My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
– “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
I don’t know what ate at me more when I began reading about the fire at Notre Dame cathedral in April 2019, just before the Easter Resurrection — how easy it was to start (causes still unknown, although leading theories include discarded cigarettes or electrical malfunction), or how impossible it was to put out, or how uninsured it was (as a national treasure France would rebuild it, if it could find the funds), or, sensing an opportunity to make a buck had opened up grandly, how 1%-ers came rushing in to “help” with funds, and, soon thereafter, wild visions of how the Lady should be reVamped came sputtering out — a rooftop swimming pool, an arboretum, a glassed-in postmod thingamabobby. Or finding out for the first time that the cathedral housed a splinter of the True Cross and a nail, and the gold-dipped crown (purportedly the real deal) of our Golden Ruler, Christ.
The gold aside, what a horror to read that the thorny symbol of a God’s defilement had almost been lost in a fire caused by a carelessly flicked Gauloise. I had to hold my heart to think. Here, in the form and function of Our Lady, was an example of the true Gothic, now in flames, her Towers almost falling, but miraculously stayed and steadied and fortified. O all the sighs, farts, benedictions, liturgies, vows and eulogies — all the suspirations gathered in its chambers of awe-inspiring horror married to beauty, released to the outer, unshriven atmosphere of Nature, lost forever.
John Ruskin, with eye of a god and the expression of an archangel, captured the essence of its aesthetic in The Nature of Gothic from The Stones of Venice, when he wrote:
[T]he purgatorial fire is represented in the mosaic of Torcello (Romanesque) as a red stream, longitudinally striped like a riband, descending out of the throne of Christ, and gradually extending itself to envelop the wicked. When we are once infor’tt1ed what this means, it is enough for its purpose; but the Gothic inventor does not leave the sign in need of interpretation. He makes the fire as like real fire as he can; and at the porch of St. Maclou at Rouen the sculptured flames burst out of the Hades gate, and flicker up, in writhing tongues of stone, through the interstices of the niches, as if the church itself were on fire.
As if the Church itself were on fire. I looked at the ruins of Our Lady and when the nouveau riche-riche moved in to save her, visions of a postmod rebuild in mind it felt like thousands of years of civilization had been lost like that. I was angry it could be lost that easily. And felt hollow.
That’s what I could relate to immediately in the characters of The Old Man, the new streaming 7-part series on Hulu based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Perry. The series stars Jeff Bridges (The Big Lebowski), John Lithgow (The World According to Garp), E.J. Bonilla (The Long Road Home), Amy Brenneman (Goliath), Bill Heck (Ray Donovan), Leem Lubany (Condor), Hiam Abbass (Blade Runner 2049), and Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development). They’re all spooks, spooky, and as haunted as Poe’s House of Usher, secretive people ready to come crashing down in flames into their own mindprints. People who have gone over to some other side and are unable to come back. The Hulu plot summary succinctly tells us:
Dan Chase absconded from the CIA decades ago and has been living off the grid since. When an assassin arrives and tries to take Chase out, the old operative learns that to ensure his future he now must reconcile his past.
Dan Chase (Bridges) is the absconder who lives alone with his two dogs, to whom he speaks German commands. Episode 1 opens with a clever device of having Chase get up repeatedly in the night to pee. The script goes: We hear a man groaning and sighing, a toilet lid clacks, groaning, urine trickles sporadically, groaning, urine trickles sporadically, groaning. We immediately know we’re dealing with an old man with a bum prostate.
A little later while sleeping, there’s the sound of the dogs making noise, and Chase, awakened, goes downstairs to check it out and sees that one of his dogs has a home invader by the throat, blood leaking out. “Hals,” Chase utters in German to his dog, followed by “aus,” and the dog leaves off. Who is this American who trains his dogs in German? And moments later when the intruder won’t identify himself, Chase shoots him, although he doesn’t have to, and calls the cops. They arrive and get a report, unsuspicious, noting only that the intruder had a silencer on his gun.
“That you don’t usually see,” says the cop.
“Oh?” Chase replies.
“But then again, you had that guy last week that held up a mini-mart in Lyndon with an AK-47.”
“Ah. So I shouldn’t be surprised by much of anything anymore.”
Chase is no longer whereabouts unknown and the assassin sent to kill him tells (and us) that the monkey’s paw has come home to roost. He immediately gets on the phone to Angela (Shawkat) his FBI agent daughter, who comforts him, but who will turn out to be as troubled as he is about the past. When Chase talks with Harold Harper (Lithgow), an old CIA associate, now associate director of the FBI, he realizes that one Afghan leader Faraz Hamzad (played by Pej Vahdat) is the reason for the disturbance after 30 years of quiet. Hamzad is looking for revenge. Chase is on the run again.
