The Night Manager, the BBC series now broadcast on AMC in North America, makes poor use of its first female character with the dead love device.
It’s the latest in a long line of beloved films and series that use the death of a loved one — nearly always a woman — as the deciding factor to force the protagonist — nearly always a man — on to a quest.
Tom Hiddleston plays Jonathan Pine, an English ex-pat working as the night manager of a hotel in Switzerland. He’s tasked in the second episode with joining MI6 forces and taking down the notorious, enigmatic, charismatic Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), a wealthy British arms dealer.
What truly causes Pine to take on the task is not that it’s the right thing to do, that it’s for his country, or even that it’s for his father. What spurs him on are his memories of Cairo, Egypt during the Arab Spring, ten years prior to when this series takes place. There he had a short affair — and I mean week-long at most — with the mistress of a crime boss, who one night is murdered by someone Pine knows is connected to Roper. The level of mourning Pine seems to go through as soon as he sees the body of the mistress is truly unearned. They’d known each other for a week. There was no good reason they even began their affair except for mutual physical attraction.
It’s this kind of thing we’ve seen time and time again. Most notably in virtually every James Bond film.
What The Night Manager has provided us with, thankfully, are other more well developed female characters. Roper’s lover, Jed Marshall (played by Elizabeth Debicki), a young, impressionable women who cares deeply about Roper and his son, is engrossing in nearly every scene. And she and Roper share the best kind of relationship dynamic: no matter which one of them makes a decision, it influences the other. That means if it’s only her in a scene, and she makes a choice, we’re not only thinking about her but about Roper. That’s good writing.
There’s a dizzying scene early in the second episode where Roper and his party — which includes Jed, and Roper’s son — are vacationing at an idyllic island villa. They are ambushed by men looking for quick money from a rich family. They grab Roper’s son as a hostage before any of Roper’s men can get to their weapons. The big moment comes when Roper explains he can wire for an even larger sum of money than they’ve already given over in return for his son. The men agree, but decide that until they get it, they’re keeping the boy as insurance. Immediately Jed, who’s taken to the boy, offers herself in his place. They take the boy anyway. For this I commend the writers. It could have been that in the first two episodes we would’ve seen two of the major women in the show used as dead and probably-dead, respectively, love devices to ignite the men’s journeys, and generate sympathy from the audience. Instead it’s just one dead woman.
Nevertheless, I fear for Jed.
The other major female character on this show, possibly my favourite character, is the MI6 operative that recruits Pine, played by English actress Olivia Colman. Colman skips between genres in the best television work produced in England, namely Peep Show and Broadchurch. Here she is shrewd, manipulative, and honest, driven by the sense of failure that nags at her. She openly appeals to what she knows Pine cares about most. She “accidentally” makes Pine think about the most difficult parts of his past before asking him to join her and be her tool for the ruining of Roper, the man she’s been chasing for ten years. Still on the loose, he is the personification of her failure.
I’m writing this having only seen the first two episodes. I’m sure more characters will lie by the wayside by the end of the miniseries.
What I’m not sure of is when writers will retire the Dead Love Device.
Here’s hoping it starts with some sort of The Night Manager meets Bourne series spin-off starring Colman and Debicki.