[This is a review of Tyrant season 1, episode 8. There will be SPOILERS.]
Of all the things that might result from a night of heavy drinking and aimless wandering, the formulation of a clandestine group intent on staging a coup and wrestling power away from an incompetent, irresolute, and sure-to-be brutal dictator is not the first thing that comes to mind. And for a guy who has continually favored discourse over swift, decisive action, Barry’s choice to usurp Jamal’s position as president doesn’t exactly present itself as a move from his playbook.
It’s almost as though Tyrant is trying to tell us that Barry Al-Fayeed is not the mild-mannered Pediatrician from Pasadena, CA everyone thinks he is. He might, in fact, be a man who, as his wife proclaims after learning of his intentions for Abbudin, gets off on the idea of power.
While that moment might have been better stated through Barry’s actions or his changing demeanor (which right now primarily consists of Barry yelling at Molly for no reason whatsoever, and rubbing his temples in frustration), such a shift in character isn’t something Tyrant would just sit idly by and let the audience come to on its own – the show has been holding the audience’s hand for eight weeks now, and it’s not about to let go as the season makes its turn into the final stretch.
The thing is, Barry’s (admittedly unconvincing) transition and the potential intrigue surrounding his planned coup are both aspects of Tyrant the series desperately needed to have long before now. At this point in the season, the end is near, and yet matters of actual consequence still seem so far away.
Sure, Barry, Yussef, John Tucker and spooky agent-of-some-kind Lea Exley (Leslie Hope) are in the early stages of planning a coup, but planning a coup is not nearly as interesting as actually following through with a coup.
One of the primary problems with serialized television is that while it can be incredibly fulfilling to see a single story manifest and coalesce over the course of 10-13 episodes, certain shows – like Tyrant – postpone the real story until the very end.
Think back to Breaking Bad and Walter White’s bloody disposal of his enemies. The event wasn’t a complete surprise, but the swiftness of it – and the swiftness with which the series dealt with the consequences of that action – were, delightfully so.
What Breaking Bad understood that perhaps Tyrant doesn’t is that, when it comes to compelling fiction, the audience doesn’t always need to see how the sausage is made. Barry making the choice to stage a coup is necessary, and it is a great step forward in terms of what has so far been a rather dull narrative, but watching a character deal with consequences of his or her actions will always trump watching them plan said decisive action, regardless of the tension that arises.
The only thing that results from the inevitable tension of the moment between inaction and action are the tired tropes of those with limited knowledge of the action somehow preventing it from happening. In this case, Barry’s two kids (Sammy, specifically) once again play convenient plot devices that could upstage their father’s plans for a mostly bloodless and face-saving coup.
And speaking of plot devices, it is now apparent that the only reason Wrenn Schmidt’s Jenna was brought into the plot was to facilitate an argument between Barry and Molly about going back to California for a week that results in his spilling the beans about his plans for Abbudin. (What was it Exley said about how long a coup can remain secret?)
Meanwhile, Jamal continues to believe he and his brother have a special ironclad relationship that people like Leila simply cannot understand. As such, Jamal busies himself with announcing the construction of a public football pitch, and harassing the daughter-in-law he assaulted, which results in her stripping naked in front of him and daring the president to finish what he started.
It’s a startling scene that wants to suggest the balance of power is shifting around Jamal in more ways than one, but it ultimately trips over how narratively unwarranted Jamal’s initial assault was to begin with, and ends up simply revisiting an ugly blemish on the series, rather than dealing with its consequences in an intelligent or useful way.
Had this been episode two or three of season 1, perhaps Tyrant would be headed in the right direction. At this point in the season, however, the show is like Barry: busy thinking and talking about what the right direction is, rather than walking in it.
Tyrant continues next Tuesday with ‘Gaslight’ @10pm on FX.
Photos: Vered Adir/FX