child he saved stated to him in a phrase in a language he doesn’t understand and which Collinson originally had to translate for him. He does so with backed off energy that makes him seem simultaneously less powerful and more reasonable.
Here Porter’s looking as directly into Collinson’s gaze as he can, and asserting his importance: “No matter what he did to Mike and Keith and Steve, he owes me.” He’s realized he cannot yell to make his point, and also that the very low status plea has not succeeded, and so he comes back to honor, something which he somehow finds the resources to speak about with conviction, with a more convincing energy than he has shown up until now:
Porter thus asserts his essential role in any mission undertaken on this point. I am important, he seems to be saying, you have to take me along if you’re going to use this tool, no matter what you think of my idea or my apparent incapacity or my failure, all those years ago. Let my failure define me, then, he seems to signal, but you cannot get along without me.
When Collinson then insists that Porter’s ideas are “half baked,” the tone of Armitage’s voice rises again, and though he looks at Collinson eye to eye and man to man, his eyes are near closed again, almost as if in pain.
“I am not talking about revenge,” Porter gasps out, again as if he knows he will not be believed. And when Collinson rephrases the theme from revenge to atonement, Porter looks simultaneously relieved that he’s been understood — but also seen through — with a blink of his left eye, a barely perceptible quiver in his lip.
When Collinson makes his next statement, we know that he’s seen Porter’s inward look, and caught him. “This won’t bring them back,” he says, “John,” almost as a plea himself — and we know that Porter knows he’s been caught out in his impulses.
…and we sell the tell in the classic Armitage shame move, the chin down toward left motion.
When, however, Collinson notes that the expedition won’t bring his friends back but could send Porter to join them, the feeling that Armitage gives Porter, that his motives have been exposed, bores as clearly through those bangs as Porter glance up from below the eyebrows:
When Collinson accuses Porter of seeking death, we see the anger and abjection chiseled into his face. He’s been seen, unmasked — and yet not fully understood. The dawning realization on Porter’s face reveals more than just the frustration of being caught in a particular impulse, it’s also the first step (as we will see much later) in Porter’s recognition of just how aggressively Collinson will stand in the way of Porter’s search for answers (even if Porter himself can’t see that yet from this point in the plot).
Porter’s departure is thus a scramble, the papers as proof of his discredit case, all revealed as a search for vindication, all he has left.
Heavy-handed? Maybe, although I prefer to say that the show at least makes an attempt at being thoughtful, an attempt bolstered by Armitage’s subtle, many-faceted performance as a soldier who seeks not only vindication, or some kind of sacrifice for the trouble he believes he’s caused through his own failures, but also a self-redemption through the repeated (self-destructive) sacrifices he continues to make for others.
Porter shows his power through his abjection, his status through his subjection, his beauty through his ugliness. Like John Standring, Porter is strongest where he is weakest and most powerful in the places where he shows the greatest vulnerability.
Strike Back: Origins is airing Friday nights on Cinemaxx beginning tonight.