The Sandbaggers: Special Relationship

The Sandbaggers was a brilliant 1970′s British TV series that chronicled the inner workings of a fictitious government intelligence unit within the SIS. These spies spent more time doing paperwork and squabbling with politicians for the resources to do the job with which they were tasked than they spent in action. But when action happened, it was never glamorous. When people come to after being knocked unconscious, they puke. When someone’s immobilized for a few days, they spend that time lying in their own wastes. No theatrical license here.

Because of this, the show rang painfully true. Its creator, Ian Mackintosh, may have known very well what he was talking about: rumors he had been a spy were followed up by his freakish unexplained disappearance and presumed death, which happened in much the same manner as an incident referenced on the series.

As fascinating as all this is, and as much as I adore the series, that obviously isn’t why I’m writing about it. I’m writing about it because there was, for a time, a female Sandbagger. (Massive spoilers after the “Read More” link.)

Laura Dickens never wanted to be a Sandbagger. But after the unit lost two of its three operatives in a short period, Director of Ops Neil Burnside was desperate to find someone remotely qualified. Laura fit the bill and, after much persuasion from Neil, agreed to become a Sandbagger – but only until they found a permanent replacement.

She had a reputation for turning down dates, and was said to be a lesbian. But Neil quickly became infatuated with her and discovered she was also attracted to him, only – he suspects – she has a hang-up about sex.

Sounds like a terrible trope, doesn’t it? The sort of thing to be handled with closeups of awkward glances, wistful score music, and a thousand cheesy remarks about a man oh-so-generously refraining from pressuring a woman for sex on the first date.

Not on Sandbaggers. No, instead we learn how Neil – the guy who can lie, steal and kill for the greater good – approaches dating. He pressures Laura’s psychiatric screener for details about her issues with sex (traumatic childhood conditioning from domineering parents) and asks whether or not she can handle being asked out. He conspicuously replaces a picture of his ex-wife at his apartment with a (very unflattering) blown-up mug shot from Laura’s personnel file, then pretends he never meant for Laura to see it. Oh, and he doesn’t really look for a replacement Sandbagger like he promised her he would. This is Neil at his least sympathetic, even though he genuinely cares about her.

The one criticism I could make of Laura’s character is that she exists to reveal Neil. But it’s handled so artfully, with such awareness that she is a person, too, that I can’t begrudge it.

Laura has her own goals – to work at a foreign intelligence station. It’s never suggested her “hang-up” with sex is a life-stalling tragedy (all Sandbaggers have issues), nor is it suggested her burgeoning relationship with Neil will change either of them beyond the present. It simply is what it is. And Laura is competent in her assignments, well-adjusted compared to the men in the unit, and autonomous at every turn.

That’s when we come to the episode “Special Relationship.” A very dangerous assignment comes up; Laura is right for it. She goes to do the job but is captured in East Berlin. She’s been trained to withstand torture, but that only means she can hold out for about forty-eight hours before she’ll start telling them everything they want to know, including the details of a twenty-two year Hungarian operation that could get a lot of people killed. (American viewers: forget the tired trope of the G.I. who holds out for months and never tells the bastards his big secret. British TV takes the more realistic tack that the human mind, completely at the mercy of captors, can only take so much.)

This is all stuff that’s happened to male Sandbaggers before. There’s no hint she got captured because she’s a woman. There’s no salacious suggestion that she’ll be raped because she’s a woman. Neil and the rest of the SIS want to save her not because she’s a woman, but because she’s one of them.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work. Neil tries every trick in the book and then some – after three viewings, I still can’t come up with a single thing he missed, like I always could with 24 or Alias or Stargate. Neil finally arranges to trade a French captive for her, but the French demand that in return for the captive, Neil secretly funnel to them all the information he receives as part of his “special relationship”with the CIA. The SIS absolutely cannot afford to lose the CIA’s assistance, and there’s no way the CIA will fail to notice their information is reaching the French. In the end the CIA leaves Neil with only one option: set up the trade, and they will kill Laura before the trade is completed, thus negating the deal with the French but saving the Hungarian operation by removing Laura from her interrogators before she can tell them about it. Otherwise, the CIA won’t trust Neil anymore.

