Sunday, November 21, 2010
To Be Or Not To Be: The Betrayal of Lucas North and Richard Armitage
Many have commented on the complete abrogation of this character by the middle of Series 9 for the sake of introducing a psychopath who can't be a psychopath, imaginatively named Bateman. Who is John Bateman? Lucas' alter ego? A split personality? No, he is a remorseless murderer who dreamed 15 years of a noble and self-sacrificial life as an MI 5 Agent, who, then, willy nilly, went back to killing without conscience for the sake of true love and an innocence he never possessed. It's really a shame that in the spirit of the original psycho, Patrick Bateman, we didn't at least have a gratuitous beefcake shot of the Armitage running naked through the hall with a chainsaw. It wouldn't have seemed out of place.
The debacle that was Spooks 9 has mercifully come to an end.
One thing that the Armitage did accomplish was to bring Lucas of Series 7 and 8 into stark relief against the vast sky of Lucas' suffering in Series 9. In series 7 and 8, he was a cool customer, his coolness enhanced by the blue tinged photography and smooth surfaces and bright blue eyes. Lucas was amiable, doing his job, had a few quirks like going off the grid, or taking up with Awful Women; he had a few flashbacks and outwitted his torturer. His identity was bound up in being MI 5.
Still, to me he was just another cipher spook in expectation of a few good years, and a ripsnorter of an ending where, like all good spooks, he would go to heaven in a blaze of glory. What we the audience didn't expect was that his true ending occurred in the complete obliteration of his character, beginning with the first episode of Series 9. More than character assassination, it was as if the creative team replaced Lucas' soul with a small nuclear device called not-Lucas and not only blew Lucas to bits, but vapourised his every atom. After that, not-Lucas, for all his sound and fury, was just an inkblot waiting to be erased.
Nevertheless, it was in Series 9 that I felt that the Armitage could finally remove himself from the constricted emotion of Lucas in 7 and 8 and strictures of behaviour, to reveal another side, a lacerated soul. Unfortunately, we were to believe that the lacerated soul belonged to not-Lucas, a two dimensional character with no redeeming features, without a mote of "light". By default, I finally paid attention to the character before me.
Because regardless of who this not-Lucas cipher was meant to be, (to me a cheap knockoff and homage to perhaps the ultimate film psychopath, Patrick Bateman) it was Lucas who was living in extremis, with post traumatic stress full blown. Indeed, this suffering was Lucas' not John's. I finally met his inner life, the life he had always had and stuffed down. And then I fell in love with him. Not because of his suffering but because unlike most of his colleagues, he had become a fully rounded character, human rather than tool.
In watching this man fall apart, I finally realised the qualities Lucas always, quietly, without fuss, embodied. He possessed tremendous loyalty, a caring for humanity and for individuals, the need to connect and desire for love, fragility, strength of character, self-sacrifice, a sense of humour, courage, a desire for home. He withstood 8 years of torture in a Russian prison and gave nothing away. He was indeed, noble. It is only that kind of man who would suffer the torments of his own mind, his remembrances, not a Bateman cipher.
Nothing that happened to not-Lucas could ever be tragic. Nothing was. That he escape or died? A mere bagatelle. After all his banging on, not-Lucas slipped quietly away, unmourned. There was nothing tragic about any part of his life. It is even pointless to elaborate on his character because the words that say everything about him is that he was a remorseless murderer. In simplest terms, in tragedy a noble character possesses a fatal flaw or weakness. For example, Othello's jealousy overwhelmed all that was great in him and led to his murder of Desdemona. But not-Lucas? What characteristics did he possess that should lead us to grieve for him? He was just a bit of dark matter.
One might further ask, what about Lucas? Was he tragic? In the story we were handed, it is psychologically impossible to be both Lucas and John. Technically, I don’t think not-Lucas was a true psychopath because whatever he was, to my knowledge, has not ever been recorded in the annals of psychology. It would have been psychologically unobtainable for him to stop being a psychopath even if he maintained an admirable facade. He would have possessed a secret, depraved life; it is a perversion of all we know about the human psyche for him to sustain 15 years of purity of character.