There are subplots that involve fatales — femme and masculine. It’s a world of deception and monsters, protected by deep states ordinary people don’t even know are there. There is the young Abbey Chase (Lubany) who works her magic on the young CIA operative Dan Chase, who steals her from her husband Hamzad and the two elope to America and go into hiding. It begins with their first conversation at a clothes line, when the rules are established between them. He needs to answer what kind of American he is: Light or the Black Hole.
The older Abbey, who has died of Huntington’s disease, appears to him as a ghost and in his dreams, guiding and comforting him in his impending dotage. Angela, too, proves to be dark in her dialectics and FBI probings. She is a daughter, but has at least two fathers, and there’s more.
Then, Dan meets Zoe (Brenneman), an attractive disillusioned middle-aged divorcee, as he begins his run back into the wild. At first, she rejects him, because, having moved into a garage apartment she’s renting, she discovers he has dogs and asks him to leave. He notices a vulnerability, sizes up her marital trauma in a glance. He could also see that she was attracted to him. Perhaps she doesn’t like her new solitude. He invites himself into her place before he goes, one cupper leads to another, and she’s telling him about how her mother used to make her scrambled eggs whenever she was distraught and it would pick her up immediately. Duly noted. They hook up, and he becomes a masculin fatale that eventually leads to turning her into the dehumanized creature of opportunity and cunning he has become.
There’s a telling moment when she has had an upsetting phone call while he’s there in her house the morning after they’ve made love for the first time, and he silently sets about making her scrambled eggs and when she sees what he’s doing she lays her head quietly on his shoulder as he cooks her eggs. The hook is in. But then he shows his true colors and cunning, when he kidnaps her. She still loves him; it’s more disillusionment; it’s like Dylan sings, “You can think you’ve lost everything, but you find out you can always lose a little more.”
So, she’s curious. How can he work such a trick? What are the mechanics of it? He tells her the secret, an evil in itself:
Zoe: I want to understand how your world works. Will you explain it to me?
Dan: Lesson number one. All tradecraft is waged wielding two weapons in concert. In your left hand, uh, is your empathy. Your ability to read people, know what they want, what they need. What they fear. What, uh, may give them hope. Cause them shame. And then, uh, in your other hand you’ve got your ruthlessness. The willingness to use all that insight against them, uh. And when both of those two knives are sharp, you’d be amazed what they can cut through.
As Zoe seems to almost tear up at the ease of it all — are all men like this? or just the ones I fall for? — a naked, horrible thought occurs to her:
Zoe: When you cooked for me, told me stories and were charming, that’s what you were doing, wasn’t it? Disassembling me to see how I worked? Applying pressure to the seams so that I’d let you stay? Was it difficult? Was I difficult to disassemble and manipulate?
Dan: It’s not really a “hard or easy” kind of thing. Everyone’s, you know, wired so differently.
Zoe: It’s really a simple question.
Dan: Yeah, not very hard.
She sits back stunned, then pushes him to let her join him on an operation, and, in doing so, in going to the door of an agent, and dissembling, and liking it, she crosses over the Rubicon to the other side.
It’s darkness at the break of noon. The story is told in flashbacks to doings in Afghanistan. The Old Man is now young again. It’s in the period 1979-1989, from late in the Carter administration to the fall of the Berlin Wall and, soon thereafter, the crumbling of the Soviet Union. The CIA is in Afghanistan fomenting trouble for the Red Army, trying to lure them into ‘their own Vietnam’ quagmire, as Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski would later crow. And when they took the bait, the CIA set up shop and provided weapons and training and strategies. According to an April 2003 Aljazeera report,
For the next decade the Soviet Union became bogged down in a guerrilla war against anti-Soviet mujahideen. Faced with rugged, mountainous terrain and stiff resistance, the supposedly invincible Red Army was humbled, leading according to some experts, to the empire’s collapse.
It’s into this revolutionary milieu that young intrepid Dan steps to ‘fight the good fight.’ (wink) Kabul falls at first to pro-communist sympathizers, then a more stalwart leader arose, Hafizullah Amin. He was seen as a serious threat to Russian interests in Afghanistan. As Aljazeera puts it, “According to experts, the Soviets perceived Amin as a potential Tito – he was in touch with both China and the United States and the Soviets saw Afghanistan slipping out of its orbit.” And the US, looking to bring in Big Oil (Chevron) to lay pipe, pressed the bingo button. In came CIA-sponsored al Qaeda and Usama bin Laden.
But the mind-zap for the CIA and the US government, the blowback, comes from a later realization that the mujahideen may have been playing them. Again, Aljazeera notes,
The CIA followed a “myopic, short-sighted policy” in Afghanistan by focusing its energies on only trying to make it hot for the Soviets and disregarding agendas of groups it supported, said Harrison. “These groups were using (CIA) aid to fight the Soviets to prepare for the day to fight the United States,” he said.