Of course, you don’t know this when they get to the trade scene. Like Willie, the other Sandbagger on the scene, you don’t understand what’s happening when Neil and the CIA agent trade uncomfortable nods. You’re stunned when Laura’s gunned down and left behind on the pavement, eyes wide open. Then, along with Willie, you realize Neil knew what was going to happen, and you want to kill him… until you hear his side and examine it from every angle and fail to come up with a better solution.

Laura does the same work as the guys; she faces the same risks and endures the same hardships; and in the end, she dies the sort of death that often befalls Sandbaggers. She changes Neil permanently, challenging his dedication to the SIS and especially to the ridiculous risks his political masters often want to take with Sandbaggers’ lives.

I’ve seen so many shows that purport to achieve the same results, but precious few that actually get it right. We’re not told Laura is a whole person; we’re shown it. We’re not told she’s affecting Neil deeply; we’re shown it. We’re not told she’s good at her job or smart; we’re shown it. We’re not told she’s courageous; we see it for ourselves.

Comments

  1. says

    I love how now we’re writing about the right way to torture your female characters. I couldn’t find a way to say that that didn’t sound sarcastic, but it’s not. It’s never posts like this that end up being found by people who can’t understand that it’s not the fact that women get killed and tortured on television, it’s the way it happens, and the underlying points it makes about women’s strength and relevance (or lack thereof).

    Anyway.

    There’s no salacious suggestion that she’ll be raped because she’s a woman.

    This interests me. Given what you’ve said about the creator’s spy background, and the ‘how much torture it takes to give up information’ bit, I wonder if he’s aware of something that suggests that rape doesn’t contribute extra to torture in the case of female spies. It immediately shows the torturers as practically minded, rather than caricatures with “EVIL, INC” stamped on their foreheads and a drooling desire just to do whatever is bad, which is already a radical notion. Beyond that, I wonder if I’m reading too much into it, but so it goes.

  2. says

    Nick, if this show sounds at all to your liking, I highly recommend it. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen.

    Purtek, I know it’s crazy, but it’s true. You can put a TV woman in harm’s way just to show what a mean nasty world it is, or you can do it in a way that shows us how strong she is. There’s a world of difference between the intentions.

    As for rape: I took it the way you did. I’ve been sitting here 10 minutes trying to express just why I did, but all I can say is: nothing in the other characters’ discussion of her torture OR other Sandbaggers’ suggested a fear of profound physical harm (which I think would certainly include rape in their minds). They even discuss that you CAN just load someone up with sodium pentathol and they’ll instantly tell you everything, only current theory thinks that’s not how to get the most reliable information.

    According to other realistic-seeming spy stuff I’ve watched, there’s a risk of making the torture victim SO demoralized that they just don’t care what you do to them anymore, and then you can’t get anything useful from them. I would very much expect rape to have this effect on either gender.

  3. says

    You can put a TV woman in harm’s way just to show what a mean nasty world it is, or you can do it in a way that shows us how strong she is.

    Or, if you do want to show what a mean, nasty world it is, you can do it in a way that shows what a mean nasty world it *actually* is, and treat the character as though she’s a human being who has reactions that tell us something about the world in and of themselves.

    I’m just getting frustrated with people who see all our posts on female character deaths or depictions of sexual violence and fundamentally cannot wrap their head around the idea that we’re not just squealy fangirls getting pissed off because they’re not showing us the shiny happy world we think exists. Or something.

  4. says

    It seems to me most rape plotlines get hung up on the depression, the devastation that follows. They wallow in it to the point that you wonder if this is a kink of theirs, if seeing a woman down is supposed to be a turn-on.

    We rarely see the strength to overcome; the defiance; the everyday courage of having lived your whole life knowing rape was far from unlikely at some point, and now having to find out if you can live up to your own expectations in coping with it; etc. Yes, of course rape causes depression, but that’s just one reaction it can cause.

