Barry just wants everyone to sit down and talk. Since the moment he first got involved in Abbudin’s politics (wrestling with his bloody, naked, razor-wielding brother in a steam room, like you do), Barry has always adopted the role of peacemaker, which is fine. But one of the most disappointing things about Tyrant’s conception of Abbudin (its generic stand-in for all things Arab) is that that’s really all it would take to solve the country’s problems—for everyone to stop acting like babies and listen to the nice doctor from Pasadena.
“Hail Mary” makes that premise explicit when Barry, trying to defuse the massacre waiting to happen within the plaza protest, makes a desperate, dangerous end run (or “hail mary,” if you will), reaching out to revolutionary leader Ihab Rashid’s father, the exiled sheik (Mohammad Bakri). Once there, Barry’s appeal is right from the Barry Al-Fayeed playbook: Jamal and Ihab are hotheads who just need to talk things over. He also quotes from a book about Apartheid he read once and says that, as a doctor, he believes “that life itself is hope.” Adam Rayner continues to imbue Barry with a blank earnestness that echoes the simplistic nature of his lines, and marks Tyrant for the facile political drama it is. He fares especially poorly paired here with screen veteran Bakri (Cup Final, Private), whose silky, measured gravitas reverberates with the sheik’s accumulated experience. When Barry compares the two, saying that they are both exiles whose shared experience as outsiders will provide the necessary perspective on the Abbudin crisis, I expected the old man—lungs damaged from the infamous Al-Fayeed chemical attack during a decades-long political struggle—to laugh in Barry’s face. Maybe smack him one. Instead, after a fake-out in which he has decided not to return to Abbudin, the sheik is apparently so swayed by Barry’s words that he appears to reverent cheers at the plaza. Taking the bullhorn from the suddenly abashed Ihab mid-rant, the sheik demands a meeting with the president.
With the premise of the show explicitly stated to be Barry’s Godfather-style incremental corruption, leading him back into his family’s dark business (of tyranny), Tyrant has yet—halfway through its season—to show that Barry is remotely corruptible. When Molly confronts her husband, saying, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’re getting off on this,” the words simply don’t register. In Rayner’s performance, there’s no hint that Barry is doing anything but trying to make everyone play nice. Questionable racial casting aside, Rayner remains incapable of suggesting the faintest glimmer of corruptibility or gleam of avarice—Barry learns of something rotten in the state of Abbudin, sighs, and says, “Can’t we all just get along?” That’s Barry’s style.
And while he’s being drawn further into his family’s tangled troubles, the character reacts to each successive step with the same dogged resignation. Compare the following lines from tonight’s episode. To the sheik: “I want to try and keep my brother from making my father’s mistakes.” To Molly: “Why did I think I could come here and do something my father couldn’t?” To Jamal: “You can finish something our father couldn’t.” I think Barry wants to make up for his father’s mistakes.
It’s not all Rayner’s fault that Tyrant is just plain dull—like Barry’s lines quoted above, the show is not a place for subtext or subtlety. Take the story of Fauzi’s daughter Samira (Mol Polanuer) and her involvement with Ihab’s revolutionary movement. Samira, discovering that Ihab is planning on splitting as soon as General Tariq’s bullets start flying, says, “So when they start shooting, you won’t be standing with the people?” And when she confesses to Fauzi that she’s aware of the weaknesses inherent in the movement, she says, “Ihab may be trying to trade one tyranny for another but the people, they won’t let him.” Chris Levinson’s script would like viewers to know that all revolutionary movements contain at their hearts an overzealousness that will be tempered in time. We know that because he has a character tell us exactly that. It’s rare that anyone says anything on Tyrant that isn’t exactly what they’re thinking—it’s deadening.
Which is why it’s a plus to have good old evil Jamal back. As problematic a character as he is, at least Ashraf Barhom is alive on the screen. For the last few episodes—constrained by his new role as president and recovering from that penis-bite and all—Jamal has been pinched and reined-in. (Even his ceremonial blazer tonight doesn’t quite fit him properly.) Stuck in a clenched holding pattern while he waits on Barry’s plan (which he only half understands), Jamal finds some diversion when daughter-in-law Nusrat’s father, informed of Jamal’s wedding night sexual assault on his daughter, comes cringing to the palace to request a divorce on her behalf. Now, another character might get fidgety at the possibility that his misdeeds will come to light, but not Jamal. Instead, he invites his poor in-law to an indoor shooting range (complete with wet bar) and hoists the terrified man up onto a hanging target before winging him and bellowing, “Your horrible daughter will crawl back into my son’s bed!!” The scene is ludicrous (Jamal’s Hulk strength in tossing the beefy old guy in the air is just the topper), but at least Barhom is magnetic in his cartoonish villainy. Tyrant keeps feinting toward making Jamal something of a tragic figure—the firstborn son thrust into a role he was never meant for—and that’s a risky, daring idea. In the show’s conception of him, Jamal’s monstrousness results from his father’s expectations and a healthy dose of self-loathing. That that conflict makes Jamal a brutal, raping monster makes any attempt to humanize him a daunting, and possibly ill-conceived one, but Barhom’s natural charisma, and the fact that he’s the only character with any vitality (although Justin Kirk’s untrustworthy U.S. politico John Tucker continues to throw in a sly one-liner or two) makes Jamal the far more interesting Al-Fayeed brother to watch.
Ultimately, Tyrant’s greatest failure is one of imagination. There’s a great series still to be made about the myriad cultural and political forces at work in the Middle East, but, in its rote recitation of the most obvious characters and narratives, Tyrant has set up a handsome chessboard only to play checkers on it.
- Barry: “I didn’t say anything because he’d never give me this much rope.” John Tucker: “And you wanna hang yourself with it—just don’t expect me to build the gallows.” Never let it be said that Tyrant doesn’t finish off its metaphors.
- At one point, Leila (Moran Atias) tells husband Jamal, “Now is the time to be firm.” Later, Jamal tells Barry, “I’m starting to look like some pussy who can’t pull the trigger!” So how is Jamal’s penis, anyway?
- Sometimes Barhom prefaces a particularly threatening statement with a little growl. It’s oddly endearing. As is the weird, sweeping arm motion he makes before calling Barry “LIAR!”
- Bakri’s such an engaging presence as the sheik. It’ll be a shame if the show squanders him—he can make even Tyrant’s lines sound resonant.
- Oh, Molly catches her maid stealing Vicodin and goes to help the maid’s brother, who was injured in the protests.
- In case you hadn’t heard, this is the last of The A.V. Club’s regular Tyrant reviews. It’s been—interesting. Thanks for all the comments and, as ever, for reading.