By Cory Barker and Myc Wiatrowski
Season 1, Episode 1 and 2, “Shadow of Hawke”
Original airdate: Jan. 22, 1984
Myc: Question: what has helicopters, hyper-masculinity, broody protagonists, misogyny, jingoism, and synthesizers? If you guessed Airwolf than you’re a winner! We’ve ditched the Simon brothers and their detective agency in favor of our second Donald P. Bellisario show. We also get our first truly reluctant hero, a lone (air)wolf named Stringfellow Hawke (who might win the award for greatest name in this review series). Just in case his name didn’t give it away, he is a pilot. In fact, he is the pilot. His stories are the next stop along the road of 1980s testosterone, although for these episodes, we largely keep the wisecracks in check. This is Very Serious Drama. There is an awful lot going on in this two-part pilot episode. I don’t really think it was bad, but it doesn’t feel like it has aged particularly well and comes off as cheesy. What did you think of the pilot episodes, Cory?
Cory: Airwolf is somehow more ridiculous and stupid than The A-Team, but is almost better for it. You’re right about time not being on this show’s side, but unlike The A-Team where we’re supposed to not take much of it seriously, this show wants us to have all the feels, all the time about Hawke’s plight and it’s because the show takes itself so seriously that I couldn’t help but love it. This is the kind of show I imagined when we decided to do this survey of 1980s action shows: The men are MEN, the women barely wear clothes, are called whores, and are forcibly assaulted, and people say lines like “….if that is YOUR REAL NAME” with complete earnestness. No one appears to be aware that they’re making one of the more outrageous television shows of the time and I think that’s what makes it so enjoyable. I think David Caruso might have stolen his “aviators off and quip” gimmick from Jan-Michael Vincent’s work here. Vincent is unbelievable. His character is simultaneously the biggest bad-ass on the planet and a man who plays the cello for what is basically a pet bald eagle. And when Hawke is in the middle of battle, passionate love, or full-on grief, Vincent’s facial expressions and emotional register is almost exactly the same: blank. What’d you think of Vincent’s work, and maybe more importantly, the show’s portrayal of masculinity and femininity (there’s a lot to get at there)?
Myc: Okay, so I’m going to work your questions backward. Airwolf is more ludicrous than The A-Team, but also much better because of it. You’re absolutely right: his is the type of show that I thought we were in store for. Hawke is the most ridiculous character we’ve come across so far, but he is perfect for our masculinity survey. He is, as you said, the biggest bad-ass ever. An expert helicopter pilot and essentially a spy, Hawke lives in a log cabin in the mountains separated from the world around him. So he represents that very traditional form of masculinity centered on individualism and bodily power that is tied in some ways to the land around him. But he also represents the type of masculinity that is more cerebral: he’s a collector of fine art (all originals, all masterpieces – obviously), an expert cello player, and a sensitive man who lets his emotions inform his actions, but not control his actions (though I think we could debate that last part a little).
He is the 80’s ideal of masculinity. Quintessentially masculine. Except he apparently doesn’t eat red meat? That seems a little odd. However, I guess they mitigate that a little by showing how he does live off the land and fishes in the lake by his house providing for himself and his (uninvited) guests.
And the women—oh dear god. The main female character, Gabrielle (Belinda Bauerda) exists as a sexual and emotional pawn used to get Hawke to consent to the mission. She’s also frequently barely clothed or implied to be nude. There’s the obvious case where she’s an exotic dancer in Libya. However, there’s also a scene where she and Archangel (Alex Cord) stay at Hawke’s cabin for the night and it’s implied that she sleeps in the nude, covered by only a blanket. Then she goes to see Hawke upstairs, with only her blanket, ostensibly to talk to him about art, but we all know there is imminent sex. Even Hawke knows this. But then the scene shifts when Hawke presumes to take control of her body, toss her around a little, and implies that if sex is what he wanted, then sex is what he would have. Super uncomfortable scene. Then of course she is tortured, and I suppose we could read the implication of rape in there too based on what we know of the villain Dr. Moffet (David Hemmings). The traditional modes of masculinity and femininity play out not only visually, but verbally when Dominic (Ernest Borgnine) tells Gabrielle that he doesn’t believe in “women’s lib” and that he prefers traditional gender roles. Then Gabrielle cooks dinner. You know, like she should. Overall the presentation of femininity in Airwolf isn’t particularly enlightened.
As for Vincent, I guess he performs the character the way it’s written: cold, distant, empty, blank. It feels like a very intentional choice; the facade he builds up only changes when he falls for Gabrielle. That’s the only time he emotes beyond his standard blank expression, and then it’s only a slight smile.
