What it would be like to be the absolute ruler of an entire country? These days, not too many people get to find out, and that’s probably for the best, since being the sole ruler of a nation means democracy is not very high on the priority list.
The dictionary defines tyrant thusly: “a cruel and oppressive ruler.” The images that come to mind, for any student of history, are of Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin. In more recent times, we have had people like Moammar Ghadhafi, Pol Pot, and the current boss of North Korea, Kim Jong Un. Those last three are minor leaguers compared to Hitler and Stalin, but for lack of resources, not for lack of trying.
But back to our original question: what would it be like to be a tyrant? What if a relatively average guy suddenly found himself running a country? In 2014, the cable TV network FX decided to find out. They began airing a series called, appropriately enough, Tyrant.
The concept comes to life on the screen.
If the creators of the show were going to depict a country that could conceivably be ruled by a tyrant, there were only a few places where they could place their fictional nation. North America and Europe were out. Latin America was a possibility, to be sure, but they settled on the Middle East, where tyrants seem to grow on palm trees. They created the small nation of Abuddin, and although I never saw an actual map of the country, it was clear that it was on the Mediterranean coast and bordered on Syria and Lebanon. For realism, they decided to film much of the show in Israel, where they could get a good feel of the environment without sacrificing security.
(There be spoilers here! Proceed at your own risk.)
The protagonist is Bassam “Barry” Al Fayeed, the younger son of Abuddin’s dictator. Bassam never agreed with his old man about how things should be done, so like a lot of rebellious young adults, he turned down a chance to take a guaranteed (and lucrative) spot in the family business and left home. He came to America, where he started calling himself Barry, became a pediatrician, married an American woman and settled into a comfortable life in Pasadena, California. Barry and Molly have two children, son Sammy and daughter Emma, both teenagers at the time the show begins. Barry has deliberately had little contact with his family back home and that’s fine with everyone.
But then comes an invitation to return. The only child of Barry’s older brother and sole sibling, Jamal, is getting married. Against his better judgment, but with the encouragement of his wife, Barry decides to fly home for the wedding and a short visit with the family before coming back to the anonymous but safe life he’s built in America.
This is television, so of course something goes wrong. Hours after the wedding ceremony, Barry’s father suffers a fatal heart attack. Jamal, older than Barry but headstrong and hedonistic, is now the president of Abuddin, and he needs help. Little brother decides to stick around and lend a hand.
Tension between the brothers builds throughout the ten-episode first season. Barry urges Jamal to steer the country toward democracy by allowing an election for president, but of course that doesn’t go right, either. An opposition leader from the old days, Sheik Rashid, returns from exile, and soon Barry is caught up in Jamal’s desperate attempts to hold off a revolt. The sheik is wounded in an assassination attempt that may or may not have been planned by Jamal, and then dies under questionable circumstances in which Barry plays an important, if reluctant, role. Things get to the point that Barry decides the only way out is to depose his brother and take over himself. But Jamal finds out about the plot and foils it at the last instant. He throws Barry in jail and reinforces his iron rule of the country. Barry is tried and sentenced to death. By now, Molly has sent her kids back to the U.S. but remains in Abuddin at the American embassy, trying to enlist international support to help free her husband. The first season ends with Barry sitting forlornly in his prison cell. The audience is left wondering if he’ll ever get out, or will Jamal go through with the execution. The answer: both.
Problems behind the scenes.
The creators of the show were the same team behind Homeland, the smash-hit espionage drama airing on Showtime. With that kind of creative muscle, and talk that the producers would enlist acclaimed film director Ang Lee, a bidding war for the show erupted between FX and HBO. FX won, and production began in Morocco but soon shifted to Israel as problems cropped up with the original site. Lee dropped out of the project before filming began, but ratings for the initial few episodes were good, and Tyrant generated some buzz in the media even as critical reviews came in rather mixed.
