[This is a review for Tyrant season 2, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
When Tyrant season 2 kicks off with 'Mark of Cain,' the series wants the audience to know things are different. And they choose to tell this through, of all things, facial hair. At the start of the episode, Abbudin President Jamal Al-Fayeed (Ashraf Barhom) is clean-shaven, while his Americanized, idealistic brother and would-be usurper sits in a jail cell with a months-long beard on his face. That's what passes for significant change on this unfortunately imagination-starved Middle Eastern-set drama.
Last season saw a potentially ambitious series sidelined by plots and characterizations riddled with clichés. It saw what was billed as a Godfather-like ascension of a good man into a position of tyrannical power, turned, at the last second, into one where everything was as it seemed and characters and their actions were to be taken at face value. The wide- (and puzzlingly blue) eyed idealism of Bassam "Barry" Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner) was the real deal, while his despotic older and somewhat incompetent brother Jamal proved to the real tyrant in the family. It was an unexpected twist, but only because it ostensibly pushed the series further into a familiar binary that lacked the sort of nuance and vision that might have propelled the otherwise underwhelming narrative into a dynamic of compelling conflict, rather than simply talking its way around one.
But there was hope; Tyrant was given a second season. For many of those watching, that meant the series had been given the chance to go back to the drawing board, to reboot itself in season 2 and to become the program it didn't quite become in the first go-round. That's always the hope in situations like this, and that hope is reinforced when programs like Halt and Catch Fire do exactly what we're talking about here: reboot into something better.
If the focus on Rayner's beard (and Barhom's lack thereof) is any indication, then Tyrant hasn't made the kind of obvious adjustments to suggest any such change has occurred since 'Gone Fishing,' the season 1 finale. And if the inclusion of a chess board next to Barry's cell, with the intimation that the brothers have been playing against one another for the past few months (it's all a game, get it?) is any further indication, then the series still hasn't shed its fondness or reliance on cliché.
That doesn't mean the season 2 premiere hasn't reprioritized certain elements, or that some necessary shuffling hasn't been done in order to make the product more interesting and more palatable. For one thing, Barry only appears in a handful of scenes during 'Mark of Cain,' yielding center stage to the far more engaging Barhom, much to the benefit of the episode. Barhom is captivating in his ability to sell the conflict between Jamal's persistent self-delusion and burgeoning self-awareness. The scene between him and his uncle, General Tariq Al-Fayeed (Raad Rawi), regarding the use of chemical weapons on insurgents and how that will make him look is a little heavy on exposition, but it necessarily demonstrates how the character is aware his perception and capable of thinking beyond short-term solutions.
There are other little tweaks, too, like the increased focus on insurgent leader Ihab Rashid (Alexander Karim) and his romance with Samira Nadal (Mor Polanuer), daughter of journalist Fauzi Nadal (Fares Fares). Ihab's insurgency is now based on the hope that Barry's failed coup gave the people of Abbudin, which gives the once petulant character a clearer goal and the audience a better understanding of what he wants and what he stands for. The conflict between the Fauzi and his daughter, as he wants them to seek political asylum in Amsterdam, while she wants to work to free her home from Al-Fayeed rule, makes these little-seen characters from season 1 feel far more appealing and their plight worth engaging with.
Despite these welcome changes, there are signs that Tyrant still doesn't quite know what sort of drama it wants to be. Barry is hardly seen throughout the episode, and yet the most dramatically significant events revolve entirely around him. Jamal is pressured by everyone, including his Lady Macbeth-esque wife Leila (Moran Atias), to execute Barry as soon as possible, to both crush the insurgency and deaden the pain of having to decide his brother's fate.
Even though his life on the line, Barry remains frustratingly docile (as he was throughout the first season). We don't get any idea of what the character is going through. It's almost as if Rayner read the non-twist at the end and figured he'd just focus on that instead of conveying the sort of emotion one might expect when a man is about to be executed by his own brother. Even the brief scene between Barry and his wife Molly (Jennifer Finnigan) is a mostly inert affair, in which The Most Understanding Wife in the World tells her soon-to-be-dead husband his coup may have failed, but he's given hope to a lot of people. He may be going out on the losing end of things, but at least his life meant something.
This moment could have been a powerful, even transcendent one for the series if Tyrant had given its audience the slightest hint that Barry's family was even slightly invested in the future of Abbudin. But since that never happened, it all comes off as wretched lip service intended to prop up a character who's now being positioned in the role of a hero and a martyr – two functions he did nothing to earn. Barry doesn't even earn it in the final moments, when, after a horribly telegraphed execution sequence, it is revealed that Jamal had someone else hanged (which he then explains, because the show doesn't trust the audience to put those pieces together, apparently).
Jamal says forcing him to kill his brother is an unforgivable act, so instead of hanging him, he leaves Barry to die in desert, the land he apparently loves so much. Maybe this is supposed to be Jamal's idea of poetic justice, but it's just idiotic. Not only is it a painfully transparent attempt by the show to move pieces around the board in the laziest manner possible, but it also undermines Jamal's progression into a character with an iota of intelligence.
We get it; family can oftentimes be a blind spot, even for despotic rulers like Jamal. But leaving Barry to die in the desert is the kind of move you'd expect from a cartoon villain. And the inevitable, thinly veiled allusion that will be Barry's trek through the desert is just another failed attempt at imbuing his story with deeper meaning. That's not to say there won't be meaning down the line, but from where things stand in the premiere, Tyrant has not made the kind of necessary adjustments to indicate things have been successfully turned around.
Tyrant continues next Tuesday with 'Enter the Fates' @10pm on FX. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Kata Vermes/FX