Thursday, June 27, 2013

Well-Rounded: Portrayals in 'Continuum'

I have a lot of reasons for liking the recently-aired Canadian show Continuum, but the two I'm going to focus on are its deconstruction of some usual tropes in popular culture, as well as its surprisingly well-written and well-acted lead character- surprising because she's a she and doesn't fit a lot of the negative stereotypes about women making up a probably disproportionately large percentage* of the entries on

No, she's not a robot

I'm going to do my best to avoid specific spoilers, so hopefully you'll be able to read this and not feel stabby at me by the time you're finished. However, a lot of thematic elements that develop over time in the show are necessary to go into in order for this to work, so if you haven't seen Continuum  yet, I'm warning you, you may, indeed, get spoiled here. 

The premise of the show is that, roughly sixty years in the future, corporations have bailed the governments of the world out of a major financial crisis, and thus have taken control. What used to be the separate countries of the United States and  Canada has become the North American Union, an oligarchic police state with the corporations in charge under a body called the Corporate Congress. In response, a revolutionary group called Liber8 (labeled as "terrorist" by the corporate government) blossoms, and they make one particular move (in the first thirty seconds of the pilot) that leads to a group of them being sentenced to death (presumably without much in the way of a trial). During their execution, they combine pieces of an orb thingydo together, and presto! They're transported back to contemporary Vancouver, Washington. But lo, one of the corporate cops, Kiera Cameron, somehow got sucked into the time warp, and  she, too went back with them. The rest of the show is about Kiera working with the Vancouver police department to track down the members of Liber8 as they try to manipulate the past in order to prevent the corporate takeover of the future. 

I think having a description is necessary because two vital aspects of the story are its main strong-points: The conflict between Liber8's overall goals versus the actions of its members (in contrast to the government and police of the future), and  the way Kiera is portrayed. 

Let's start with Liber8. I've only seen the first season (yay Netflix), but as one would expect, there are myriad scenes where its members monologue about the evils of the corporate government. The whole premise of their name, for example, stems from how civil liberties are mostly gone in this future corporate state, and they seek to restore them. Overall, the things they espouse philisophically are the same ideas about democracy and liberty and freedom that are, supposedly, the cornerstone of our validations  for revolutions such as those of the  Arab Spring, the current situation in Turkey, and even the American Revolution. Notions of basic human rights and liberties that are being suppressed and violated aren't just notions in Continuum- the writers go to great lengths to show viewers that the members of Liber8 aren't exaggerating when they say personal freedom is nigh but gone. 

Some examples of the grievances of Liber8 are:

  • Lack of free speech
  • Extreme  surveilance of citizens
  • Databases of everyone's identity and DNA
  • A highly militarized police force whose officers get implanted with chips that enable them to access that database with, literally, a blink
  • All food production and distribution is under the control of one company
  • The Corporate Congress removes a number of important events from the historical record, as well as fudges things it keeps in order to paint a more pleasant  picture of corporations and corporate rule (a huge example is the bailouts of 2010 are removed from record entirely)
  • The existence of a Global Corporate Congress implies the situation in North America isn't unique

 So we're meant to sympathize deeply with the goals of Liber8- all of these things are "unheard of" and fly in the face of what we perceive as the cornerstone of modern, democratic societies currently in existence now. So it's not surprising a group like Liber8 would rise up,and one would assume the members of such an organization would be our heroes in a show about a future such as this.

An example  of stuff promoting the show,
but there's no reason to assume the
group within the show doesn't use this image, too
I'd like to note  a few things I think done in order to trip us  up, then. First, look at that iconography- using a red fist like the one in the  picture above (and that appears to be a regular image for  Liber8's propaganda) invokes (most likely deliberately) the raised fist of  solidarity  associated with communist revolutions and socialist movements. And yeah, it's red. Kind of blunt imagery, there. But given the bad rap communism  has in modern political rhetoric, one  would wonder why a hand such as that would be the symbol for any fictional revolutionary group. From an intellectual standpoint, it makes sense- corporations are in charge, so, essentially, capitalism has become not only the economic system, but the political one, as well. So bash it with communism? Okay, sure. More cynically, however, it may  be intended to undermine or make viewers question Liber8. That bad rap communism has means that a lot of people (wrongly) assume that the "communist revolutions" of China and Russia were actually communist- but they weren't, they were dictatorial. They led to police states not unlike that of Continuum itself, not fee and open societies like Marx and Engels would have wanted. But by invoking iconography associated with those false peoples' revolutions, seeds of doubt can be planted in the minds of viewers.

