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Harsh Realm – Cincinnati (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

Cincinnati finally gives Terry O’Quinn something to do.

Despite the fact that O’Quinn is credited as a series regular on Harsh Realm, he has appeared about as frequently in the first nine episodes as he did during the equivalent episodes of Millennium. With his “and…” credit at the end of the opening title sequence, it felt like O’Quinn might be forgotten by the show. His face might appear on posters and propaganda, but he was not going to play a particularly dynamic role in the events of the first season. After all, Hobbes is trying to assassinate Santiago; there are reasons why the writers would want to keep them separate.

Walk softly, but carry a big stick...

Walk softly, but carry a big stick…

Nevertheless, Cincinnati is a story that unfolds from Santiago’s perspective. Hobbes and Pinochio play a major part in unfolding events, but they largely reacting. The bulk of Cincinnati concerns a conflict between Santiago’s forces and the Native American population of Ohio. When a military strike goes horribly wrong, Santiago is forced to survive on his own terms. He infiltrates the eponymous city and sets about furthering his own agenda with ruthless efficiency.

A lot of Cincinnati is pure nonsense; the plot is barely held together by contrivance and coincidence, hinging on a final twist that manages to be both obvious and completely unearned. At the same time, it is hard to hate an episode that is carried by Terry O’Quinn and offers the actor a chance to sink his teeth into a juicy part.

It's all in ruins...

It’s all in ruins…

One of the problems in evidence over the nine-episode run on Harsh Realm is the fact that Hobbes is the show’s least interesting character played by its least compelling actor. D.B. Sweeney does better work as Mike Pinochio, but the first season scripts tend to soften the roguish elements of the supporting character. Even if Pinochio were particularly compelling, the fact that Florence is a mute character would mean that about half the show’s heroic dialogue comes from Hobbes.

In contrast, the opening three episodes of the season established a much more interesting dynamic among the villains of the piece. Terry O’Quinn is a mesmerising performer, and casting him in a role akin to that of Colonel Kurtz is a great use of his premise. O’Quinn has always excelled at playing fanatics and extremists. Unlike Peter Watts or John Locke, it seems that Omar Santiago is driven by belief in himself as a higher force. (In fact, Manus Domini has suggested that Santiago taught that there was “no higher authority” than himself.)

"I wanna take his face... off..."

“I wanna take his face… off…”

Sarah Jane Redmond is perfectly cast as the sultry and seductive Inga Fossa, whose loyalties are ambiguous at best. Is Fossa genuinely trying to stop Santiago for the good of mankind, or is she furthering her own agenda? It is not too hard to imagine a final season where Fossa betrays Santiago and claims his power for herself. Even waters feels more interesting than Hobbes, playing a man who shot his own wife in the heat of combat and who betrayed his best friend and his country in order to survive in a truly chaotic world.

Even if Cincinnati doesn’t give Fossa and Waters a lot to do, their interactions are still more compelling than any featuring Hobbes or Pinochio. The introductory sequence where Santiago explains the concept of “counting coup” to his military council is striking, as Terry O’Quinn exudes a strange mix of respect and frustration for those who have dared to challenge him. There is a palpable sense of unease about that scene, giving it a harder edge than any moment where Hobbes or Pinochio are on screen.

"I'm sorry, what was that?" "Uh, nothing, sir."

“I’m sorry, what was that?”
“Uh, nothing, sir.”

One of the more interesting aspects of Cincinnati is that it builds the episode around Santiago without making him sympathetic. When developing an antagonist like Santiago, the default approach is to humanise them; to reveal that the villains have clear motivations and sympathetic goals. Does Santiago believe that he is protecting the world? Does Santiago think that he is the lesser evil in this scenario? Tasked with focusing a story on Santiago, the immediate impulse would be to make him and character with whom viewers can empathise.