Casting a show is always one of the greatest challenges, and the lead role of Bassam Al Fayeed was the biggest. The producers tossed around a few names and finally settled on a British actor, Adam Rayner, who used an American accent. An Israeli Arab, Ahsraf Bahrom, was cast as Jamal. Rayner and Bahrom bore little resemblance to each other, but at least Rayner had dark hair and it could be presumed that Barry took after his mother, played by Alice Krige, rather than his father and brother. The role of Molly went to Canadian actress Jennifer Finnegan. For the part of Jamal’s scheming wife Leila, the producers hired an Israeli actress, Moran Atias, the daughter of Moroccan immigrants. Atias, 33 at the time of the premiere, barely looked old enough to be the mother of Jamal and Leila’s only child, son Ahmed, played by an Iranian-American, Cameron Gharaee. Otherwise, Atias filled all the requirements of the role; her exotic beauty combined with Leila’s devious personality to make her perhaps the show’s strongest character.
At times during the first season the show didn’t seem to know which direction it wanted to go. Was it to be a crime family drama, a Godfather-style saga set in the sands of the volatile Middle East, or did it want to be a soap opera, Dallas with an accent? Fortunately, it was more of the former than the latter, but that would change.
In season 2, Barry returns and brings chaos with him.
In the first episode of the second season, Jamal finally gives in to his wife by having Barry executed. But he also can’t ignore the entreaties of his mother, who begs him not to do it. He decides on a secret compromise: another condemned “enemy of the state” is hung (conveniently wearing a hood), after which Jamal transports Barry to the eastern desert by helicopter and releases him, confident the harsh environment will finish the job he didn’t have the courage to complete himself. Meanwhile, Jamal has enlisted Chinese help in developing Abuddin’s oil fields, but security problems remain. The late Sheik Rashid’s son, determined to succeed where his father failed, leads a resistance cell in the capital city and sets up an attempt to assassinate Jamal at a ceremony introducing the Chinese. The assassin is killed, but not before a stray bullet strikes not Jamal but the wife of the Chinese ambassador. The Chinese threaten to pull out of the oil project and deny Abuddin the arms shipments they’d promised, but Jamal assures them he’ll take care of the terrorist problem right away. He unleashes his uncle Tariq, the head of the military, who uses sarin gas to wipe out a neighborhood where the terror cell is headquartered. The attack kills over a thousand civilians, but succeeds in breaking the back of the insurgency. Rashid and his wife escape the gas but suddenly find themselves without followers, and they make hurried plans to flee the country.
Amidst all the turmoil back in the capital, Barry is found in the desert by a pair of young Bedouins, who bring him to their village where a kindly family nurses him back to health. He hides his true identity, saying he’s a soldier on the run after deserting the Army. Barry has an opportunity to call Molly, who by now is a grieving widow back in the States, and tell her he’s still alive, but can’t bring himself to do it. He hears about Jamal’s gas attack–which Jamal publicly blames on the terrorists, for having stored the gas that was inadvertently released by the explosive shells of the government’s mortars–and is horrified. But what to do? That question is solved when a column of military vehicles and armed fighters rolls into the village. It is the Caliphate, fresh off a successful raid of a government military base, and their next target is Ma’an, the second-largest city in the country. At the head of the column is Rashid, who had thrown in his lot with the Caliphate after being recruited by their charismatic leader, an old college buddy, in Syria. They conscript all the able-bodied men and boys from 15-50 in the village and kidnap the women as sex slaves, including Daliyah, the young second wife of the man who had brought Barry into his home. Barry escapes the village in a stolen vehicle and heads for the Lebanese border, along with an American girl who had been with the Caliphate and wanted out. Within yards of the border, they are intercepted by the woman’s “husband” and another fighter, but Barry overpowers them, much to his surprise, and declares to the girl that he is staying in Abuddin. “These men intend to destroy my country,” he says.
It was in the middle of the second season that the soap opera started to overtake the crime family saga as the focus of the series. Back home, Molly returns to her Catholic faith and meets a widowed attorney, Jimmy Timmons, who helps her with the complicated estate Barry left behind–an estate, he reveals, that includes an inheritance from Barry’s father worth $100 million. He’d never told his wife about the windfall, and now all of that ill-gotten Abuddinian gain is available to Barry’s family. The catch: it can’t be given to a woman, so it goes entirely to teenage son Sammy. This does not sit particularly well with daughter Emma, of course, and there’s even more trouble when the lawyer says they have to go back to Abuddin so Sammy can lay proper legal claim to his inheritance in court. Reluctantly, Molly agrees to accompany Timmons and Sammy back to the country that supposedly killed her husband. Of course by this time the relationship between Molly and the lawyer is becoming something more than just businesslike. In Abuddin they spend a night together, but don’t consummate the relationship.
