History of the World
I figure you’re gonna come back as a hero, or as a real good anecdote.
—Sergeant Major Jonas Blane (Dennis Haysbert), “First Responders”
Well, to the bad guys it’s chaos, but to us it’s a precision assault by perfect shooters.
—Colonel Tom Ryan (Robert Patrick), “200th Hour”
It’s a show about the Army’s clandestine counter-terrorist unit, called The Unit and created by David Mamet. What more do you need to know?
As you expect, the men are fierce. Army Special Forces Sergeant Major Jonas Blane (Dennis Haysbert) leads his coterie of highly trained, terrifically dedicated, painfully earnest warriors with admirable stoicism and affection. Delta Force’s missions cover a full range of excruciating tests of manhood. In the three episodes provided for review, they stop arms dealers in Afghanistan, rescue hijack hostages in Idaho, rescue missionaries “building churches where they’re not appreciated” (namely, Indonesia), and endure a hellish G.I. Jane-like POW drill, where “softening” strategies include sleep deprivation, making fun of genitals, and repeated blows to the kidneys.
These assorted adventures reveal the men’s profound tolerance for pain, precision targeting, and limited emotional ranges, demonstrating at all times their worthy manly-manliness. Passing through states that resemble tough and vulnerable, remorseful and unrelenting, they pursue their assignments with the sort of intensity and barely contained hysteria typically displayed by Jack Bauer. Only there are more of them.
And they have wives. Holding down the proverbial home front at “Fort Griffith, U.S. Army Base,” the women comprise half the series’ action, most often separate from the men’s adventures, usually linked thematically (in this, the series resembles the Iraq war drama, Over There). As per usual Mamet, the wives are as ostensibly typed as the men (with nuances revealed inside the taut dialogue): revered team leader Jonas is married to stoic and knowing Molly (Regina Taylor). Slightly younger-and-rowdier second in command Mack (Max Martini) has a harder time with Tiffy (Abby Brammell): he acts out his anxieties by hitting her and she displaces her resentment onto sleeping with the base colonel, surly-but-upright Tom Ryan (perfectly cast Robert Patrick).
As reps for the Family Readiness Unit, Molly and Tiffy spend much of the first episode, “First Responders,” assuaging the resistance of new guy Bob Brown’s (Scott Foley) wife, Kim (Audrey Marie Anderson). She arrives on base imagining she’ll have an independent existence. Her initial and then intermittent resistance provides a point of viewer identification and, not surprisingly, a repeated point of crisis. “I’m free to live off base if I choose,” she contends, citing “Army regulations.” Oh dear, how she misunderstands. Molly smiles as if to soothe her, even as she sets her straight: “You’re not in the Army, you’re in the unit.” Molly’s Stepfordish eeriness extends to her seeming seer-like knowledge of all things: when, in the first episode, a white-coated doctor informs Kim that she’s pregnant, Molly stands serenely in the office corner, as if she knew all along, nearly cooing: “How about that?”
Assuring Kim that in time she’ll accept the not-knowing and the waiting as her perpetual lot in life, Molly says, “We’re your family,” then explains why. Even as Kim metaphorically stamps her foot and threatens to load up her child and head off to her sister’s, Molly suggests that her husband will then resent her for ruining his career. The wives must accommodate their men’s ambitions and those of the Unit (the Government, the Military). “This is not your own personal circumstance,” Molly instructs, “It is the history of the world.”
Such performative self-significance is standard Mamet, as Molly speaks truth tinged with indoctrination. Yes it has been ever thus. The Unit is part of an excessive, real-politicky, masculine imperialism that occasionally stumbles over itself even as it presumes to re-order the world. Though Kim has ostensible “options”—she can support her man or she can not—they only underline the always-alreadyness of her eventual choice. She’s bound to be immersed, to be a patriot, to do the right thing as dictated by someone else.
As Kim comes to realize that, in fact, she can’t afford off base “real estate” (coincidentally, Molly’s avocation), she also comes to see that her experience is ominously pre-mapped. While the arrangement sets up for all sorts of clichés, the series complicates expectations, representing emotional costs for shooting-people-for-a-living, revealing their damage, and—no small ting—providing the sorts of visual pleasures usually available in movies. It’s terrorism as melodrama, not quite the urgent, perpetually growly melodrama delivered by 24, but instead, a disturbing loss of ethical lines organized as spectacular boy-bonding. In this, the Unit (or The Unit) is more symptomatic than visionary.
Inspired by Inside Delta Force: The Story of America’s Elite Counter-terrorist Unit, the 2002 memoir by technical adviser retired Command Sergeant Major Eric L. Haney, the series adopts a suitably fragmented narrative style, cutting between the wives back on base and the men on the job, a conventional gender split that lays out one of the problems in an ongoing “war culture,” where terrorism and anti-terrorism occupy similar space in the popular imagination. It’s not precisely men’s only space, but it is a space premised on their self-understandings. Sort of.
In “First Responders,” the unit is called on to stop a team of “Middle Eastern” hostiles who’ve taken a plane full of trade delegates, still on the ground in Wyndam, Idaho. Jonas happens to be on a training mission with new recruit Bob Brown (Scott Foley) some 30 minutes away, and so they deploy first (the crisis first relayed to them via a television news report, logoed “Terror in Wyndam”). Jonas and newbie arrive on the scene prepared to take over all law enforcement and military proceedings, annoying the predictably turf-concerned federal agents (as Jonas explains his relationship to the FBI agent with whom he briefly tussles, “We take down the plane, he takes credit. We get everyone killed, he told us so”). The mission is successful, no surprise, with Jonas revealing he is a most excellent shot in the process, heading home to Molly, who embraces his pain. “How was work?” she asks, as he looks grim in meaningful close-up.
Upcoming episodes exacerbate the necessary distinction and blur between lives. In “200th Hour,” Jonas takes a page from Val Kilmer’s trauma-as-a-way-of-life in Mamet’s sharp, underseen Spartan. He does what he’s told, which is, to rescue a politician’s daughter who’s gone off to Indonesia with her idealistic missionary friends, upsetting the sweaty local rebels and inciting a potential international incident (civilians: they never get it). While he engages in witty, bleak banter with a local everything dealer (the superb Tza Mi), his men take on their own imperfections, drilling and drilling, and Tom works to persuade a Senator they need to be funded, you know, to save the planet. “This unit doesn’t do party tricks,” he insists, as she watches some drilling from behind a two-way mirror—the ammunition is live, he means, though the drill does come off like a “trick.” And this would be the point: the show’s a trick, the Unit is a trick, and the stakes are survival and belief.
In a later episode, “SERE,” the subject is torture (can’t do a terrorism show without some torture), here inflicted on the Unit’s members, during still another drill. They are brutally tortured, an episode-long assault instigated and observed by a wholly pathological white woman commander, who keeps saying it’s for their own good, Demi-Moore-like training for the chance they are captured by “enemies.” And they strive to “keep the faith,” among themselves, that is, not break or sign a confession; at the same time, Kim struggles with her own sense of “faith,” rejecting Molly’s efforts to bring her into the wives’ faithy fold. The torture is horrific, Kin’s deliberations are tearful, and faith is maintained. In the Unit, you can’t afford to question the world order, you can only make it work. And that’s exactly the problem.