And Barry/Bassam Al-Fayeed is…not the Tyrant!
Barry’s ascension to the throne of Abbudin may have seemed a foregone conclusion, since the show was sold on the premise “The Godfather in the Middle East,” with Adam Rayner’s Americanized Barry as the Michael, pulled back into the family’s dirty business after trying to escape to a normal life. Barry was destined to end up the king—after giving the inevitable kiss-off to psychotic big brother Jamal (both Barry’s Sonny and his Fredo). Such schematization isn’t necessarily a bad thing—even if transposing the story to the Middle East meant that family politics would always trump layered examination of actual politics. What’s hobbled Tyrant throughout, however, is the central conception—and casting—of Barry. “Gone Fishing,” the season (perhaps series) finale, throws an admirable curveball in at least temporarily forestalling that ending—but in doing so, it highlights how disastrously misconceived the series was from the start.
It’s tempting to lay the blame for Tyrant’s pervasive flatness on Rayner, and his performance as the series’ protagonist is certainly a crippler. If the Tyrant/Godfather parallel was going to work, even on a strictly melodramatic level, Barry, like Michael, had to seem corruptible. Rayner’s Barry, however, took each successive step to power with an air of resigned obligation that rendered his every action with deadening predictability. Barry’s journey from California pediatrician to would-be Middle Eastern dictator has had whatever juice the melodramatic premise held sucked out of it by Rayner’s limp sigh of a performance. Seriously—watching the episodes with subtitles points out how often the legend “[Barry sighs]” pops up. Rayner has the habit of inserting a sigh in the middle of a sentence, especially when in a tense confrontation—it’s enervating.
During the second half of the season, when circumstances in Abbudin (mostly stemming from Jamal being a psycho) forced Barry to take more drastic actions, Rayner’s performance didn’t change in the slightest to indicate his inner conflict. When Jennifer Finnigan’s Molly accuses him with, “You know what pisses me off—how easily this comes to you,” the contrast between the words and Rayner’s affectless demeanor is actually unsettling in its disconnect from reality. The same holds true in the season’s eighth episode when Justin Kirk’s John Tucker confronts Barry after Barry’s decided to mount a coup against Jamal—his worry that Barry is too drunk and emotional must come from the context clue that Barry is holding a whiskey bottle, because Rayner stubbornly refuses to play any emotion in the scene but his signature resigned moping.
But the problem doesn’t entirely reside in Rayner’s performance. From the outset, Barry has backed into each decision with a bland do-gooder’s sense of obligation. Again, while Rayner brings no hint that he’s getting off on his incremental rise to power, that’s of a piece with Tyrant’s depiction of the character. Much has been made (by me, for one) about the choice to cast a white actor in the lead. It’s a problematic idea on several levels, but mostly because Barry—the thoroughly Westernized Arab who has turned his back on his entire culture—is ultimately the only one capable of leading Abbudin. Barry’s boring, but he’s also the only Arab character on the show not so blinded by familial, religious, and/or tribal fanaticism that he can’t do the sensible thing in any situation. Another main weakness of Tyrant is its disinterest in making Abbudin a unique society in its own right, instead depicting it as generic “Arab Land” whose clichéd problems only need the paternalistic leadership of a well-meaning Westerner to set things aright. This failure to imbue Abbudin or its people with anything but the most basic traits and dilemmas created a dramatic hegemony that’s inherently belittling.
Abbudin’s nonspecific nature extends to its political conflicts which, as revealed in episode seven, can all be traced to the cartoonish evil of one man, Raad Rawi’s mean, old Uncle Tariq. Sure, there are sectarian and political grievances in Abbudin, but the reveal that it was Tariq, and not Barry’s president father, who engineered the gas attack that finally drove Barry away displays the facile approach the show’s writer’s take to the complex problems facing the Middle East. When the show was announced, its political subtext was a major worry—would the creators of series like Homeland and 24 use the social backdrop to perpetuate Arab stereotypes? In practice, Tyrant’s depiction of the region and its people is so non-specific that it’s both less and more offensive because of it.
When Barry brokered a sit-down between Jamal and Mohammad Bakri’s exiled rebel leader Sheik Rashid, it’s like no one in the show’s world ever thought of that solution before. And when Barry convinced Jamal to allow for free elections (a sweeping change to Abbidin’s constitution negotiated over a 2 minute jogging montage), it’s the same way—Abbudin is a silly place just waiting for the nice Americanized doctor to say, “C’mon, everybody—be nice.” And there’s every sense that Barry’s facile leadership would work out just fine—if Jamal didn’t try to kill the Sheik with a toilet and then walk away whistling, one of the silliest plot devices of the TV season.
