Yes the UK finished watching The Night Manager, in all it’s Le Carré glory, three weeks ago now, but I only just did, and American viewers won’t begin until Tuesday April 19th, so bare with me.
If you haven’t watched or finished watching it yet, don’t read further.
You were warned.
Fantastic acting and direction told a gripping, solid narrative.
I thought the conceit near the end of episode four of Pine ‘going rogue’ and needing to be pulled because he’s maybe fallen in love too artificial. Besides, we now know that’s completely not how undercover police operations have been conducted. But that’s a fairly minor niggle.
My gripe here is with the ending.
I prayed and I hoped but I knew all along that this was going to have an ending sickly sweet enough to give the whole audience diabetes. But why?
Because we’ve invested six hours growing to love the goodies and detest the baddies. We’ve ridden the rollercoaster of conflicts, plot twists and false conclusions. The tension has been building and building and demands resolution. We’ve accepted being kept in the dark for periods, for the good of the narrative, but at the end the loose ends must be tied up.
The closing off of a story is a demarcation of it as both an episode apart from our real world and real lives, and a confirmation that our own stories will end well resolved. That our trials and tribulations are the twists and turns of a grand narrative inexorably wending its way to utopic conclusion. When Roper is escorted into the back of the police van we feel a dopamine surge and a sense of well-being sweeps over us. It was all worthwhile. It was all for something.
In the case of an overtly political work such as The Night Manager the happy ending also marks the story just told as an aberration – a momentary lapse of normality. The conclusion is natural justice resuming and a reminder that we live in the best of all possible worlds. We are reminded on all all-too daily basis that our lives might just be devoid of all purpose and nothing better is waiting at the end. The stories we create, and let others create for us, serve a function of wilfully blinding us to the otherwise often unbearable truth, as Stanley Kubric said, “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent.”
However, if I were to have written The Night Manager, my ending would be thus:
Roper and his business associates watch as Pine calmly calls the number to detonate the explosives planted on the convoy of arms the previous night.
“Expecting something exciting to happen, Andrew?” Roper asks. “There’ll be no fireworks today. Authorise the transfer and your *spits the word* lover can still come out of this in one piece.”
Pine, stunned, confirms the deal with a scan of his retina. The other party to the deal calmly celebrate and begin to leave. The trucks roll off into the desert.
“How?” he breathes.
“As soon as I knew you were onto us, I doubled the stakes,” Roper says, “I’ve never closed a deal anywhere near this big. Because where better to do business than under the cover of bright, penetrating sunlight? Your friends knew exactly what was happening and exactly what to do because you were so busy telling them. I owe you thanks for that part you played so well.”
They all drive back to the hotel. Pine asks to confirm how the transfer of his 300 million profit in exchange for Jed’s life will take place.
“What 300 million?” Roper asks, “Oh you thought that just because it was in your name, which isn’t even your name, and linked to your retina that the money became solely yours?
“Sorry old chap, no it’s all gone through about a million different accounts by now, who knows where it is? Well in a couple of days I expect I’ll be able to track it down and make good use of it all, don’t you worry. Did you really think we didn’t have arrangements made to automatically forward the money on?
“Oh and one last thing, we did manage to get a statement printed out while the first instalment was in your account. We forwarded that along to, what are they called now Sandy? Oh that’s right, it will be the CIA, along with the transit ledgers, the contracts, the shipping certificates. All in the name of one Mr. Andrew Birch. He’s been a very naughty boy, selling some truly horrible things to some nasty, nasty people.”
“Jed”, Pine whispers.
“Such a waste, turns out I didn’t know her at all. Naturally she wasn’t allowed to survive such a betrayal. I must admit, you two wasn’t part of the plan.”
In the hotel, rather than Angela being pursued and fighting her way out and saving Jed, she enters the Hatshepsut suite to find the dead body of Jed sprawled out in front of the balcony, mirroring Sophie from those years ago.
Their car approaches the hotel.
“This is your stop, Pine old chap. Jolly good to work with you, give us a bell when you’re next available.”
Pine gets out and is seen by CIA agents who approach slowly, guns half drawn.
Roper and his entourage drive slowly off as Pine stares on, restrained by CIA agents. Angela and Joel approach him, confusion written all across their faces. The camera cuts to show us how his lover, Jed lies dead in the very same hotel room as Sophie as all those years ago. Another cut to a debrief room where the shit is clearly about to fly. Pine may not spend the rest of his life in prison as Roper would really like, but at least he and all our ‘heroes’ will have serious questions to answer from their superiors about what went on here. Future operations of this nature won’t be happening. Roper and his team are, except for the unfortunate loss of Corky, richer and stronger than ever.
This isn’t an ending, or at least it’s the ending to a very different story. It’s an ending to the story of Richard Roper trying to sign a major arms deal, a lot of pesky do-gooders trying their best to the get in the way, Roper overcoming all these close shaves and emerging wiser, richer and stronger than ever.
To the main characters we thought the story was being told about, however, it ends deeply unsatisfactorily. It refuses to end, and in doing so forces its way out of the screen into our, real world and real lives. The audience sit, stunned as a nonchalant Roper walks away and a frowning Pine sees his whole, pointless life and pointless quest wheel slowly before his eyes. The dopamine rush we’d been anticipating never comes. Instead a sour taste rises in our collective mouths. We frown too.
We’re forced to consider the story of massive worldwide arms deals not as a suspension of the natural order of things, but rather as a foundational stone of it. We continue to ruminate back on what we just saw.
FCO officer Rex Mayhew is continually asked to reveal his sources, offered promotion for silence and finally has funding for his operation ‘Limpet’ unilaterally cut by his superiors. When the story ends predictably poorly for Roper, the audience is left to imagine what becomes of his cronies in government. If not rotting in prison then at least in public humiliation and withdrawal from duty. Their conduct is revealed to be completely immoral and improper. However, if Roper ultimately succeeds, viewers must think back and wonder how and why it is that our apparently democratic government is run in such an opaque, clandestine, nepotistic manner. Far from exceptional, their conduct is shown to be the way in which the British state ordinarily operates.
The conversation halfway through episode five between enforcement team leader Angela Burr and MI6 agent Geoffrey Dromgoole about how these clandestine look-the-other-way deals are a cornerstone of 21st century British foreign affairs is transformed. When the story ended nicely, that was just one dirty little corrupt, panicking secret agent trying to save his own skin, and he was proved wrong because we got the guy and restored natural justice. Now, the audience are forced to confront the possibility that he was a messenger of a profound and deeply troubling truth.
Only through the medium of a tragic, utterly unexpected ending can a story like this ever transcend fiction and have any lasting political impact.
Furthermore, our own lives too, would benefit from a little less wilful ignorance and a little more introspection. To complete Kubric’s quote, “if we can come to terms with this [universal] indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfilment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”