Obsessive, Compulsive, Procedural #6: ‘Covert Affairs’
Created by Chris Ord and Matt Corman
imdb, USA, Tuesdays at 10PM
2.01 Begin the Begin
Directed by Kate Wood, Written by Chris Ord and Matt Corman
2.02 Good Advices
Directed by Ken Girotti, Written by Stephen Hootstein
2.03 Bang and Blame
Directed by Allan Kroeker, Written by Erica Shelton
2.04 All the Right Friends
Directed by Stephen Kay, Written by Norman Morrill
2.05 Around the Sun
Directed by Félix Alcalá, Written by Dana Calvo
2.06 The Outsiders
Directed by Marc Roskin, Written by Julia Ruchman
2.07 Half a World Away
Directed by Félix Alcalá, Written by Julia Ruchman
Covert Affairs is a surprisingly smart espionage procedural which is simultaneously built on the unrealistic TV tradition of Bond Girls and a more realistic tradition of espionage procedurals.
Female spies on TV have always been heavily influenced by Bond Girls, although TV influenced Bond as well. Two of the earliest female spies on TV, Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman) and Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) started as John Steed’s partner on The Avengers and later “graduated” to become Bond Girls, Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore in Goldfinger and Diana Rigg as Tracy Draco in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
In many ways, Annie Walker (Piper Perabo) is a composite of the female spies who preceded her. Like April Dancer (Stefanie Powers) of The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. she speaks multiple languages. (To be fair, the reason that April Dancer spoke many languages is that Stefanie Powers speaks at least six languages fluently.) Like Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) from Alias, Annie is mixed-up in a conspiracy and keeps her C.I.A. career a secret from her family.
While Annie is a C.I.A. trainee, she is yanked from her training in the series pilot. (The reasoning for this is a little suspect, boiling down to a plot contrivance necessary to launch the series.) As a result, Annie is a talented amateur, being trained on the job. Many of the female TV spies were amateurs starting with Cathy Gale and Emma Peel, but also including Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain) and all the other women from Mission: Impossible.
Oddly, a TV female spy that Annie has a lot in common with is from an earlier USA series: Nikita (Peta Wilson) of La Femme Nikita. Both are amateurs trapped in a conspiracy. Both value brains over brawn. Both are reluctant to use guns.
While Annie’s reluctance to use guns is partly rooted in the fact that she was pulled from her training before qualifying with firearms, it is also (like Nikita) based on a belief that she can do more good without a gun than with one. In Bang and Blame, when she returns to the CIA training camp “The Farm” on an undercover mission, she is the only trainee to successfully complete a training mission, when she grabs the blueprints of the building that they have to escape rather than grabbing a gun.
The biggest difference between Annie Walker and the other female spies is that she works within a surprisingly realistic C.I.A.. Rather than fighting world conquerors armed with killer satellites, Annie is usually trying to protect an asset like the Estonian tennis player (shades of Bill Cosby in I Spy) in Begin the Begin, or trying to recruit a new asset like the Parisian secretary in Good Advices, or figuring out how an asset was compromised like the spy satellites in Around the Sun.
Covert Affairs doesn’t feel compelled to make every episode a mystery, which keeps things fresh and when the series does give us a mystery episode it tends to take it from an angle that we don’t see very often, like in Around the Sun when Annie must pretend to be filming a documentary to interrogate NASA scientists and find out how key information on U.S. spy satellites was leaked.
Annie’s espionage world is not spy-fi, that sometimes goofy blend of science-fiction and spies. Her C.I.A. is one that is vulnerable to bureaucratic oversight and interference and political infighting: in All the Right Friends, Annie finds herself betrayed during a simple spy exchange in Argentina and has to rescue herself and her Italian prisoner while a three-way pissing contest breaks out between the U.S.A., Argentina and Italy, and in The Outsiders after Annie and a female tech are kidnapped by the Belarus secret service while they are installing cameras on the Polish side of the border, Annie has to perform their own rescue when their ranson is held up thanks to Congressional oversight.
While not as bleak, the spy series that Covert Affairs resembles the most in its realism and its depiction of an espionage service trying to succeed despite bureaucratic contraints is The Sandbaggers. While Willie Caine or Sandbagger One (Ray Lonnen) is a professional where Annie Walker is an amateur, they both share a dislike of guns and a preference to complete missions without using them.
