(This rather long and very personal ramble was originally posted over at Tumblr because it didn’t seem to belong on this blog, but since then I’ve had to go digging for it enough times to find myself annoyed by the difficulty of finding things on Tumblr. So I’m choosing to give it a permanent home here in the interest of convenience.)
I Believe in Lucas North
or, Why It Will Always Be Too Soon
or, The Most Personal Thing I Will Ever Post
or, How I Learned Tumblr Has No Character Limit
I experienced something visceral and raw as I came to know and mourn with, and then for, the character Lucas North of the BBC series Spooks (inexplicably called MI-5 in the U.S.), played by actor Richard Armitage. There’s a phrase I use a lot, semi-jokingly, any time I see a photo of or reference to Lucas in pain – particularly in his final episodes: it will always be too soon. When I say this, what I think I mean is that his downward spiral and ultimate fall wounded something somewhere in me and I cannot foresee a time when remembering that will not cause me a palpitation in remembrance of that pain.
The experience I had – of sitting alone in the dark at the end of Lucas’s final episode with my ugly, loud, chest-heaving, throat-wrenching sobs because I was quite literally too emotionally wrecked and actually physically exhausted from the stress to do anything else – will always be one I do not wish to repeat. Ever. It will always be too soon.
And yet I keep coming back to him. More to the point, I can’t let him go. We all know by now, because it would be pointless for me to pretend otherwise and so I don’t, that I have some intense and complicated feelings about Lucas North. Feelings that cause me actual physical pain. I can’t even listen to the music of the series without getting tight in the throat. What is less clear, even to me, is the cause of this intense empathy. Some of it is certainly the Armitage Effect and the enigmatic element of the “beyond” that he conveys in his performances, as talked about at length by the brilliant Servetus at her blog; but if that was the whole story I’d be a wreck for every character played by Armitage, and that’s definitely not the case. I’ve never actually looked very hard at the root of the Lucas North issue, instead shying back from it because it hurts too much.
So maybe what I mean when I say it will always be too soon is actually, my reasons for being broken by Lucas North are scary and I’m afraid to find out what they are, so I’m just going to shore up and endure the pain. But I think it’s time to knock that off.
This will get pretty rambly as I try to figure it out.
I was telling my mother about some other story recently. (Final Fantasy X, if you’re curious.) I had just played a piece of music from the game for her on the piano, because she likes beautiful music, and she remarked that the piece was rather sad. Not sad, she corrected. Melancholy. Full of longing. I did my best to explain (with some difficulty thanks to the labyrinthine turnings of that game’s plot) why that would be an accurate impression.
My mother is, thank goodness, one of those adults who has never tried to argue that video games cannot have real emotional weight and complexity of character, so she listened to me with absolute credulity. She didn’t even bat an eyelash when I had to pause and collect myself so I wouldn’t get all embarrassingly tight-throated as I contemplated how to explain the significance of the personal sacrifices the characters in the game make willingly in order to save the world.
And I mean, I don’t even particularly like this game. I just appreciate an interesting character arc.
My mother sat like a champ through this conversation she probably had no interest in (I suspect she was humoring me under the Make Her Happy At All Costs clause of the Birthday Girl social contract, because it was in fact that particular day.) I don’t even know why I nattered on so fulsomely about a game I’ve never actually played myself, but I suspect that had to do with the kind of day I’d had and a need to talk about things that didn’t pertain to me or my state of being. But she listened, and at the end she said to me,
“You know, Alyssa, you have this whole tough as nails, don’t-mess-with-me exterior. And you are tough, I’m not trying to say you’re not. But I’ve never known anyone who feels as much real empathy for fictional characters, as deeply as you do.”
I fobbed it off with some writerly retort about empathy for character being the intended result of good storytelling and my of course having an appreciation for good storytelling (which happens to be the truth,) but the fact is that the observation was a little too perceptive for my comfort because it’s true. I don’t like people to know this, but I have feelings. I even feel them sometimes, especially when they’re being manipulated by a good story.
This incident is relevant because it shows that when I say I have never cared more about another fictional character, I am Making a Statement of Great Weight. The fact is, I have never had exactly this reaction to another character, fictional or actual. This is it. This is the pinnacle of what I think my feelings are capable of doing. Oh boy, was I fully invested from the moment Lucas North appeared onscreen. At no point after that first episode did I try to convince myself otherwise, but I didn’t have any inkling in that first scene that he would come to dominate my inner landscape in such a profound way by the time of his death.
And let’s be real here: in the beginning, the vehicle of my interest was without question being driven by a completely normal attraction to the real personage of Richard Armitage. I make no secret of the fact that I was watching the show for him in the first place. After enjoying him in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey I was surprised and intrigued to find that, out of his Thorin makeup, the actual man quite closely resembles the male protagonist of my novels. To an uncanny degree, actually – in the eyes especially, and from certain angles. (That profile.)
So I set out to take in as much of his work as I have access to on American shores. It genuinely began as an artistic interest in observing a live-action model of my character in motion, the way animators will use performance references in the rendering of a character onscreen. This is why, I have no doubt, I was so sensitive from the beginning to every nuance of his very detailed performance as Lucas North: I was looking for it. I’m a writer. I was studying his body language and facial expressiveness in order to better describe my Naoise.
That’s how I knew right away that Lucas North was unlike any of the other characters I had yet seen Armitage portray. But that came after watching him in enough things to realize that, in addition to being mesmerized by him as a living embodiment of my own creative invention, I find him breathtakingly attractive.
I only humiliate myself by revealing that because I’m trying to get to the bottom of this, and I think it’s fair to say it played a part in my initial strong reaction to Lucas North’s first appearance on the show. Shallow as that may be on my part, I don’t delude myself that it wasn’t also specifically the show’s explicit intent. They hand-picked him for the role, at a point in his career where he had already made a particular name and following for himself on certain other BBC productions. (The BBC discussion boards were literally crashed in 2004 by the hordes of swooning female fans after he came to sudden public attention as the brooding, Darcy-like John Thornton in North and South.)
Spooks knew perfectly well that they were casting a strong, fit, enigmatic, handsome man, to whom the female contingent responds favorably, who has a certain way of portraying vulnerability and troubled, even tortured complexity. They knew perfectly well that he had inspired more sympathy as the villain on a particular popular show than the hero ever did, undeniably because of his sex appeal but also because of his superb and subtle handling of the material he was given.
They knew perfectly well that taking such a person, asking him to drop enough weight to look abused and malnourished, producing him from the trunk of a car with a bag over his head in his first scene, and tossing him out into events where he must immediately make a choice to reawaken the tired hero within instead of surrendering to his immense psychological baggage, would provoke a certain response in their viewers.
They knew what they were doing. It worked. I’m not ashamed to admit it.
Reason One why I couldn’t look away from Lucas North: Richard Armitage. Reason Two: excellent show craftsmanship.
If you’ve not seen Spooks and you intend to, and you don’t want the plot spoiled for you, I suggest you stop reading now. I am going to be quite candid as I try to unravel just what it is about Lucas North that destroyed me after Richard Armitage’s face ensnared me. (If you haven’t seen the show and you don’t plan to, well, I don’t know what you’re doing reading this, unless you’re hoping to learn something about me. In which case. Well. I said I was going to be candid. And quite exhaustive. Buckle up.)
I think this will probably be easier if I establish a few things before I begin.
Because I was watching the show for Richard Armitage, I started where Lucas’s storyline begins. This means I skipped six seasons of character and world building, but in this case I don’t think it actually harmed my impression of the show or my ability to follow along. Having now watched all ten seasons because I fell in love not just with Lucas but with Spooks as a whole, I can say that I was never lost and didn’t end up drawing any incorrect conclusions from what was to me the first episode. In fact, episode 7.1 encapsulates the people, their world, and what the show offers its viewers quite neatly. It made an excellent point of entry.
And actually, I think this worked out perfectly. Like Lucas, I knew I was a newcomer to an established world. Like Lucas, I was watchful, hanging onto details, consciously slotting it all together, reserving judgment until more information came to light. In some ways, this contributed to me feeling myself in Lucas’s shoes. To me being Lucas while the story unfolded.
So what is this world I fell in love with?
Spooks is about the officers of a team in the counter-terrorism division of MI-5, which I as an American viewer perceive as sort of a combination of the FBI, the Secret Service, and the Department of Homeland Security. (Its sister organization, MI-6 of James Bond fame, being analogous to our CIA.) They work out of a highly secure building called Thames House. I was expecting the show to be something of a BBC incarnation of Alias, and I was not completely wrong. It’s about spies doing spy things, and the effect their work has on them as people. Well, on their attempts to be people.
The head man is Harry Pearce, who runs an office with as high a mortality rate as a Whedon project. Not surprising, given the work they do, but it makes for a constantly shifting landscape. The position of D-Team Section Chief is as cursed as Defense Against the Dark Arts professor. Harry is the only character to appear in every episode of all ten seasons. At the time that Lucas appears, the team is made up of suicidally reckless but brilliant Section Chief Adam Carter, Malcolm Wynn-Jones the delightfully geeky old tech genius, the duplicitous Connie James, young idealist Jo Portman, coldly lethal Ros Myers (my personal hero), and brave Ben Kaplan. I love them all. They very quickly come to feel like family to me.
