Covert Affairs: Flipping the Script

We’ve been doing some talk recently about leading ladies.  And more importantly what it means for a tv show or book when your main character is female. There is something interesting happening in regards to this over on the USA show, Covert Affairs. Now, this is a little bit of a late to the party post because Covert Affairs is in it’s fourth season, but I’m going to mostly talk in general terms, with no major spoilers.

Here is our leading lady, getting herself out trouble via some quick thinking and an expensive pair of shoes.

Here’s our leading lady, getting herself out trouble via quick thinking and an expensive pair of shoes.

This is Annie (played by Piper Parabo). She is young, blonde, pretty, and idealistic. She is also a rookie CIA agent, pulled out of training early to deal with a man from her past. She is physically capable, fluent in many languages, has nerves of steel and is often ruled by her compassion.

Our leading man!

Our leading man!

This is Auggie (played by Christopher Gorham). He is a former navy seal and a current CIA analyst. He is Annie’s CIA handler, friend, and love interest. He is immensely intelligent, capable, funny and caring. He also happens to be blind.

Now this is great for a number of reasons. We don’t see a lot of disabilities on tv, and we certainly don’t see them in our leading men. I’m having a hard time coming up with an example of an action show where the leading man is blind, or deaf, or less than what we consider perfectly physically capable in any serious way. I think over the course of their runs, a lot of characters will deal with some kind of temporary physical disability gained in the line of fire, but they will then triumphantly overcome it. Temporary blindness is a big soapy one, but not something that tends to have a lasting impact.

In fact, in terms of blindness, I can really only think of Battlestar Galatica‘s Saul Tigh losing an eye and sporting an eye patch part way through the run. Or going way back, JAG‘s leading man pilot/ lawyer suffered from night blindness that grounded him from flying, but didn’t affect him practically as a bad ass action hero lawyer AT ALL. A little googling makes me a little embarrassed for forgetting Star Trek: The Next Generation and Geordie La Forge, but honestly didn’t turn up much else in terms of blind television characters.

Now if you zoom this conversation out a little bit, there are a number of major characters currently on television who are on the autism spectrum, or deal addiction or with mental health issues. Switched at Birth has a number of deaf characters, and does a great job tackling various elements of deaf culture. However, these things, while gaining momentum, are still the minority. We live in an abilist society, and it’s one of the -isms that gets the least traction, the least coverage.

Now you might be thinking, this is all great Char, but what does it have to do with Covert Affairs and also, why are you talking about a blind MALE character on your feminist blog? Very good questions! We are talking about it because I think that Auggie being blind fundamentally makes Annie a stronger character. Auggie’s blindness forces the viewer (and the writers) to come face to face with some of the gender roles and tropes that run rampant on televisions and movies.

Now, I think that on a well written show with a male and female lead, there is a lot of back and forth. Ideally your main couple has complementary strengths. They will balance each other out. Now, in practice, this doesn’t always happen. Often the heroine needs a lot of rescuing, or the men in her life feel a real need to protect her, and sometimes make decisions for her. And while we all need a rescue sometimes and should know when to ask for help, it can be frustrating to watch that play out over and over.

Early on with Covert Affiars, part of the premise was that Annie fell in love with a charming mystery man while on vacation, who unbeknownst to her, was a CIA agent. He vanished from her life, and then two years later Annie got yanked out of CIA training a bit early when Ben, said CIA agent, went rogue. Now, this thread, while part of the show’s early makeup, actually got dropped pretty quickly, and Ben hasn’t been seen or heard from since season two. Which is a relief from both a feminist lens and a dramatic perspective, as the Ben stuff wasn’t very strong, and it put Annie in a tough spot character-wise (Annie was briefly important to other characters mostly for the fact that this dude was in love with her and he was important).

While Ben existed as a way to make Annie Super Special, and occasionally save her from tough spots in early episodes, Covert Affairs has built into it’s very DNA that Auggie (the show’s real leading man) cannot physically swoop in and save Annie. Yet, his blindness doesn’t make him any less capable. He is still immensely physically competent. Covert Affairs even addressed the problem of having a petite leading lady fighting much bigger and stronger opponents (and getting her ass handed to her) through Auggie teaching Annie more specialized hand to hand combat skills. Now, the show very wisely spends less time talking about what Auggie cannot do, and more on how he is honestly quite a force to be reckoned with.

Auggie teaching Annie further hand to hand combat skills.

Auggie teaching Annie further hand to hand combat skills.

So what does all of this mean for Annie? From a storyline point of view, there is no possibility of a dues ex machina via Auggie, at least not in a physical way. So, Annie does things on her own. She fights her own fights, she leaps across rooftops. She does her own car chases. Her language skills come in handy again and again. Early in the show, Annie is asked to balance CIA protocol against her own instincts. She is book smart, but out in the field her compassion and moral judgments take her the rest of the way. And you know what? She isn’t always right. Her actions sometimes have very real consequences. The show is unafraid to let Annie make mistakes, and go down some dark paths.

So because Auggie, while Annie’s partner and counterpoint, isn’t out in the field with her the show sometimes entertains leading men stand-ins. They are often characters Annie meets in some exotic foreign locale, and there is this added element of distrust. Annie’s instincts are often on point, but not always. She is not superhuman and often in high stress situations. The most interestingly dramatically (and on a shallow level, I think he is SUPER HOT) of Annie’s leading men stand-ins is Eyal Levine, a Mossad agent Annie has a professional and personal relationship with. Because Eyal isn’t the leading man, he is allowed to be mysterious. His loyalties may be questionable, and Annie doesn’t always have a lock on his motivations.

And once, she locked him to a bed to keep track of him.

Meet Eyal.  Once, Annie locked Eyal to a bed to keep track of him.

Interestingly, Auggie himself even sometimes uses Eyal as a stand in, going as far as once sending Eyal to break Annie out of a foreign prison. When Annie needs to fake her own death (ummm yes, that obviously happens, it’s that kind of show and I love it for that) it’s Eyal who shows up and does some of the dirty work. The fact that the show can use this relationship sparingly (he’s been in a handful of episodes each season) keeps it fresh and interesting.

Eyal stitching Annie up in a safe house.

Eyal stitching Annie up in a safe house.

Covert Affairs is a fun show, but by no means a perfect one. But what it has successfully done is find a way  to change the formula. Annie and Auggie’s dynamic is different and charming. Auggie is a strong male character, a perfect TV boyfriend. But he is not a GI Joe, nor does the show treat him like his blindness is a disability. He is a multifaceted character, who just happens to be blind. Annie is a complex and imperfect heroine. The show itself is taping into some unique dynamics that I’d love to see more of on television.

Charlotte wants to make it clear that it took a lot of restraint to not let this piece turn into a big love fest about how much she likes the character of Eyal Levine.

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