The dead are alive.
This is what we mean by specters. In what is likely Daniel Craig’s last 007 film, we see an immortal James Bond confronted by his entire mythology, coming to terms with his increasingly irrelevant role as an old-fashion spy in a postmodern world. It took four films to do it.
Let’s face it. Bond should be dead. And I don’t mean the man. I mean the myth. When we first met Judy Dench’s “M,” she sized him up as “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the cold war” whose charms are lost on a new era. He’s an arrogant Western imperialist who kills coldheartedly in the name of his government, destroys everything in his path, and seduces vulnerable women only to fail to protect them. He encourages Western audiences to pursue a nihilistic life of constant luxury, objectification of women, and disregard for life. There’s no reason we should like him, especially in this era.
Bond’s author, Ian Fleming, even described him as “an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department.” Bond was a blank slate meant for readers to fill themselves with. As the British empire waned after World War 2, English people wanted to grasp the fantasy of being able to dominate the world. James Bond was that bland spy who wielded his weapon across the world and laid claim to it in the name of the crown.
In the Craig reboot cycle, Bond’s first kill is in a bathroom, a place where men “whip it out,” (as well as mark their territory) establishing his “credentials” as if measuring the size of his weapon, a typical emotionally stunted, spoiled boy knight who populates the world of villains as much as that of heroes. Bond and his enemies are reduced to private school boys duking it out in a bathroom. Hence why his first torture is of his testicles, and his first villain encounter nearly leaves him castrated.
Casino Royale rebooted 007 to his gritty literary past, yet set in a world of international terrorism. Quantum of Solace attempted a plot resembling a real scenario, removing even more iconic motifs. Skyfall sought an origin story, and Spectre topped it off with a sign to the 007 motifs of times past: a festive parade chase (Thunderball), a clinic in the alps (OHMSS), a large, metallically-enhanced henchman (TSWLM), a secret base in a crater (YOLT), Bond shooting bullet-proof class at a villain about to set a time-bomb (TWINE), gadgets, cars, girls, torture scenes, and of course, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
Only this time, everything seems off. In fact, from the beginning, it’s all off. The classic opening is tinged with the ominous phrase “the dead are alive.” The camera keeps following Bond in a one shot, as if an eye is ever on him. Bond completes his mission, but he’s entirely surprised by what a huge mess it is. Crowds are actually terrorized by his helicopter chase. The ring signifies that something new is amiss, and yet something all familiar. Bond’s world is suddenly bigger now, though it had always spanned the world. Now he’s caught up in a danger more powerful than before. This could be the end for him.
But we know Bond won’t die. His talent is resurrection. This could be the end for his role. MI6 has been threatened in the past 4 films, but now it’s being absorbed and his program terminated. Each of the films sought to defend his role as a “blunt instrument” in a world of information, diplomacy, and technology. In Skyfall we began to see his world fading into retirement. Now we see it walking as the dead among the living.
This is why I submit the theory that in Spectre James Bond, the myth, has died, and is in spy purgatory, haunted by the nightmare of some secret organization led by a shadow of his own self and of MI6, a specter orphan bent on plaguing the world for his own benefit. This is why at the end, MI6 is a ghost building, and Bond’s name is last among those who have died.
Bond being in spy purgatory is the only explanation for his off-kilter adventure: he’s officially a non-spy with no support; we don’t actually see the significant death of his target; he has to attend the funeral of a man he killed; everyone from his past haunts him (even M’s ghost still seems alive); his car’s gadgets don’t work; he can’t order a vodka martini; he gets psychoanalyzed by the “bond girl”; a villain grows a conscience, is already “dead” when Bond arrives, and has killed himself when his assassin arrives; the villain’s base is in a crater, but not a volcano; the base blows up, but seemingly for no reason; he has a license not to kill; the villain is a family friend; the torture is more psychological than physical; a pun is delivered, but is not heard; and for the first time in 007 history, the main villain neither gets away nor is killed, but arrested. Old familiar things return as they shouldn’t. Even Blofeld says that Bond’s appearance “rang a distant bell” and made perfect sense.
