“Tyrant’s” bid to win TV’s equivalent of “Most Improved Player” honors ultimately fell short, as the second season’s finishing kick slipped back into some of the quicksand that made the first disappointing. Interesting and provocative in its willingness to tackle the unsettled nature of the Middle East through the prism of a fictional country, the series completely transformed its protagonist but couldn’t effectively deal with why, after all he’s endured, he and his family wouldn’t just head home as fast as humanly possible. Nor did a cliffhanger ending do much to stoke enthusiasm for a return engagement.
The stilted dynamics of the central family were clearly the weakest part of season one, in which U.S. pediatrician Barry Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner) returned to his homeland of Abbudin to attend the wedding of his nephew. Once there, all hell broke loose, as Barry’s strongman father died suddenly, leaving Barry’s impetuous and ruthless brother Jamal (Ashraf Barhom) in charge.
Barry’s failed coup attempt closed season one, and set up a dramatic second-season shift: Left for dead by his brother (who faked an execution), Barry wandered in the wilderness like Moses, took up residence with helpful Bedouins and – underscoring how the Middle East often involves two unappetizing choices – finally became a reluctant Rambo, leading a military charge against the brutal Caliphate that was challenging his brother’s rule.
Back home, meanwhile, Jamal became increasingly paranoid – including his skepticism regarding the motives of the grown son he didn’t know he had – while Barry’s wife Molly (Jennifer Finnegan) tried to move on. But she couldn’t entirely, thanks to their son Sammy (Noah Silver), the show’s most annoyingly dunderheaded character despite this season’s maturation process, as he sought to claim his inheritance and wound up receiving a rather harsh education about the brutality of war.
All that led to a final flurry of episodes (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched) in which it was revealed to all that Barry was still alive, while the international community turned up the heat on Jamal for gassing his own people. It didn’t help that Jamal’s wife Leila (Moran Atias, like Barhom, terrific, if unconvincing as the mother of a 20-something son) turned on him, seeking to secure her child’s safety as well as her own.
Still, even with the people chanting his name and taking to the streets – and Barry’s religious reawakening from his time in the desert – the producers didn’t successfully sell that he would want to stay in Abbudin, or undertake midwifing its shift toward a more democratic future. Because as noble as the character is, he’s also one of the few within the show who started out with a clear-eyed understanding of the limitations in seeking to impose political systems in the region.
The closing sequence, moreover – in which Jamal appears to be digging in his heels on not surrendering power, only to be shot by his daughter-in-law (Sybilla Deen), who he had raped – felt like a cheap way to continue the story. After all, it was Jamal’s life hanging in the balance that forced Barry to stay in Abbudin in the first place, setting him on a path to all that followed.
As noted, this season nevertheless represented a creative step forward, and its real-life parallels were at times sobering, in much the same way “Homeland” – another show under the stewardship of producer Howard Gordon – has frequently been. The writers also did a nice job building the seemingly hopeless romance between Barry and Daliyah (Melia Kreiling), another one of those actresses within the series who manages to look absolutely exquisite no matter how harrowing the circumstances.
Obviously, the program’s soapier qualities require dramatic flourishes, and its longevity – should it be renewed for a third season – seemingly hinges on Barry remaining engaged. That said, “better,” in this case, didn’t always mean “plausible.” And there are only so many times that Barry can fall back on saying “He’s my brother!” (as he did after Jamal was wounded) or “It’s my country” before the only rational response would be, “Get me on the next plane out of here.”