Also, there's the fact that the Corporate Congress and the police force, the City Protective Service (members are called "protectors") refer to Liber8 as a terrorist organization. It should come as no surprise- using "terrorist" as a misnomer is often a tactic employed by governments  attempting to stifle and delegitimize dissent. So if just given this info- liberating organization labeled as "terrorist" by the authoritarians would usually be a shoe-in for the group we're supposed to root for.

But then we see tactics we usually would associate with baddies being used by Liber8 members. Bombings, shootings, killing bystanders, and even killing one another- the tactics of these Liber8 members are exactly the opposite off what we'd expect noble revolutionaries to be doing. So we're also meant to believe the members of Liber8 being shown to us  are unethical and  bloodthirsty, cut-throat and utilitarian to the point of dismissive of human life- the "greater good" is a theme they toss about. They say they're fighting for a better future, but when their plan for that fight involves murdering the teenaged version of a future person's grandmother, we're not meant to side with them. We're meant to want  them to lose, because they do, in fact, act like the "terrorists" we're conditioned to fear on a daily basis.

Enter the main character, the Protector that got caught in the time warp and  traveled back to 2012. 

My gun doesn't use bullets, and yes, a computer screen
essentially appears IN MY FACE when I need it.
And also my outfit makes me invisible. Try me.
At first, she seems like a puppet for the Corporate Congress and its chokehold on the citizens of the  North American Union. She's very mission-focused and bluntly determined to get the job done, and we don't see her questioning a single order. And we're shown  enough of the CPS's practices to see that they aren't afraid  of causing collateral damage to civilians in order to get the target- CPS also blows up public  facilities during chases and in order to capture Liber8 members. 

So in that sense, while the two organizations- the government in the future, as well as the civilian group trying to end its reign- have entirely different goals, they do a lot of the same things. Individuals don't seem to matter- in Liber8's case, be they members or bystanders (let alone CPS or Corporate Congress members), or in CPS's case, the people they're targeting or that may inadvertently get in the way (and, actually, I think we're supposed to think  they also don't care about members as individuals, too).

So here's a huge dilemma: There doesn't seem to be any sort of structure or system without reason to hate it. We're supposed to dislike the Corporate Congress for its police state, but we're also supposed to at least disagree with Liber8 for its methods. The CPS, as the enforcement arm of the Corporate Congress, is just as implicated as the Congress itself, yet wantonly offing anybody doesn't really make  Liber8 seem like a very good alternative, either.

This leads to questions of systems versus individuals. Do the members of Liber8 that we see act the way every member does? They're willing to die for the cause, yes, but they're also more than willing to take down myriad people entirely uninvolved in the process. Is that the philosophy of the organization? Do the means justify the ends every single time? Is it possible to root for Liber8 but  hope the members in 2012 get caught?

And let's play with the word "continuum" a little. On the surface, the throwaway analysis has to do with timelines and whether they're linear, i.e. on a continuum or not.

But I actually want to take it a little deeper and discuss escalation and something law enforcement are trained under, something called (wait for it)... use of force continuum.  The gist is that law enforcement are trained to start small and only escalate as the threat itself escalates- they begin with  just talking, then move to non-weapon, hand-to-hand, then non-lethal weapons (sticks, pepper spray, etc.), then finally lethal weapons. They're supposed to gauge the situation and  determine  what level of force is  necessary, and only move forward on the continuum if absolutely  necessary. 

So when the CPS sends a bunch of swat choppers and blows up an entire floor of a building (one that likely has civilians in it), what the hell? Are we to believe that Liber8 had already grown into that much of a physically violent threat that CPS decided to quite literally bust out the big guns immediately? 

We see escalation right in the show- there's something  about how the execution taking place in the pilot is the first in decades, I  believe, yet there they are, about to off a bunch of people at once. And both sides bomb  the shit out of stuff, so how else to respond but in kind? But it's ambiguous as to whether Liber8 actually threw the first bomb- and I think we're supposed to believe they didn't. Which begs the question, who are the real terrorists?


Okay, that worm was dangling really low. But I think we're supposed to bite it. And that's fine. 

But the deeper question is where will they go next? I guess time travel is a pretty fat trump card, but there's obviously more to it. I said before that Liber8 was targeting ancestors of people in their time. So I postulate that CPS will somehow manage to send someone back (and probably contrive a way to get them stuck in our time, too, otherwise keep them as a shadowy menace and thus give them no reason to want to return to their own time) that is going to also start going around murdering ancestors- but of Liber8 members, naturally. 