Because we’re talking about agents in a highly-specialized intelligence field, everyone on the show is smart and of above-average competence. Many of them are also ass-kickingly badass. Unlike American drama, Spooks does not favor overplayed scenes of wide-eyed emotional incontinence followed by spontaneous shirt-ripping and steamy lip action. It is wonderfully British in its understated handling of the most sensitive human situations, but that doesn’t mean it shrinks from action or the good old-fashioned violence. The production values are slick, the dialogue smart, the humor dry, the characters complex and achingly human.
Basically, it is a show custom-made to appeal to me.
So let’s talk about Lucas North.
His backstory isn’t the easiest to put into a nutshell, not just because of complexity but because there are deliberate holes and inconsistencies. The man we know as Lucas North – huge spoiler, born John Bateman – grew up in what he chooses to characterize as a particularly rural area of one of England’s most rural counties: Cumbria. His father was a Methodist minister. He reveals both of these pieces of information in the same conversation, back to back, in an effort to build trust with a fatherless teen who accuses him of being a moneyed urban snob. Furthermore, when the boy responds with mockery to the revelation of the minister father, Lucas becomes politely defensive, according the memory of his father real respect.
Although we will later learn that most of what comes out of Lucas’s mouth is a lie, I think there are reasons to believe this much is truth buried in the lies. I’m not here to justify my pet theories, since what I’m attempting to examine is the way my impressions of the character shape my feelings for him, not whether or not I’m right. So we’ll leave that there as is.
These two facts, while not a lot to go on, do tell me some things.
He says he grew up “in the middle of a Cumbrian field.” That speaks to me not just of good old fashioned rural hard work, but of isolation. That Cumbria is in the north adds an element of harshness to this sense of seclusion. The north, where life and the attitude are harder than the south, the people proudly independent. Now, the Lucas we come to know is a self-described polymath, well-educated, sophisticated, cunning, disciplined, like Armitage himself mostly scrubbed of his Northern accent but for a mild lilt on the vowels, above competent at everything he attempts, politically-minded – honed into a savvy tool for British Intelligence by factors obviously found beyond a rural Cumbrian field. So the disparity between his origin and the polished figure onscreen telling us where he comes from is a source of interest.
We tantalizingly imagine we can just see the edges of where these two selves collide. A younger Lucas – ambitious, the only color in his life existing in the vivid world of his imagination – making the decision to take his destiny into his own hands and escape the banality of his upbringing, attempting to shed all traces of his unimpressive origin, tasting forms of rebellion until finding his way through his natural gifts.
His father was a Methodist minister, he says. Was. There is so much in this statement, in the was. Is the father no longer a minister because he’s dead, or retired? Or is the was there to indicate that Lucas no longer gets to claim the Methodist minister as his father? Methodist, too. Slightly odd, just a tad contrarian, could have been innocuously Anglican. Lucas specifically says his father was a good father. What about his mother? Does he fail to mention her because he never knew her? Or lost her when he was very young? That would explain some of his incongruously childlike characteristics, and lends another layer of loneliness to my picture of his upbringing in the middle of that field: the two men alone against the elements, the father emotionally abandoning his son and turning to God for his comfort, the son turning… where?
One of the first things we learn about Lucas is that he has enough of an interest in William Blake to have one of his prints – the Ancient of Days – tattooed larger-than-life right in the middle of his chest. It’s an image with a strong religious flavor, but Blake was a spiritual rather than a religious man, and it’s an illustration from Blake’s own invented mythology rather than Christian canon. In episode 7.2, Lucas’s ex-wife says of him that his interest in Blake stems from a shared distrust of systems. I infer from this that young Lucas was shaped and molded by a stern religious upbringing which he ultimately rejected, and that despite his questioning, suspicious nature, he cannot excise its formative effects on who he is.
Everything else we know about Lucas’s pre-MI-5 days, we are not told until much later.
What we know about him in the beginning is that he joined MI-5 in his mid-twenties and rose through the ranks very quickly, prodigy quickly, becoming Section Chief before he was thirty. He was married in those years to a Russian national named Elizaveta Starkova. The timeline dictates that he has to have become Section Chief at least by the time he was thirty because he left the post vacated (filled by Tom Quinn, who is Section Chief in 2002 at the beginning of the show) when he was captured and imprisoned by the Russians while under deep cover on an operation in Moscow. We are possibly meant to assume that he met his Russian wife while under this deep cover, and I tend to think that’s likely, because otherwise his timeline gets a little hard to reconcile.
Lucas spends more than eight years in Russian prison – eight years of torture, interrogation, humiliation, deprivation, and hard labor. Harry Pearce is finally able to negotiate a prisoner exchange which the Russians agree to because they believe they have turned Lucas and can use him as a double agent within MI-5. In truth, Lucas remains loyal to Queen and Country throughout the time of his imprisonment, and makes proving that loyalty and regaining Harry’s trust his first priority upon coming home.
He first appears on the show during the prisoner exchange, bedraggled, underfed, disoriented, literally unsteady on his feet, doing his best to calculate the situation in an instant. His first words are a too-casual greeting to Harry, with whom there is history. Harry was his boss eight years ago. Harry is the one who failed to get him out of Russia in all the time since. Harry is possibly the one responsible for the operation going wrong in the first place, leading to Lucas’s capture. It is visibly on both their minds.
This is the Lucas we are introduced to, the Lucas I fell in love with. I know this Lucas already had the power to break my heart even before his full story came to light, because I spent an entire episode in tears when this Lucas was forced to come face-to-face with his Russian torturer halfway through his tenure on the show. So, for the time being, I’m going to talk exclusively about this Lucas and leave the later depths alone until I’ve tried to figure out what it is about this Lucas that hurts my heart so deeply.
For all that he begins and ends as a mystery, Lucas is so masterfully written and acted that there are several things about him we know with very little effort.
His first interaction with Harry, fresh out of Russian custody, tells us a great deal without resorting to gross infodump:
“Hello, Harry,” Lucas says with a casual air, as though they’ve just run into one another on the street. This is belied by his underfed, unkempt shakiness and the fact that he almost falls down on his walk to the car. And the fact that this is very much not an accidental encounter – they are meeting in an abandoned industrial yard by moonlight, two black vehicles facing one another across a safely neutral distance, suited men standing beside each. Still, we note that Lucas makes the attempt.
“Welcome home, Lucas.” There is familiarity and genuine warmth in Harry’s tone, which is something not many people elicit. “How are you feeling?” (A rather loaded question under the circumstances, Harry. It’s not like you to make small talk.)
“Fine. Good.” Lucas sniffs as if it has only just occurred to him that he could consider giving an actual answer to the question, which he does matter-of-factly as though it should have been self-evident: “Cold.” It’s as much to say that this is all Harry can really expect him to be willing to divulge about his current state at the moment. A rebuke to Harry for being so fatuous.
He then proceeds to spend the ride back to HQ watching London pass by in a bit of a haze, his affect flat and exhausted until addressed. Like he can’t remember how to be – already a tug at the heartstring. As they’re driving, Harry asks him how the Russians treated him. This is something we’re reading a great deal of guilt from Harry on. Whether or not Lucas blames Harry, we can see that Harry blames himself.
Lucas answers vaguely, leaving open an entire awful world of possibility. “Sometimes well. Sometimes not.”
Oh, that understatement. It’s too much to talk about. At least not in a car ride on the way back to the office. They tortured him. Eight years.
Harry is prepared to accept this answer, for now at least, partially because he knows this isn’t the time, partially because he doesn’t really want to delve any deeper. Not really. Lucas was his responsibility, and he left him in Hell.
But then Lucas adds, “They told me I could come home if I spied for them.”
This startles Harry’s attention back to him. You can see the inner dialogue passing over Harry’s face.
Why would he say that? Is he joking? What if he’s not? He wouldn’t. Would he? He wouldn’t, would he? If the offer was on the table, why did it take eight years for Lucas to come home? He might be joking. Lucas always had a rather warped sense of humor. If they did offer and he agreed, why would he tell me? Is he telling me because he wants me to know he turned them down? Is he telling me to establish deniability? But he wouldn’t. I’m sure he wouldn’t. Then again, why were the Russians suddenly so willing to entertain the idea of an exchange?
He very carefully chooses his response.
“What did you say?”
Lucas seems to think the answer should be obvious. “I said yes.” He tries for a playful grin, but he’s so tired and scruffy and starved and he just looks sad instead.
Harry dutifully smiles back at the “joke,” but he’s full of questions and this isn’t the time to get into them. What the hell did the Russians do to his man?
Lucas moves them past the moment casually. Too casually. “Think we could stop for some fish-and-chips? I’ve got a craving.” A punch in the gut, as if we all aren’t painfully aware already that the poor man looks like he hasn’t eaten well in… well, years. But he’s not trying to make anyone feel bad. He just wants some damn English comfort food because he’s literally starving.
Although maybe he is trying to make Harry feel bad.
If I’m honest with myself, I was already in love with Lucas North after this first scene. At the time, I recall being intrigued but determined not to adore the character simply because of the actor. I recall wanting the character to earn my fascination on his own merits. In retrospect, that was just me digging my heels in because I knew he already had me.
So what is it in this first scene that got me?
