Luther, a British series, focuses on the angst-ridden policeman Luther (Idris Elba), who investigates violent crimes. The season's opening episode involves a serial killer/cannibal of the most gruesome sort, who eats pieces of his victims' bodies. Although officially not working as a police officer, Luther is soon on the trail of this man.
In The Night Manager, Jonathan Price (Tom Hiddleston), the British night manager of a Cairo hotel, fails to protect the life of an Egyptian woman he has fallen in love with, the mistress of a high-powered Egyptian criminal who murders her. Price is recruited by Angela Burr (Olivia Coleman), who runs a somewhat maverick British intelligence group, to infiltrate and bring down Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), a powerful illegal arms dealer associated with the Egyptian woman's death.
|Jonathan and Jud, center, have bodies that are painfully vulnerable to abuse by alpha male Roper, on the left.
The Night Manager had me riveted with anxiety for the main character, Jonathan, because he is rubbing shoulders with a sociopath (Roper) who we know will brutally (and with torture) wipe him out if he suspects him of betrayal. To make matters worse, Jonathan falls in love with Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), Roper's highly off-limits American mistress, and she with him. They take what seem to be extreme risks to be with each other. We worry both that Roper will find out they are in love and that he will discover Jonathan is a government agent. Meanwhile we also know that corrupt intelligence officers high in the British secret service will protect Roper and throw Price under the bus if they find out about him. The strong, rather than protect the weak, side with the strong.
It may be The Night Manager is more riveting and anxiety provoking than Luther because it is better directed (Susanne Bier, the director, won an Emmy for the series.) However, I think there's more to the story than good direction, and that the tension the le Carre evokes come from fundamentally reflecting a female point of view.
As I watched Luther, not very anxious despite the machinations of a serial killer, I realized that I was comforted because of Luther's god-like (male) qualities. For all his various inner angsts, we know he is invincible. He is a crack cop, better than anyone: against him, what mere serial killer has a chance? He keeps London as safe as it can be kept.
|Luther's body is protected, not vulnerable and is aggressive rather than aggressed upon.
Jonathan, on the hand, exudes vulnerability. He's gentle, not tough, a hotel manager, not a trained, savvy police officer. He's sensitive, without (like Luther, who also is caring) being hardened. Watching his unprotected body as he walks beside Roper, one feels a primal fear for him: he has no real way to defend himself. He is in the position of the woman, his body at the mercy of a nearby male who claims aggressive ownership over it. Over and over we see him vulnerable. (This is problematized because he does kill a man, perhaps necessary to make him palatable, but the overall thrust of Jonathan is vulnerability.)
Roper, of course, does not exert sexual ownership over Jonathan, but he does openly exert alpha male control. He renames Jonathan without thinking to ask him what name he would like, insists he participate in corporate crimes that make him vulnerable to arrest, and demands that he be absorbed into Roper's plans and organizations and that he adjust to them without question. Jonathan is there for one reason: to serve Roper. He is expected to have no agency outside of Roper's desires. He does (or is expected to do) whatever Roper tells him. All of this makes him like a woman. Like a woman, he smiles often and makes himself pleasant, agreeable and non-threatening to Roper through words and body language.
Price is supported by other vulnerable people who happen to be women: Angela Burr is visibly, heavily pregnant and also under attack by higher-ups in British intelligence for getting too close to Roper. Jed, Roper's girlfriend, is unhappy and has a body equally as vulnerable to assault as Jonathan's, as well as a young son her work as Roper's mistress supports. I may have some issues with using motherhood to buttress the moral worth of female characters, but it underlines their bodily vulnerability. As we see during an attack on Roper's young son, children's bodies, like women's, are easily assaulted.
It's hard not to feel acute anxiety over the fate of these vulnerable people fighting Roper, especially Jonathan and Jed, who are so physically close so often to a ruthless man. We feel viscerally their bodily weakness, the risks they are taking and the courage they display.
I find it hard to feel as acutely over Luther, who blankets us in the sense that he is strong and invulnerable, that he will take care of the people in the series and hence of us, the viewer. This is the male stance, ultimately tough and impregnable. It argues, using an individual, that strong, violent males (and by extension groups of strong violent males, ie armies) are what keep us safe.
Le Carre's argument, that the strong alpha male ultimately threatens, rather than protects us, seems to me more far more realistic than the protective capabilities of the alpha male. As Le Carre shows, violent men inside and outside of legitimate organizations work together to oppress the rest of us: they aren't enemies to evil, they are its friends. And as the protagonists in the The Night Manager illustrate, women (and most men), instead of trying to emulate the violent alpha male, should be using their brains to defeat violence, rather than trying to hide behind the faux protection violence offers. Feminism took a very wrong turn when it decided that its role model would be the ruthless female CEO in spiked heels who outdoes that most ruthless male CEO. Instead, and more realistically, we should, like Le Carre, try to show the inherent problems with the accumulation of power/violence into too few hands-- and insist on other solutions.