Is there much else they can do? I mean, I doubt either is about to nuke anything in the  past because of the effect it would have on the future- but what about the future itself? If they're willing to blow up a building to get one Liber8 member, would the Congressional Congress even blink  before nuking a whole city (or at least, like, bombing the shit out of a neighborhood or something)?

Bottom line is, if we're going to follow theories that humans need authority in order to feel secure, then what authority  are we, as viewers caught up in this fictional world created in Continuum  supposed to look to for guidance?

And then there's Kiera. I said before she seems like a mouthpiece at first. But she's not- it's slowly revealed that for some time (although it's impossible to tell how long) before being transported, she had been questioning the Corporate Congress and CPS's goals and tactics- flashbacks (from her personal continuity, at least) show her hesitating at orders (in contrast to the first impression, yes), thinking  hard about information she's given, and a refusal to abuse the power she's given as a member of CPS. And of course, she does everything she can in the present to keep people from getting killed by the things the Liber8 members are doing. 

I think it's pretty obvious she isn't supposed to be the norm (for  Protectors, I mean), and we're meant to like  her not only because she's the main character, but because she's demonstrably a good person. We're meant to root for her as she struggles against Liber8, yes, but also as we consistently see her moral compass point in directions opposite of that of the government she's employed by- we're watching her as she, without necessarily realizing  it, is already defying  the Corporate Congress and CPS. She puts herself on the line myriad times in order to protect others, and she seems to be an example of the good cop in the corrupt system. So I'm pretty sure thatt she'll eventually have to decide whether to be lawful or good. And, well, yeah, she's going to choose good. 

Bomb just went off. First thing I do?
Check on the civilians.
But, there's more to her than just her pursuit of the Liber8 members. Some of the flashbacks  of her personal  past involve, yes, a family. She's a wife and mother, and she misses her family dearly.

All- North American Unian-ee. 
Now before you roll your eyes, let me assure you- this doesn't get overplayed or beaten into your skull until you see the faces of her husband and son when you close your eyes. She doesn't act like a mama bear. Not in the slightest- when she's dealing with Liber8, she  never once says anything like, "I'm doing this for my family/husband/son." Her home roles of mother and wife are separate from her role as law enforcer, and stuff about them really only crops up when she's by  herself and has the time to think. Usually she's focused on The Job  and protecting the people in the present. And no, I don't think that's the same thing- she's not protecting people here because  they're stand-ins for her family, she's doing it because she wants to keep people in general safe- it's why she's former military and then a  CPS member in the first place. She had that passion before becoming a wife or mother. And, let  me add one thing about this without giving  too much away- the relationship with the husband is complex. It's not fairy tale, let me assure you. She's not just a doting wifey, and he's not the alpha male of the household.

And does she pose? Does she act all slinky and sexualized? No. She's sexual in some moments, but she's in total control, and any time anything related to sex occurs, it's part of her development and shows the journey she's taking in her  mind  and heart- it's not sex for the sake of T&A- and, in fact, no T&A gets shown  at all. 

Not sexy
Of course, none of this would work if the acting was bad, but it's not- imho, it's top-notch and entirely believable. I never question Kiera's willingness to take  a bullet, or the pain she feels from missing her family.

And this. All this, my friends, is amazing. Not that anybody would do it, per se, but the fact that it would actually be written into a show at all. A female character that kicks butt, but has personal motivations  WHILE STILL HAVING A FAMILY. It's kind of unheard  of. I mean, I love Sarah Connor,  but her entire existence revolves around her son- and  while that's noble, it's also flat. And Jane/Deb is adorable and into social justice and all, but in the end, all she cares about is snagging a dude. I could go on, but my point is that the typical treatment of female protagonists leads to characters who usually don't and can't exist as their own character- there's always something, be it another person, or some ideal self, to which they're attached and/or compared to, and seeing a show where the writers are willing and able to write a woman with a family as an independently motivated person- while still maintaining the emotional connections to family that any normal human being would have- is refreshing, exciting, and pretty gorram special.

Kiera is a believable answer to the question raised by the fight between Liber8. Of course, buying into  the way fiction  stories work, she'll probably end up some sort of grand savior, but if the quality of the show continues in this direction, I bet that, however it happens, it'll be entirely convincing and moving.  

I can't wait for season 2 to make  it to Netflix, and for 3 to air in the States, too. 

*This claim, of course, is just my assumption as a slightly disillusioned female consumer of pop culture. I haven't taken the time to bore through the entire catalogue of entries and quantify how many relate to negative portrayals of women there are on TVTropes versus other classifications.

-This  is Gab. Over and out.