One: it is a known fact that I have a strange liking for men who suffer. What can I say. I like to see a man in pain, and it is clear in every frame of this first scene that Lucas has suffered. The two bosses making the prisoner exchange even joke about it.
Arkady: “You look after Lucas now he’s home. He’s weak, he’s tired. You tell him… eat broccoli.”
Harry: “I think he’s suffered enough, don’t you?”
(Incidentally, that was probably the moment where I started loving Harry Pearce.)
Why do I like to see men suffer in stories? That requires a moment of inquiry, I think. I most definitely do not like to see women suffer, especially physical abuse. In fact that produces a strong negative reaction from me. I think it’s maybe because society puts women through too much already and I think it’s gross when writers abuse them even further, usually gratuitously. This does not make the converse true; I do not think men haven’t suffered enough and that we need to stick it to them in stories. I do not derive some sick pleasure from seeing men brought down a peg. But the thing is that I enjoy exploring the darker parts of the emotional spectrum. I mean, that’s really my jam as a writer. I think people get their most interesting when you give them either everything or nothing to lose (and we eventually see Lucas at both of these points.) That’s when you see who they really are. Especially when you’ve done things to them that have made them face their boundaries or the fact that they have none.
Which, really, sheds light on another reason why it’s generally gross and not enjoyable to see women suffering: when men suffer, it’s usually part of a character arc that sees them evolving into something stronger, or more complicated, or irrevocably broken so we understand why they’re about to do the horrible things they’re about to do; or else it’s a display of what they’re willing to endure to get from A to B; or is in some way an interesting factor of who they are and what they’re doing in the story. When women suffer, it’s usually to punish her for being strong, or so a man can develop his character arc by saving her. So maybe I’d have less of a problem with female suffering as a category if the character in question was more often a fully realized human being and not a working prop to a man’s characterization.
It could also be either a case of internalized misogyny, where I am more able to see myself reflected in male characters because I have come to see only male characters as whole people; or a matter of me not actually really identifying as female myself and therefore finding no instinctive commonality with sketchily-drawn female characters (which is most of them,) so when women suffer I am less able to feel their pain and more likely to observe it, which is too voyeuristic for my tastes.
It could be all of these things together.
Yes, I just confessed that I like to feel pain with my characters. Why? Well, I suspect it’s rather like the way we’ll poke our tongue around at the sore tooth, or press on a bruise, or pick our scabs. These wounds are part of us but they’re causing a non-native sensation. By evoking the pain on purpose, in measures we can tolerate, we learn it. We control it. We assimilate it so it doesn’t have to be feared. This asserted dominance brings with it a complex mixture of power, comfort, relief, and pleasure. Experiencing the pain of other people, pain I will never know because they are in circumstances that I will never duplicate, presents the opportunity to climb into someone else’s self and poke at their wounds for that rush. Having the opportunity to do this with characters rather than real people means I can seek that feeling without being a monster. And I better learn about the different flavors of the human condition.
So, Lucas’s pain. Obvious factor.
Two: his intelligence. I love a big, sexy brain. I mean, yeah, a man who works in Intelligence is going to be smart. There are no un-intelligent characters on this show, as I said earlier, which is a part of why I love it like burning. But Lucas’s intellect stands out even amidst the sea of genius at Thames House. Why? There are people smarter than him there, of course. People more technically-minded, people with genuine savant skills, with more experience. I think his intelligence speaks to me because it is of a similar flavor to mine. He’s a person who is always watching, always noticing the details. He thinks visually. He’s paranoid, mistrusting, observant, curious, creative, devious, pessimistic. He calculates everything he says before he says it. He has a dark and penetrating sense of humor. His attention when given is intense. Do I get all of this in his first scene? Yes, in fact. Great writing, great acting, great craftsmanship.
Three: that aforementioned dark sense of humor, another weakness of mine. The ability to find lightness in the truly awful and the courage to express that as humor.
Four: along with the intelligence, the implied level of competence that accompanies his being an asset worth trading for. Harry is questioned by another officer over the soundness of the exchange, and Harry replies that “the return package is such a prize” that it’s well worth the man they’re giving up. I immediately bond with competence.
Five: “still waters run deep.” There is never any doubt that this is a man with secrets and hidden, troubled depths. From the first moment that bag is pulled off of Lucas’s head, he is both calculating and holding back. His eyes are taking everything in, but he chooses his words carefully to give away only what he wants to give away – using calm and humor to keep the others off-balance in this tense and uncertain situation – and otherwise remaining silent. Even at the physical and emotional disadvantage in which we first find him, especially then, he is careful about what he lets us see and hear. We have very little idea yet what he’s capable of, only that he is of great value to Harry.
Six: psychological damage. This might be considered an offshoot of the pain category, but it hits its own tick-box for me. Almost certainly because I am autistic and I have never felt myself to be playing with the full deck everyone else starts with, I bond instantly with characters who are “damaged” or “broken” or in some other way fundamentally incapable of “normalcy.” Not only is there a kinship, but from a storytelling standpoint, I know I’m about to see by what means and methods that character chooses to work around the fissures in his psyche, how he will attempt to “pass,” and that’s intensely interesting to me. In Lucas’s case, he certainly does not disappoint. He is a rich mine of psychological contradictions, incompatibilities, complexities, and fragility beneath a façade of power and strict control. We can see the promise of this in the verbal dance of that first scene, especially knowing how much we don’t know about what’s been done to him over the past eight years.
Seven: the duality of strength and fragility, and the danger that lies in the dark, uncertain place between them. I don’t think I really need to get into why this is a mesmerizing and frightening characteristic. It will come to be the defining conflict of Lucas’s story.
Eight: heroism and nobility. This one I had to take on faith. I had to assume that, all potential not-jests about double agent status aside, Lucas really did do the prison time out of loyalty to the greater good. Partly that was because from the first glimpse of his eyes in the reveal, I wanted him to be good. I wanted to trust him. Harry’s in the same boat I was. Arkady phrases it perfectly in the next episode, “He wants to trust you, he yearns to trust you. Therefore, in his heart, he has decided to trust you, whether he is aware of that fact or not.” It’s true. It was a gamble, but one I couldn’t avoid investing in. Maybe a dash of self-recognition there, already? I saw the psychologically damaged hero and I needed to believe that his suffering had not broken him? Maybe that too is where Harry was.
And that’s just from his first scene.
Since this is a getting-to-know you episode for Lucas, it’s basically all about giving us revealing moments, which the show does tactfully. He comes back onto The Grid ostensibly for an initial debrief, fish-and-chips in hand, and has a bonding moment in the lobby with Adam. It’s quick and effortless, the starving man graciously offering to share his food, which the Section Chief accepts with a smile. They’ve sized one another up in an instant and they’ve decided upon mutual respect.
The rest of the introductions and reunions are not so smooth. This place was once Lucas’s domain, but it’s different now. The changes hit him hard. Some of the people are familiar, some not. Those who remember him are horrified by the sight of what the years have done to him. He brushes this off with more of his dark humor: “Oh, it flew by. These Russian prisons, they’re like holiday camps. They’ve got mattresses and everything.” And another dry quip, when his physical and mental health are called into question: “I’ve been in a Russian prison, Adam. That’s like spending eight years in a physical training camp. Or at Eton.”
The crisis of the episode hits at this point: a young soldier has been kidnapped by terrorists, who are holding him with the demand that the government cancel their Remembrance Day service. Right away Lucas is eager to help find him because, “he’s out there somewhere terrified that his country’s forgotten him, that he’s never going to see his home again, and I know how he feels. I know what it’s like for him.” It’s the first genuinely honest thing he’s said about his own psychological state, and it’s probably this candor that softens Adam.
He speaks to Harry on Lucas’s behalf, quite rightly assessing that Lucas is desperate to prove himself, to MI-5, to himself, but most of all to Harry. (This is the show being cannily meta-aware. It’s telling us it knows we don’t yet trust the new kid, but to give him a chance.) Adam also sums up what has to be Lucas’s primary fear of the moment: “You can’t just bring him in and then leave him out in the cold. He’s given everything to this job.” But Harry is suffering intense guilt, faced with the reality of what has become of his once-brilliant officer.
The show gives us a beautifully blocked and shot scene to show this. Harry finds Lucas getting cleaned up in the rather clinical Thames House lavatory as per Adam’s orders, taking a sponge bath from the sink. There is no music. It’s just the two of them facing each other across the empty expanse of this bleak room, and Harry is brought up short in the doorway by the sight, the literal visual representation, of what Lucas’s time in prison has done to him. His arms and (frankly alarmingly emaciated) torso are covered in a complex system of Russian prison tattoos, each with their own significance. Seeing the horror of his stare, Lucas again deflects – he does that a lot, I already notice – by informing Harry rather academically that “tattooing is part of the culture in there. You don’t do it, you don’t belong. You don’t belong, you’re dead.”
Harry is struck dumb. Harry is never struck dumb.
Lucas turns to let Harry see the full kit. Like peeling a bandaid, he seems to just want to get it over with and get past the staring. He retains the academic tone to make it easier. “They all mean something. There’s a specific iconography. Fascinating, really.”
(There are things I get here from his word choice and scholarly manner as well, incidentally. It’s easier to take in all of the impressions we’re being fed in this scene than it is to enumerate them. But I very clearly have the idea now of Lucas as a careful observer, always learning, adapting, curious. I identify strongly with that.)