The Old Man captures the aftermath of this transition in Afghanistan; the mood of defeat and disillusionment at the realization that Americans are far from being seen by locals as rescuing heroes, but just another marauder to be repelled. America fell under the spell of the fall of the Wall as the start of a new Gold Rush East, but nobody else did. The Warsaw Pact dissolved, and NATO should have. Instead of global peace, the US pressed for hegemony. The world seemed to press back on 9/11, beginning in Afghanistan. Dan’s dark work in ‘Ghan, and by extension the US government’s, was for nought. It’s a failure that will make Afghanistan America’s second Vietnam quagmire, as if the Afghan’s had drawn them in for some fun and GW Bush and Obama took the bait. Cat eats mouse eats cat inside out.
Presumably, Faraz Hamzad, the Afghan leader character in The Old Man, is based to some degree on Hafizullah Amin. In the fiction, this leader’s young wife leaves him to be with the CIA agent, who she has ostensibly fallen in love with. But is it real? At one point in the series, Dan wonders if the woman from Kabul, who he has spent 30 years in hiding with before she died, was what she seemed after all. Dan wonders if Hamzad wants revenge for stealing his wife or something else that he can begin to see with an astonishment shared by Harper, who worked with Chase in the early days of supporting the mujahideen with guns — perhaps the rpgs that turned the tide as depicted in Charlie Wilson’s War(2007) — before moving from the Agency to the FBI. As the IMDB plot summary puts it: “Harper learns an impossible truth.” But what is it?
The Old Man makes proclamations on the power of language and the power of silence. One later episode begins with a voice-over, the older, infirm Abbie telling the viewer: “There are places in our soul so remote no light can reach them. And the truths that inhabit them become accustomed to the darkness and do not want to be disturbed.” Abbie’s voice comes at us like the private thoughts of some anchoress hermetically sealed in darkness. It sounds like Afghanistan. It sounds like the kind of cave an operative might bring home with them to America; someone like Dan Chase. He has spent 30 years hoping his darkness would never be disturbed. When the home invader disturbs it, old Johnny or Baba Ghor Ghori, as the locals call him, the rogue CIA operative on horseback in warlord robes is back and as lethal as ever, and the collateral damage piles up.
There’s another subplot that is nicely written. There’s an Afghan squad in America looking to track down Chase and kill or kidnap him. There is also the FBI stake-out team looking to trap Chase and bring him in. Raymond Waters (Bonilla) is the head of this team and is a cool and savvy tracker who knows, though, that Harper and Angela are involved in some intrigue nobody wants to give him details to. “What am I dealing with here?” he calls out to Harper after Chase has taken out agents in the field, with the help of his hunden. A rogue killer with El Aurens Syndrome, that’s what.
Waters represents the new breed of agency, wizened by the mistakes of pre-9/11, the lack of communication between the FBI and the CIA being paramount and a primary cause for the failure to prevent the 9/11 plot while it was developing within the US (see The 9/11 Commission Report: Cofer Black). He can’t be charmed by hyperbole or false rhetoric by folks with lavish vocabularies, such as the Old Warriors use, who seem to think they were Knights of the Round Table and Arthur’s own. This recalls an early scene in the series when a young and ‘noble’ Johnny (Chase) is talking with Faraz Hamzad, the Afghan leader the CIA is trying to help install in Kabul, and he tells Johnny (Chase) that all language deceives:
Waters is ahead of this game, but not enough to see into its impenetrable darkness.
The Old Man is filled with internal silences, a numbness on display, a kind of enervation of the ‘soul’ is on display. Vast landscapes of emptiness in Afghanistan and in America depict the encroaching emptiness that is the tradecraft of deserts returning us all to dust, acre by acre over time. The series is about the corruption of the soul by false language, promises that eventually devastate Trust. You can see how America and Britain, in its world hegemonic doings, could be regarded by the Iranians as The Great Satan (the Soviet Union was regarded as “the Lesser Satan” and Israel is seen as “Little Satan”). There’s a touch of bathos, of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, and a pathetic flash of America’s Captain Ahab playing with a sperm whale and taking everyone with his obsession if necessary. You can see how the Taliban who came to power in a vacuum and would tear down the Buddhist “idols” at Bamiyan — Salsal (“the light shines through the universe”) and Shamama (“Queen Mother”) — and move on to the cathedrals, and keep going from there, until sacred objects of the world have been subsumed and enveloped by profane and unquenchable subjectivity.
The ensemble in this series is stellar, and the atmospheric music spot-on, including the insertion of a tune from Tom Waits’s Closing Time (“…I thought that I knew all that there was to / lonely…”). All is Hallow. Soon there’ll be nothing we can pass on to AIs to help them make the leap to humanity. The Old Man is well worth the watch, but, as HG Wells said toward the end of his last book, Mind at the End of Its Tether, have a good opiate ready incase you sprout a paradigm.