Team-Up Review: Airwolf, “And They Are Us” and “To Snare a Wolf”

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Airwolf

By Cory Barker and Myc Wiatrowski

Airwolf
Season 1, Episode 9, “And They Are Us” and Episode 11, “To Snare a Wolf”
Original air dates: Mar. 31, 1984 and Apr. 14, 1984

Myc: It’s been two weeks since we first visited the Airwolf crew, and after our week off we’re heading back to the secret world of explosions, helicopters, and shadowy government projects. This time we’ll be looking at “And They Are Us” and the season finale “To Snare a Wolf.” In our last chat we pointed out some really strong points and some really troubling aspects of this show and decided overall it was fairly enjoyable. These two episodes come later in the season and hopefully gave everyone involved a chance to get into a rhythm. For me this is mostly true. The relationships feel a little more fleshed out and maybe there is more interesting stuff going on. What did you find most interesting in these episodes?

Cory: Based on these episodes, Airwolf didn’t necessarily change much as the first season progressed, but I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. The series can still be a bit of a bore because the cast is stiff and helicopter action can be only so engaging. I was a little surprised by the stories in these two. “And They Are Us,” a mid-season episode, provided some serialization by addressing Hawke’s still-missing brother. While we can talk about the representation of the villains in that one, it offered some real emotional stakes for the characters; it’s nice to see the show keep that thread prominent, if only in every few episodes. The finale was much more concerned with Airwolf and the Firm, things I’m less interested in. It’s telling that the show chose to produce a more plot-heavy episode as the finale, whereas the slightly more interesting character episode is earlier in the run (I don’t get the impression from the finale that they’ve found St. John or anything). Ultimately, this is a show that’s really invested in how cool its namesake is and because I’m not, certain episodes are less engaging than others.

Let’s start with “And They Are Us.” The show’s we’ve watched haven’t necessarily been progressive in their treatment of people from other nations (or non-whites from this nation, or women). How’d you feel about Airwolf‘s trip to Africa and its representation of the people there?

Myc: “And They Are Us” captured some of the essence of the real world narratives that were present in sub-Saharan Africa from the 1950’s onward, well into the 1980’s when this was filmed (and beyond). The North/South Limbawe dispute and potential war in the show was vaguely reminiscent of the struggles in the Congo throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. The narrative similarities between South Limbawe and Zaire were not lost on me (though we could probably argue that visually the North Limbawe had the then contemporary Zaire aesthetic). The General Ali Butami character (Grand L. Bush) and the the history professor/president he plans to assassinate, Harold Ngomo (Milton Murrill), really seemed to me to be fictional versions of Joseph Mobutu and Patrice Lumumba respectively.

There is some essentializing clearly going on in the episode, but it was able in some ways to capture the essence of these sort of conflicts. However, the Americans come in and get to be the heroic moral authority. Even Martin Vidor (Christopher Stone), the American “villain,” gets to be a moral figure in comparison to the people of both North and South Limbawe, which is incredibly problematic.

132554Cory: Your knowledge of the historical and political contexts is more advanced than mine so I’ll stay away from that kind of analysis and just assumed that you’re correct. More generally, I was surprised at how the characters were represented here. Like you noted, there was some essentializing on display but unfortunately, that’s almost bound to happen in a 45-minute story on American broadcast television. The episode probably could have done without giving Vidor so much of the moral high-ground at times, but it’s not as if the Butami and Ngomo characters were overtly offensive in their constructions. It’s a tough balance for a show like this and I’m impressed at how inoffensive some of these international characters have been. It’s not too often even today that we see characters from Libya and Africa and they’re not immediately stereotypical caricatures. Though it is interesting that both this episode and the pilot had to also integrate a villainous American character as well.

Let’s say this: Airwolf does a better job with racial representation than The A-Team. Praise! Can someone retroactively put that on a poster or something? More seriously, it is legitimately surprising that a show about an uber-man and a helicopter actually engaged with real-world global politics.

