[This is a review of Tyrant season 1, episode 7. There will be SPOILERS.]
Seven episodes into its first season, Tyrant has finally shown some sign that it wants to be more than a just a chronicle of the American Al-Fayeed family's vacation to Abbudin.
For its part, 'Preventative Medicine' is defined by two dramatic choices made by Barry that, with any luck, will push the narrative forward into the season's closing arc (whether that will be the final arc of the series, or just the season, remains to be seen). After choosing to kill an unconscious Sheik Rashid, who was recovering (?) from the injuries he sustained during an encounter with Jamal, Barry phones Justin Kirk's American diplomat John Tucker to announce that his brother, President Jamal Al-Fayeed, is unfit to serve as a brutal dictator in a land that has known only brutal dictatorship for as long as Barry's been alive.
It's a shift in the character of Barry to be sure, but it's certainly not anything the audience didn't expect. In fact, the only thing unexpected about Barry's not-so-subtle hint that he might be willing to work with the U.S. government in deposing his brother is that it took this long for the series to get to this point.
And while it's great to see things of consequence actually happening, it's troubling to think that the series had to take its own narrative under the knife in order to push Barry into taking some action.
For its part, 'Preventative Medicine' works very hard to try and steer the series onto the course that only the writers of the show's synopsis seemed to be aware of. The episode bends and twists into all sorts of uncomfortable positions in order to align its various plots, so that the next three episodes can better attempt to prove the show is what it purported to be all along.
That effort, in and of itself, is certainly commendable, but as the story progresses, the exertion that's required to pull it all off becomes painfully obvious. By the time Barry is having a heart-to-heart with his mother, wherein it is revealed his father wasn't actually genocidal maniac, but just a man too weak to stand up to his own brother (the guy who has basically been pushed around by Barry and Jamal all season, mind you), Tyrant isn't just straining from the effort; it's practically going into convulsions.
But that's not to say the episode is completely unsuccessful in constructing an interesting parallel of betrayal between two generations of brothers in the Al-Fayeed family. But it is difficult to get past the fact that it requires a 20-year-old secret to be conveniently revealed, absolving Barry's father of being directly complicit in a horrific act of mass murder, that makes the whole thing ring as hollow as Barry's reasons for staying in Abbudin in the first place.
Troubles with Barry's motivation aside, 'Preventative Medicine' actually does a some nice work in creating an overwhelming sense of displacement that not only applies to the major players in the episode, but also works to the advantage of the younger Al-Fayeed and his struggles with finding his place in all that has transpired thus far.
While Barry is busy killing Sheik Rashid and getting his foot in the door with the U.S. government, Jamal is opening up to his mistress about his doubts and concerns with regard to what he perceives are his shortcomings in the role of president. It's not unlike last episode when he confessed to her a desire to be loved by his people, only to come to the realization that no one, save for maybe himself, actually finds him to be lovable.
Jamal's actions present him in an increasingly common moment of vulnerability that ostensibly winds up being wasted, as Jamal reverses his display of openness by carrying out an ill-conceived act of violence and aggression against the one woman who actually listened to him. It's a tragic misstep for the character, as he basically becomes Fredo with a temper, instead of Sonny with a penchant for spilling his guts to the one woman who would listen.
Despite its shortcomings, 'Preventatve Medicine' at least shows how the series is dedicated to developing Jamal into a complete character – even though it is more or less wasting its time trying to make his crippling self-doubt something for the audience to hang on to, since he's just going to carry out random acts of violence against women as nothing more than a plot point. (Honestly, what purpose does the death of Jamal's mistress serve other than to tell us everything we already know about him?) And that's really a shame, as Ashraf Barhom continues to be the liveliest performer on the series, and he really does deserve better material than he has been getting.
But instead of working to develop the characters that are deserving of it, Tyrant throws in a new character in the form of Wrenn Schmidt as Molly's sister Jenna - who, unsurprisingly, is something of a basket case and, in keeping with the theme of the episode, unsure where she fits in the grand scheme of things. So far, Wrenn's character has no real impact on the plot, she is just window dressing, or something to create complication and the illusion of complexity – just like the Al-Fayeed children.
On the upside, maybe it's a good thing that General Tariq has become the primary protagonist of the series, since Jamal has been reduced to a shell of his former self, crippled as much with self-doubt as he is with unresolved issues of anger toward…everyone.
There's a clear thrust to Tyrant now, and as interesting as it's going to be seeing how it all plays out, it will be a challenge to appreciate it knowing so much time was ostensibly wasted in order to get there.
Tyrant continues next Tuesday with 'Meet the New Boss' @10pm on FX.
Photos: Vered Adir/FX