Faced by Harry’s continued silence and inability to be drawn past the awful significance of the moment by the invitation to small talk, Lucas turns awkwardly away again. The camera pulls back and you see now that the vast expanse between them isn’t in fact empty, it is full of all the things they can’t talk about. It’s an exquisite and subtle bit of filmmaking.
I could write an entire essay just on the subject of Lucas’s tattoos. There are people more informed than I on the subject who already have. As I said, each tattoo means something. The symbols, the placement, the combinations, which ones he doesn’t have. Lucas is right; it’s fascinating. I think I’d lose my sense of purpose here if I tried to talk about each of them. So I’ll just hit some major points, because this matters. The show is holding a flashing neon sign over Lucas’s head, demanding that we know certain things about him right now before we go any further with him.
The first tattoo Harry remarks upon – an attempt at small talk, but one that of course only leads them both into the painful morass of all they can’t really say – is placed on Lucas’s back just below the neck and reads “dum spiro spero.” This literally translates from the Latin as “while I breathe I hope,” although Lucas gives the more appropriately contextual meaning of “while I live I hope.” Poignant. Heart-wrenching, being explained by a man who has, as Adam said, given everything and is somehow still standing here.
Below that, dominating the majority of his back, are eight onion domes bearing the Orthodox cross. Each of these represent a year of his incarceration. It’s the sight of these that first knocks Harry back. Their foreign-ness, their crudeness, the time and suffering they represent, the vulgar boldness of them stretching from one side of his back to the other, the simple fact of the great change they make to Lucas’s remembered appearance – any or all of these are enough to drain the color from him and freeze him in the doorway, as far as he can get from facing the man he has however unintentionally wronged.
When Lucas turns to let Harry see the full extent of the damage, the camera slow-pans up his torso starting with the words “gnothi seauton” (“know thyself”) just above his waistband. Gratuitous display of sexuality in the camera work subverted by the sick feel of the wrongness of how this man has been forced to mar his body in order to survive. We get up to the chest and are there confronted by the massive Blake print. It’s as the camera is focused there that Lucas tells us there’s a specific iconography to the culture of prison ink, which I find relevant, as this tattoo is his most intriguing and possibly anarchic artistic statement.
(This gif set I had the good fortune to run into while writing demonstrates the feeling of the moment I’m talking about fairly well, I think.)
In addition to these, he has the Russian symbol for “peace” at the base of his spine, an eight-pointed star on his left bicep, a ship at full sail at sea on his right bicep, a Russian phrase denouncing “squealers” down the length of his inner left arm, an enigmatic acronym on the inside of his right wrist below a shackle with a trailing chain, and five dots on the inside of his left wrist.
They’re all meaningful, of course, and they were all put there by the show for a reason, but since mostly what they present is a general impression and unanswerable enigma (and others have put a lot of effort into shedding some light on them,) I’m just going to talk about the ones that ignited my imagination on my first viewing.
Obviously, the Blake. I have to confess that I was intrigued enough by that weird tattoo Lucas chose to have placed so large and prominently on the center of his body over his heart that I Googled it immediately. So I was right away aware that this is an odd and bold image for him to have chosen in context, which therefore makes this maybe the most (or only) truthful thing Lucas tells us about himself.
There is no denying the obvious religious connotation of the image, placed in a location where other Russian prisoners would typically have a crucifix or the Virgin Mary, but instead of what he would have been expected to display there he chooses one of Blake’s more famous prints. According to Wikipedia: “In the complex mythology of William Blake, Urizen is the embodiment of conventional reason and law… Originally, Urizen represented one half of a two-part system, with him representing reason and Los, his opposition, representing imagination.”
Lucas’s interest in Blake is, as we are told in the next episode, bordering on the obsessive and stems from his unique vision and his distrust of systems. So Lucas is a man naturally inclined to rebel, yet has dedicated his life to reinforcing The System as an officer of the British government. Either a betrayal of his own nature, or a deliberate act of self-discipline. For reasons which come to light later, I’m inclined to see Lucas as a man driven by passion at war with his own reason. Whichever way, there’s the tension of a tightly-wound coil at the heart of who he is.
We don’t really know what the tattoo means to him because we don’t know what Blake means to him. Is it a rebellion against his Methodist father? Blake is often associated with anarchist thought; is it an expression of his own radical leanings, a way of shouting his true beliefs at the world even as he actively works to subvert them? Is the choice of Urizen – the embodiment of reason and law – as the symbol he wears across his chest, there as a reminder to keep his passions under control, literally holding his heart in check? Is it a secretly bold announcement, surrounded by the Russian criminal element in prison, of his status as a lawman? Flashing his badge, so to speak?
I just don’t know. But the fact is that I can’t stop wondering. I’ve been engaged.
“Dum spiro spero,” obviously also of interest. It’s an almost romantic mantra, especially in his line of work, which offers more tantalizing clues about the man we’ll be getting to know.
“Gnothi seauton.” This one becomes more meaningful after Lucas’s full history comes to light, so for the moment we’ll just give it a nod because it is interesting to note that he is a man who actively thinks about identity. Perhaps this was a reminder to keep his humanity through the horror he suffered in prison. Perhaps it was an act of defiance as he remained loyal despite the Russians’ attempts to turn him.
The rest of the tattoos, I didn’t know the full meanings of in my first viewing, so it would be disingenuous to talk about what they tell me about him. Except that I was struck by the shackle and chain. Not knowing the actual significance of this image at the time, it suggested to me a rather sad acknowledgement that he would always be a prisoner, even if he one day was set free. An acceptance that he would never again be the Lucas who had not been captured and tortured.
This is the impression I carried with me through the scene, watching with a twisting gut as these two men danced around discussing anything that actually mattered. Harry wants Lucas to “go home” and get some rest. He’s guilty, he’s uneasy, he doesn’t know what to do with Lucas, doesn’t even know if he’s really Lucas anymore or if he has come back as something else entirely. But the problem, as Lucas points out tiredly, is that he doesn’t have a home to go to. It’d be an uneasy night tossing on a cheap motel mattress until the agency finds the time to debrief him and decide what’s to become of him. He has nothing left but MI-5, and here MI-5 is hinting that it’s done with him.
It’s because of the guilt that Harry gives in and allows Lucas temporary clearance just to help bring the kidnapped soldier home. Harry says they’ll talk “properly” after that. They both already know it’s not true. As a parting blow, as if the scene hasn’t hurt us enough already, Lucas finds out that his ex-wife has moved on. He really does have nothing left but his work.
The rest of the episode basically confirms everything we want to believe about our new hero: he jumps right into his work with dedication, vigor, and competence. He knows the professional language and protocols. He’s intense, he’s brave, he’s intelligent. He thinks creatively in a pinch – thinking to flush the kidnappers out of the building by calling in and pretending to be their boss’s Russian backer. (Fluently bilingual, and not simply in a Romance language – that certainly doesn’t hurt my impression of him.) He shows himself physically fit, taking out one of the fleeing bad guys with an unthinkingly graceful attack. He moves with purpose and authority, always in control, a contrast to Adam who has more the spy-style of innocuously seeming to pose no threat. In the endgame of the episode, Lucas hunts down and fights the bomber with a further display of his physical skills, is savvy enough to recognize when she’s biting down on a suicide pill and tries to pry it out of her mouth in time. He knows everything about doing the job that the other experienced, already-present characters have shown they know. He’s proven himself. He’s one of them.
Only he’s damaged. He is something they’re not. This is his home, but he has become an outsider. This is a feeling that speaks to me strongly. I’ve never been on the inside.
Essentially, what the first episode establishes is that Lucas North is the wounded protecting the innocent. Like Boromir fighting to protect Merry and Pippin to the very last of his strength. This is a concept that really burrows into my psyche. I certainly don’t see myself as innocent, so I don’t see him as my hero figure – I am definitely firmly in the camp of identifying with him. Which suggests that I take his unfolding tragedy so personally because to me it is personal.
By the time of his second episode, 7.2, I’m firmly hooked because I already care enough to be sick to my stomach when the show tries to make me believe that Lucas really isn’t joking about being a Russian spy.
So what is it about the first episode?
I think I’d have to say it seems I was engaged in a painful and entirely unexpected process of recognizing myself in Lucas North, piece by piece, while also wrestling with the mystery he presents and nervously hoping to be able to respect what I would find at his center. I suppose I was both attracted and repulsed, but above all intrigued. I really wasn’t looking to see my own damaged complexities represented by a giant, handsome Englishman in this spy show I’d never heard of and was watching purely as an artistic reference point. With every blow he suffers I found myself more deeply invested in the hope that there was some way he could find… not happiness. I already knew he could never be happy. But wholeness, maybe? Healing?
Therefore each and every time he takes a new hit, every time he can’t hide the cracks in his psyche, every time he loses control, every time wholeness is chased just a little further off – every time I saw another hint of myself – it landed squarely in the heart of my heart and pried at all of my fractured pieces.
And of course, this is what Lucas North’s time on the show is all about. He is the poster child for the molecular incompatibility between heroism and self-interest, which means he’s there to come apart at the seams. He’s scrabbling for purchase at the edge of the abyss, desperate to stay in the light, fighting what he refuses to believe is the inevitable. But there comes a moment of stillness in the struggle, and in that moment he is forced face-to-face against the awful realization that the only thing he can do is just let go and fall. There was never any chance he wouldn’t break me.
