‘Quantico’ and a Sense of Relief

It only really hit me that I was just watching Quantico out of habit rather than enjoyment when it got cancelled and I felt kind of relieved rather than sad. I started to think about why that is, and I ended up considering just how much the show as changed since its first episode.

The show has been bleeding actors from the get-go. Most of the original ones are gone, which is disappointing, seeing as some of those characters and topics actually pushed serious boundaries in television. Take Nimah and Raina – we’re talking about two of the most multifaceted Muslim women in Western media ever. Nimah is an atheist with cultural ties to Islam. She’ll pray on occasion, but that’s it. Raina is a much more seriously religious person, while not letting anyone else dictate the terms of how she lives her life, however contradictory it may seem to others. Alex displayed casual Hinduism, from her om bracelet to the statuette on her dresser. But she eats beef and doesn’t pray. Simon is from a conservative Jewish family, and his religious background informs much of his opinions on the politics of the Middle East.

These approaches to the characters were met with a lot of criticism. People disliked Priyanka Chopra’s accent being Americanized to play Alex and called it erasure, as if the show was pretending she’s not Indian. Raina taking off her hijab and kissing Simon was met by significant backlash. Simon’s criticism of the IDF resulted in the show being attacked by the Zionists of America and the Jewish showrunner facing rampant accusations of antisemitism. There is a discussion to be had about many of the criticized aspects of the show. But I think the fact that these character choices were so controversial demonstrate both a need for their existence and a need for wider representation and discussion of current issues in media, which is why I find it so sad that Simon, Nimah, and Raina are no longer in the show.

Beyond the characters, I think the theme has shifted. The first season was essentially about how the FBI is a fundamentally flawed organization, but the way to change that isn’t by tearing the whole thing down, it’s by fighting to make it better. As Liam said when he was taunting Alex, it’s not something to be proud of. It’s the organization that tried to blackmail MLK, put the Japanese in internment camps, and let flawed DNA put innocent people in prison. Throughout the show itself, the FBI covered up multiple failures on their part, multiple tragedies that occurred because of them. Shelby tried to break the law as a trainee to get revenge on her parents. A large number of trainees were okay with doctoring evidence. Hannah was uncomfortable coming out, possibly partially because of her job as an agent. There are good people there that sincerely want to do good, but the organization has a very negative history. They portrayed the IDF in a similar fashion. Simon is a good guy, but the organization itself is deeply flawed.

I will always be grateful for season one of Quantico. It mattered. It took a very much nondiverse organization and not only made the fictionalized version diverse, it presented that diversity as the key to doing better. Things won’t get better through a white guy getting mad and trying to tear everything down. It’ll get better with an increasingly diverse workforce and people within the organization saying, we have to be better than this.

The first season had a point. Even at its most soapy, there was a focus that season two just didn’t have. From the first episode to the last, there was a central idea and running themes. Did they occasionally discard points, or have weird threads that got dropped partway through, like the super uncomfortable love triangle between Simon, Nimah, and Raina, or the year Alex’s family didn’t know where she was? Sure. But on the whole, it was plotted much better. Season two was messier. The present timeline was compressed into the span of about a day. The dual timelines were dropped in the second half of the season, which was about a totally different thing. Characters from the first half were gone. It felt clumsy and haphazard. And season three? I don’t even know what’s going on there. I wrote a post about how Designated Survivor got more cynical in season two, and that’s pretty close to what Quantico has been doing. Maybe not more cynical, exactly, but it’s certainly been less critical.

Season two still had some of that same point, except the focus moved to criticizing the CIA and its tactics, rather than the FBI. It was clumsier and felt more like the writers were making it up as they went along. I didn’t like the fact that Claire’s collaborating with Liam never came up. We were told that the point was supposed to be that sometimes, people get away with things, but that would have rung a lot more true if it were even mentioned from time to time that they didn’t like or trust her. Instead, the other guy collaborating with terrorists was made out to be a huge deal, totally unprecedented, and Claire was hailed as a hero. It felt far more white feminist than I’d grown accustomed to seeing. Nor did I like the fact that the diversity in season two wasn’t as elegantly handled and woven into who the characters are as it was in season one. But despite  all of that, I was mostly okay with it because it still felt recognizable. It still had a diverse cast, notably adding Sebastian, a deeply Christian Asian man whose religious faith left him struggling with his sexuality to the point of sending himself to conversion camp. It was still critical about the world we  live in. It actually felt like it was about something.