Apart from the Grand Moff Tarkin-esque Tariq, the only obstacle to Abbudin becoming Barry’s blandly democratic dream country is Jamal, both Tyrant’s most problematic and entertaining character. He’s a raping, razor-wielding, niece-molesting, hooker-smothering, father-in-law-torturing psycho (“one click below Jeffrey Dahmer,” according to Leslie Hope’s hard-talking American spook), but he’s also presented as Tyrant’s closest thing to a tragic figure. It’d be an impressive contradiction if the show could pull it off, but as presented throughout, Jamal’s simply whatever a scene needs him to be—he’s all over the place. As the show’s Fredo, he’s got the inferiority complex due to his father’s preferential treatment of Barry (and the creepy sexual proclivities). And as the Sonny, he’s got the hair-trigger temper and brutality, seemingly brought about by the same issues. As Barry intones several times in the series, “Jamal is broken,” an assessment truer of the characterization than the character itself.
That being said, Ashraf Barhom’s portrayal is the one entertaining thing in most episodes, especially once the stifling necessities of president-hood force him to twist himself in knots attempting to restrain his natural instincts to mount and/or pummel everyone who crosses him. Barhom, stuck with the task of trying to humanize this guy, makes Jamal at least interesting if not, as intended, soulful and tragic (at least until the finale). When his meeting with the Sheik compels him to utter the Barry-penned response, “I’ll take that under advisement” rather than his usual stream of profanities and violence, Barhom’s exertions are electrically funny. (Even funnier—his attempts to be charming on 60 Minutes.) Once president, that tension sees Jamal lurching around the palace like Frankenstein’s Monster much of the time, his strangled efforts to appear civilized barely concealing the urge to simply strangle. And Barhom’s such an engaging presence that even Jamal’s quieter moments (confessing to his mistress how he never wanted to lead Abbudin, for example) are affecting—as long as you forget how essentially unsympathetic Jamal is. (The poor mistress doesn’t last long afterward.)
So tonight, when the final betrayal comes and Jamal must confront the decision to kill Barry, Barhom is outstanding. After the admirably unexpected twist that Barry’s coup has failed, Barhom gives the grieving Jamal the complex gravitas that all his previous monstrousness only hinted at. When he tells the just-arrested Barry, “I would have given it to you. I would have given you anything,” the emotion lands (although not on Barry, if Rayner’s blank stare in response is to be judged). The second half of the finale (irritatingly unnecessary and contrived “will Emma miss the plane” subplot notwithstanding) is actually Tyrant’s tightest and most compelling half-hour of the season, with Barhom, Justin Kirk’s slippery US envoy, Al-Fayeed matriarch Alice Krige, Fares Fares’ wary, wise journalist Fauzi, and even Finnigan’s Molly reacting to the failed coup with an unaccustomed immediacy. With Tyrant’s future very much in doubt, the final cliffhanger, with Jamal pronouncing his brother’s death while Barry stews blankly in a sun-drenched prison cell, may be the only ending viewers get. And while I can’t say I’m clamoring for more, the prospect of a Tyrant with Barhom at its center is at least more interesting.
Episode grade: C+
Season grade: C-
- Not to beat another very dead horse, but the whole accent issue is absurdly highlighted when Barry, telling his kids a story about their grandfather, does an impression of the man by switching his unaccented normal voice with the vaguely accented English common to everyone in Abbudin. Look—no American network was going to greenlight a mostly subtitled show, but the solution of having everyone in Abbudin sound like MacGyver extras saps energy from every performance and whatever vitality the setting might have to offer.
- The late-season introduction of Molly’s flibbertigibbet sister Jenna (Wrenn Schmidt) was an especially baffling illumination of the Tyrant writers’ storytelling instincts, so fundamentally unsound that it was thought that another bland American member of the family was what was needed.
- And the fact that she was only introduced to provide tonight’s monkey wrench subplot (she and Al-Fayeed daughter Emma go on an ill-advised pre-coup shopping trip and have their phone and money stolen) is especially infuriating.
- We weren’t here to discuss it, but mention must be made of the reappearance, in episode six, of Jamal’s potency via an extended boner shot that obscured the foreground of an argument between Jamal and Leila for a full minute. It’s like they just got a puppy who can’t stop blocking the camera.
- Thanks for reading, gang. Maybe we’ll see each other in Abbudin next year. Maybe.