Carter’s script for Cincinnati eschews that approach. In the larger context of Carter’s work, this is not a surprise. Carter is a writer who believes in absolutes. Watching Harsh Realm, it is clear that Thomas Hobbes is an absolute good while Omar Santiago is an absolute evil. There is no way that any viewer will come out of Cincinnati believing that Santiago is the hero of the story. Santiago does monstrous things over the course of the episode, sacrificing innocents lives as pawns in an effort to stay alive longer.

Tag 'im and bag 'im...

Tag ‘im and bag ‘im…

These are perhaps the strongest scenes in Cincinnati. During an enemy ambush, Santiago is separated from his men. Santiago picks up a wounded soldier and carries him out of the line of fire. Tending to the young man’s wounds, Santiago initially seems concerned about his underling’s health. Is it possible that Santiago is sympathetic to his men? Does Santiago feel some measure of sympathy or compassion for those who have worn his colours? Is there some fraternal bond formed between soldiers that transcends Santiago’s ruthless streak?

Carter cleverly sets up all of these questions, and then brushes them aside as Santiago murders the young soldier in a brutal fashion as a means of preserving his own life. Santiago is not particularly concerned about the lives of those under his command, whether real or virtual. They are all merely a means to his end. Whereas Hobbes’ instance that it is “just a game” is meant to be ironic, it is clear that Santiago wholeheartedly believes this to be the case. Santiago is willing to do anything that it takes to win.

"You know, evading detection would be a lot easier if I hadn't plastered my face everywhere..."

“You know, evading detection would be a lot easier if I hadn’t plastered my face everywhere…”

Santiago seems to genuinely believe that the virtual world of Harsh Realm is just a more honest reflection of human interaction. Santiago seems more likely to ascribe to the moral philosophy of Thomas Hobbes than the title character in the series, genuinely believing that life is a constant battle waged in a variety of ways. To Santiago, his military conquest of the virtual world is just the ultimate expression of the bloody struggle that comprises the very act of existing in a hostile world.

“Violence is the ultimate and unavoidable outcome of any unresolvable conflict,” Santiago addresses the Native Americans who have taken up arms to resist his march westward. “Look at yourselves. You were silenced and oppressed, your rights stolen. Now you’re free to sacrifice for your cause. Warriors again, full of courage and bravery. Not victims, but heroes ready to fight for what you believe.” It seems like Santiago genuinely admires their willingness to fight, even if it throws them into opposition with him.

Shedding some light on the matter...

Shedding some light on the matter…

Cincinnati confirms that Santiago is a veteran of the Vietnam War. The Pilot introduced the character as the most decorated soldier to serve in “Southeast Asia.” Here, we are told that he served “seven tours in ‘Nam.” It seems like that experience prepared him for his time in the virtual world, where it seems like Santiago has cast himself as an occupying force facing guerrila opposition rather a single unified opposition. Indeed, Santiago could also be seen to foreshadow a certain cynical reading of United States foreign policy in the Middle East in the twenty-first century.

This is another theme of interest to Carter. Carter is fascinated by the legacy of the seventies; the betrayal of an entire generation through events like Watergate or Vietnam. Santiago is very much an anthropomorphic interpretation of that conflict, the soldier forged in the Vietnamese jungle. If the Cigarette-Smoking Man is the tobacco-stained spectre of Watergate and countless other scandals, then Santiago is the type of warrior that such men hoped to forge in a nightmare half-way around the world. No wonder Santiago returned to haunt the United States.

"Just like 'Nam."

“Just like ‘Nam.”

At the centre of Cincinnati is a fantastic performance from Terry O’Quinn as Santiago. At this moment, Santiago is incredibly vulnerable and yet still convinced of his own supremacy. Santiago is improvising for most of the episode, but he is improvising effortlessly; the events of Cincinnati might have come out of nowhere, but he is almost excited to meet the challenge. There is a sense that Santiago actually feels more comfortable dealing with this rebellion on his own terms than he would assigning it to one of his underlings.

