Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Ten Questions about Tyrant Season Three premiere (spoilers from seasons 1 & 2)

Adam Rayner as Bassam "Barry" Al-Fayeed, the President's brother, in Tyrant.
For the past three weeks I have faithfully watched one episode per night of Tyrant, a show on the FX network about a Mideast family ruling the fictional country of Abuddin. Three weeks (plus a day) of nightly episodes equals the first two seasons, so now I'm ready for tonight's premier of Tyrant's third season. Yet this also means a shift from the light binge of a nightly show to the restrained episode per week requiring a saint's patience, then comes the year-long hibernation. But that's the way with all things: we love things that won't be around forever, and Tyrant, with its assortment of hate-lovable characters—I even love the namesake of the show whose personality is as prickly as the very short beard he wears—and incoming are new characters too, not all of whom are going to be angels.

But for now Season Three starts tonight, and I want you to watch this show. I won't spoil it by telling you too much (I have discussed it, with spoiler warnings, in greater detail in my podcast), but I have to tell you a little to lure you into it. I will keep spoilers to a minimum by outlining only the premise, which is mostly back story anyway.

The creators and writers have taken care that Abuddin looks not like any particular Mideastern dictatorship, and the Al-Fayeed family could be any tyrannical dynasty. If anything, Tyrant portrays all dictatorships and all ruling families. Even though we often wear blinders and look the other direction, every government is guilty of Machiavellian measures to preserve its wealth and power (how many of you are thinking, "Except mine"?).

In the flashbacks we see the brothers—Jamal, destined and groomed for the presidency, and his younger brother, Bassam, who is vital because, as family he's of the few people who can be trusted—at the center of the story as highly privileged children of the iron-fisted dictator, President Khaled Al-Fayeed. The father can't tolerate opposition—a disposition his older son inherits—and he gasses the town where his lifelong nemesis lives. The tribal leader of this town, Sheik Rashid, patiently waits out the years with his wheezing gas-damaged lungs in this town, but later his destiny provides a potential diplomatic key to Abuddin's progression into the future. Meanwhile the Sheik's son, Ihab Rashid, devotes himself to a life underground as a resistance leader and a thorn in the dictatorship's side—even the guerrillas come not as advocates of democracy but as alternative dynasties..

One day while the President, with Jamal and Bassam at his side, patrols his realm, his forces detain a suspicious man. To keep up his heir's training, the president orders Jamal to shoot the prisoner. Jamal balks, and the father belittles his son for cowardice. Finally Bassam picks up the gun and kills the roadside prisoner. What's chilling about this is that Bassam has no particular feeling either way about the man he just killed, but he's sick of listening to his father and brother bicker. With a family so perversely dysfunctional, it's not surprising that when Bassam comes of age he flees and distances himself as far as he can. He goes to America, calls himself Barry instead of Bassam, becomes a pediatrician, and raises a family. Only twenty years later, when Jamal's son marries, does Bassam, feeling some familial guilt, take his American family to meet his family in Abuddin and to see the family palace. Yet, as we saw with the prisoner, Bassam is not above getting sucked into the intoxication of power, and even the Americanized Barry, though he came only to attend a wedding, soon feels "obliged" to help his country with its problems, one of which is his brother. It might well be that Bassam fled the family palace not because he was repelled by the Machiavellian tyranny of his family but because he too was attracted to it.

Ashraf Barhom as Jamal Al-Fayeed, his father's successor to the presidency.
Two new young, beautiful, and extremely talented actors, Khaled Abol Naga and Annet Mahendru, join the cast of Tyrant this season. Fans of FX's The Americans will remember Annet Mahendru as Nina, the spy who comes to a bad end in a Soviet prison. Nina's fatal flaw is that she cares more about people than politics. She slowly falls through a Dantean Soviet bureaucracy and prison system to find no net waiting at the bottom. I refused to give up hope for Nina in her descent because Mahendru played her part so well that Nina rendered my heart. I agonized with her, and wept at the end. But the good news is that Mahendru joins the cast of Tyrant with episode 3.2. I'll be happy to see her in this new role because it will be like running into a lost friend.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reports that actor Khaled Abol Naga often gets called Egypt's Brad Pitt. Yet Naga has not sat on his laurels but used his fame as an activist for tolerance, human rights, and justice in Egypt.

"Through his work," the ABC said, Naga "has raised awareness about controversial issues including female genital mutilation, children's rights and HIV/AIDS."

On Tyrant, Naga will play a new character named Al-Qadi. Given Mahendru's CV and talents, her role as Al-Qadi's wife won't leave her hovering in her husband's shadow. I expect she will quickly engage with palace intrigues.

Tyrant's first season focused on palace intrigues and ultimately on the conflict between the brothers Jamal and Bassam. In season two, though, the principal conflict lies between the moderates and the extremists among the large segment of the population alienated by the Al-Fayeeds' history of abuse towards its own people. Bassam leads the moderates anonymously by using a nom de guerre, which people assume is to hide his identity from the state, not from his followers, who wouldn't be inclined to listen if they knew he was an Al-Fayeed. Yet the time is coming for Bassam to consolidate the faith he has won among the people for his hard fighting and devoted leadership. Throughout the show he has sought openness, compromise, and democracy, while his brother has bullied and pistol-whipped a nation with fear and hatred. Jamal also has a harem distributed among the population—some of the women are willing and professional, and others are unwilling but terrified to resist. Whole families—husband, children, parents—are subject to the sounds of Jamal's sexual subordination of the woman of the house yet fear the retaliation if they would resist.

If at the end of season one Bassam Al-Fayeed's life hung in the balance, through season two Bassam shows the resilience that makes him a likable character to his countrymen and to the show's audience. Adam Rayner, who plays Bassam, took some heat for his low-key acting in Season One, but that was mainly because Bassam wanted initially to maintain a distance between himself and his family and its corrupt governance of Abuddin. By Season Two, during which he's actively engaging a Militant Islamicist invasion from Syria—does that remind you of ISIS or what?—he becomes a folk hero known by his nom de guerre, Khalil, and his somewhat deadpan stolidness of Season One gives way to deep engagement engaged in the struggles of Season Two. One of the prevailing questions awaiting Season Three is how will Bassam present himself now that he has a hard-won following. That question becomes even more interesting when we remember that Jamal is, if not dead, at least incapacitated for awhile. Here are some of the pressing questions I see as we head into Season Three:


  1. If Jamal is alive, how long until he can lead again?
  2. What old guard on Jamal's behalf remains to resist regime change?
  3. Will Bassam continue with his efforts to replace the Al-Fayeed dynasty with democracy?
  4. If Jamal cannot resist, who will lead the resistance against him?
  5. Leila formed an alliance with her son Ahmed with a plan to usurp control of Abuddin. How's that going? Will she and Ahmed be a source of conflict for Bassam?
  6. Who is left from out of the Rashid camp to represent the opposition?
  7. Will the Chinese continue with their development of the new oil fields around Ma'an?
  8. What role will the Americans play in Abuddin's regime change or shift to democracy?
  9. New people arrive this season: who are they? For whom will they advocate?
  10. What will become of Nusrat Al-Fayeed (Ahmed's wife; played by Sibylla Deen) after her attempt to kill Jamal?