Thomas Shelby of Peaky Blinders walks through a doorway
22nd February 2018 The MALESTROM

The Strong and Silent Stars of the Small Screen

This week The MALESTROM’s favourite box-set binging TV expert Pat Quin talks strong and silent leading men, over to you Pat…

What ever happened to the man whose actions speak louder than his words? It’s difficult to say whether ‘the strong silent type’ is becoming extinct, or just being drowned out by the ceaseless prattle of the know-it-alls and polarising pundits who dominate public discourse these days. Who knows, maybe such men are still out there, casually sipping whiskey in the corners of dusty bars, or maybe they really are disappearing from our noise-laden world. But, whatever the case, before we forget about this rare breed of man altogether, let us pay homage to those characters of television who remind us that sometimes it is the understated who make the biggest statement of all.

John Luther (Idris Elba), Luther

Luther. Credit: (C) BBC – Photographer: Robert Viglasky

The strong and silent man who impresses us the most isn’t impervious to the slings and arrows of misfortune. Rather, it is he who feels these blows, just as acutely as the rest of us, but still somehow manages to keep it together. Nothing drives this point home more forcefully than Idris Elba’s portrayal of DCI John Luther, the titular character in BBC’s gritty crime drama, Luther. Though his profession and renegade style of police work continually steep him in the most horrific of realities, this grizzled cop maintains a countenance that shows only subtle hints of the pain he feels brewing inside of him.

He occasionally lets this pain come ripping through his tough-as-nails demeanour, but mostly, Luther conveys his depth of feeling through small gestures—a sharp inhale here, a weary exhale there (if you ever thought breathing was a small part of acting, watch Luther and rediscover the emotional power of the sigh!). And although there is something undeniably charming about the flurry of verbiage we get from detectives like Sherlock Holmes – especially Benedict Cumberbatch’s version – there is somehow more power in Luther’s simple catchphrase: “It’s not right, though, is it?”
Strong and Silent Score: 8/10

Thomas ‘Tommy’ Shelby (Cillian Murphy), Peaky Blinders

When you hear ‘strong and silent type’, you likely imagine someone like Clint Eastwood, or even just Clint Eastwood himself—sweaty, stubble-covered, and chewing on a cigar. But if you’ve seen Peaky Blinders, a BBC crime saga set in 1920s Birmingham, there’s a good chance that you’ve updated your mental image, because Cillian Murphy’s performance as Tommy Shelby, head of the Peaky Blinders gang, is that damn good. Where an Eastwood character might narrow his eyes, as if to slice through the soft belly of the world, Tommy regards his surroundings with eyes wide open, twin pools of cold calculation.

And then there’s the voice—at once silky and raspy, gentle and hard. There is such self-possession in Tommy’s voice that we cannot help, when listening to his carefully chosen words, vicariously experience his courage and aplomb. The moment in his character arc that best exemplifies his taciturn toughness occurs in the final episode of the second series, when he is taken to an empty field to be executed. Tommy almost indulges in a self-pitying speech of regret, but manages to gather himself and say, with a stiff upper lip: “Ah, what the f**k. Get it done, boys.”
Strong and Silent Score: 8/10

John Tavner, a.k.a. John Lakeman (Michael Dorman), Patriot

Credit: Amazon Video

If you work for the CIA, keeping quiet is something of a professional necessity, but in the case of John Tavner, the protagonist in the Amazon original series, Patriot, reticence is more than a role—it appears to be interwoven into the fibers of his very being. We didn’t do an official tally, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Tavner, whom the viewer comes to know more as John Lakeman (his undercover name), delivers more of his lines singing than he does talking. You see, though unmistakably competent as an assassin, Tavner performs his dangerous duties halfheartedly, because he’d much rather be playing his guitar and singing original folk songs. The lyrics of these songs – songs that are brilliant music in their own right – let the viewer know that the unimaginably intense things Tavner has to do for the CIA are getting to him.

