ABC’S NEW SERIES QUANTICO takes a stand immediately in the first few seconds.
A young woman lays unconscious in the rubble of a terrorist attack. Her skin and her bracelet mark her as foreign; her leather jacket marks her as American. This is the beautiful Priyanka Chopra in her starring role as “Alex Parrish”, a new FBI recruit.
It’s a striking image, with bold politics. The episode rolls downhill after that, unfortunately. Trying to be fast paced like How to Get Away with Murder, it instead ends up jumping hyperactively from one theme to another, and leaves us with an overcrowded muddle of tropes and politics. But this opening image – and the brilliant characters – hold a lot of promise for the show.
FIRST, THE CHARACTERS
Let’s get real here: Priyanka Chopra is one of the best and most popular actresses in India. She’s an A-list celebrity. To have her on the small screen, in a dinky TV pilot? They’re very lucky to have her. (Imagine if Scarlett Johansson had taken this role.)
She’s a treat to watch. She fills out all the dimensions of our protagonist, Alex Parrish: confident and cocky, scared and overwhelmed, soft and sharp. Alex hits all the Action Hero tropes – not the Action Girl! – and plays them straight, from the dead father to the sexual conquests.
But she subverts these tropes purely by being female and Indian. By being a foreign body within an all-American role, she makes a bold stand: the role of a hero is open to everybody. These tropes do not belong solely to straight white men.
In that same vein, meet Nimah Amin (Yasmine Al Massri), who calls out Islamophobia in her first ten seconds.
She just wants to use the restroom. And the guy behind the counter sees her as foreign. She pays 99 cents for the privilege of using their dirty, gross restroom – and waving that flag in his face.
She too joins the FBI, and swears an oath to defend the United States of America – and so she too makes a statement, simply by existing. She says, Muslim Americans are still Americans. (This is still a controversial statement. Remember the conservative slander against President Obama.) All sorts of people who look “foreign” are still Americans, and the role of American Hero should be open to them.
SECOND, THE POLITICS
But at the same time, they opened the show with a freaking terrorist attack. And Nimah is one of the many people who might have done it. And arguably, she’s written from the white gaze – reserved, mysterious, deceptive, and so far, untrustworthy.And this is how the show undercuts its own politics.
Nimah is a volatile character, who could be written in many directions. Will the narrative allow racist viewers to see her as less than human? Will it allow them to comfortably continue to hold their racist views? Or will it challenge them? It could go any which way. I just really hope she doesn’t violate the oath she took. I really, really hope her character proves to be trustworthy.
If you think I’m overstating the politics – I’m not. The episode name-drops 9/11 five times. It calls out feminism explicitly, multiple times. (“Gender neutral uniforms, a win for equality? I’m conflicted.”) It name-drops Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, “American Sniper”, Islam, Zionism, Mormon culture, and white savior missionary culture.
(The characters themselves fill out a neat grid: White Secular Liberal, White Secular Conservative; White Religious Liberal, White Religious Conservative; Brown Secular, Brown Religious.)
So, on the one hand, it’s a patchwork quilt of American politics. On the other hand, it’s also an unfocused muddle.
The feminist politics in particular are muddled and problematic. On the one hand, we have three women of color (five in the second episode); on the other hand, every one of their storylines is defined by men. The episode passes the Bechdel-Wallace test – but the two women who pass it are both motivated by daddy issues and love interests.
On the one hand, Alex is an awesome action hero – and on the other, she shames Agent Ryan Booth (Jake McLaughlin) for his supposed lack of masculinity. (I think they’re going for a “Nice Guys Finish Last” trope with him, but the problem is, he seems like an honestly* good guy.)
And Assistant Director Miranda Shaw (Aunjanue Ellis) has a hella weird thing going on with her former boyfriend, Agent Liam O’Connor (Josh Hopkins) who’s now working under her. She’s the first women to work as Assistant Director, and that’s an accomplishment. But she looks down on O’Connor, as if he’s disgraced by having her for a boss. It’s weird.
DESPITE THE CONFLICTED POLITICS …
‘Quantico’ promises to examine and expand the question of American identity, and I am 100% here for it.
The second episode, “America”, has Alex on the run from her own agency – very Mission Impossible, action packed and tropey. It’s great. It cuts equally between the flash-forward and the flash-back plots to make a clever and rewarding episode.
It also narrows down the politics to just a few – Islam and Palestine – and it narrows the themes down to one key question: “Who are you? And what are you lying about?”
Shelby Wyatt (Johanna Brady) was an uncomplicated Golden Girl in the first episode; now we see she has a secret – a secret whose name is recorded in Arabic script in her phone.
Nathalie Vasquez (Anabelle Acosta), who’s introduced in this episode as Alex’s mirror and rival, has some strange scars just behind her ears. Plastic surgery scars? That’s just a guess.
Something confusing is going on with Caleb Haas (Graham Rogers), who appears to be cultivating an alter-ego online.
Simon Asher (Tate Ellington) presented himself as Jewish, gay, and a sweetheart, who traveled to Gaza in secret to learn about Palestine from the inside. But … his glasses are fake. That seems like a small detail, but in context, it suggests (to me) a Clark Kent style persona, that hides a more ruthless intellect. It calls into question everything we’ve been told about him. That includes his sexuality, because he’s got some chemistry with …
Raina Amin, Nimah’s twin sister. This is the most bananas plot twist so far – apparently the FBI is drawing inspiration from The Parent Trap? – but it does give us a look inside their collective heads. Raina’s friendship with Simon really humanizes her. And since Miranda trusts them, so too should the viewer.
But their scenes highlight the fact that this episode doesn’t pass the Bechdel-Wallace test. It laughably fails. We have three women of color (who all have different identities and voices and opinions!!) talking about an assignment … and then they start talking about Raina being distracted by a boy.
But Miranda Shaw is winning my heart, forever. She says, “I know why I’m standing here tonight – I know what I believe in. Why do you want to be an FBI agent?”
TIME FOR SOME WILD SPECULATION
Everyone is lying about something – and some of those lies will be red herrings, not relevant to the terrorist plot.
Here’s my totally wild hunch: Simon Asher went to Gaza four years ago …. and traded identities with a Palestinian man. That man then left Palestine and took on the identity of Simon Asher. The new Simon Asher doesn’t need glasses, he isn’t gay, and he isn’t Jewish – he’s Muslim. That’s why he’s making friends with Nimah/Raina. That’s why Raina says “He reminds me of people back home.”
If I’m right, that would make three sets of look-alikes, because Nathalie Vasquez looks an awful lot like Alex. My guess: That’s deliberate. She’s part of the plot to pin the terrorist attack on Alex, and she got plastic surgery in order to look like her. Was Vasquez on perimeter detail too?
Someone obviously manufactured the evidence that frames Alex. What if that someone is Liam O’Connor? If he’s keeping secrets from Miranda, then his demotion may just be for show. Speculation: he will manufacture evidence that gets Miranda fired from her position of Assistant Director.
What do you think? Make your own wild-ass guesses in the comments.