Comparing the two series is tricky: The Sandbaggers was filmed and set during the Cold War and as a consequence the stakes of everything seems greater and grimmer than anything in Covert Affairs. In addition, The Sandbaggers were a realistic version of James Bond’s licensed to kill “00” section, albeit a section that had to wait for bureaucratic approval to intervene when a British jet is hijacked. Annie’s missions tend to be smaller in scale than Willie’s, or at least they start that way. Ironically, Annie has access to more resources than Willie, who has to answer questions from bean counters like Is Your Journey Really Necessary?
Oddly, for a series considered by many (including critic Terrence Rafferty) to be “the best spy series in television history”, there aren’t many series that followed in The Sandbaggers‘ footsteps. (Spooks being an obvious, albeit glossy exception, except that Spooks is more about counter-espionage and counter-terrorism than espionage.) The Sandbaggers‘ true spiritual heir is Greg Rucka’s comic book and novel series Queen and Country featuring “Minder” Tara Chace.
Tara is a great TV character waiting to happen, a sarcastic, alcoholic workaholic both deadly with a gun and smart on her feet. Tara once got through a road-block by “accidentally” handing the guard naked pictures of herself that “she had taken for her boyfriend” mixed in with her papers, echoing Willie Caine’s strategy of using dirty pictures to distract border guards in The Sandbaggers. Tara Chace is a bit too professional (and a lot too bloodthirsty) to be an inspiration for Annie, although like Annie and Willie, she is frequently caught in the middle of bureaucratic sniping, once memorably reduced to arming herself with a toy gun while being stalked in London by terrorists.
While it started (and ended) between Covert Affairs first and second season, CHAOS had common influences. Like Annie, Freddy Rodriguez (Rick Martinez) is fluent in many languages. Like Annie, he is new to the agency and a bit of a naive innocent and like Annie he finds himself dragged into a conspiracy. In Freddy’s case, he finds himself a member of a team of rogue C.I.A. agents, “the last of the old school spies”. The agents of CHAOS confront the same bureaucratic obstacles as Annie, Wille or Tara, but, in a flight of fantasy, they ignore or circumvent the red tape that binds the hands of the more realistic spies.
Covert Affairs one flight of fantasy is Abbie’s handler at the CIA: the super-competent “Auggie” Anderson (Christopher Gorham) who was blinded by an explosion while serving with an Army Special Forces Unit in Iraq. While not confined to the office, Auggie normally uses Annie as his eyes, providing her with logistics support. As a team they are similar in some ways to Max Carrados (the blind detective) and Mr. Carlyle or Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, although the emphasis is on Annie and she solves many of the mysteries that confront the team. (Admittedly, she does have a tendency to solve the mysteries at the worst possible moment like confronting a CIA leak while waiting to jump out of a plane in Bang and Blame.)
Auggie’s competence is taken to a Daredevil extreme in Half a World Away when Auggie hears the voice of the bomb-maker who blinded him during a Turkish jazz festival and maneuvers himself into the claustrophobic hold of a cargo plane with the terrorist in such a way that Auggie’s blindness will be less of a handicap. In a sign of how much respect that the other characters have for Auggie, when they find out what he is planning, they don’t ask him not to get on the plane, they beg him not to kill the terrorist, because the bomb-maker is more valuable alive (and answering questions) than dead.
Auggie’s incredible competence is in direct contrast with Annie’s fellow agent Jai Wilcox (Sendhil Ramamurthy, who seems to be making a career out of playing good-looking ineffectual men). Jai is the son of a former CIA director and his ineffectual professionalism is frequently contrasted with Annie’s effective amateurism. Annie is also frequently paired with foreign agents who are bemused with Annie’s innocence and thus, initially tend to underestimate her – most notably Mossad’s Eyal Lavin (Oded Fehr). The key word is “initially”. Once Annie gains their respect, foreign agents like Eyal are stunningly competent compared to Jai.
Jai’s one big chance to shine in The Outsiders and rescue Annie from the Belarus secret service is literally grounded when his helicopter breaks down like Jimmy Carter’s helicopters in the failed attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran. While Jai (eventually) acts as the cavalry on ATVs, it is Auggie that figures out that Annie has escaped and where she will run to.
Covert Affairs walks a careful tightrope – balancing Annie’s bouncy, innocent eagerness with the moral ambiguity of working for the C.I.A.. While the larger conspiracy is not very compelling (and frequently an afterthought), the individual episodes of Covert Affairs are fun changes of pace from most procedurals.
– Michael Ryan