As the series progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Tavner’s sanity is crumbling away and that singing about killing people and almost getting killed doesn’t provide a sufficient outlet for his mental distress. But, there is something beautiful and inspiring about his preternatural capacity to ignore the advance of his PTSD, and continue staring out at the chaotic world he inhabits with a heavy-lidded look of weary acceptance. To quote many of the characters in Patriot (this is something of a catchphrase): “it is cool.”
Strong and Silent Score: 9/10

Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller), Prison Break

The premise of FOX’s action-packed serial drama Prison Break is over the top, to say the least. Michael Scofield, a structural engineer with no criminal record, gets himself thrown in Fox River State Penitentiary so that he can help his older brother escape and thereby avoid the electric chair. His plan? Tattoo blueprints of the prison all over his body—cleverly disguised as your typical prison ink—and use the flesh-map, along with his piercing intellect and impenetrable poise, to bust out of the maximum security facility. Though undeniably far-fetched, even the most discerning viewer quickly comes to believe in Scofield’s plan.

This is due to Wentworth Miller’s on-screen presence; the painfully handsome British-American actor’s depiction of Scofield’s coolheadedness is so natural, we believe he might actually have ice water in his veins. In an interview, the show’s creator, Paul Scheuring, revealed that the other actors who auditioned for the role of Scofield tried too hard to play mysterious and came across as ‘cheesy and false.’ We’re glad Scheuring recognised Miller’s genuine cool, because in casting him as Scofield, he gave us a strong and silent character for the ages.
Strong and Silent Score: 9/10

Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), Vikings

Credit: History Channel

Who knows whether art imitates life, but one thing’s for certain—we’d all do well to imitate the understated confidence that Travis Fimmel brings to the role of Ragnar Lothbrok in HISTORY’s Vikings. In any one of his scenes, the warrior-king decisively proves that when it comes to being cooler than cool, less is always more. Instead of gruffly barking his lines, as one might expect of a bearded warlord, Fimmel chooses to have Ragnar speak with a crisp, light, and almost effete tone of voice. The result is nothing short of a reinvention of the very notion of masculinity.

If we had to pick one scene to showcase Ragnar’s mastery of strength and silence, it would be his conversation with his tenuous and slimy ally, King Ecbert of Wessex. The two men sit side by side at a celebration feast, watching their respective subjects engage in drunken revelry. Both men exude regal detachment, but it is Ragnar’s bearing – his lengthy pauses, his subtle smirk, the playful glint in his eyes – that truly embodies the primal power of shutting up.
Strong and Silent Score: 9/10

Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul

Credit: AMC

This dour henchman is so strong and silent, we’re tempted to put a picture of his face here, instead of a bunch of words. Because what are words? Hot air. A waste of breath. Words wither in the presence of Mike Ehrmantraut, the ex cop and gangland ‘fixer’ who is hands down the toughest tough-guy in the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul universe. Another bad-ass who inhabits this universe is Tuco Salamanca, a cartel bigwig whose volatile temper and penchant for violence allow him to steam-roll everything and everyone in his path. Everyone except for Mike.

In the episode “Gloves Off,” the fourth in the second series of Better Call Saul, Mike crashes into Tuco’s car (on purpose) and then proceeds to let Tuco punch him repeatedly in the face while holding onto the psychopath’s collar and grimly staring into his soul. Now, why would he do such a thing? Because it was a necessary part of an ingenious plan that Mike knew would land Tuco behind bars. That’s the thing, behind Mike’s dead-eyed expression there is a mind that burns with intelligence. He doesn’t believe in machismo—he believes in getting the job done. And he always does: usually without a gun and always without a single word wasted.
Strong and Silent Score: 10/10

Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen), Foyle’s War

Credit: ITV

The dry, slow-paced period piece, Foyle’s War, isn’t the show that people are talking about; it isn’t the show that generates kooky fan-theories and intense online debates; it isn’t the show with series premiers that people mark on their calendars. It is, simply put, the show your parents watch. And this is a bit of a shame, because the performance of the incomparable Michael Kitchen as Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle deserves all of our attention. Watching Foyle interview suspects is like watching Roger Federer make his opponents run wildly along the baseline before placing a drop-shot just out of their lunging reach. This is made all the more satisfying by the fact that many of his interviewees are high-ranking officials: men with egos and agendas which blind them to the simple fact that some things are right and others wrong.

The program’s creator, Anthony Horowitz, divulged that Kitchen will often take a look at the script and demand fewer lines, on the grounds that he could easily say with a single look what Horowitz has him saying with a whole speech. So, next time mum and dad plop down on the couch for an episode, join them, and observe Detective Foyle twist his mouth with quiet skepticism as he listens to people lie through their teeth to save their own arses. We promise you’ll see what Kitchen meant about needing fewer lines.
Strong and Silent Score: 10/10

Check out more of Pat Quin’s writing on his television blog HERE.

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