Darwyn is a very complex character who has literally the weight of the world on his shoulders.
— Michael Ealy, “The Enemy is Here”
I’m putting together a team of holy warriors, believers who are ready to strike without warning, without pity.
— Farik (Oded Fehr), “Al-Fatiha”
I think my boyfriend is a terrorist.
— Gayle (Melissa Sagemiller), “Immigrant”
Currently re-airing Tuesday nights, Sleeper Cell drew attention during its first run in December 2005 for its depiction of a cell of “extreme Muslims” in Los Angeles. For one thing, none of the members is precisely a stereotypical terrorist (they include white boys and a dazzlingly handsome undercover FBI agent, Darwyn al-Sayeed [Michael Ealy]). For another, they develop something like personalities and backgrounds, such that they aren’t “evildoers” so much as they’re mixed up, angry, often sympathetic young men in search of reasons for living — and, as it turns out, dying.
The series asserts its “authenticity” repeatedly in its promotional materials, as if its story is so stunning that viewers must be convinced it’s not farfetched. (These would be viewers who have experienced some version of 9/11, whether up close or via television.) Showtime, promises the making-of promo now available on the website, is “working with joint terrorism task force veterans, FBI consultants, police technical experts, and Arabic and Islamic cultural advisors” to achieve… what is not entirely clear. Sleeper Cell is compelling television primarily for its excellent performances and chilling premises, rather than its plots. Alarming as these may be, they are rendered here with predictable rising and falling action, a bit of romance, and some tidily resolved conflicts.
Still, Sleeper Cell has more than its share of smart, affecting moments, having to do with the conflicts it establishes between the achingly earnest Darwyn and his many loyalties. The first, of course, is to the FBI, here embodied by his boss Ray Fuller (James LeGros), who listens attentively to Darwyn’s concerns rather than insisting that he do things in some by-the-book way. The second is to a girl he meets, vivacious, cigarette-smoking single mom Gayle (Melissa Sagemiller), whose affection is clearly not what he needs to be negotiating when he’s in deep cover as a Muslim in a hardcore cell (his cell mates tend to think he’s sinning with this adulterous affair, and besides, he’s got a serious focus he’s supposed to be keeping). The third and most important is to his faith, which Dar asserts is distorted by the extremist believers (“These guys,” he says solemnly, “have nothing to do with my faith”).
“These guys” include blond, pink-cheeked Tommy (Blake Shields), resentful of his privileged upbringing by U.S. academics, intent on rehearsing his suicide tape, to get its target audience exactly right; Bosnian soldier (and closet rapper) Ilija (Henri Lubatti), resentful that the U.S. abandoned his countrymen “I loved America, man, but you never came”); and French-born, perpetually fronting, womanizing Christian (Alex Nesic), just plain resentful. As the cell prepares for Youmud Din (“Judgment Day”), they engage in all sorts of brutal behaviors, even as they reveal their emotional and intellectual vulnerabilities. The contest of wills between cell leader Farik (the great Oded Fehr) and Dar might be understood as the series’ “spiritual” fulcrum, not just in the sense of their competing philosophies and understandings of Islam, but also their dedication to causes, their parallel senses of righteousness, their determinations to outwit enemies. They both mean to win, even when the costs are too great to bear.
They are alike as well in their efforts to protect people they love (Farik endures a surprise complication late in the series), but Dar’s struggle is the show’s focus. He’s torn in several directions from frame one, as his mission has him posing as a Muslim ex-con in order to infiltrate the cell (where better to find disgruntled souls than U.S. prisons). Winning Farik’s tentative confidence, Dar keeps Ray apprised of all activities (and there are lots — every time money dries up or a scheme falls through, Farik has something else cooking within hours), even as he explains to briefly supporting characters (that is, to you), differences between Arabs and Sikhs, or the traditions behind vegetarianism.
The opening credits sequence may be the series’ most extraordinary two minutes every week, offering provocative combinations of images and ideas: shots of a Middle East map, an oil well, and L.A.’s nighttime skyline give way to a white boy playing with a model plane and a fighter jet taking off from an aircraft carrier. Children and parents, kids an U.S. flags, baseball, Disney cartoons, bombed out village, white folks on perfect California beaches, warships, Hollywood, one of the Towers just hit by the plane and smoking, and finally, Darwyn’s FBI identification card, as this both sets and conceals whoever he might “be.” The sequence is a jumble and also concise — contrasting a dream of the America and the effects of that dream elsewhere, the ignorance and callousness allowed by privilege, as well as the devastation in places where such ignorance is not possible.
As Darwyn works all sides all the time, he has no such privilege, and his work and vigilance lead repeatedly to dilemmas, bad choices no matter which way he turns. Each episode features a discrete “wrench” in the terrorists’ plans, for instance, the likable family man Bobby (Grant Heslov), who blabs about the cell and so must suffer unbearable consequences (this in the first episode, “Al-Fatiha,” in which Dar proves himself capable of terrible mercy, self-preservation, and violence in one instant). In “Scholar,” a Canadian biochemical student eagerly agrees to drive a truck loaded with anthrax across the border (again, Darwyn must intercede without blowing his cover), and in “Immigrant,” an awesomely young kid who arrives fresh and furious from Guantánamo (with experience fighting in Afghanistan), looking to help the cause. And yes, Gayle presses Dar repeatedly, even as she asks herself why she’s sleeping with an ex-con who refuses to tell her much of anything about himself or his strange disappearances for days.
While some of these plot torques seem standard, Sleeper Cell also manages some curveballs, including the introduction of Tommy’s mother, Lynn (the always welcome and always excellent Ally Walker) a Berkeley professor of medieval history whose “free thinking” has left him feeling abandoned and frustrated. Or Dar’s second commander, Patrice (Sonya Walger), tough and supportive in unexpected ways, though she does have to engage in the usual turf-fighting with the boys of the LAPD (cop: “Fuck her,” says the cocky cop after she leaves the room. “Like we’re not part of the nation… I’m a major in Reserve Army Intelligence”), and meet her undercover in a porn store’s greenish back room (yes, fighting terrorism is dirty work).
As you might expect, the series makes a couple of points about torture, a tactic used by the bad guys here (mainly because the good guys have no access to the bad guys except in secret and deception). Early on Dar shows himself to be willing to kill, but not torture, surely an interesting line to draw, given the debates over the uses and effects of torture. But towards series’ end, he finds himself the object of extreme abuse, his fellow cell mates watching in something like horror as he’s questioned concerning what appears a leak of information. That Dar holds up, stoic and shaken and visibly pained, marks his strength of character and commitment to his mission (for you), and his fealty to his cell (to the other members). That his torturer praises his “ability to remain calm under pressure” and uses it as a lesson for the others (“Something we will all need in the next few days”) only underscores the similar values of “both” sides. Dar is calm, he is pressured, and moral in a complex way, devoted to his mission and to Gayle’s young son even after they break up. He’s also a killer, cold and hard. That makes him ideal, for all sides.