Sammy, who is gay–a fact revealed but not emphasized in the first season–wants to find his Abudinnian “friend” from their first visit, but discovers he is dead, captured and brutally executed by the Caliphate in Ma’an along with several other gay men. He hears of a resistance cell there led by a charismatic fighter known only as Khaled, but they’re in need of money. Well, I’ve got money, Sammy says; his uncle Jamal had agreed to wire ten percent of the inheritance immediately to Sammy’s account and send the rest once they’d left the country for good. (Sammy had convinced the court he deserved the inheritance by disavowing his treasonous father in front of the judge.) So Sammy goes to Ma’an and is reunited with his father. Their relationship had been tenuous at best before all this, and the current circumstances don’t make things better, at least right away. But Sammy sees his father in a new light now; not only is he still alive, he’s a leader, a tough guy who is rallying the people against the brutal thugs who murdered his friend. Within a couple episodes, Sammy the gay teen from California is learning how to fire an AK-47.
Back in the capital, Jamal’s mother gets in touch with a visiting UN general, who it turns out is Jamal’s illegitimate son. It appears that Mom has known this for years but never told her son; the relationship, before he married Leila, was with a commoner who could never be the wife of the virtual crown prince of the country. Now, though, Jamal is told about his son, primarily because he’s a capable leader who might be the only chance for the hapless Abudinnian military…especially since Jamal, in a fit of rage at news of the fall of Ma’an, has killed his uncle Tariq in yet another display of his disastrously impulsive behavior.
I had the sense the series was going off the rails when Jamal, who by now should have known that as a military strategist he was maybe the equal of Bozo the Clown, persuades Rami to give up his UN commission and take over Jamal’s army, but forbids him from negotiating with the Red Hand in an attempt to take down the Caliphate in Ma’an. Jamal wants to do all the talking, but his telephone conversations with Barry (who disguises his voice) are nothing more than rambling ruminations about fate and so forth. Rami does the only sensible thing: he asks Leila to get the Red Hand’s phone number from Jamal’s phone so he can arrange a meeting. Without knowing who he’s really dealing with, Rami arranges for Barry’s Red Hand fighters to participate in a coordinated attack on the Caliphate’s forces. Rami has persuaded his father to augment his own pathetic troops with a couple hundred battle-hardened African mercenaries of Rami’s acquaintance. Barry’s Red Hand fighters will use cover from a sandstorm to take out the Caliphate’s only anti-aircraft installation, so when the storm lifts Rami can send in attack helicopters and transport aircraft filled with the mercenaries.
In a series that was desperately in need of a hero, Tyrant now had two: Barry, the pediatrician-turned-warrior who was actually doing a pretty good job as a resistance leader, and Rami, the bastard son of the tyrant who is on the brink of leading his father’s forces to victory. They were men of honor who were working together in desperate circumstances to stop an invading army. Neither man was any fan of Jamal’s regime, by any means, but the first order of business was stopping the Caliphate. Then they could deal with Jamal.
But Jamal finds out about Rami’s supposed treachery. He plots with one of his few remaining loyal officers to have Rami killed with a car bomb. But wait! The targeted motorcade contains not Rami, but Jamal’s mother, who is on her way to meet with Molly. Jamal tries to call off the attack, but he’s too late. Everything’s going to hell in a rocket for Jamal, but he tries to salvage the situation by claiming Rami set the bomb as part of a coup attempt. With his paranoia in full bloom, Jamal orders his son locked up and calls off the attack, just as Barry is leading his band through the sandstorm to assault the lightly-defended anti-aircraft base.
