Richard Armitage + John Porter status games in Strike Back: Origins 1.6 [part b]
Continued from here. A discussion of status conflict in the final encounter of John Porter (Richard Armitage) and Hugh Collinson (Andrew Lincoln) in the sixth and final episode of Strike Back: Origins.
The first confrontation — Porter calls Collinson.
At this point, the script wants us to believe that Collinson has decided he must kill or have his reputation killed, that if Porter returns to England, an embarrassing inquiry and a court martial will be unavoidable. (To me, no matter what happens in these scenes, Layla would still pursue the issue, but cowboyish drama of this kind demands its final showdown.) So let’s just suspend our disbelief of that implausibility, and accept what the show wants us to think: that Collinson’s truly between a rock and a hard place that he believes he can escape by eliminating Porter. This is the argument that Collinson will make, after all, though I wonder how much Lincoln believed it. How Lincoln plays all the way through the last part of this episode is fascinating, insofar as, in my opinion, Collinson never presents anything like a convincingly steely or steadfast resolve to kill Porter — only at most a determination to protect his career and reputation at a level of commitment that apparently necessitates killing Porter. And, perhaps, an ongoing belief in the triumph of rhetoric over sincerity, of appearances over reality.
Above, when Porter reveals that he, too, knows the contents of the ballistics report (“we need to talk”) Armitage gives Porter the high status position with a threatening growl — a position that he’s never truly or ambivalently occupied in the entire series with respect to Collinson except for very brief moments at the end of episode 2 and beginning of episode 3 — precisely when he silently asserts his “practical” or “soldierly” competence over Collinson’s de jure superiority and de facto pencil pusher status. Porter’s persistence at this point, and simultaneous restraint, signal that the confrontation will indeed, be interesting, although it seems to imply that the meeting will begin aggressively.
The second clip presents us with Collinson’s state of mind. If, before, either on his own terms for Layla’s benefit, he was torn or upset, now he is cool, prepared, and — loading his handgun, collected, as he approaches the structure where, we assume, Porter will be found. Note the scorpion Collinson shakes from his boot, a ridiculously ostentatious synecdoche for what he will do to Porter, and the focus of the camera on his stride as he walks across our screens.
Collinson initiates the showdown. A bit theatrical? Yes. How about: totally constructed?
Here we come to one of my favorite scenes in Armitage’s oeuvre. I’ve probably watched it at least a hundred times, as an energizer in preparation for challenges that I thought I would lose and in particular before the job interview I had at the beginning of 2013. I think Porter’s status games — and the way Armitage deals with them — give me a clue as to why.
Energywise: we should keep in mind that Porter enters this scene physically exhausted — after being exposed to the sun while staked out and having walked quite a way in the desert to rescue and accompany Baxter after a series of strenuous rescues. We haven’t seen him eat or sleep and water’s been scarce. He’s just lost Baxter, not just the reason for the whole escapade, but also a person with whom the episode wants to make us think Porter should identify heavily, on top of his likely physical exhaustion. So it makes sense to open from a medium to low energy perspective — and given the length of this scene, the actors probably don’t want to accelerate it too quickly.
Porter’s previous appearance in the phone conversation gave him the high status position — albeit in a sort of growly “I’m about to get mine” way — by allowing him to direct the meeting, and the opening of this scene underlines that via Porter’s choice not to turn to face Collinson immediately at 0:05-18 (indeed, at 0:08 he appears to be looking away from Collinson, almost petulantly, and with that hyperextended knee stance that we sometimes read as rocking the body in preparation for a fight). In light of these status moves, it is interesting that Porter’s first words are directly non-confrontational. When Porter turns to respond to Collinson’s urging that “the Americans are after [him],” and that he’s a “dead man out here,” his look is at once arch and incredulous — a sort of “oh, you don’t say?” irony that makes it look like an explosion could be forthcoming.
Armitage’s sensible choice to start the scene slowly, however, selects what seems to me an extreme point of openness given Porter’s anger at the end of the phone call. I’ve always been torn about this, whether the open-handed stance isn’t too extreme a change in mood or too theatrical or an overstatement of the apparent resignation and resolution that he will speak of throughout the scene. In any case, Armitage puts Porter in the most open body position possible — counter-intuitively for the energy of the scene — with his arms extended at his sides and his solar plexus vulnerable.
This choice leaves me as a viewer wondering whether what’s coming is sincerity or a trap. (And for those familiar with Armitage, this kind of counter-intuitive physical move, indicating vulnerability when we might expect the character to exhibit strength, indicates a whole series of conflicts underneath the character’s mind that we will glance only intermittently in his eyes.)
