Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Shooting Yourselves in the Foot, You Know (M in Skyfall)

My apologies for the lateness of this post. It was supposed to go up yesterday, but the internet went out. Oh well. It’s not like we’re doing brain surgery here.

A few weeks ago, I gave you my thoughts on Skyfall and how it was pretty sexist and very rapey. But a few of you were cagey enough to notice that I didn’t say anything about the film’s portrayal of M. Good job! I decided that it pissed me off to warrant it’s own special entry.

My problem with M in the movie is this: she sucks. Specifically, she is a weaker character than she was in the previous two films of this set, and her character deterioration even goes so far as to undermine the point the movie is trying to make about her.

Let me explain.

In the first two Daniel Craig Bond films, M, played by Dame Judi Dench, is an elusive figure. We know that she’s the head of MI-6 and takes a keen interest in the special branch. We also know that she’s tough as nails and could easily do Bond’s job if she weren’t so busy running the country.

That’s M. That’s the woman that we’re introduced to. I want you to remember that, because Skyfall did its level best to kill that.

The first thing we see of M in Skyfall is her making the wrong choice. Bond is going after a terrorist with a list, and she both tells him to leave his fellow agent to die, and tells Moneypenny to take a shot that could kill him. We are told by the narrative that both of these things were bad things to do, and that when Bond goes missing and is presumed dead, that’s her punishment. She’s just getting what she deserves.

As the story continues, though, M keeps getting punished. Whether it’s the destruction of the MI-6 building, or the inquiry into her actions, the plot is meant to make us feel sorry for M, make us realize how embattled she is. And it works very well.

Except for the part where the old M, the one from the other two movies, didn’t get embattled. She wasn’t a victim ever, she was an actor in her own life. This M is a victim. Whether it’s retreating underground in the face of a threat, or spinning wildly when faced with an old enemy, or even running and hiding behind the nearest man she can find, this is not a strong woman. This is not M.

I want to zero in on that last bit for a second. Now, I thought there was a bit of cuteness in the interaction between Albert Finney and M in the Skyfall house. It was adorable to think of the two of them bonding over James’ quirks, and shooting guns together. But I hated that, even though we are informed many times that M is a great agent and rose to the top on her talent, we see her fumble her gun, become terrified, and run and hide behind Mr. Finney there, who is a civilian. Now those would all be perfectly fine things for my grandmother to do, as she has no combat training and I don’t think she’s ever even held a gun (but people can surprise you, and she is a little intimidating), but it is not the behavior you expect from the head of MI-6.

Now, again, I get the point they were trying to make with this portrayal of the character. They wanted to make it clear that M was on the verge of going down, and to show how emotional that would be. They wanted you to empathize with her, and to do that, they made her a victim.

There’s really only one reason they had to victimize M to make her more “likable”. It means that the writers didn’t have any idea how to relate to a strong woman on her own terms, and had to weaken one just to think that the audience could feel for her. M had to be blasted from all sides and look frail and old for us to sympathize with her? As if. I would like her more if she pulled a Helen Mirren from RED and just looked fabulous and kickass the whole time. Much more empathetic.

It’s a symptom of the disease. None of the women in this most recent Bond movie hit the criteria for a strong female character, because the writers clearly have no idea what that looks like. Instead of taking a character like M and making the audience respect her, they decided that instead we had to sympathize with her, and that the only way to do that was to hurt her. It shows a limited understanding of people, and a really depressing view of our culture.

In short, and I know this article is pretty short, Skyfall let me down. They had within their grasps a really great story about a really intriguing character. The idea of the spymaster being hunted down by those they’ve betrayed is a fascinating one, and a large part of why movies like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy catch our interest. But in trying to make the audience “get” M, they made the story weaker. If she can’t defend herself, then we have no reason to believe that she was good at her job in the first place, and therefore no reason to want her to stay there. They implied that women are all emotion and fluffy thinking, said it was a bad thing, then confirmed it.

Really guys, talk about shooting yourselves in the foot.

Great acting job, though, considering the material.


  1. HELL, YES! I agree with everything in this post. I'd also add that this:

    The idea of the spymaster being hunted down by those they’ve betrayed is a fascinating one

    ... really demands a film where the spymaster or the betrayed party is the protagonist. This should have been about M as the main character, more than Bond (and wouldn't that have been a brave way to do it).

    1. Also, the M from the previous two films would have realised that even taking into account Silva's then-magic-happens style of hacking, "let's go into the middle of nowhere to ground one of us knowns and that from decades ago, far from any supplies or backup barring one elderly civilian who doesn't know what's going on or who we are, with no exit strategy worth a damn, and let Silva come at us with his completely unknown level of forces" is a *really bad plan.*

    2. Yeah, there were a lot of ways in which M was pretty much a shell of her character from the earlier movies. But really, for me, it was when she freaked out and dropped the gun that I lost it. I mean, we're supposed to believe that M falters under pressure? Hahahahano.

  2. I agree SO MUCH with everything in this post. In my review I bemoaned the fact that they were reducing M to a mother-figure for both Silva and Bond, when in past movies she was such a dominant, commanding force with nothing traditionally "feminine" about her. But you're right to point out that it goes so far beyond that one plot point (of "mommy's" betrayal); they've completely stolen all the power and confidence she used to exude. What an awful way to send off a character that entered the Bond universe (in Goldeneye, with that sharp take-down of Bond) with such strength.

    1. The mother figure thing is a good point. Since she inhabits that space, she must be protected by the "good" son, and can exist only in relation to her offspring. Good call.

  3. I always thought she made the right call when giving the order to shoot Bond. It was be a leader that makes tough and unfavorable decisions for the greater good or trust this one person to continue to get results 100% of the time when she was already starting to have her doubts about him despite caring a great deal for him and believing he's an asset.

    I still think M was amazing but I also agree that she could've been written better and more in charge of her own storyline since it may have been a Bond film but was about her.

    One of my all-time favorite lines comes from Skyfall. When they are basically replacing her and M says she'd rather not leave the place worse than when she found it and the guy says they are giving her the dignity to step down instead of being fired and she responds, "To hell with dignity, I'll leave when the job's done."

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