What else did you enjoy–or perhaps–not enjoy about “And They Are Us?” How did you respond to Deborah Pratt’s Marella?

Myc: I completely agree. Engaging with a real-world political landscape with foreign characters that don’t immediately devolve into a series of stereotypes is quite nice. We don’t see a whole lot of that on modern television, let alone the other shows we’ve discussed so far.

Marella was inoffensive. It seems like they just need a body there with Archangel to deliver exposition, and for some reason that body has to be female. I suppose she works, but I wasn’t blown away or anything. However, she does seem even meeker than the Gabrielle character—and she has even less to do.

One of the more interesting things I noticed in this episode was the portrayal of women. Specifically, one woman: the wife of the North Limbawe President Logana, Lea Logana (Berlinda Tolbert). The show’s problematic treatment of women is on display yet again. There’s a scene near the end of the episode between her and Hawke (near the 37 minute mark) that is all about the sexual tension between the two of them. She doesn’t have any problem with being attracted to Hawke, and her line “You and I should live a long time Mr. Hawke” makes it clear that she is totally ready to have sex with him, if only it wouldn’t result in their murder. Not because she is married. Not because she doesn’t want to (I mean hey, this is Stringfellow Hawke we’re talking about, women don’t just tell him no!). But simply because they will get killed if she gives in to her urges. This isn’t as bad as the very rape-centric scene we saw in the pilot, but it’s similarly troublesome.

Then to make it worse the President, Seko Logana, sees this whole exchange and makes the comment to them “I saw my wife with another man. A white man.” He goes on to say he knows that Hawke would never betray a friend… because he is white? That entire sequence just felt really odd. Though I guess it ties into the weird Western moral figures we’ve discussed a little. Like I said, there are some really good things happening in this episode, but the Western/White/American morality and authority is very present.

To Snare a Wofl!Cory: Let’s move onto the first season finale, “To Snare a Wolf.” I already briefly detailed how the episode felt much more interested in the cat-and-mouse game between Hawke and the Firm over Airwolf, and we can come back to that if you would like. However, why don’t we start with the episode’s representation and/or treatment of women since we’re already on that subject. This episode introduces the female pilot (WHOSE NAME I FORGET) that Hawke and Santini are almost immediately skeptical of. They don’t trust that she is who she says she is, which is understandable considering the men are on high alert and trying to keep Airwolf away from the Firm. Yet, anytime this show gets the opportunity to let Santini say inappropriate things to women, it seemingly loves to take it. What’d you think about her presence in the finale?

Myc: It’s laughable how little they believe Toni when she says that she’s a pilot. Like the concept of a woman flying a plane or helicopter is just absolutely absurd, so obviously she must be a spy. I rather enjoyed that she was witty and sharp tongued with them about it, and able to crack a few jokes at their expense—particularly when she tells Hawke that he’s just angry she didn’t help him cook (because, as we’ve seen these guys are pretty clear that women belong in the kitchen!). Other than that though, I’m not too thrilled with her place in this episode. Honestly, it felt like filler in an otherwise slow paced story. Maybe she sticks around in season two and becomes an important player. If we think back to the episodes we discussed last week, Airwolf did have three crew members and it would be progressive if she were to eventually fill that third spot. But I really don’t feel like her introduction here accomplished much other that try to add to the cat-and-mouse game you mentioned (and the plane decoy trick isn’t even remotely successful). Maybe they just felt they needed a more vocal female presence, and Marella wasn’t really doing it. I’m not sure the logic behind it. However, I will say it was nice to see a women who didn’t IMMEDIATELY fall for Hawke and decide that she was ready to sleep with him right away. I suppose that’s progress?

Cory: “Progress.”