However, Cincinnati does not work as well as it might. As great as it is to focus on Santiago and as interesting as it is to build an episode around Terry O’Quinn, the support structure of the episode is simply not that compelling on its own terms. The episode hinges on a magical piece of make-believe technology that allows Santiago to trade faces with people; however, it seems that the device does not have a consistent success rate. At some points, Terry O’Quinn plays Santiago in disguise; at other moments, other actors step in.

That'll be the last time he mouths off...

That’ll be the last time he mouths off…

More than that, the plotting of the episode seems unnecessarily convoluted. It relies on all sorts of guesses and counter-guess from the three parties involved in the conflict, all of which always line up in a way that happens to meet the requirements of the plot. None of the credited leads can actually die in the episode, and the show is still too young to let Hobbes and Pinochio kill Santiago. As a result, a lot of the narrative elements of Cincinnati feels like a narrative shell game, the script moving in a frenzy to conceal the fact that nothing important is actually happening.

There is a sense that Cincinnati teases a glimpse of what a “mythology” episode of Harsh Realm would look like. In press leading up to the release of the show, Chris Carter suggested that the series would combine standalone stories with arc-based storytelling. The obvious template is The X-Files, given its popularity and success. The four episodes between Inga Fossa and Cincinnati were all standalone episodes that offered glimpses of the wider world of Harsh Realm. This is the first time that Hobbes’ mission has come back into focus since the opening three episodes.

Sticking it to the man...

Sticking it to the man…

Discussing the structure of the first season, Carter was keen to stress that there was an emphasis on standalone episodes so as to help the production team get to grips with the structure and function of Harsh Realm before they began really playing with it:

“You always have big plans for how stories might work and characters might evolve, but it’s not until you get into those things that you really see what works and what doesn’t and you learn how the story-telling rhythms [develop],” he says. “You’ve got to get some of the mythology out of the way [early so] you can get into your stand-alone episodes, which are always refreshing because you know the characters, what their predicament is, what their history is. So you’re trying to accomplish many things at once in the beginning, and it’s nice when you finally get onto flat ground [with the stand-alones] and you’re able to really build up speed.”

Again, it is worth stressing that Harsh Realm was cancelled extremely early in its lifespan. Cincinnati comes at the point in the first season where The X-Files was producing Ice and Millennium was producing The Well-Worn Lock. It is very tough to jump to conclusions about the show based on so little information.

Talk about a gagging order...

Talk about a gagging order…

After all, it seems like even the production team had no idea what Harsh Realm was meant to be, and no idea how it was supposed to work. From a structural perspective, Three Percenters and Manus Domini were both messy and cluttered. It seems too much to suggest that Carter and his production team should have mapped out a plan for what lay ahead. Asked about possible endings to Harsh Realm, Frank Spotnitz suggested, “Harsh Realm would’ve ended with Hobbies defeating Santiago and returning to Sophie – we had not worked out any more details.”

Of course, there are a few hints scattered through the show suggesting where Carter and his staff might have taken the series had it lasted just a little bit longer. In Leviathan and Inga Fossa, it was made clear that Santiago was plotting to destroy the real world so that he could be king of the virtual world to which the refugees would flock. Cincinnati suggests that Santiago is just as cavalier about life in the real world as he is about life in the virtual world. It is all just an elaborate war game to him, regardless of the lives caught in the crossfire.

A blank slate...

A blank slate…

Hobbes explains, “That he’d become master of this virtual kingdom was only his first move in an even greater ambition: To defeat the men and country who’d created him to destroy the real world so Harsh Realm would be all that’s left.” Santiago is a man who was trained and honed through brutal combat, taught to win at all costs. To Santiago, winning is not simply about beating the game; it is about beating the people who designed the game. It is about turning the game against those who developed it.

There are shadows of Santiago’s Vietnam experiences bleeding through into his strategy. The targeting of the real world as “collateral damage” and to assure his control of the virtual world perhaps reflects the bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. The attacks sanctioned by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger remain highly controversial to this day, with many commentators suggesting that the illegal attacks upon civilian populations constituted a violation of the rules of engagement and were a war crime.