I could go on – I intended to, actually – about the way Lucas North’s developing story continued to heap more emotional distress upon me as my viewing progressed. I could enumerate every time he displays a tragically heroic willingness to die to save a life. Every pained microexpression that I caught because I was watching for them, every reference to his brokenness. (7.2 is a near-constant barrage of moments designed to let us know just how damaged he has come to us.) All the little details. Insomnia worsened by his inability to sleep in a normal bed after coming home from prison (that one literally made me gasp in pain, when the only way he could sleep was on the floor.) Episodes of PTSD, flashbacks to his brutal torture. When the shock of the taser makes him far sicker than it should because it sends him right back into his memories. Episode 8.4 in its entirety. The way he holds his neck when he’s distressed, as though he’s remembering the feel of the noose he tried to hang himself with in prison. Moments of self-abuse when the demons are clawing. Oblique deflected references to what he’s been through. (Eight years reading sabbatical.) The ruthless efficiency with which he switches on the persona of the killer, becomes someone else, in 9.8. The way he moves through the expected little demonstrations of just being alive as though they are a performance – including his doomed, terrible decision to strike up an intimate relationship with the woman he perceives he’s supposed to be attracted to.
As a side note, I don’t believe for a single second that the lack of onscreen sizzle between Sarah Caulfield and Lucas is an accidental result of lacklustre acting or absent chemistry – I will defend to the death the belief that we are never meant to think their relationship is driven by any sort of passion on either side.
For one thing, their scenes together – especially their first kiss – are shot in such a way as to minimize the duration and intensity of their contact and to, in fact, downplay their intimacy. If it was really a matter of chemistry, what their kisses lacked in passion could have been made up for in breathless duration, or cut together in such a way as to imply spiraling forward momentum, but instead they are presented as though they both can’t wait to break contact. Given the show’s utter brilliance and artistry in shooting literally every other scene, and given at least Armitage’s established acting versatility, I cannot see this as an accident.
For another, Sarah is quite clearly drawn as coldly calculating, motivated by weighed advantage rather than passion. Her loyalty is to her job (her real job,) and she’s with Lucas to gain access to MI-5. That’s never in question, even before we learn she’s a traitor to the CIA. Whatever flaws actress Genevieve O’Reilly may have re. her distractingly atrocious attempt at an American accent, she legitimately gives me shivers as intended when she murders her boss and then appears in Lucas’s apartment to tell him she loves him in the most sociopathically cold way I have ever heard. She is a self-professed elitist, drawn to Lucas because she feels herself entitled to an attractive, intelligent boyfriend. Her involvement with him is never driven by emotion.
As for Lucas, I don’t think the show wastes money or frames on coincidences. Earlier in the very episode where he puts the moves on Sarah, he is sent to a strip club to collect intelligence. Ros makes a crack about him “taking one for the team,” and it seems to take him a beat to parse what she’s implying. His smile in response to her joke is delayed and perfunctory. I think he has been slowly reassembling the pieces of himself he needs to function, since being broken in prison, and the need for sexual intimacy has not arisen as a priority. Ros is unintentionally reminding him that healthy heterosexual males are supposed to be interested in women and sex. And because what Lucas is trying to do, every day of his life, is blend in and not attract undue notice, it very much reads like he is taking the cue and performing the expected act of normalcy when he makes his play with Sarah.
We’ve already had clues by this point as to just how paranoid and calculating he is. The very act of being Lucas North is a performance for an ever-present audience in the round; it doesn’t stretch my imagination in the slightest to believe that he’s in the relationship purely to deepen the legend.
So he plays out the role of Being a Boyfriend to the letter but without any detectible enthusiasm or tenderness. I think he’s actually repulsed by Sarah. Witness his disgusted reaction to her when he finds out she’s had the journalist killed in order to punish MI-5 for going back on their deal with the CIA. He goes on to sleep with her in the same episode. Later, when she resurfaces after going on the run, they both admit they never really had any interest in talking to each other. The only sign of an emotional bond with her surfaces a.) when he is deeply wounded by the encounter with his torturer and requires comfort, and b.) when he senses (and then confirms) that Sarah has betrayed his trust.
Which is really one of our first clues into how self-involved he actually is, under the heroism and the courage and the willingness to risk his own life to protect others: his feelings are all about how other people impact him, not about what they themselves might need. He talks often about trust, about the importance of it, about his need for it and his contempt for people who betray it. (Seriously, I feel like I ought to count how many times he says the word trust in his twenty-four episodes.) When Sarah turns out to be a bad apple, his isn’t the grief of a broken-hearted lover. It’s the hurt of a man whose interests and inner mantra have been violated.
Sorry. I was in the middle of saying I wasn’t going to obsess over every little detail. Ahem.
What I was trying to say is that while I could remark upon each and every instance of Lucas’s suffering to demonstrate how many times and how deeply the show wounded me through him, I don’t think that would convey the point any more than I already have. The fact is, I could write essays about each of these moments, as evidenced above. I could spend several thousand more words talking about the tattoos, or his PTSD, or his habitual microexpressions of weariness and calculation and readjustment, or the developing sense we get of the depth of his paranoia, or his relationship with Ros and how I think it affects his later dynamic with new recruit Beth Bailey in season 9. I’m quite certain I could write a legitimate scholarly analysis of the carefully composed tension between instances of impotence and power in episode 8.4, where Lucas is made to confront his Russian torturer. Maybe one day I will. But I don’t think, in this moment, that it would get me any closer to the root of my Lucas North pain.
I think it’s the fact that I have this much to say that has the greater relevance.
The moment approaches when I can no longer avoid navigating this discussion beyond the plot twist into the territory where I just don’t even know what I’m feeling, but there’s a necessary stop to be made first along that road. I’ve mentioned it and moved right past because it’s more intense than a mere mention can encompass:
Oleg Darshavin, the chief interrogator in charge of Lucas’s torture, surfaces in London demanding to meet with him. Armitage turns out a performance so nuanced and vulnerable and raw that I watch the entire episode with hurt tears in my eyes even when he’s not onscreen, my hands gripping each other so tightly I lose all sensation in my fingers and don’t even notice until the credits are rolling. That’s when the shakes set in. My mind is for a while incapable of higher thought; I think I am actually in some form of shock. I have never seen such a detailed, masterful use of body language and vocal modulation to convey character. This is a performance as deserving of critical acclaim as any Oscar- or BAFTA-winning turn, and I am stunned to find that it was not recognized.
I have my first clue as to just how deeply Armitage is capable of wounding me with Lucas North. This is where I know I’ve never felt this way about another character, from any story, ever.
And there comes a moment in all of this – or maybe it’s nothing as easy as a moment, maybe it’s a process of moments happening not all at once and not necessarily in any order that makes sense – where I am watching because I’m still mesmerized by Armitage modeling my original character, but I am also watching because there is me up there on the screen. Horribly. The two things blend and merge until their borders are lost and I have no idea what I’m feeling, only that it’s too personal and somehow my doing, but also utterly beyond my control.
I do feel it was during this episode that whatever alchemical process took place that ultimately led to my outright emotional combustion. I can examine all of the small ways in which I was falling in love with Lucas North and becoming more invested in him by the moment up to this point. Every instance of those qualities that grabbed me in his very first scene. I can clearly document that progression. But I think this was where the magic happened, whatever it was, that took this to a place beyond my usual fictional character empathy.
Why? How did it happen? Where?
Well, the episode begins with Ros mourning her part in the death of her younger team-member, Jo. She’s in bed, alone, sleepless, in distress. For Ros, this is an extreme display of emotional breakdown. She’s the stoic one who is always alright, the still point in any storm.
From here we cut to Lucas in bed with his nominal love interest. Cue first juxtaposition of images of helplessness versus potency in this amazingly constructed episode. Immediately we see that the comparison to Ros’s state is not quite as polar as first appears, because as usual, Lucas is wrestling with insomnia. So he has achieved a level of sexual potency, but this hasn’t freed him of the demons which keep him awake at night. Sarah, not actually asleep as she appears to be, assumes he’s worried about the illicit nature of their relationship and orders him to tell Harry and get it over with. He easily reclaims his power in the face of her demand by smoothly pointing out that she hasn’t told her boss either. She attempts to trump him with a low blow, too presumptive, too personal: “Yeah, but I’m not thinking about my boss when I should be sleeping. What is it with you and Harry Pearce anyway?”
Lucas strikes a note we’ve not really heard from him before in his response. “Harry and me? It’s a sexual thing.” Assertive, sly, knowingly naughty. It’s very much a performance of male virility, and it provokes the desired effect. We can assume it’s the reclamation of his sexual potency that has given him the confidence and the necessarily indolent mood for such a joke made in such a manner.
But then, after ending the interaction clearly in the position of power, he falls asleep and has a vivid and disturbingly sensual nightmare, laced with images of thwarted agency, in which he is again helpless at the mercy of the man who broke him in Russian prison. Lucas can reach for control, can even hold onto the illusion of it for a moment, but he is ultimately still impotent. He wakes from the dream in a state of panic, a loss of status in the presence of his new girlfriend – who is absently tracing the lines of his tattoos, the visual reminders of his imprisonment and the physical act of betrayal he was forced to commit against his own body.
