James Bond fans know that no one but Sean Connery has ever brought dignity to the role. George Lazenby, one of the others who have portrayed Her Majesty's best secret agent, managed an uninspired but sincere portrayal—which is unquestionably better than anything done by Roger Moore. Moore's presumptuous attempts at the role can be dismissed as broad farce. Pee Wee Herman could capture the essence of the role better than Moore. James Bond is a hired killer, a highly efficient and very deadly machine completely amoral except for his absolutely unshakable loyalty to the Crown. His body is like rich, brown leather stretched taut over braided steel-cable muscles. Even if Roger Moore's entire body were run through a juicer, it wouldn't squeeze out enough machismo to fill one of Sean Connery's shoes.
Connery's eyes, like a panther's, are incessantly alert, but his face reveals something about the man within the machine. He's devoted his entire lifetime to developing himself as an agent of death, not for pleasure or money or love or hate, but solely in the name of patriotism. His duty to his country is the sine qua non of James Bond. Since emotions are a handicap in his profession, he has exorcised himself of them completely, thus incapacitating him for normal life. If it were somehow important to national security, James Bond could calmly saw through a live kitten with a dull kitchen knife. He has permanently encased in ice that part of his soul which, in other people, allows them to enjoy feelings such as compassion and sympathy. Printed somewhere on his heart are the words, "Keep frozen when not in use."
Although, or perhaps because, he is unable to ride the emotional roller coaster of life, his face perpetually reveals traces of his only remaining emotion: the sadness of realizing, only after it is irrecoverable, what he has lost. Bond is never happy—the closest he could ever come to laughing is an occasional smirk in appreciation of the irony of a particular situation—and for positive emotions he must be content with the self-respect and satisfaction of having done the right thing. All of Bond's personal sacrifices, however, are made understandable, even heroic, because of his all-consuming devotion to the most noble of causes—the triumph of good over evil.
But imagine the extent to which the tragedy of this character would be amplified if, late in life, he not only realized what he has lost but also began to question the sole justification for his entire existence: his patriotism. Perhaps he had not been fighting on the side of good against evil but instead had spent his lifetime committing the most abominable acts imaginable against others, all on behalf of what he now sees is a self-serving, morally ambiguous political entity. His innumerable crimes might not, after all, have been justified by honorable ends. Perhaps his consummate loyalty had been misdirected. This tragic figure has found embodiment in Robert McCall, the central character of the CBS series The Equalizer.
McCall, portrayed by Edward Woodward (the star of the acclaimed 1980 Australian movie Breaker Morant), once worked for a spy ring known only as the "agency," which undoubtedly is intended to be the CIA. In his conversations with an ex-comrade who still works for the agency, McCall hints that he left the agency because, much to his horror, he finally realized that he had committed his many unpardonable sins, all in the name of espionage, for an agency that favored pragmatism over principle and put honor and decency far lower on the list of priorities than face-saving and political expedience. He now suffers the inescapable guilt of an executioner who one day discovers that the judges have been sentencing prisoners not for moral offenses but simply for being inconvenient to the judges' personal interests, and that for most of his life he has sent hundreds of innocent people screaming to their deaths.
It is out of a desperate but pathetically futile attempt to cleanse himself that the now-retired McCall spends all of his days selflessly assisting the world's underdogs, or at least those who answer his newspaper advertisement offering his assistance in equalizing the odds against them. This "good guy to the rescue" stuff sometimes has the flavor of a mouthful of granulated sugar, but in McCall's case the pathos of his situation is compelling.
James Bond and Robert McCall could have been friends except that neither is capable of feeling anything like friendship. Given the type of company they usually keep, their survival depends upon their ability to regard everyone with a coldly analytical degree of suspicion. The warmest interpersonal relationship that either man would ever allow himself is probably something similar to a cordial détente. Both are exceedingly self-confident, and McCall, like Bond, speaks with a British accent. In the figurative sense, they share a common enemy—evil.
One difference between the men, however, is that Bond richly rewards his physical body for faithful service by regularly enjoying fine dining, beautiful women, and other luxurious accommodations. McCall, on the other hand, has transcended these material pleasures. He lives a relatively simple life in a comfortably spacious New York apartment, drives a car that any other moderately successful mature person would drive (a Jaguar sedan), and entertains himself by playing his grand piano alone in his living room. Yet, despite his sadness, he somehow exudes an inner peace infinitely more enviable than any of Bond's material luxuries.
While almost all other television shows glamorize the high-voltage excitement of youth, it's a pleasure to see one that appreciates the serenity of post-middle-age maturity and the heroic dignity of aging with grace. When McCall observes one particularly depraved bad guy indulging his sensual gluttony without restraint—reveling in the charms of a team of prostitutes—he smiles with the satisfaction of a man who has long since been released from the troublesome urges of youth and says to himself, "You're getting old, McCall…thank God."
The Equalizer is clearly not intended for channel-flipping twelve-year-olds with eight-second attention spans, although even they may be able to appreciate the subtle beauty of the show, perhaps without quite knowing why. Regardless of what may happen when the fall season begins, it is remarkable that a new television show in the detective/spy genre, which together with all other shows must struggle in the life-threatening ratings competition, has not (excessively) resorted to the cheap but effective tricks of the trade: bikini-clad bimbos, machine gun-bullet hailstorms, and tire-squealing car chases. Can that be right? No car chases? Somebody must have been snoozing at the network.
The show has not done well in the ratings so far but will rerun in the summer. Its long-term fate is uncertain. But at a time when the English language seems to be adulterated further each day by some new and convenient euphemism—at some point, peep-show proprietors began restricting their products to "mature audiences only," because, to paraphrase comedian Jay Leno, otherwise God forbid some immature person might stand in a booth, pants around his ankles, watching some melon-breasted floozies hose each other with whipped cream—it's nice to know there still exists good entertainment that truly is for "mature" audiences, in the proper sense of the word. And better yet, it's on network television every week, so you aren't required to drop a quarter in a slot every two minutes to watch it.
Craig Collins is a writer in Chicago.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Life & Liberty: The Spy Who Found Honor".