By 0:26, Porter appears to have chosen a moderately low status position. His arms are spread wide, his tone is low, he seems to be asking genuinely, “What do I have to lose?” Collinson is edited through in these seconds as an observer, reacting to Porter’s statements and trying to calculate what it is that Porter can possibly be doing. Porter confirms his rhetorical path through the scene at 0:35, when he takes a confessional, almost emotional route that involves the narration of his (for him now false) belief that he’d been responsible for the death of his comrades. This choice has a nice verisimilitude insofar as many observers would acknowledge that the first response to the lifting of an unfair burden is often a sort of move toward collapse rather than eruption of suppressed anger.
So rather than becoming explosive, Porter’s facial expressions and his thoughts turn the character inward, just as they did in episode 1, when he was remembering his experiences in Basra, thinking of his felt responsibility for the deaths of Mike,
and then, eyes flicking upward to move the pain inside his recollection into Collinson’s view, of Keith.
This is not yet an accusation of Collinson, but rather honest hurt, and then the worst pain of all — look not just at the deep swallow, but at the closed eyes in pain — Steve. Armitage moves Porter’s voice up into the emotional part of his pre-Hobbit baritone.
Porter drops the energy of the encounter by loading his interlocutor so gently with all of this historical freight. Listening, Collinson becomes restless, looks almost, but not quite, sad, the look in his eyes countered by the cut of the left side of his mouth and jaw …
… as Porter continues his litany. (Note that we need to see Collinson reacting this way if we’re going to believe the denouement of the episode. Just putting that down now for future reference.) In the first part of the next lines, when Porter refers to his own situation, “Everyone blaming me,” especially the regiment and the families, the microexpressions on his face, the undertones of his expressions, are primarily ones of weariness:
Armitage breaks this trajectory with another swallow, repeating “seven years,” and, then, he gives us one of those nice, long beats to consider his suffering, and another pained gaze out at Collinson:
as he shakes his head and a number of moments cross his face that gradually move Porter’s energy up even as they more fully expose his sorrow:
Note the right side of his mouth, the point at which he lets something that looks like it could be another level of vulnerability creep through.
Collinson swallows himself (interesting, always, to watch how humans will mimic certain kinds of body language like yawns or gestures or motions across their mutual interactions), raises his head with a breath, and narrows his eyes — he’s made his decision about how to respond.
At 0:55, the camera turns again to Porter, who’s now got both the weariness and the pain out of his eyes, and …
… tells Collinson he’s got the ballistics report. This delivery, and Porter’s move to the next step on the confrontational energy ladder — not Collinson’s sympathy with anything Porter has said so far — pushes Collinson into down-status body language:
But Collinson’s shame gestures, as real as they may be, are the subterfuge that we’ve expected from Porter earlier and not gotten (a nice and one assumes entirely unintended gestural or physical contrast between the men that reveals the contrasts in their characters), as Collinson reaches for his sidearm and attempts to assert his status, this time with a gun:
Again, a counterintuitive moment, simply because neither Lincoln’s facial expression nor his use of the gun makes him stronger. Part of this effect comes from how he holds it (with one hand, and at times he seems to be wavering or holding it not as an offensive strike against Porter but rather as a defensive move) but additionally, I think, from the relative rarity of this kind of gesture from Collinson, who’s always fought his battles with words rather than with weapons.
Indeed, Porter shows no fear, again asserting on a low tone — Armitage’s familiar technique of steering the scene from the bottom status position reappears here (did anyone think of Lucas North’s calm rush of the teenage terrorist in Spooks 8.7 here?) — that “it’s over” and remains with the open body stance.
And, as Collinson confronts him, Porter begins his recital of what will happen to Collinson, but without any joy or triumph. “This will come out …”
As he lists what will happen, Porter again turns his gaze inward, discussing the reactions of the families,
and then, the worst of all, the reaction of his own family, which he describes with repeated swallows that mirror the attempt of a nauseated man to come to terms with his own sickness — so that we now know that the greatest loss to Porter in all of this might indeed have been his family:
Here the voice is one of misery but as Porter seems to be explaining to Collinson, this is what I’ve gone through, do you understand?, the expressions again take on more energy. It is to Porter’s statement about family that Collinson reacts most viscerally, indeed flinching but again aiming the sidearm.
At 1:30, Porter begins to move toward Collinson, initiating his explanation that he doesn’t want revenge, just an admission of guilt. The even status approach with the open body position finally pulls some anger out of Collinson, as if Collinson wants nothing more than to reject corporeally any possibility that Porter’s reaction to the circumstances of the Basra deaths had anything to do with him. Lincoln’s head comes up as he says he will admit nothing.
At 1:41, Porter tries to make the reasonable case: “We’ve got the bullet fragments,” and now Collinson will make the attempt to steer the scene from the top — with the wavering gun in his hand that seems to signal his awareness of his weakness, and instead using the equipment that he’s used throughout the series (and, one assumes, throughout his career): his superior argument, his more agile words.
And now the camera, while it will give us the summary of Collinson’s desperate braggadocio, turns heavily to Porter’s reactions, as we see Porter react to the weapons always used against him, words that are gauged to underline all at once the sources of Porter’s pride, the ways in which the story of Basra’s been told to undermines them, and the ways in which everything that Porter’s tried to be, by deed and by example, all these years, stands at risk of utter meaninglessness.