General sanity...

General sanity…

According to director and producer Daniel Sackheim, quoted in Science Fiction Television Series, 1990-2004, the plan was for Harsh Realm to build towards an insane plot by Santiago to render the real world uninhabitable:

“The mythology was going in an interesting direction,” he says. “One element we never got to play out involved General Santiago’s plan to detonate a number of nuclear devices in the real world, leaving him supreme ruler of the only habitable place on earth. At least, I seem to remember Chris talking about that.”

There are, of course, all manner of logistical questions that might be raised about this plot point. Nevertheless, it is an intrigued direction to take things, and one that fits with the links of interdependence running through the series.

Tag, you're it!

Tag, you’re it!

There is something quite frustrating about all this. While Millennium has continued through the excellent work of the “Back to Frank Black” campaign and through a limited comic book series, it seems like Harsh Realm has been largely forgotten. While both Millennium and The Lone Gunmen were afforded a farewell through The X-Files itself, the strongest connection to Harsh Realm remains a cameo from Sarah Jane Redmond as an agent identified as “Fossa” in The X-Files: I Want to Believe.

Joe Harris has suggested that he might want to tease Harsh Realm at some point in his work on the X-Files comic, but odds of an actual resurrection or continuation seem low. There are a number of reasons why Harsh Realm will languish in a pop cultural obscurity unknown to the casts of Millennium or The Lone Gunmen. The most obvious problem is the brevity of the run. However, the legacy of Harsh Realm is also tainted by outside factors like those involving Scott Bairstow’s legal troubles that would render Thomas Hobbes a toxic character.

It is very hard to wordplay with a name like 'Fossa.'

It is very hard to wordplay with a name like ‘Fossa.’

So it looks like these nine episodes are really the beginning and the end as far as Harsh Realm is concerned. With Cincinnati, as with the show as a whole, it seems like Harsh Realm is defined more by its potential than by the material quality of the episodes in question. None of the nine episodes are classic pieces of television, but most of them are interesting in a sense that they hint at possibilities and permutations that might pay-off in a few more episodes or with a little more time.

The themes and ideas underpinning Cincinnati are interesting, and tie back to both the core themes of Harsh Realm and some recurring fixations of Chris Carter. The show has repeatedly compared General Omar Santiago’s military expansion in terms that reflection the birth of America; he has compared himself to Jefferson, established a base on the eastern seaboard and begun an advance westward. At the start of Cincinnati, we are warned that “General Santiago’s westward expansion of territory had gone virtually unchecked.”

Quite the coup...

Quite the coup…

Cincinnati finds Santiago facing a Native American rebellion. Carter has always been interested in the experience of the Native American population, weaving them into the mythology of The X-Files with Anasazi at the end of the second season. More particularly, those Native American elements had come back to the fore at the end of the sixth season with Biogenesis. It was clearly a concept that interest Chris Carter, particularly given his recurring fascination with the foundation myths of the United States.

Naturally, this interest extended beyond Carter himself. The writers around Carter would return time and again to Native Americans, with Glen Morgan and James Wong even including Native American elements in their work on Space: Above and Beyond and Millennium. The basic plot of Cincinnati echoes the plot of A Single Blade of Grass, the second season episode of Millennium where a Native American tribe plots an apocalypse so that they may reclaim their land from the European settlers.

A commanding presence...

A commanding presence…

Cincinnati finds the Native American population of Ohio rebelling in the face of an apocalypse, retaking the land that was once taken from them. “The United States doesn’t exist,” the Brave explains at one point. “There’s only land now.” There is a sense that the United States has fallen to pieces and that perhaps those who had been crushed and oppressed by manifest destiny were rising up to claim what was rightfully theirs. Carter’s writing repeatedly stresses that the European Settlers are essentially aliens at the mercy of the continent; Cincinnati reinforces this.