It’s as if the director wants to keep the franchise alive while still questioning it, giving Bond one last sign-off before possibly being retired indefinitely. Our criticism of Bond seems to be speaking through the script: “You have no authority. None.” “You’re a kite dancing in a hurricane.” “To liars and killers.” Here, drink a health drink instead of a vodka. Go visit the Pale King (the guy that always got away). And then Blofeld, haunting his past, present, and future.
To spec means to see. And there’s a hint of spec-tator, of the audience feeling like a spy, entering the world of Bond like never before. There’s an eye watching Bond. Eyes have been a strong motif in the series. The classic opening shot is the view to the kill, a reminder that Bond is an assassin as much as he is a spy. LeChiffre’s eye wept blood, a tell he was under stress, as well as a sign of the violence that men in this world are privy to. Gettler’s monocle is an omen that Vesper has blinded 007 to a dark secret, that both a benevolent and a malevolent eye is always on him. The eye at the opera gazing at the audience while Bond spies on the Quantum meeting is a nod to the paranoia of feeling watched, and the power of being a voyeur.
In specter, what the eye chooses to see or not see defines character. 007 peers from behind a skeletal mask, and though we can’t see his face, we know it’s him. His assassination victim spots him before he can fire. Bond can’t see the grieving of a widow. His picture of his stepbrother is obscured. Q can see Bond and make him disappear. The villain can see the world’s secrets, but the world can’t see his mirage of a base. Killers are fuzzy or appear in the dark. Mr. White knew death would “wear a familiar face,” but he didn’t know whose. Bond has to wear protective glasses in the alps, as well as the desert. On the train, he spots Hinx through his reflection. Swann is forced to see her father’s death. Bond’s torture involves his memory being blinded. Blofeld’s scarred eye highlights the grotesque nature of omnipotent surveillance, the clouded vision of corrupted power, or the blindness to enemies that even the best spy can be. It is also the face of Bond’s own scarred soul.
What bond perceives is a mirror of himself. Blofeld is his specter. There is a moment at the end when they face one another on either side of a glass, and the villain’s image is superimposed over Bond’s. They are more than stepbrothers. They are mirrors of each other. Bond sees the grotesque, extorting fiend in himself. After all, Spectre can only succeed in cooperation with the world’s governments. As an organization bent on controlling the world’s violence for its own benefit, how different is Spectre from the British government? How much terror has Bond caused, leveling city blocks and dangling death over crowds?
Bond has reached a new kind of self-depravity that is examined in Spectre. Previously he had fallen in love, only to remark “the b— is dead” upon her death. He seduces a victim of sex trafficking. Now he seduces a woman on the day of her husband’s funeral, after invading her home and killing men trying to kill her, but she herself points it out, maybe before the audience can. When he meets White’s daughter, she begins to psychoanalyze him, as others have, but that is supposed to be the purpose of his visit as a patient. She openly charges him with putting her in the very danger he is supposed to protect her from. She even hates guns, because she learned to use one so young. After refusing to be seduced, even while drunk, she half-sleepily taunts the killer. Mommy issues, meet Daddy issues. It’s all very surreal, and yet he will still seduce her in the end. A woman after her husband’s funeral followed by a woman after her father’s death. (And did we mention he even leads a woman on, only to promise he’ll “be right back” as he goes to kill a man?).
Perhaps Bond is that meteorite Blofeld spoke of. He is that blunt instrument hurtling in space with great force and momentum, and he has finally struck, dealing all the damage he can and leaving an impact in our creative lore. But now, just maybe, he’s done, and he has truly become an artifact on display.
Perhaps it’s time to retire this very flawed, even perhaps unworthy hero, so that his author, as well as the audiences that shaped and reshaped him to fit the times, can confront the legacy of his playboy spy and put his ghost to rest.
“It is me: The author of all your pain.”
The writing is on the wall: 007’s days are numbered.