I don’t think she actually returns for more episodes, based on my cursory research of the series’ progression. The fascination with making women cook on-display here is staggering, but entertaining in its problematic nature. But I’m happy to hear that you didn’t find this one particularly engaging either. I like Airwolf because it takes itself way too seriously, but I think the problem with Airwolf is that it takes itself way too seriously. So when the series isn’t providing weirdly apt socio-political stories or almost progressive representations of people from other, generally “evil” nations or ranting and raving about how women are whores who belong in the kitchen, it doesn’t actually do much for me. When the series slinks into pure action, with sequences that are intended to be intense, adrenaline risers, I just want to change the channel (or should I say click over to another tab. I’m impressed with the amount of location shooting and how rarely it seems that the production isn’t re-using old or leftover shots. (Though I did love how they re-used the shot of the eagle from the pilot in this episode; can’t rent those endangered birds again!) Nevertheless, I can’t bring myself to care about helicopter-centric action sequences. They just fly around, and sometimes shoot stuff. That’s cool in real life, but not necessarily evocative on screen, particularly after seeing it a few times over. The series does the best it can by turning the episode climaxes into hyped-up old western stand-offs, complete with shots inside the cockpit as the pilots decide how or when to blow one another up, but Airwolf isn’t as visually impressive as the narrative tries to sell it as. Am I wrong?

Myc: You are not wrong. When the show is doing the straight forward action-in-the-air stuff it is at its weakest. As you mentioned, and as we discussed last week, the amount of location shooting with several helicopters flying around and prop planes doing their thing is incredible. But it’s also sort of boring. There was a sequence in this episode where Airwolf is surrounded by other helicopters who, the show tells us, have a superior advantage tactically. Cool. I buy that. But it didn’t feel as intense as the show wanted that moment to feel. Visually, the show didn’t really convey the intensity of that moment. Maybe helicopters as a center piece of a show are inherently boring? We have yet to see a real air-to-air dogfight. Maybe that would be more interesting, because we know that everyone that Hawke has gone up against so far is over matched in a technical sense. It’s like a western standoff where the bad guys have a knife and the hero carries a cannon.

Like everything else Airwolf does, they’re trying to make the combat stuff Serious Business, but it’s sort of flat. We know that Hawke has the best equipment, and at the very least he can fly faster than the other choppers and get away. For a show that takes itself so seriously, it has a real energy problem. Whether it’s moments of aerial combat, where they want us to feel intense emotion but miss the mark, or the standoff with Hawke and the evil bureaucrat Bogard (where Vincent was probably directed to be glaring intensely, but really looks like he’s about to cry). Airwolf is strongest when it is absurdly detailing sociopolitical content. Which seems odd, but that’s this show in a nutshell. Great for being too serious, and terrible for being too serious.

****

This post is part of our multi-week exploration of 1980s uber-masculine American action shows. Here’s the upcoming schedule:

4/8: Hunter, “Hunter (Pilot)” and MacGyver, “Pilot”

3 Responses to “Team-Up Review: Airwolf, “And They Are Us” and “To Snare a Wolf””

  1. Marty McKee

    “Engaging with a real-world political landscape with foreign characters that don’t immediately devolve into a series of stereotypes is quite nice. We don’t see a whole lot of that on modern television, let alone the other shows we’ve discussed so far.”

    Nice point. One thing that really bothers me about current television is how xenophobic it is. Even 24, which was perfectly formatted for overseas adventure, stayed firmly in the U.S. of A. (except for a TV-movie that actually filmed in Africa). Granted, AIRWOLF and most of these older shows set in other countries never left Southern California to film, but they displayed a curiosity about other cultures and understood the dramatic potential of opening their stories to include global scale. CHUCK is a recent exception, though poor special effects usually ruined the illusion.

    Reply
    • Myc Wiatrowski

      CHUCK was one of my favorite shows while it was on, and you’re right that it tended to be better in its portrayals. The proliferation of largely brown-bodied foreigners as villainous Others on television is pretty disconcerting, and something that as been addressed repeatedly, though with little impact.
      Some shows are more even handed, of course, but overwhelmingly foreignness on TV is conflated with brownness and evil. It was nice to see AIRWOLF be a little better at that.

      Reply

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