Barry has by now revealed his existence to Molly, who had been frantic over Sammy’s disappearance. At first she’s shocked and angry, but then of course she comes around. Molly learns of Rami’s jailing and that Jamal has called off the attack and released the mercenaries. Working with Leila, Molly re-hires the mercs with Sammy’s ten mil, and Leila pressures Jamal to release his son and let him lead the assault on Ma’an. Barry’s band has succeeded in taking the AA installation but he and his surviving fighters are now surrounded by Caliphate troops. Rashid inadvertently buys time for Barry by delaying the assault as he attempts to draw Barry out so he can be dealt with personally. He’s upset because Barry had rescued Daliyah from his clutches and had stabbed Rashid’s wife to death in the process–after she’d killed one of his fighters and wounded Barry in the leg. By the time the Caliphate leader overrules Rashid and orders the assault to commence, Rami’s helicopters arrive, just in time for the dashing young general and his mercenaries to save the day.
Season 2 ends with Barry’s triumphant arrival in the capital. By now the word is out as to his real identity, and there’s a popular movement underway to depose Jamal and make Barry the new president. The gas attack is finally coming back to haunt Jamal, and the International Criminal Court intends to try him for crimes against humanity. Leila, who is always reading the tea leaves, has agreed to testify against him. Jamal tells Barry he will accept a deal offered by the Arab League: he will relinquish power voluntarily to Barry, and in return will be allowed to go into exile. But at the news conference to announce the deal, Jamal suddenly becomes defiant, and as he begins to state his intention to stay in the palace and fight the charges, he is shot several times by none other than his daughter-in-law Nusrat, who has held a grudge against him since her wedding day, when Jamal sexually assaulted her just before the ceremony. (I’m not making this up.)
Season 3 brings the end, like it or not.
The third season, which aired in the summer of 2016, saw Dallas kick The Godfather to the curb once and for all. Jamal survives the shooting, but is comatose. Barry takes over the government to popular acclaim and announces there will be a free election for president in six months. As candidates begin to crop up–including Leila, whom Barry has made his foreign secretary–Barry surprises everyone by announcing he has no intention of running.
For an episode or two, it seems Barry might actually pull this off. His reuniting with Molly has gone well, and they want to go back to America as soon as things stabilize in Abuddin. Their daughter Emma is now living with them in the palace. His old childhood friend Fauzi, a writer who had fled the country in the first season, leaving behind his rebel daughter–who became Rashid’s wife–has returned and declared his candidacy for president. Barry confesses to Fauzi that he was the one who killed his daughter. Barry has set up Daliyah as the head of a “truth and dignity” commission, designed to let Abuddinians from all sides air their grievances or, if complicit in something or other, confess their sins and ask for forgiveness. There’s no denying that the spark that jumped between Barry and Daliyah back in Season 2 is still there, though. Her husband, the Bedouin who had taken Barry into his home early in the season, is now dead, killed by the Caliphate. She’s a widow, although not a merry one by any means.
Barry has the brilliant idea that political prisoners should be released, as a sign the country is moving toward reconciliation with its brutal past. Perhaps he thinks all these guys will go to Daliyah’s commission, get things off their chests, and then go to work for the betterment of the new society. In theory, that’s a very optimistic view to take. In practice, it rarely works, and it doesn’t here. Rashid is one of those released, and even as he’s walking out of jail he tells Barry he will have his vengeance. Instead of going to confess to Daliyah, he heads straight to Syria and re-ups with the Caliphate, which is planning another assault on Abuddin.
Things aren’t going so well for Leila’s own campaign for president. Despite hiring a veteran British political operative, who portrays her as a strong force for security and progress, she’s trailing Fauzi by double-digits in the polls. The women of the country refuse to rally behind her; instead, they accuse her of ignoring their plight while she was first lady during Jamal’s rule. Making matters worse, a charismatic imam, al-Qadi, throws his turban in the ring as well. His brother-in-law has ties to the Caliphate, but the imam tries to keep the peace between rebellious students and Barry’s government, which has shut down their on-campus prayer spaces, forcing them to pray in the central mosque, where they can be more easily monitored.
There’s one student who isn’t rebellious at all. It’s Sammy, who is having a gay affair with a professor, a married man with children. One of Sammy’s fellow students, a woman who supports Fauzi, learns of the affair and warns him that it’s the worst possible thing the son of the president could be doing in a Muslim country. Sammy, of course, doesn’t care what she or anyone else thinks. He has gone from hedonistic American teen to battle-hardened freedom fighter and back to the hedonist within the space of a few episodes.
