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E-ring

Cast: Benjamin Bratt, Dennis Hopper, Aunjanue Ellis, Kelly Rutherford, Sarah Clarke
Regular airtime: Wednesdays, 9pm ET

(NBC)

Review [21.Sep.2005]

In the Dark

Never, never, never, never letting go.
Never giving up, never saying no.
Just go, go, I never stop.
I never think
To do, do, do the right thing.
—Tom Tykwer and Franke Potente, “Running Two”


Put yourself in the terrorists’ shoes. You’ve got a batch of plague in Amsterdam. What do you do?
JT (Benjamin Bratt) “Breath of Allah”


This week’s E-Ring begins with a raid. Bobby (Kerr Smith) and his team bang through a bordello door to capture some bad guys and find a fire in the bathroom—the evidence and one of the targeted terror cellmates aflame. He’s tried to burn their intel, and in the process set him self on fire. Alas, with him goes any chance of interrogation. His last words, hissed at Bobby, who has wrapped him in a shower curtain to try to save him, are “Breath of Allah!”


This could be bad. As soon as the Pentagon’s Special Operations, Colonel Eli McNulty (Dennis Hopper) hears it, he grimaces and lets loose one of his patented da-dum-dum pronouncements: “When these knuckleheads bring Allah into the picture, body bags are sure to follow.” (According to the show, he has all rights to be narrow-minded and hardheaded, as he spent four and half years in a Vietnamese prison camp, during which time his wife remarried). As he has since the series’ start, Hopper plays McNulty with all kinds of pro-military gusto, though he’s perpetually pissed off at the administration, because civilians tend to miss points and tactics.


Though Hopper’s performance is always over the top (he can’t help himself), McNulty’s attitude appears to be the one most generally embraced by the show. Though some long-titled civilians have come under McNulty’s sway, including Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Ops Steve Algazi (Joe Morton), for the most part and Deputy General Council for the Department of Defense Sonny Liston (Kelly Rutherford), they’re the exceptions. The show is typically structured around the Pentagon crew’s development of clever means to get around red tape and bad ideas.


This episode follows suit. McNulty and best boy Major Jim Tisnewski (Benjamin Bratt), Special Forces veteran back from 14 months in Afghanistan and now bumped up to desk duty take up positions to monitor the recovery of data from the opening raid (a forensics team, we learn in voiceover/montage, is capable of “rais[ing] documents from the dead,” that is, putting together damaged papers to locate the Bubonic plague attack planned by the cell.


E-Ring tends to get stuck between the action scenes (where Bobby is usually in play) and JT back at the office, looking strained as he surveys the violence and running around his team endures. This makes JT a little tetchy on occasion, and, given that the show cooks up a global crisis every week, he has plenty of opportunity to fret and clench his jaw. This week’s immediate target is the now-recurring forensics guy, Javed (Ankur Bhatt), who brings some attitude of his own (“This is very meticulous work, it can’t be rushed”). JT is sneery, pushing Javed to speed up his work with the completely unhelpful observation, “Let me guess, you eat your steak well done.” Javed responds with appropriate frustration, “I don’t eat meat.” And JT, finally, has to back off.


This is the sort of thing that makes E-Ring bearable. For all its rah-rah-ing, it complicates its characters and situations just enough to make you wonder if it quite believes its own propaganda. As the team this time follows the terrorists’ trail, they discover a couple of brothers working on the attack “Bioweapons,” mutters McNulty, “is a family business”). One, Mustaffeh (Anil Kumar), is working a London Underground angle, and described by JT as a “British citizen, second generation rich kid with an Eaton education who got radicalized and signed up for finishing school in one of Bin Laden’s training camps.” Bobby, on the phone from his MI-6 contact’s flat in London, agrees the suspect is a “piece of work.” Oh but he hasn’t heard the least of it.


As JT sees it, this terrorist is a product of yet another civilian screw-up: “Special Forces rounded him up and took him down with the Taliban. He was a distinguished guest at Guantánamo for less than a year and then got released.” This would be the fault of what Algazi calls “the critics,” who needed to be appeased, not understanding how important it is to keep everyone locked up locked for good. Right, adds Sonny, that pesky “Supreme Court says you can’t hold these guys forever without some sort of due process.” Damn that due process.


And damn those jihadis, who, JT notes, keep making big trouble just when he’s thinking that the time might at last be right to date Sonny. This even though they take a moment to explain the situation to one another: he’s not really dating right now, as he’s technically still in mourning for his CIA operative girlfriend Angie (Kelsey Oldershaw), killed off earlier this season in order to free him up for the flirting he’s been doing with Sonny since day one. While intragroup dating probably makes sense, it’s also doomed (doesn’t JT watch 24?). While such efforts to mix romance with saving-the-planet is of a piece with the other masculine melodramas comprising current terrorism tv, it’s also predictable. Isn’t there a more creative way to frame terrorism as “appealing” to girl viewers?


“The Breath of Allah,” this vaporized plague, leads our heroes into something of a morass, legally speaking (“It’s not illegal,” they agree, “it’s extralegal. It’ll never stand up in court”). The scheme—which ends up concerning the release of the plague into the London Underground and DC Metro—pushes all kinds of scary buttons. The folks at the Pentagon don’t want to alarm the public, as this would only cause panic that would impede their work (Algazi says, “We have a responsibility to protect the public and for now that means keeping them in the dark”), while the civilians want to raise the threat level to “red” and see what happens. Lucky for everyone the NSA has been tapping phones, gaining crucial info no one knew would be necessary until after they discovered the identities of the villains.


The takedown involves some action heroics on JT’s part, something he doesn’t always get to do, plus some fast-tracking dance music, borrowed from Run Lola Run. “Never never never letting go,” thrums the soundtrack as JT beats on the terrorist and risks his own life. “Never giving up.” While this seems an appropriate mantra for JT, it also describes the desperate, angry, persistent ethos of the terrorists. Much as it heroicizes the obvious good guys, E-Ring is regularly caught up in their similarity to the bad guys.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


Related Articles
20 Sep 2005
No one else could make this dialogue sound like poetry quite like Dennis Hopper, so misfitted for his role as a Pentagon Colonel that he seems perversely perfect.
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