Of course, there is a slight sense of racial panic about all this. Cincinnati seems to suggest that the Native American population is perhaps just waiting for an excuse to rise up and retake America. Then again, it fits with the broad themes of Harsh Realm, the idea that human beings are stuck in a perpetual and never-ending conflict. The fact that the rebels in Cincinnati are Native Americans adds a lot of symbolism to the story, but it seems like Cincinnati is making broader comments about human nature rather than presenting Native Americans as opportunistic.

Lighten up...

Lighten up…

“Those are houses burning,” the Brave remarks. “Homes we took from white men that are now banding together against us.” Goinsnake is quick to stress that their experience is not unique. “We know their resentments,” he advises his younger ally. “They were ours when our land was taken.” The script suggests that there are cycles of violence that repeat time and time again; that conflict is the natural and primal state of man. Cincinnati reinforces this by fading from the face of Goinsnake to Santiago, and allowing Santiago to swap faces with the Brave at the end.

Even the setting is not a coincidence. The decision to set the Native American rebellion in Ohio harks back to some of the earliest conflicts between the settlers and the tribes in the wake of the War of Independence. At the end of the eighteenth century, the Native American tribes had come to accept the Ohio River as the limit of the settlers’ westward expansion. Conflict was inevitable, with fighting breaking out during the last decade of the eighteenth century. The Native Americans were eventually defeated by the new United States military at Fallen Timbers in 1794.

Gunning for him, this time...

Gunning for him, this time…

It is worth stressing that all of this seems to support Santiago’s worldview rather than that of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes is a romantic and optimistic character, but it seems like his hope is somewhat misplaced in the opening nine episodes of the first season. Hobbes is able find a few glimmers of hope in episodes like Leviathan or Manus Domini, but it seems like the bulk of the world operates according to the harsh and cynical logic of Santiago. Mankind left to their own devices create a state of anarchy and lawlessness predicated on force and brutality.

Once again, it is important to note that only nine episodes of Harsh Realm were ever produced. It is entirely possible that Thomas Hobbes would ultimately have found his beliefs in the innate goodness of human nature vindicated by his experiences. This could all just be a way for Carter to raise the stakes and ramp up the tension, creating a world where it seems entirely possible that Hobbes has completely misunderstood the workings of human nature, only to have Hobbes proven right at a crucial later moment.

The world according to Omar Santiago...

The world according to Omar Santiago…

Cincinnati is not a particularly strong episode on its own merits. The plot is disjointed and messy, hinging on a variety of contortions that build to an inevitable and predictable resolution that feels somewhat unearned. At the same time, it does tease a lot of potential about the show, setting up some ideas that might have paid off later in the run. Omar Santiago barely registers as anything more than a mysterious antagonist in these opening nine episodes, so it is nice to have at least one episode based around him.

The episode itself could be a lot better, but it does suggest the show was developing in an interesting direction. Sadly, this would be the penultimate episode produced.

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2 Responses

  1. I’m curious which other Ten Thirteen production (including Space Above and Beyond) you prefer? I have only watched seasons 1-2 of Millennium. I never watched Harsh Realm, Lone Gunmen or SAAB. I really liked season 2 of Millennium so I wonder if I would enjoy SAAB.

    • The immediate suggestion is Space: Above and Beyond. The first half of the season is a little rough, but the second half has a bunch of classics in there. I would consider Who Monitors the Birds?, The Angriest Angel, And If They Lay Us Down to Rest… and … Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best to be better than anything in Harsh Realm, Lone Gunmen or Millennium S3.

      Outside of that, it is worth noting that Harsh Realm and Lone Gunmen effectively got cancelled after half a full season, so it’s really just about judging potential. I haven’t seen Lone Gunmen in a while, but I’d give it the edge; though I concede that’s probably because I just like the characters more than I like the protagonists of Harsh Realm. Harsh Realm is interesting, but it is occasionally a little too heavy for its own good and never entirely figures out how it wants to be what it wants to be.

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