Barry has gained a powerful friend, an American general who knows Abuddin well from a previous posting as military liaison. In fact, he knows Leila very well indeed, but we should expect that. The producers had brought in the character and hired veteran actor Chris Noth to play him in an effort to boost ratings by offering audiences a familiar face. Noth starred as Carrie Bradshaw’s on-again, off-again love interest, Mr. Big, on Sex in the City, along with prominent roles in Law and Order and The Good Wife. As General Cogswell–and I had to wonder how unusual it might be to have a four-star general coming to this backwater country in the first place–he can provide U.S. technological help to Barry, but not troops. Cogswell has already used his drones to locate Rashid in Syria, but since he’d been hiding out in a hospital, Barry had vetoed an air strike. Now, though, it appears Rashid and the current Caliphate leader are at a training camp. Barry authorizes the air strike, which pulverizes the camp…and dozens of children who just happened to be there at the time. It’s a disaster for Barry, but a propaganda victory of immense proportions for the Caliphate, emboldening Rashid to take the fight directly to his nemesis.
Rashid gets his revenge on Barry in eye-for-an-eye fashion. His intention is to kidnap Molly, but when the new first lady and her daughter are en route to a hospital for an official function, Rashid’s attack on the motorcade doesn’t go smoothly. Rami is along to help with security, and he sacrifices himself to buy time for the women to escape. They make it into a nearby building, but Molly falls and is knocked unconscious. With Rashid’s fighters closing in, Emma conceals her mother and gives herself up.
Rashid tells Barry he will trade Emma for Molly. Barry, of course, refuses, but Molly decides on her own to go through with it. She goes to al-Qadi, asking him to relay a message to Rashid that she’s willing to make the exchange. Instead, al-Qadi reports her presence to Barry, further reinforcing his image as a genuinely good guy who is trying to stay on a very delicate tightrope–a deliberate decision by the producers, who wanted to show viewers that not all Muslim clerics are crazy. Once Molly is brought back to the palace, Cogswell and Barry’s new top general say they have a plan. They’ll set up an ambush, telling Rashid they will make the exchange, and when he is on his way to the rendezvous, they will trap him at a crowded intersection in a village and take him down with Abudinnian special forces troops, rescuing Emma in the process.
As I heard them discussing the plan, I knew Cogswell could not offer American troops, and that’s why the plan would fail. A team of Navy SEALs could’ve done the job; although success would certainly not be guaranteed, odds would definitely be better than sending in Barry’s own questionable troops. But that’s all he had, so in they went. With Barry and Molly watching in real time via Cogswell’s drone overhead, the ambush goes off like clockwork, at least at first. As the troops secured the site and started disarming Rashid and his fighters, I saw that they were making a critical mistake: none of the troops was paying any attention to the perimeter. All their attention was on the Caliphate vehicles in the middle as the takedown reached its climax. I yelled at the TV, “Watch your six!” That’s military lingo for your six o’clock position, which is behind you. I could not imagine a platoon of SEALs or Army Rangers or Delta Force troopers not having perimeter security. But these guys were minor leaguers and sure enough, fighters concealed amongst the townspeople attack and everything goes to hell. Knowing that Barry is watching from overhead, Rashid calls him on his cell phone and then stabs Emma to death.
I have to admit that the scene was powerful. I have a daughter and could only imagine the rage and horror felt by her parents. The next episode opens with the terrorists tossing Emma’s nude body on a garbage heap. The viewer by now is hoping that Barry will find a nuclear-tipped missile somewhere in Jamal’s old arsenal and use it to take care of these characters once and for all.
