#113: The Protagonist Trap: Why Bond Cannot be “Woke”

Now that Daniel Craig is nearing the end of his run as 007, discussions about the future of the role emerge. Director Cary Fukanaga has said that Connery’s Bond was “basically” a rapist, and he is not entirely wrong. But that exactly is the point, and it is not limited to Connery’s era. Bond sees women as entertainment, not as serious romantic interests – with the exception, of course, of Teresa Draco, his wife, whom he married in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Teresa, or Tracy, poignantly has a serious name and standing of her own. All other women, from Vesper Lynd, Honey Rider, Pussy Galore, Xenia Onatopp, even Domino Derval (who saved his life in Thunderball), are basically seen as playmates, and are named accordingly (it never needed Austin Powers to show how ridiculous these names are). And honestly, no scene is as “rapey” as when Craig’s Bond enters the Sévérine’s shower after having just freed her from being a sex slave. Compared to that cold-hearted scene, whatever happens in Goldfinger or Thunderball is almost playful – after all, many of his women feel about him just as he does about them.

This is the very point. Bond’s world is not the world of normal people. His behavior towards women is not gentle because he is not a gentle man. “The gentleman’s a killer,” as the lyrics of Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – the second titlesong for Thunderball – explain so vividly. His behavior marks his character. It is a judgement upon him. Bond is always the mirror image of his antagonist – he happens to work for the British government, he happens to dress like a civilized man, but he is just playing a role. James Bond is, as Judy Dench’s M says about him in Goldeneye, a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur,” but he is the government’s dinosaur, a tool, a weapon, the bad guy to catch other bad guys.

If we take a figure like James Bond and try to see him as a role model, we are making a mistake. We are falling into the protagonist trap: The assumption that we should identify with the lead role, and somehow that that person should be a role model. But if you identify with Bond, if you see him as a role model, you are taking your cues from a sociopath.

This, of course, is a brilliant game in fiction: By somehow wanting to sympathize with the protagonist, we are made to enter the world of a killer, a madman, a person that is simply not moral. Whether it is James Bond, Daenerys Targaryen, Macbeth or Hannibal Lecter, we are supposed to walk into this trap of exploring the darker sides of human nature. We need that experience, we need to have this exposed to us. We are supposed to – briefly – look at the world through Bond’s eyes when he does what he does, and then look back at us ashamed when we recognize our own dark desires.

In that sense, each Bond movie is thus fantasy and an exploration of morality. Each different Bond in the various filmic versions has something else to tell us. Whether it be the cold-hearted killer (as portrayed by Sean Connery), the playboy who still has a heart to be broken (George Lazenby), the caricature of a gentleman with a sense of humor (Roger Moore), the awkward romantic (Timothy Dalton), the pretty boy soldier (Pierce Brosnan) or the broken lunatic with a Oedipus complex (Danial Craig): None of these are people who have defeated their demons, and the two who are most human (Lazenby’s and Dalton’s Bond) have been the least successful, probably for a good reason. This is the attraction of Bond: We know he is a bad guy. But in the live-and-let-die world of James Bond, it takes one sociopath working for the right side to bring down those on the wrong side of things. He is a monster, but he is our monster, and he looks good doing what he does.