[This is a review for Tyrant season 1, episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]
In its first two episodes, Tyrant featured two primary flashbacks intended to help color Barry’s character a little and to fill in some of the blanks that exist in terms of who he was before running away to America, and, perhaps more importantly, to answer why he left his family and everything he knew behind in the first place? As often as flashbacks can be jarring, unnecessary, or just plain incongruous with the main narrative, these were actually of some use – because the character of Barry is rather dull, and these at least attempted to make him a bit more interesting.
But moreover, they helped flesh out two key relationships – i.e., the one between Barry and Jamal, and the one between Barry and his brother’s wife Leila. The trouble is, the conceit of ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ (which is referred to as ‘Ghosts of Christmas Past’ on IMDB) would have been far more impactful had one flashback in particular been delayed just one episode.
In the pilot, a young Barry is shown executing a prisoner after Jamal proves unable to pull the trigger. It is intended to be a powerful moment that extends beyond the visceral unpleasantness of seeing children shooting guns, and, to a certain extent, it is. The moment encapsulates Barry’s past and his potential future, affording the audience some level of understanding that Barry may have spent the last two decades in the United States running away from himself as much as he was running from his father and his role in an oppressive government.
The moment pops up again in the second episode, ‘State of Emergency,’ and it becomes something else. Barry’s execution of the prisoner is revealed to be a display of strength, almost a challenge to his father. But more importantly, it signals the character’s desire to protect his older brother by doing for him the things that he cannot. In effect, it is simultaneously a protective measure, and a sign of dominance.
In its title alone, ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ is upfront about the narrative’s intention to explore the relationship between Barry and Jamal, especially since Jamal has assumed the presidency of Abbudin, and Barry sits as one of his advisors. Much of the episode is spent setting up the government’s crackdown on those believed responsible for the attempt on Jamal’s life – which gives Gen. Tariq the perfect excuse to arrest the rebel Ihab Rashid (Alexander Karim) and set up his execution. Unfortunately, Ihab’s isn’t the only execution that goes awry, as the episode itself struggles to carry out its own dramatic intentions.
While the episode finally gets some familial conflict under its belt as Barry confronts Jamal over allegations of his prolonged abuse of the woman who eventually tried to take his life – and Barry’s wife Molly finally has something to say other than wanting Barry to connect with his past – ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ misses a great chance to develop the Bassam/Jamal dichotomy. That happens in part because the show already cashed in the dramatic currency of showing young Barry killing an unarmed man. Had that element been introduced here, it would have had far greater impact on Barry’s story, as well as the episodic requirements of ‘My Brother’s Keeper.’
Although it loses some dramatic intensity, the episode does manage to move the plot forward, but Tyrant is still just inching toward achieving some kind of genuine tension in its own story. Character beats and plot focused moments aren’t given proper time to build significance, so when something like the scene where Barry convinces Jamal to release several political prisoners happens, it lands as listlessly as the hostage situation from the previous episode. Basically, it lacks the kind of uncertainty that would have made it compelling to watch.
As such, the series continues to feel dramatically inert and structurally clumsy in the areas it needs to be at its most vibrant and nimble. For example: as nice as it is to see Barry be unsure of his decision to stay in Abbudin, neither Rayner nor the dialogue are able to convincingly convey his insecurity and doubt on an emotional level, and so the scene only scratches the surface of the turmoil that’s supposed to be roiling deep inside him.
And while characters like Fauzi Nadal (Fares Fares) and his daughter Samira (Mor Polauner) succeed in bringing additional conflict to the story, they really only add complication to the episode’s structure (it’s really that easy for Barry to pull a political prisoner out of jail in the middle of the night?), rather than provide the kind of demonstrative complexity these storylines need more of right now.
Even though the third time wasn’t necessarily the charm for Tyrant, the episode did manage to push the plot forward enough that Barry can at least begin to have an impact on his own story. Whether the next episode can deliver on that remains to be seen.
Tyrant continues next Tuesday with ‘Sins of the Father’ @10pm on FX.
Photos: Vered Adir/FX