But if I don’t want to be at this until my final breath, I’m going to have to make myself stop looking at these moments of power vs. impotence. Most of them, anyway. They just keep coming. In fact, there is never a moment where we get to rest firmly on one side of the line. It’s a dance, back and forth. That’s the point. The entire episode is a battle being fought in the psyche for Lucas’s autonomy and quite literally his ability to go on, and we are uneasily never certain where Lucas will be when the battle is over.
At work on The Grid the next day, after a few more minor power struggles, Lucas learns that Oleg Darshavin is in London looking for him. I think this was where it happened. Or where it began to happen. Harry shows him the security footage, Lucas recognizes the man mouthing his name directly at the camera. He has to sit down abruptly while explaining, as matter-of-factly as he can, who and what Oleg is. Cannot stop his voice from faltering. That was it. That was where I understood the stakes. That was where my gut went from vague unease to the start of a full-on churn.
I think I feared that Lucas was about to lose the battle. That as valiantly as he had been trying to carry on, the mask was about to be pulled off and everyone would see how broken he really is. I feared that I was about to watch this man I care about, this man I identify with, fall apart on the screen in front of me. I feared meltdown. I feared the exposure of a hurt too deep for me to deal with, going beyond what I could safely observe and catalogue in the way of the neutral witness. Essentially, I feared that everything Lucas was about to feel, I was going to feel myself without the safety of an objective buffer.
And then the show does to me exactly what I fear. Lucas, so superbly acted by Armitage that I simply cannot praise him highly enough for the hypnotic power of his performance, takes me down with him into a dark place of anxiety, foreboding, pain, shame, despair, and a defiant hope as he bravely makes the decision to face the man who broke him and who is even now trying to assert dominance over him. In their first scene together, Oleg requires Lucas to submit to the ritual humiliation of unnecessarily stripping down and changing into a prison-like uniform, ostensibly to prove that he isn’t wearing a wire. Armitage’s body language as he complies, displaying the sinking acceptance of remembered shame, makes my heart jump into my throat. And then at the end of the encounter, when Oleg leaves and you can literally see Lucas lose his ability to maintain his show of strength and he simply collapses like a marionette with its strings cut–
There is a scene in the middle of the episode, where Lucas has let Oleg into his home in order to get the necessary intelligence from him. The balance of tension is knife-edged. Is Lucas in control, or is he about to fall apart? He holds himself together through a sheer act of will even though the situation very nearly flies apart when Sarah shows up intending to bug his apartment for the CIA.
Armitage’s body language is arresting, as it is through the entire episode – a combination of submission and a cautious pride, knowing Lucas must placate Oleg’s need to dominate, but also daring to assert his status as the professional whose help Oleg has sought out (voice faltering when he can’t quite manage it. Armitage’s command of vocal modulation is flawless. The singer in me cannot help but recognize and respect.) He deals with Oleg, casts Sarah out in a towering rage (this is the first time we’ve really seen Lucas lose his temper, and it’s terrifying because he has noticeably been keeping an iron grip on his emotions until now and we see why,) and calls Ros with the intel.
Then he falls apart.
We are shown an intense flashback to Russia as Lucas battles a full attack of PTSD complete with dizziness and nausea in the real time of the story. We see the torture, the isolation, the ritual humiliation. I cried the breaking of my heart as I watched Lucas reach the moment of despair in which he decides to take his own life. It is Oleg who cuts him down and forces him to live. I was in literal physical pain at this point, because I was there with him, without any buffer, feeling his desolation. It’s the acting, the writing, the cinematography, the lighting, the music (the music! Those mournful strings!), the careful construction of the episode that leads us all to this moment but also the cumulative trajectory of everything Lucas has been through to get to this point, the journey the show has taken us on. It’s an overwhelming confluence of suffering, like the exact opposite of serendipity. I’ve looked into the heart of Lucas North’s reality and nothing is the same ever again.
In the end, Lucas admits to Harry that he needs help (surrenders his sovereignty, again), and they manage the situation. Lucas faces Oleg again, this time reclaiming his stolen power by accepting his brokenness. This scene, too, is so raw and so powerfully acted that there are no words to describe the experience of watching it. Lucas returns home, exhausted in every way, to find Sarah waiting for him, fresh off of murdering her boss. Heartbreakingly, he surrenders the power he has fought so hard for over the course of the episode by being snowed by her lies and embracing her back into his circle of intimacy. Worst of all, he thinks he’s asserting control, making a choice, in demanding that she stay. This should have been a victory for him, facing one of his literal demons and coming out on top. But instead this is where we leave him, on the low ground at the mercy of Sarah’s duplicity, with her declaring coldly, “I love you so much,” as we scream an unheard warning for him to watch out.
I can’t really pull apart all the threads of what makes this episode so potent, because it’s the everything. But what makes it so terrifying and riveting is that beautifully choreographed battle for control that ultimately ends in defeat. Or surrender – even worse, given the nature of the fight? Because this is where we know that Lucas is going to keep fighting until his last breath, but he’s never going to win. The seeds of the tragedy are already sown and there is no happy ending in store for this man.
Given how I had already come to see myself in him, there was no way to stop that pain from landing squarely in my heart. There is perhaps no way in which I feel I am more like Lucas than in my powerlessness, my lack of agency to change any of the defining features of my existence. Like Lucas’s, my life has been bound and shaped by the ripple effect of a single disastrous decision in youth. Watching the power struggle in this episode play out so hopelessly is, for me, rather like taking a physical beating.
If season 7 is all about Lucas resolving the fractured pieces of the man he used to be, the traumas he suffered in prison, and the man he is supposed to be now that he’s free – reclaiming his agency, struggling to regain his professional brilliance and respect – then season 8 sees him cast relentlessly in the role of the victim, as though he himself is the prison from which he cannot escape.
In episode 8.1, his mentor and father-figure is taken from him and he is forced to abase himself before the CIA in order to get him back. At the end of the season, in 8.8, Sarah resurfaces in order to kill him on orders from her higher-ups, and all along we witness Lucas’s ultimate powerlessness: competent as he is, he’s unknowingly working alongside the very man who has given the order. Every episode on the seasonal arc is linked by this ongoing thread of impotence subverting power, where his capabilities – established in the previous season as unsurpassed in the field – are always in some way balked. By rules, by lies, by circumstance. He can’t hope for victory against an enemy he doesn’t even know is there. At the end of this long defeat he is unable, despite figuring out the plot, catching the bad guys, finding the bomb, and averting a nuclear war, to save Ros’s life. Powerlessness.
This progression from the sad to the tragic makes it feel inevitable when season 9 reveals the awful truth: Lucas North was always a lie.
The show takes its time drawing out the dread after a man shows up who calls Lucas by the name of “John” and asks him what it has been like to be Lucas North. This man and the incident inspire foreboding because his appearance causes an immediate change in Lucas’s body language that is all too forcefully reminiscent of his beaten-dog wariness in the presence of Oleg Darshavin. Lucas is terrified, but of what? Not of the man himself, who appears to be a cripple. It’s the reference to the past that has him spooked – a past he shared with this man, who repulses him.
The implication, of course, is that Lucas has done horrible things he needs to keep buried.
We’re tormented by hints throughout the season as everything starts to come apart for him; it’s not until 9.7 that we get the story. I won’t say “true” story, because I don’t think we ever get that. Not from Lucas, and not from the mysterious man, Vaughn. They’re both consummate liars and manipulators, and they both have a vested interest in the fidelity of their respective spins.
The bare facts, regardless of whose version of the story more closely resembles the truth, are these:
Lucas North’s real name is John Bateman. In college he went through a rebellious phase and got involved in a drug smuggling situation that left him stranded without money or passport in Dakar. Trying to “find” himself, he tells Harry. He took a job at a casino where he met Lucas North, a young British national who was there to take in Dakar’s culture of spycraft in preparation to joining MI-5; John was simply trying to earn enough money to get himself back home. That’s where he was noticed by Vaughn Edwards, an unscrupulous independent contractor who as often as not caused the off-books work he was hired by MI-5 to handle.
Recognizing John’s brilliance and tremendous potential, Vaughn got his hooks into him and capitalized on his need for money and a sense of purpose. It started with small jobs. Pick-ups, deliveries. John thought he was working indirectly for the UK government, felt important. He wanted to do more. Vaughn gave him a job that would pay more than all the others combined: planting a suitcase bomb at the British Embassy. Seventeen people died in the explosion. In order to escape the fallout, John killed Lucas North and stole his passport, assuming his identity and scuttling John Bateman.
Lucas/John claims he didn’t know what was in the briefcase. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he did, but believed there was a worthy higher purpose to be achieved by planting it. Maybe his motives, no matter what they were, suffered a rude awakening as he stood beneath the shower of ash from the explosion, confronted by the reality of the dying and the dead and the fire and chaos. I don’t know whether that was where he changed, or whether it was the visceral experience of choking the life out of his only friend that did it. He says he asked for the passport first, before resorting to murder. That might be true.