But of course that does not happen. What we do see is that an increasingly distraught Molly contemplates suicide and finally leaves Abuddin for a clinic in Germany, where she can get treatment for her sudden addiction to painkillers, not to mention her grief. Cogswell and Leila reignite their old passion, even as she plots to reignite her political prospects. And what about Ahmed, her son? This hapless clown had seen his wife lose their child to a miscarriage, reluctantly agreed to an annulment after she disclosed that she could no longer have children, then watched helplessly as she started getting close to none other than his newly-discovered half-brother, Rami. Nusrat was jailed after shooting Jamal, of course, and then was killed in her cell by operatives sent by Leila’s chief aide, covering it up to look like suicide. Ahmed then searched her belongings and discovered a diary in which she detailed the wedding-day assault at the hands of Jamal. Ahmed then goes to his father in the hospital and reveals what he knows, just before using a pillow to smother him to death. As if this wasn’t complicated enough, Leila tells Ahmed some astonishing news: Jamal wasn’t his father in the first place. It was, of course, Barry, who had a fling with Leila just before her wedding. She knows this because after trying for another child, she had both herself and Jamal tested, and found out that his sperm count was so low it would be almost impossible for him to sire a child. So how, then, could he be Rami’s father? Well, the late general’s mother must’ve slept with someone else in addition to Jamal.
With all this going on, Barry’s government is teetering. Al-Qadi is holding off the students, but that could change at any moment. Barry’s old friend Fauzi, who has forgiven Barry for killing his own daughter now that Barry has lost his, might be the next president, but he’s inexperienced and naïve, easy pickings for al-Qadi and his religious extremists. And just over the border is the Caliphate, with hundreds of new fighters courtesy of Barry’s attack on the camp that martyred all those children. Molly is gone. His daughter is dead, and his son, who had shown some stones at last when they were fighting together to liberate Ma’an, is spending his time romping with the prof. What’s an embattled husband/father/president to do? He calls Daliyah, of course, who comes to the palace late one night for another one of their talks. Only this one ends up in the bedroom.
That was it for me. It was the end of the fifth episode, with five more to go in the season. I had watched the first season as the episodes aired, recorded the second but then deleted it, and finally started watching it again on Hulu during my recent hospitalization for knee replacement surgery. I had not been aware that the series’ fate had already been decided by then.
The show’s ratings had been good initially but started sliding midway through Season 1. They didn’t get any better with Season 2, and by the middle of the third season it was evident the show was in trouble. The only question by then seemed to be whether they would wrap it all up at the end of the season and call it a day, or would they hang on with another cliff-hanger and hope FX would commit to a fourth go-round? FX brass said they kept the producers updated on the ratings weekly, so they could write their scripts accordingly, but the brass didn’t pull the plug until the day the season’s final episode aired, September 7th. There has been talk the show will be resurrected by a streaming service like Hulu or Netflix, but as of this date, nothing has happened. It’s still a possibility, but every day that goes by without a firm commitment makes Barry’s return more unlikely.
So what happened in those final five episodes? What I do know is that there wasn’t a resolution. One would think the writers, had they decided to wrap it up then, would’ve had three choices. First, Barry somehow pulls a rabbit out of his hat, saves Abuddin from disaster and turns the keys to the palace over to a duly-elected president, allowing him to fly back to California with the huzzahs of a grateful people. Second, he tries but fails and manages to leave the country, perhaps with his marriage intact and his wayward son in tow. Or third, the country continues its descent into anarchy and Barry goes down with the ship of state. If the show wanted to reflect real life, the third option would be the most likely. But I wanted Barry to be a hero, so I had always been pulling for the first ending.
All heroes have flaws. They’re only human, after all, and therefore imperfect. Hey, we’ve just elected a president whose own personal flaws are far more egregious than any displayed by Bassam Al-Fayeed, that’s for sure. So why did it matter to me that Barry cheated on his wife?
Because it was the last straw. All of the redeeming characters in the show had either died or been broken. Barry was under a lot of pressure, sure, but a married man shouldn’t allow another woman into his bed no matter what kind of pressure he’s under. Go chop some wood, hit the heavy bag in the gym, get drunk and cry in your beer, but for God’s sake, man, retain at least some shred of dignity. How can you lead an entire nation if you can’t even control yourself? It was a lesson his brother Jamal found out the hard way. We had hope for Barry, but he failed us.
Maybe I’ll fire up those last five episodes and watch them, but maybe not. There have to be other shows more worth my time, where heroes might fail, but they don’t cheat.