I think Joshua Safran departing as showrunner changed things for the worse. Of course the show wasn’t perfect during his tenure – he set the precedent for the overplayed romantic drama, after all. But he clearly cares about the issues in today’s world. He didn’t present it like he had the answers, but like he saw the problems and cared about the solutions. The show he created had a soul. It had a heart. It had good characters and meaningful ideas, not just throw in whatever adds romantic drama and action.

The show started to lose my attention somewhere in season two, and I think I’m only watching season three because I want something to watch. Quantico season one was very enjoyable. I loved watching it. And, like with Designated Survivor, I’ll look back fondly on it. But this season, and to a lesser extent, the preceding one, dropped too much of what I originally fell in love with. Now I’m just relieved that it’s going to be over soon.

ABC’s Quantico And Why It Matters

I’ve had my share of issues with Quantico in the past – the constant soap opera drama sometimes overshadowing the plot, lots of plot threads that never went anywhere, unsatisfying conclusions to some subplots, excessive focus on certain characters and relationships at the expense of the story. But despite all of those issues, Quantico still mattered to me.

This is a story where the main character is an Indian American woman that’s a non devout Hindu, and the first season was about her being used as a scapegoat for a domestic terror attack. Because it was easy to frame the brown girl. Alex Parrish is an incredibly important character. She’s smart, she’s tough, she’s beautiful. People are attracted to her throughout the series, but her ethnicity is never fetishized or even brought up in that aspect of the show. She’s a beautiful brown woman. But people aren’t attracted to her because she’s brown or despite it.

I stopped being excited about the season three renewal when I learned that Nimah and Raina won’t be in it, because aside from Alex, the Amin sisters were the other main reason why the show mattered to me. These were two Lebanese immigrants from a Muslim family. They were twins. And as Simon put it, they may look alike, but they were very different people.

This show mattered because their minority characters were never tokens. Nimah and Raina were allowed to be vastly different. Nimah was the more outwardly rebellious one, but Raina was just impulsive and would do whatever she thought was right without wasting time arguing about it with anyone. Raina was religious, Nimah wasn’t. In the first season, Nimah spent most of her time with Alex, Shelby, and Natalie, while Raina was closer to Simon and the other male trainees.

Quantico mattered because despite how often the white characters – Shelby, Caleb, Clay, even Harry, a little – got excessive focus and irrelevant sideplots, the women of colour still got to be characters and not stereotypes or racist caricatures. This was a show about terrorism where the terrorists weren’t the Muslim characters or the brown characters. Where Raina was probably the most moral character on the show while still allowed to be flawed and human and real.

Simon and Raina’s relationship was one of the most poignant ones written in recent shows, and certainly the most important in Quantico itself, despite how little screentime it got as compared to Shelby and Caleb, or Alex and Ryan, or even Alex and Drew. These were two people from different backgrounds, different races, different faiths. But their story never tried to be an “accepting others” Aesop. It was just a story about two people that loved each other, and as such, it was a step towards normalizing interracial relationships in fiction, to getting a romantic relationship featuring a person of colour that’s more than just the token minority couple. There wasn’t drama for the sake of drama. They got to be characters, not cheap storytelling props. They were the characters through which both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict were criticized, but their relationship was never about that.

The representation in the first two seasons was far from flawless. But it was a product of people that tried. It was a result of people wanting to make a show about people, not stereotypes. It clearly came from people that cared about not being racist or subscribing to hurtful cliches. It was unapologetically liberal, and it pointed out clearly, and often through actions and not words, that the statistically most dangerous demographic in the United States is the white male. The writers and the showrunner proved themselves to me in the first season, proved that they were doing their best and that I should be forgiving of missteps because they were trying. It let me be much less wary while watching season two.

am nervous about season three. Two of the main characters are going to be gone. There’ll be a new showrunner. I have no way of knowing whether or not the season while remain true to the spirit of the first two seasons. I’m not asking for perfect – the first two seasons weren’t perfect, but they still good, still clearly trying. So until I see an episode and see that it’s not the show I enjoyed, the one that treated its female minority characters with as much respect as they would any white male one, I’m going to say that Quantico still matters.