Feeling sorry for ourselves ain’t gonna make the donuts.
— Jonas Blane (Dennis Haysbert)
The Unit functions on faith. In particular, faith that the U.S. government that funds, needs, and deploys it won’t decide at some point that it needs to kill the Unit instead. For the second season finale, “Paradise Lost,” as the fate of the show hangs in some limbo, the series takes up the pertinent question — will such faith be repaid or punished?
As indicated nearly every week on The Unit, such punishment turns on what the Unit members have always known it would: Sergeant Major Jonas Blane (Dennis Haysbert) and his team are investigated for “criminal activities,” the specific time, location, and nature of which remain unknown. Because their super-covert missions are never official, because these missions are apparently assigned without paper trails, and because that government is by definition looking to cover its ass concerning culpability and cost, the Unit must face the risk it has carried from jump.
The risk is not surprising, certainly not to the Unit members, who have long been aware that their good times — their incessant mayhem-making and head-knocking — only continue “at the pleasure” of an administration that feels desperate enough to support and field what are essentially illegal activities. As the men travel all over the world in order to kidnap, assassinate, and incite regime changes, they are expected to keep their mouths shut. Their existence — as the Unit and as men — is precarious, ordained and not ordained by the army and the CIA, neither of whom want to own what the Unit does. Back home at Fort Griffith, their wives know vaguely that their men’s activities are sketchy, but also vital to national security and the ongoing U.S. war effort. For now, as the Unit members all believe, the nation is at war and must take extreme measures in order to win. Whatever “winning” can mean.
Tonight’s finale starts in mid-mission, a mission without a context but with plenty of shooting and shouting and seeming danger. Penetrating a warehouse, the guys take as prisoner a double agent — never a good thing to be, of course, but also what the Unit members pretend to be each week, as they go undercover to fool some dictator or gun-runner or other sort of scalawag to trust in them so that they might expose, capture, or otherwise take him out. This evening’s early takedown involves a fellow who protests that the CIA will kill him once they get their hands on him. Bob (Scott Foley) blows off his fear — “Pleasures of a double agent” — then stabs him in the shoulder with a mind-clearing injection, before they hustle the body into a Peugeot and speed off, all screechy tires and excitement.
At around the same time, Jonas’ steadfast wife Molly (Regina Taylor) is accosted in her driveway by a man who identifies himself as CIA. He acts as if he’s respectful, but he means to alarm her. She’s neither easily alarmed nor prone to panic at the suggestion that her husband has done something wrong “What do you know about prison?” he asks, “Leavenworth?” intimating that this is where Jonas is headed). Cut to Kim (Audrey Marie Anderson), Bob’s young wife who frequently talks a good moral line, fiercely protects her two children, loves her soldier man with a sexed up passion. She also worries that the job undermines her family’s “safety,” a worry made concrete when she is also waylaid in a shopping mall parking lot by another agent, Katz, menacing her little girl like a child molester.
The men face their own version of this music when Colonel Tom Ryan (Robert Patrick) greets them on their return from the warehouse shootout. He apprises them they are under investigation by CID and not allowed to speak to one another during the investigation. “This entire organization is on stand-down,” he barks, “Pending an Article 32 investigation for massive criminal action and war crimes by this command.” He acts all surprised and horrified during this diatribe, as he’s under the watchful eye of CIA stooges: “This team, you five men, by your actions, may have destroyed a unit 30 years in the making.”
In fact, all the responses in these “you are hereby informed” scenes are predictable: Molly is insulted by the government’s thuggery and hypocrisy, Kim goes home to fret out loud, and the men initiate their contingency plans and secret meetings with one another, though they’re expressly instructed not to do so. The secretest of secret operations, they never follow rules.
At this point, The Unit slips into its favored mode, whereby all the performances turn meta and you’re left to wonder who believes what. When Molly acts surprised that Jonas hands her a gun, when Tom argues with his wife Charlotte (Rebecca Pigeon) concerning what’s most important, his men or their marriage, and when Grey (Michael Irby) disappears en route to a meeting with the guys, it’s hard to tell who’s acting a part and who’s earnestly worried or even panicked. It does look as though the fight between the long-troubled husband and wife team Mack (Max Martini) and Tiffy (Abby Brammel) is for real, especially when she threatens him with a gun. Then again, as they all know the big, bad, untrustworthy government is watching their every move, it’s possible they’re all putting on a show, feigning a series of interpersonal meltdowns according to a fabulously intricate plan they’ve worked out years ago.
And it’s that possibility that always makes the show go. David Mamet and Shawn Ryan’s show has always spun more plots per episode than the usual spy and war series, with nuances in language, conduct, and expectation exceeding the 60-minute limit, permeating a season’s arc. The men’s commitment to the Unit — that is, to one another — supersedes all allegiance to ideal, mission, or nation. This commitment is total (as Jonas is fond of saying, “Once in, never out”), but it’s never about their employers. In this way, the series underscores how the military works, ideologically, morally, and emotionally, how forces can remain dedicated even when they question commanders or commands.
Such loyalty extends beyond the men, and you can see the thrill afforded to Molly when Jonas dresses down her accoster: “I only answer to two things fool, that’s my conscience and the army,” he says, then threatens the agent with bodily harm while she barely smiles in the front doorway. Explaining his new status to Molly, Jonas says, “When the torturer comes, the last thing in the world you want to be is innocent, ’cause you’ve got nothing to confess. And know, baby, anything they accuse us of beyond what we had to do or what we were charged to do, we did not do.” Lies and more lies: the Unit’s faith hinges on lies only they can parse. “A good soldier,” he asserts, “always has a Plan B, because today is that rainy day.”
It’s not news that the CIA is self-interested and puts broadly and narrowly missions ahead of its own expendable employees and members of the U.S. military. That the CIA now stands in for an antagonistic (or undecided) network is also not precisely a new gambit (Homicide: Life on the Streets ran a similar metaphor back when its own life was at risk on NBC). What The Unit does differently is not include you in the parameters of the performance. You have to figure yourself who’s lying to whom and when it matters.
The point of departure is clear enough when the men pause to consider which of their past missions is the nominal cause of the investigation (Mack: “What the hell is this all about anyway? Iran? Missing diamonds? That mission in Honduras?”), but they all know the cause is trumped up. Each man is punished separately: Mack and Hector (Demore Barnes) are incarcerated, Ryan is relieved of his command, arrested, and outright ridiculed when he insists to his superior officers, “This unit is the principal weapon in the terror fight, a unit that took years to prepare, train, and field. If you wanna bench me if you like but if you take those men out of the field, you will be a victory to our enemies.”
The question is, who are “our enemies.” You know this much when the CIA brings in its own magic man Agent Kern (played by most excellent Mamet regular Ricky Jay). Instructing yet another performer as to his newest mission, Kern says simply, “Find the man.” It’s a consummate Mamet line, and a consummate Mamet moment. You can’t tell who’s playing whom. And that’s what makes the scene completely convincing.