What the Armitage showed us, I propose, was Lucas in an alternate universe where the Lucas story continued and John never happened, or at best was the cipher. Even given that alternate universe, Lucas can never be a truly tragic figure unless you are willing to believe that he was possessed. Instead, he is an unfinished figure, stuck in a time warp. He weeps and wails and gnashes his teeth and suffers his memories in a vacuum while Bateman has taken over his story. With the advent of John, the only thing truly tragic about Lucas is that his story was never played out. It was replaced. And Lucas ceased to exist. But all of John's suffering belonged to Lucas and will always belong to Lucas of Series 7 and 8.
Lucas is not even dignified with any sort of ending, never mind a noble one. He doesn't go out with a bang or a whimper. Meanwhile, the character of Bateman, absurdly, can only pretend to have Lucas' qualities, and pretend to have his emotions and behaviour, like some overgrown sock puppet. When he jumps to his death, one feels nothing, because nothing is there but a blob. Lucas is elsewhere, perhaps in-between, waiting for his story to continue.
I think that the switch from Lucas as we know him to a psychological and logical grotesque was a betrayal of the character, a betrayal of the audience, and a betrayal of the actor(s). I suspect that some of the suffering that the Armitage showed us was real. I imagine that somewhere inside he felt the hurt.
Here you have an actor with intelligence, a devotion to his craft, prodigious gifts, able to spin dross into gold (lest we forget Guy of Gisborne), who elevates any material and dreck he is given. Clearly the creative team didn't get that message. Lucas ended up a paper hero, a mere plot device for cheap thrills.
I recall the Armitage talked about wanting to do a comedy next because he could no longer find any light in the Lucas character. He’s an actor who prides himself on finding dark or light as needed to add dimension. In essence, it’s like saying, Lucas became 2 dimensional. What could be a worse violation of artistic integrity and creativity than that?
His gifts were used to manipulate the audience emotionally, to make us care for non-Lucas, the black-hearted murderer. It was a betrayal of the actor and his abilities and accomplishment. To have carefully toiled in that garden for 2 seasons, in the light and in the night, nurturing the character, only in turn to witness such scorched earth, thanks to a bunch of fireworks that fly high, make a big bang and fizzle? I bet it hurt.
This brings me to the last question: was the Armitage a good fit with Spooks? Given the disrespect shown, I have to wonder. Whatever his input, this was a character that could not be salvaged. At least with Guy and Marian, I bought his stabbing of Marian, and I witnessed how genius his acting choice, the motion, so that truly, it looked as if he were reaching for Marian. It is an ingenious and breathtaking moment like that which allows to me to connect with the divine. To act always in adversity, I imagine, is not a good thing.
All in all, I didn't think the Armitage and Spooks were a good fit, because until Series 9, he truly played a cipher, in great Spooks tradition, I guess. Perhaps the creative team knew that only he could convince an audience of his evil doppelganger. Or at the very least, evoke sympathy. I would say the latter worked for many. But at what cost? At the cost of insulting the intelligence of the actor and some of the audience. At the cost of generating a lot of fanwank and fan wankery, a consequence that would make me as a writer, think twice about my laurels. All, as crazy Lucas North said, "chewed up and spat out". It takes a load and a world of cynicism to do that.
Thanks to his upcoming role in The Hobbit, the commodification of the Armitage brand, (VH1 beefcake, anyone?) continues apace. I dislike it. Yet at the same time, he just got off the Old Vic stage. My head is spinning. Guarding the treasure becomes harder. All of us long for another North & South, where integrity was the simple and complete order of the day, and for the Armitage, it was a perfect fit. You know it when you experience it. Perhaps it will never happen again, but I live in hope. Perhaps now, having endured slings, arrows and artistic betrayals, the treasure gets to shine again and reach greater heights taking risks and acting out of the box instead of treading water. Perhaps this time, the creative team will consider the gem they have and treat him and his talent accordingly. I can dream. I bet he does too.
Meanwhile, Lucas continues to be.
As for future Spooks? Along with the evil not-Lucas, you are officially obliterated.