I’m a fucking nervous wreck. Any minute, I’m thinking, any minute the CIA’s gonna come in, the Federales, the FBI. Put a bag on my head take me to a secret jail in jackoffistan, where they sic a dog on my naked ass.
–Ziad (Mike Batayeh), “Al-Baqara”
Americans hate this shit. It’s not who we are. But to tell you the truth, I don’t care. Because you took off the fucking gloves. I do things I fucking hate myself for and I blame you for that. All of you.
–Bob (Chris Mulkey), “Torture”
“My heart has been taken away from me.” Samia (Susan Pari) believes her husband is dead, killed in an explosion in Saudi Arabia. When she learns that Farik (Oded Fehr) is indeed alive, she’s both elated and shocked. What she can’t know is that the man bearing her good news, Darwyn (Michael Ealy), is using her to get to Farik, so that he can, at last, kill him.
In its second season, Sleeper Cell revisits its primary conflict, between sensitive FBI agent Darwyn and stanch jihadist Farik. Both Muslims, each believes that his understanding of his faith is absolute, that his moral compass is correct. They differ, however, in their understanding of revenge. Or so they think.
Embodying the complications of both sides, the characters are also caught up in a plot that repeats much of last season’s dynamic and format, as well as its basic questions. Even as it reverses some situations — the usually aggressive Farik is tortured, the usually self-controlled Darwyn can’t contain his own rage — the season revisits some fundamental concerns: how does revenge fuel cultures, as systems of passing on stories, identity, and community? Is it possible, following grievous wrong, not to need, seek, and exact revenge?
The season’s first episode, “Al-Baqara” (which premiered 10 December) sets up, briefly and conventionally, what Darwyn has to lose. Having survived last season’s effort by the Los Angeles sleeper cell to destroy Dodger Stadium, he has devoted himself to his civilian girlfriend Gayle (Melissa Sagemiller) and her son Marcus (Jake Soldera), their idyllic existence sketched in an opening scene on the San Diego beach. Their vacating days are numbered, however. Though Darwyn mentions here the offer he’s had to teach counterterrorism techniques at Quantico, as soon as Gayle enthuses about this “normal job, with regular hours, boring, safe,” Darwyn’s ever-sad face fills the frame. Gayle’s hope that they can “start out fresh” gives way to Darwyn’s next field assignment, checking up on a new cell that appears to be forming in Southern California.
As before, everyone has eyes on everyone in Sleeper Cell. The surveillance gizmos are at once ubiquitous and faulty, so that information Informed that an old acquaintance, Benny Valesquez(Kevin Alejandro), a former gang member and prison convert to Islam, is visiting a particular mosque, Darwyn and his FBI contacts know that something’s up. He goes in, immersing himself in yet another cell, plotting another attack, and featuring another motley crew of Muslim terrorist types, including Khalid (Aasif Mandvi), earnest Dutch widow Mina, (Thekla Reuten) and Salim (Omid Abtahi), an Iraqi engineer raised in Britain, who not only resents his father’s efforts to arrange a marriage with a nice Muslim girl, but also, rather dramatically, hates his own homosexuality.
Again, Darwyn must suss out the cell’s means and targets, although this time, he’s not only immersed in the group’s workings, but asked to take over as leader when the first is unable to continue. And again, he must juggle his feelings for Gayle, who now knows he’s an FBI undercover agent and still wants him to spend the Fourth of July with her and Marcus, and his commitment to his mission (which rather precludes his spending quality family time and in fact quite endangers that family).
With the threat to Darwyn’s personal domestic space thus trumped up, Sleep Cell goes on to double-underscore such drama with the introduction of Darwyn’s new FBI handler, Warren Russell (Jay R. Ferguson), whose vexing greenness is exacerbated by his apparent desire to feel smarter than everyone around him (and beat the “curse” associated with being Darwyn’s case worker, given that, at the end of “Al-Baqara,” his second handler, the seemingly very competent Special Agent Patrice Serxner (Sonya Walger), is assassinated on an internet video. Darwyn’s upset at this turn of events leads him directly into trouble.
Compared to Serxner, who worked Darwyn with mixture of skepticism and utter trust, Russell is something of a Neanderthal. He insists that Darwyn meet him at a strip club (which means the devout Muslim — who is, after all — sleeping with his single mom girlfriend — is repeatedly turning his face away from background pole dancers) and tends to guess wrong on all manner of clues, courses of action, and character issues. Russell’s loutishness makes him an obvious foil for Darwyn, whose anguish tends to be quiet and deep, buried under layers of clever rusing.
This season reveals some background for that anguish, in the form of Darwyn’s father (Charles S. Dutton, who also directs a couple of episodes), a former Black Panther and bowtie-wearing Nation of Islam member. Disappointed that his son is working for the government he sees as abjectly corrupt, dad engages him in a couple of conversations to underline their different attitudes. A mention of the war leads dad to pronounce that “Iraq is just Arabic for Vietnam.”
Still, Darwyn’s most difficult father-son relationship remains the one he developed with Farik during the previous season. This year, they’re literally on different continents, as Farik, captured last year following the botched L.A. mission, resists his interrogators with a particular ferocity. Likening his resistance to the “rock of Gibraltar,” one interrogator, Bob (Chris Mulkey), tries to ply him with their similarities. In one of the season’s more colorful speeches, Bob describes his childhood as the son of a bible-thumping fundamentalist, and his experience as a nine-year-old (following a near-death experience). Because he had seen no angels or white light during his 21 minutes of technical “death,” Bob concludes he “cracked the organized religion code, realized it was just a mind game, the greatest story ever told, a fucking hustle.” Farik, water-boarded, exhausted, and beaten bloody, looks like he’s heard this before. “Face it, my friend,” sneers Bob:
There’s no paradise waiting for you, no virgins waiting to suck you off for all eternity. Which means that everything you’ve done, all the pain that you inflicted, all the suffering that you’ve gone through and all the pain that you’re gonna put yourself through from here on out, it’s for nothing.
Whether or not Bob is lying about his personal story, he raises a question both familiar and subtle. If paradise is a matter of faith and pain — the just reward for a good life or death — it is also a matter of revenge (and more pain). When Bob drags Farik off to Saudi Arabia where he might be abused more efficiently — Bob demands “intel” as an Arabic torturer employs an assortment of implements — the terms are hardly changed, only exacerbated. While the show’s indictment of such tactics isn’t news (see also, Alias, 24, and Battlestar Galactica for similar images), Sleeper Cell does make abundantly clear that torture does not achieve its stated aims. Farik — admittedly, a super-villain — not only holds his own, but he finds ways to abuse his abusers, without any pretense to seeking intel. Here torture is its own end for viewers, and a means to revenge for characters.
As Darwyn and Farik cat-and-mouse their way to an inevitable showdown, their stakes turn sensationally and reductively personal. While Darwyn and his blood father can barely look at one another, Darwyn and Farik share a deep desire for probing one another’s psyches. Each man believes he understands the other, and each believes he’s more right than the other can possibly be. And that is exactly where he’s wrong.