    I blame Lifetime TV. They pioneered the genre which the industry tellingly calls “pussies in peril” but journalists tidy to “women in jeopardy”. It’s this genre where women are being abused or kidnapped and tortured by psychos, etc, and they suffer, and even when it’s all over it’s still just depressing. I can absolutely understand why anyone would want to see this genre occasionally, because there’s a catharsis in seeing your daily fears realized and survived on TV. By “daily fears” I mean even if you never think about it in depth, in the back of your mind you know why you lock the door on your home. You know what could happen if you don’t.

    What I cannot understand is audiences wanting this genre to overlap with their crime procedurals and create such a steady diet of it, and I’m not sure they do. My speculation is: shows like SVU think they’re capitalizing on the popularity of the “pussies in peril” genre, but in fact most of their viewers probably just tune that aspect out and focus on other aspects of the show. But the ratings don’t tell you why people watch.

    Cagney & Lacey did a fantastic ep I’ve got to write about someday: this woman was raped and beaten by a date (but she doesn’t report it until after the bruises have faded). It turns out she takes strange men home frequently. In fact, just days after the investigation begins, C&L overhear a message on her machine from last night’s guy, thanking her for a good time. She’s deeply affected by the rape, and she thinks she deserves justice; it just has not impacted her enjoyment of consensual sex even temporarily, which indeed is the case for many survivors. But of course, even C&L find themselves debating uncomfortably if this means she wasn’t really raped.

    Then he does it again, and they have their answer – only this time he put her in a coma.

    That character is one of the most interesting fictional survivors I’ve ever seen on TV.

  5. Wendy Bradley says

    How odd: I hadn’t thought of Sandbaggers for years, but the minute you started talking about it I found I could recall that particular episode in detail, particularly the way she’s killed – because he has no choice, because that’s what happens in their world, and also in a strange sort of mercy, so she’s no longer interrogated. Piece of mental furniture I’d forgotten I had: thanks for reminding me.

  6. MaggieCat says

    I’m just getting frustrated with people who see all our posts on female character deaths or depictions of sexual violence and fundamentally cannot wrap their head around the idea that we’re not just squealy fangirls getting pissed off because they’re not showing us the shiny happy world we think exists. Or something.

    Maybe we can direct them to the recent “Women can be serial killers too!” comment thread discussion?

    What I cannot understand is audiences wanting this genre to overlap with their crime procedurals and create such a steady diet of it, and I’m not sure they do. My speculation is: shows like SVU think they’re capitalizing on the popularity of the “pussies in peril” genre, but in fact most of their viewers probably just tune that aspect out and focus on other aspects of the show. But the ratings don’t tell you why people watch.

    Well, I’m not sure that I’m indicative of the norm on any subject, but that actually is how I watched L&O:SVU back when I still did. If they could create a procedural that never touched on sexually based violence I’d be over the moon. It’s the same reason I’ve got too many Agatha Christie books to fit on my shelves and an irritating tendency to correct Sherlock Holmes references– the investigative part of the story is the important one in a set-up like that, although most of the tv shows don’t seem to realize that and create good b-stories by accident.

    I have a soft spot a mile wide for The Burning Bed, but that doesn’t mean that anyone was watching it to see the abuse, and I don’t really get how you could watch it more than once or twice a month at the most. It’s just too depressing on repeat like that.

  7. David Simon says

    Although this is broadly off-medium, hearing this reminded me of the The Boss from the Metal Gear Solid series. Like Laura, she was an strong, effective agent, who was forced to die at the hands of her supposed allies due to unavoidable circumstance.

    Of course, that doesn’t excuse the sexism running through other parts of the series (Meryl’s “conspicuous walk”, and nearly everything about EVA’s portrayal), but on her own, The Boss is a good example of the kind of compelling characterization we need a lot more of.

  8. says

    David, I’d never even heard of Metal Gear Solid. Thanks for bringing it up – we do post articles about gaming here, too… it’s just we don’t get a lot of submissions about games.

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