I prefer to believe John stupidly thought he was a part of something larger and that his work mattered, that he was finally as special as he had always felt he deserved to be, and that he didn’t bother to ask the right questions because his gut told him everything he needed to know about Vaughn Edwards and he didn’t want the illusion shattered. I prefer to believe John’s heart was never bad, that he simply lacked guidance and made bad choices, because from that point on he makes the decision to be the kind of man Lucas would have been. A good man, steadfast, a patriot, protector of the innocent. When it all comes out, he says to Harry – and I think it’s one of the only true things he ever says – “I tried to do all the good that Lucas would have done if he’d lived. That’s never been a lie. That’s the deal that I make with him every single day.” John wears Lucas’s name not just to play the role, but as a form of self-flagellation, a daily reminder of his guilt. He could just as well have gone into hiding after using the passport to escape from Dakar, but he takes the hard road, the one with redemption a possibility at the end. Because he wants to be one of the good.
But that’s just a theory. My theory. Because I believe in Lucas North.
Whatever the actual case, from that day forward, John Bateman is no longer allowed to exist. He doesn’t just take Lucas North’s name, he disappears and becomes him. Takes on the life Lucas would have had and shuts the memory of his true self away. (I can’t even begin to look at the level of intense compartmentalization and resulting psychological damage necessary for him to have been able to hold onto the Lucas North identity under torture for eight years. I can’t even talk about “gnothi seauton” and why he forces himself to wear those words.) The real Lucas was already to the last stage of application to MI-5 when John killed him; all that remained was the face-to-face, which John/Lucas aced due to his sharp brilliance and charisma.
One of the stand-out characteristics that we first pick up on in Lucas’s early episodes, the thing that really makes him noticeably different from all the other spies, is his intense, alert watchfulness. This is not to suggest that his colleagues are oblivious, only to point out that the degree to which he is constantly, keenly scanning his surroundings goes above and beyond the vocational paranoia modeled by anyone else on the team before or after him. This is a man who expects threats to appear at all moments, who never considers himself safe, who knows he is being watched, who is always aware that he may have to fight or fly and therefore needs to have all of his assets and exits carefully logged. He is always assessing, always calculating. He has honed his body and mind into gracefully efficient instruments that are ready for anything. In the beginning, this gives him an air of sharp professionalism that sets him apart. We never doubt Harry when he describes Lucas as “one of the best.” When the plot twists, we see that this watchful, paranoid readiness is the necessary characteristic which has kept him alive in an identity made of lies. The fact that it has made him such an effective MI-5 officer is secondary, but it has.
John is very much not Lucas. John is emotional, reactionary, enthusiastic, a romantic. Childishly selfish. We see this when Vaughn strategically places John’s old girlfriend in his path in order to give him something to lose, something that can be manipulated. For a while we’re seeing him play John and Lucas as two distinct roles that must never collide – he even changes wardrobe for the parts, dressing more casually, more youthfully as John than he ever does as Lucas. In his natural habitat, as it were, we begin to pick things up about him that he has always managed to hide as Lucas. John is a man who forms emotional attachments quickly and deeply, but he has learned that bad things happen when he allows himself passion. The spectre of his stern religious upbringing? Or John Bateman’s final lesson in Dakar? And so he has been keeping his emotions locked away where they can’t hurt anyone. He’s learned that when he allows himself his passion, people die.
Unfortunately, now that John is coming out, so are John’s emotions. The tension of keeping these two distinct selves separate begins to pry apart the cracks in Lucas’s already fractured mind and he starts to suffer a full psychological break.
The past doesn’t emerge easily. From the moment Vaughn reappears in his life asking for help, wielding the embassy bombing as leverage, Lucas resists. He has left John, Dakar, the truth, and his own dubious moral code behind and he doesn’t want to go back. For all the pain it has brought him and all the sacrifice it has required, he has been proud to be Lucas North. A hero. Someone who believes in something and can look himself in the eyes. I get the idea he never had that as John. Even as Vaughn pushes and pressures and eventually manipulates him into a situation where he feels like his only option is to give Vaughn what he wants so he’ll go away again, Lucas still fights to cling to the integrity of self he has adopted as an officer of the British government. He wants there to be any way he can get out of the corner he’s in without having to hurt anyone.
I firmly believe this is real and not another delusion, because if he was truly a bad man, there are easy ways he could have dealt with Vaughn when he first appears. Could have killed him, could have hunted him down and ruined him. Could have gone to Harry for help, spinning the story in his favor and pinning everything on Vaughn. Could have cut and run, at the very least. Instead he stays, does his job, cares for his team, keeps risking his life to save others, tells Vaughn he’s not that kind of man anymore. When he does make that first decision to cross the line, after fighting to stay on the straight and narrow, it’s a relatively small transgression for the pressure he’s under: he passes on a file and simply gets a man fired instead of causing anyone’s death.
He is desperately trying to hold together all the broken pieces of himself as they strain through his fingers but his entire existence, his self, is nothing but an elaborately constructed lie. He only knows how to play Lucas North.
The problem is that John Bateman gets shut down that day in Dakar and locked away in a box, so that when the lid finally comes off, he’s still the selfish, lost child who agreed to blow up an embassy just because it made him feel important to have the trust of someone powerful. He is never made to grow up into someone who is aware that other people are also autonomous beings with hopes, fears, and dreams that all have as much weight as his own. And as the Lucas North construct is eroded by the emergence of John, the man is replaced by the boy.
Obviously, this is where my issues with Lucas get all twisty and complicated and awful and he breaks my heart. But not heartbreak in the sense that we can’t see each other anymore and I have to hope we can stay just friends. Heartbreak because I don’t know where he ends and I begin and how much of his pain is actually coming from me.
He’s a complicated, messed-up triad of the person I am, the admirable qualities I wish I could have, and all that I find most repulsive in humanity. And to make it weirder to grok, he’s packaged as a beautiful, gracefully stealthy man played by an actor that I am literally incapable of looking away from when he is onscreen. (I mean it; I can’t multitask when Armitage is around. I have to stop whatever I’m doing to watch whatever he’s doing, because his onscreen presence is simply magnetic. Doing the necessary viewing to fact check for this piece has proven problematic.)
As the first decision to cross the line inevitably leads to more moments where he has no choice but to continue crossing lines in order to cover his tracks, Lucas falls away and John comes to the surface. But at the same time, all of the traits and skills that seemed honed to serve him in the role of the hero are revealed for the survival strategies they’ve been all along. That moment comes, the moment of stillness in the struggle, where he has to make a choice that doesn’t feel like a choice: he is forced to cross the final line. Save an innocent girl and watch all of the years of lies come crashing down, or let her die to protect the façade and the redemption he believes he can find with Maya. In that quiet moment, the struggle ends and John wins. Armitage makes me believe his heart is breaking as he lets the girl bleed to death in his arms. Mine breaks with him.
This was always careening to a disastrous end.
Being perfectly honest, I cry my entire way through episodes 9.7 and 9.8. The entire way. The tragedy is just so overwhelming to me at this point that I can’t hold myself together. Lucas/John is like a terrified boy who has broken a valuable vase, who believes he can escape the rod if only he can fix things (John is always talking about “fixing things” so everything will be all right) before anyone notices the damage. He wants to be good, wants to do right, but he just can’t. I feel that feeling. He is this immensely powerful man who is at his core so dangerously fragile that he was always going to end up breaking. I feel that too. The solitude of being so damaged that it’s no one’s job to help you and you have to handle everything on your own; then of course when the cascade failure begins, it’s far too much for you to handle. This is too real to me.
I’m literally hurting myself with the force of my sobs during the scene where he tells Harry, slowly, “My name isn’t Lucas North.”
It is difficult to talk about episode 8.4; this is impossible. This scene is why it will always be too soon. This scene is why I’ve spent the last fourteen thousand words trying to talk about my feelings for Lucas North. This scene destroys me. This scene causes me so much emotional distress that I can’t even make words that come close to describing what I went through as it played out that first time. I spent much of it trying to scrub the tears out of my eyes because they were obscuring the screen and I needed to absorb every subtle moment of Armitage’s detailed and very physical performance; it was unspeakably, carefully painful.
I don’t want to ignore the excellence of Peter Firth’s turn as Harry in this scene, because the interaction between them is what allows Armitage to play it so honestly, but it really is down to Lucas/John. The tears, the guilt, the shame. The childlike desperation for Harry’s forgiveness even though he knows he doesn’t deserve it. The words flung outward in defiant self-loathing, ripping me apart: “How do you think you get through eight years in a Russian prison? Eight years of beatings, torture, humiliation? How do you think you bear the simple physical pain of it? You bear it because you deserve it!”
No, Lucas. No. Don’t say that. No we don’t.
Except I know how you feel.
It ends in death, as all tragedies must. And as is usually the way of these things, it’s love that is our hero’s undoing. Or really, the idea of love. I don’t know if John/Lucas knows what love actually is, as desperate as he is to have it. He doesn’t understand that kind of selflessness. He thinks love is proprietary. It’s terrifying, the intense possessiveness with which he seeks out and reclaims his college girlfriend once she is held out to him as a lure. We see from Maya’s inability to stay away from him in spite of clearly knowing better that there is real passion between them. But we also see from her fear of that passion that she already knows what we are only now coming to understand that Lucas is capable of. The very first thing she thinks to ask, when she finds out John has been in prison, is whether he killed someone.