Collinson alleges that the bullet came from Porter’s weapon, and Porter shows disbelief …
… and then lowers his head and deepens his voice: “The weapon that I gave to you.”
At 1:57, when Collinson denies having gotten a weapon from Porter, Porter’s eyes come into it, now narrowing violently, and he reasserts that the affair is over — and this lowering of the voice and insistence finally makes us start to think that Collinson is serious about eliminating Porter, as he twists, brings his other arm up to hold the handgun, and says, “No. Nothing is ever over.”
At 2:08, we watch Porter’s reaction to his recognition that Collinson will not concede his point. For almost eight seconds after 2:10, the camera does nothing but watch Porter try to control his reaction to that realization, in tandem with his increasingly rapid, troublesome breath. Cut away at 2:18, but return at 2:28 to see how Porter will react to Collinson’s description of him as “pensioned from the regiment.” Interesting at this point — Armitage is not resorting very much to the rapid blinking which is often a response of his characters to stress that they don’t show elsewhere in their bodies, although as these sequences proceed we see a few more blinks.
At 2:36, when Collinson describes himself as a “family man,” there’s almost a sort of glee in his self-representation, and this triumph, along with his sarcastic mention of Porter’s daughter, raises the scene’s tension and Porter’s reaction to it notably:
When Collinson finishes his spun-out interpretation, that he’ll say Porter’s pursuing a personal vendetta against him, we finally see Porter’s recognition that he is not going to win with evidence or reason or balance or kindness, and so a low status move comes that under other circumstances (for example, in episode 1) would have signaled shame.
But not this time, as Porter throws Collinson’s own body language back at him, the coil of anger that has been tightening for approximately the last seven minutes of the episode will finally be given leave to spring forth.
As Collinson sees Porter turning, he prepares his final assault, that nasty (mis?)truth that has plagued Porter all the way through the series and in every moment of his relationship with Collinson:
The camera gives us not even one more second before Porter finally lets go of his rage.
I hadn’t really intended to write quite so much about this episode, but there’ll have to be a third part. Meanwhile, what can we say thus far?
Episode 6 speaks to me personally because it finally draws out the inherent lines of conflict between Collinson (whose reputation is based primarily on his capacity to control appearances) and Porter (who thinks of himself as a man of action and indeed bases his self-concept on his capacity to act efficiently and without thinking about how things appear). Collinson speaks, Porter does; Collinson appears, Porter is. Real things are stake for Porter on his missions — not just success, but pride, capability, safety, survival — that lie largely beyond the ken of someone like Collinson, who doesn’t truly understand Porter’s grief over his comrades or his lack of cooperation in the initial attempt Collinson makes to explain what happened even as he keeps the heavily burdened former soldier close to him to prevent embarrassment and later, exposure. The status game that’s been going on — as a matter of control of access to mission resources in episodes 1 and 2, as what begins to look in episode 3 and 4 like a blatant attempt to clear away evidence of Collinson’s lies — here reveals itself to be a fundamental matter of something like ethics. That sort of thing always appeals to me.
Armitage’s performance as Porter amplifies my inherent willingness to like this kind of ethical dichotomy up to this point precisely by means of his resort to the bottom position in the status conflict. What many viewers expect stereotypically (whether this expectation is fair or not is another question) from a character like Porter is a blatant reliance on physicality and a preference for force over brains. That’s not what we get here. Porter reveals himself an individual of not simply pragmatic force, but practical intelligence, even as his reactions in this scene show that he can’t truly comprehend the machinations of someone like Collinson, not because he’s not smart enough, but because he simply lacks the motivation for that sort of manipulation.
What Richard Armitage lends to Porter of what seems to be his own personal tendency not to command by fiat (presaging his performances as Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit?) makes Porter’s participation in these status games more intriguing. As a larger point, we could add (the prison fight in episode 3 is a good example) that up-status interactions are always a performance for Porter, such that we can almost see them — Porter is figuring out how to control the interaction and decides to move upstatus when he needs to. But this not Porter’s natural stance. In the first four episodes, we learn that Porter can be angry and quiet, prefers to control an exchange from moves backward, concessions, silences, and his willingness to wait just long enough to answer a question to make Collinson unsure whether he doesn’t know the answer or is calculating enough to watch Collinson squirm. Porter prefers finesse — something that brings him slightly closer to Collinson in ethical orientation than he would concede if you could ask him.
What episode six adds to all this is our awareness of what happens when this strategy of controlling a situation from the bottom status, passive position, or the command of the ticking clock and the calm breath breaks down — as it does at the end, here, when the rage that’s built up all these years breaks out. In the scenes above, Armitage is reminding us of every way that Porter has played a status game with Collinson in the five previous episodes — so that he can tear it all apart in the closing sequences and show us yet another fascinating facet of the character.
[to part three / to be linked]