Cory: You forgot the part of the scene in the cabin where Hawke tells Gabrielle that, “a whore’s a whore!” This is, by the way, the woman he falls in love with literally hours later (and might have been in love with when he made the comment). Women get mistreated throughout this two-part pilot and it’s not just in these obviously troublesome scenes where Hawke and Dominic say things that push women’s lib back a few years on their own. Although Gabrielle works for The Firm and is theoretically smart and capable in her own right, we never see that in these two hours. From the moment she’s introduced, the show tells us that Archangel brought her to seduce Hawke, a job which she completes amid the aforementioned problematic scenes and language. When Hawke describes her purpose, she barely makes the effort to disagree. Later, she agrees with Dominic’s call that she stay home and make dinner and lets Hawke crack jokes about her affection for nice-looking fish. Then she’s shipped over to Tripoli to replace the dead (and like you said, probably raped) female spy where her body is on display and then she’s captured, tortured, and murdered. Despite the show’s assertions, she doesn’t get any moment to display her intelligence or skills. She’s a pawn, and a really stereotypical way. The other female spy/dancer certainly doesn’t make out any better, as Moffet and the Libyan guard spend all her screen-time talking about her body as she gyrates in front of them. To say the show presents a regressive, troublesome version of femininity and female agency is a severe understatement. I hate that the show did this, but I’m also kind of glad that it did because it’s certainly interesting to talk about.
Moving on, this is another show that features a war-torn backdrop. We briefly hear about Hawke’s time in Vietnam, his relationship with his brother, and the main plot here is, fascinatingly, about Gaddafi and Libya. How’d you feel about the show’s use of war and (then) current events? Better or worse than some of our other subjects?
Myc: I can’t believe I forgot to mention the “a whore’s a whore!” line! But, yeah, for women, this show is just awful.
Airwolf succeeded with its use of war and current events as a backdrop. Aside from the obviously fictional stuff with The Firm and secret government projects gone awry, the allusions to Vietnam and the Libya setting worked well. Granted, we’re not on the level of some of the more modern stuff like Homeland when it comes to dealing with war, but compared to The A-Team‘s use of fictional banana republics in Mexico, Airwolf really stands out. I think dealing with political/military events that are contemporary to the production of a series is something Bellisario shows do really well. We didn’t get an opportunity to see Magnum, P.I. do that on as large a scale in the episodes we watched, but that show worked in elements of the Asian drug trade that tied to civil unrest in the post-Vietnam era, and anyone familiar with television in the last 15 years is likely familiar with JAG and NCIS.
It was interesting to watch a show deal with Gaddafi in the early years of the Jamahiriya, particularly in a contemporary, post-Arab Spring world. I feel like the Arab Spring has sort of recontextualized these episodes in a way similar to how 9/11 recontextualized a lot of other texts (although, those events and their impacts obviously aren’t identical).
I get the feeling that the other episodes we’ll watch will have to deal with war in a similar way and maybe even forefront it more, otherwise what else are they going to do with this giant super-mega helicopter?
Cory: Well, what I liked about how this episode engaged with history and politics is it made that engagement current. Most everything we’ve seen thus far has been backward-looking, primarily towards Vietnam. While this episode certainly does that with the references to Hawke’s time there and his still-missing brother, the narrative’s focus on Libya, Gaddafi, and the Russians brought new elements to the show’s present. Now, to be fair, the show didn’t actually do a whole with these elements. It’s not as if the Libyan characters had really anything to do, and it seemed a little like Moffet escaped to Libya solely so the show could use it as a backdrop. He could have been anywhere. Still though, it was fine choice that added just enough additional texture to the proceedings. It’s nice to watch one of these shows and not immediately go to stereotypical Mexican cartels, or heaven forbid, Nazis.
You mentioned the helicopter, and considering that it’s what the show is named after, I guess we should talk about ole’ Airwolf. Did you feel like the pilot did a good enough job of selling the machine’s innovations and importance? I was impressed with how much location shooting the episode offered; this couldn’t have been cheap to produce. The opening and closing copter sequences looked really good, and even the other moments with Hawke flying other helicopters around weren’t too shoddy. They didn’t waste any money, that’s for sure.
Myc: Clearly they spent a lot of money to produce the helicopter sequences. They did an okay job of selling Airwolf as an innovative and dangerous military weapon. It looks innocuous, and I guess that’s kind of the point? It doesn’t really look like a super impressive or particularly dangerous machine, but they did a lot narratively to justify just how powerful, fast, and dangerous it really is. I buy it being important to the government, especially after it’s lost, but there’s something about it that bothers me. Maybe it’s too powerful? It almost diminishes Hawke by comparison. Airwolf isn’t dangerous because Moffet (who built the thing and is apparently an expert pilot) has it, or because Hawke is at the controls; it’s dangerous because it exists and anybody might be able to fly it. Maybe that doesn’t make any sense, but there’s something about the concept that I just have a hard time swallowing.
This did look good, however. We’ve seen helicopters before in both The A-Team and Magnum, P.I., but we’ve also seen lots of reused footage for those scenes. Not so in Airwolf. Lots of location shooting with Airwolf and multiple other helicopters. I’m curious to see if this continues throughout the season since the episodes we watched this week were essentially shot as a film. I did find some of the minor details curious. For instance, when Airwolf fired missiles they looked like photon torpedoes and when the helicopter wen supersonic the rotors kept spinning even though we’re told several times that they get locked in place. There are just minor visual things that we can chalk up to the constraints of the period.
Cory: I appreciate A.) Your attention to detail and B.) Your desire to make sure helicopter technology is portrayed correctly.
Myc: Hey, someone’s gotta do it, right?
This post is part of our multi-week exploration of 1980s uber-masculine American action shows. Here’s the upcoming schedule:
3/25: Airwolf, “And They Are Us” and “To Snare a Wolf”
4/1: Hunter, “Hunter (Pilot)” and MacGyver, “Pilot”