Vaughn dies, along with any chance of verifying any of Lucas’s story and clearing his name. His last words, smugly offered as a final manipulation, a final blow, have me sobbing “No, Lucas. Lucas, no,” at the screen:
“I wonder if you can even remember the truth… of what you were. You’re a killer, John, who fell asleep, dreamed he was a hero. Now it’s time to wake up and remember the truth. The dream is over now, and the killer… is awake.”
No, Lucas. No.
This utter deconstruction of everything I’ve come to know about Lucas North is tearing things apart inside of me.
I have to take a break after Lucas calls Harry to apologize for the way things turned out. Harry, softening now as he was not able to during that scene, tries to talk Lucas into coming in. Promises they’ll work something out. Says Lucas is invaluable to him. This is how Harry does affection.
But, “Lucas North,” John grinds out miserably, “is dead.”
His final episode is a solid hour of taking an emotional beating.
With Vaughn dead, John goes into business for himself to free himself and Maya from the people who want the information Vaughn was after in the first place. He is now an enemy of the state, with his old team pursuing him. We see clearly now just how true the assertions really were all along: he is one of the best. He is in fact better than all of them combined (although one wonders how things would have been different if Ros had lived.) Easily outmaneuvers them, gets what he needs, escapes with it, sells it on.
Except Maya dies in the crossfire. John saw her as his one chance of happiness. Regardless of the cost to anyone, even to Maya, he was determined to have the life with her that he felt he’d earned by being good for so long – proving that he was always, underneath, the same selfish child capable of hurting so many people. But with her gone, he has nothing left. His past, present, and future all clarify. He’s finished. There’s only one thing left.
As if I haven’t cried enough by now, John lures Harry to the top of the building where Lucas North once lived in order to kill him. To make him pay for Maya’s death. What happens instead is that Harry tries to save him one last time. Because all along, he has been the father figure whose approval John always wanted, and Harry has always loved him like a son. But John tells him, brokenhearted, weeping openly now, “I can’t go back to prison, Harry. I’ll die in there, you know I will.” In that moment, we do know it. The truthfulness of the scene, the circumstances, the acting. All we’ve been through to get us to this moment. Harry’s pleas are no use. John is broken and has nothing left to lose, nothing to do but to take one last life. He points his gun at Harry and orders him to turn around.
Harry tries one final appeal to the son he can’t bear to lose.
“Who are you? Are you John the murderer? Or are you Lucas, the man who gave up so many years to help so many people, saved so many lives? Who are you?”
And the two words that have made me cry harder than anything I’ve ever cried at before in my life: “I’m nothing.”
He jumps. Harry doesn’t see him do it. It’s silent. And it’s over.
And he was wrong. Lucas North was never nothing. I wish so hard I can’t even breathe that he could have known that. I know I need to know it too.
And now that it comes down to it, it feels like it should have been obvious at least from 8.4 onward that what gets to me is the futility, the powerlessness, the hopeless battle for agency. The fact that Lucas can struggle, suffer, sacrifice so much, only for it all to come to nothing because he was always broken. What does that say about my own chances? When Harry is grieving before the MI-5 memorial wall at the end of season 10, you see that Lucas/John doesn’t even have a place there. The fifteen years he gave his country, the eight years of hell in Russia, don’t even count.
We spend a season coming to know, admire, and love Lucas. Another watching him doggedly keep up the fight against odds that were never fair. And then, once he’s deep in our hearts, we spend an entire season knowing that we’re watching him self-destruct. The futility of it all is as real for us as it is for him.
Basically, Lucas’s entire life is Boromir’s death scene in slow motion – fighting, wounded, knowing he’s already a dead man, knowing he screwed up and he’s not clean and that the only thing left to him, the only chance for his soul, is to shed his blood in defense of those who cannot defend themselves. At Lucas’s core is the knowledge that he’s not one of the innocent. That it is no one’s job to protect him, that he has no right to even ask for help. That he’s all alone and he deserves whatever he gets. In the same way that we flinch with every arrow Boromir takes, I flinch with every emotional blow, every pang Lucas endures, every wrong decision that leads to more grief. When will he have suffered enough? When will his slow defeat have been painful enough to wipe away his sins? When will he forgive himself? When will it be enough to “fix things”?
Never. The answer is never, because it doesn’t work that way.
Suffering isn’t a magical cure for our wrongs. Suffering is just pain – but Lucas never understands that. He thinks if he just puts his head down and keeps taking it, keeps putting his life at risk, keeps hating himself, endures the years and the torture in prison, gives enough, makes his own life enough of a misery, denies himself everything he wants for himself, saves enough people, it will literally wipe out the murder and the lies so that there’s nothing left for him to have to atone for. The tragedy is that he never understands why this is a fundamentally broken attitude, and that’s why he was always going to fail. He never understands that there has to be a reckoning before you can be clean again, and that in making that daily choice to punish himself secretly on his own terms, he is always perpetrating another crime. The tattoos on his skin are a metaphor for the violence he’s committing against his own soul every day. He never understands that there is no virtue in the ugliness of what he’s doing to himself.
And yet, it’s a thing we do. It’s a thing I do.
That’s why Lucas North hurts me so deeply. He is me, struggling, failing, desperately trying to hold all the pieces together, unable to ask for help because he knows in his heart he doesn’t deserve it. Knowing all along that he’s fighting a losing a battle and that the only thing that can make the fight worth it is surviving the pain long enough to purchase grace. Watching it all fall apart. Helpless. Trapped by the choices of long ago. The harder he struggles to be free, the smaller the cage shrinks. He can see the end coming and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. But he fights it anyway with an almost childlike defiance, because there’s all this passion in him that he can’t always keep hidden.
I see all of that unfolding on the screen and it literally hurts me because it is me. And worse, as the layers of lies peel back and it is revealed that the hero was always a disguise, that the real man is small, fragile, selfish, violent – I see myself in that ugly truth as well. It’s like a knife in the gut after coming to identify with the broken hero figure, finding out this is what I really am underneath. It’s more than I can handle.
But the thing is, the reason I don’t know what to call him is because he may not be Lucas but he’s not John anymore either. I believe he believed in the work he was doing, or came to believe in it. I can’t accept that everything he accomplished as Lucas North was a lie. I think he had more of the hero in him than he knew. And I find hope in the fact that, after all is said and done, I love Lucas North with this intense loyalty that breaks my heart. Because it means that somewhere, at the base of it all, I have the ability to love myself. I didn’t know that was in there.
And there’s that part of me that believes it could have been different. He could have made it. I refuse to believe he was irredeemable. If he’d had guidance, if he had ever known a selfless love, if he had ever felt like he had the right to ask for help and get clean. If he had ever learned what Lucas North was trying to teach him about a higher purpose. (“I suppose you’ll think this is uncool, John, but you have to love something greater than yourself. God, country, an ideal – it doesn’t matter what. It’s what makes us human.”) He had so much fire inside, so much inner strength. I think he had the potential to be the hero he only thought he could pretend to be.
Harry tells him, in those final moments, that he wishes he’d met him before Vaughn did. Harry sees it too, what I see. He has a tender spot for Lucas that is clear now I’ve watched the entire series. Section Chief Tom Quinn was like an unruly but beloved son to Harry, Adam Carter a friend, Ros a trusted colleague – but Lucas was for Harry all three. When he goes up onto that rooftop to face Lucas alone, he knows he’s going to his death. He goes because he’s wiling to face that death if it means even a slim chance to bring Lucas home. He goes because he still has hope.
“What if there was one time in your life when everything made sense?” Lucas says when Ruth asks him why. “What wouldn’t you do to go back?” It’s the plea of a man afraid of his own power, who knows he has gone too far for grace but not for regret. He never wanted this. He’s still literally praying in a church for forgiveness at the end, still wants it, even as the fractured pieces of his mind are battling one another, even as he knows he’s falling apart. The fragility, the naivety bordering on innocence hidden beneath his show of strength that I am so intimately familiar with, the weight of guilt he carries with him every moment, prevent me from being able to condemn him. I know his struggle all too well for that.
It will always be too soon because there will never be a time when I will accept that Lucas couldn’t have been saved.
Because I believe in Lucas North.
Yes, Alyssa, This still gets comments. I read this once every few weeks. Just saying ….
Thank you. 🙂
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I appreciate that. Thank you for reading.
Great, you write very impressively, to me, it´s Guy….
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Wow. Really interesting analysis. Really generous of you to share painful personal info. Thanks for both. I am going to check out MI-5 again with your thoughts in my ear.
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Hi, great artical. Good to know someone thinks in the same line as me n just cannot let the story go. I’ve been thinking about nothing but LN. The heartbreaking feeling just doesn’t go away…
Thank you for this powerful and beautifully expressed piece of writing. I want to go back now and watch it all unfold again. I’m glad you have given me a plausible motivation for the whole Lucas/Sarah thing, because, without that, it’s hard for me to believe. Having stumbled across your piece my accident, I’m very intrigued to delve further into your blog.
I’m glad the piece spoke to you (and made you want to rewatch the show.) I hope the rest of the blog doesn’t disappoint after that rather intense introduction. lol
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Thank you, Perry.
This is the most extraordinary analysis of a fascinating piece of story telling. I too find Lucas North a very difficult character to get out of my head (not that I want to) but your identification with his torment gave me goosebumps as I read. I sincerely hope that your own anguish has lessened since you wrote this. Thinking of you.
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