The Canadian Wire: Watch Intelligence soon, OK?

What you're watching.
July 1 2011 7:12 AM

The Canadian Wire

What, you haven't watched Intelligence?

Canadian flag. Click image to expand.

If one experience prepared me to enjoy the Vancouver crime series Intelligence, it was a Toronto wedding I attended several years ago, where the groom's father, a kind and soft-spoken lawyer embarking on a second career as a history teacher, digressed from the ceremonial pleasantries to remind me that, in the War of 1812, Canada humiliated her American invaders.

I didn't argue back. I had to appreciate the unexpected flash of national pride. It's not that I hate or disavow my own country. I'm kind of a nationalist, actually, but I'm also a connoisseur of what you might call other people's nationalisms, the civilized tribalism of countries we like. I think that appreciating our friends in the world means affirming not just the values they share with us but also their surly and combative national stories, the specific antagonisms they cultivate to bind themselves at the gut level, even, or especially, when the ritual villain is us. I figure it's the least we can do.

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Intelligence, which was canceled by the CBC in 2008 after two seasons of acclaim and awards, tells several combative stories, and in all of them the galvanizing bad guy is the United States. The show follows Mary Spalding (Klea Scott), a brilliant Vancouver detective quickly promoted to Canada's national intelligence squad (CSIS, or Ceesus), and Jimmy Reardon (Ian Tracey), the city's leading wholesaler of high-quality weed. Creator Chris Haddock takes the old mirror-image conceit of cops and criminals and makes it explicit in the first episode, when Mary approaches Jimmy with a simple proposal—that they agree to tip each other off on occasion, share helpful bits of that eponymous intelligence. Mary and Jimmy's allegiance anchors Intelligence and grows into a stolid friendship that defines the show's muted pathos.

More than one critic has called Intelligence "the Canadian Wire," because of its rigorous long-form storytelling and its divided focus on cops and dealers (and also, I suppose, because the police are always plugging and unplugging various wires). But Vancouver is not Baltimore, obviously. The raw material for The Wire's sprawling and fine-grained urban storytelling simply doesn't exist in temperate and pleasant southwest British Columbia. So fans of David Simon are likely to object—that the resemblance is merely superficial and structural, that Intelligence is nowhere near as gritty, as manifoldly tragic, as Dickensian, as bitter and blackly funny as the original. But the phrase also carries within it a perfectly sound rejoinder: "Um, I said it was the CanadianWire."

But why watch it, then? Devoting 26 breathless episodes to the machinations of an ambitious lady cop and a scrupulous dealer of wholesome bud in blessed Vancouver—where a hockey riot is quickly redefined by a kiss, a hail of thank-you notes, and a rioter's apology—seems almost perverse, a comedy of odd priorities. The first reason would be the breathlessness itself, the sheer narrative velocity. Jimmy Reardon limits himself to selling weed. The creator, Chris Haddock, on the other hand, seems like he might be tweaking. The show wastes no time, in other words. Scenes hit quickly, waiting half a beat before a character starts talking, and often ending before a speaker has closed his lips on his last syllable. You almost expect someone to turn to the lens and say, "Will you let me finish." Haddock and his editors pull this off with surprising elegance. You rarely notice how quickly the script pages are flipping past. Schaun Tozer's loungy score helps, too. It runs almost constantly, and its slow, crisp beats and drowsy sitar lines act as a coolant for the churning story.

The show's vivid cast puts a heap of ghost into Haddock's excellent machine. Ian Tracey makes Jimmy an easy criminal to bond with. * His craggy face expresses worry more than menace, and his voice is a grainy baritone that lets him underplay through two entire seasons. The other criminals are mostly sympathetic guys like Jimmy, businessmen trying to make a buck and maintain peace in the anarchy of a black market.

The really indelible sickos are Mary's fellow cops. Her main antagonist and her closest aide are both bulb-headed men with skeezy and depressing sex lives. Mary's not as creepy as they are, but there's still a lot of "anti-" in her heroism. She drinks too much and has chilly sex with unworthy men. She spends less time fighting crime than she does entrapping other agents. Indeed, the "intelligence" she gathers is used almost entirely to bluff and blackmail people on her side of the law. Half of Mary's job seems to consist of sitting down for prickly meetings with her superiors, and lying to them.

Klea Scott is exquisite in these scenes. With her high cheekbones and somewhat mannish chin, Mary projects a steely front, but when someone wants a glimpse into her secret knowledge or deeper motives, she seems to squirt a milky layer over her visage and disappear behind it. Her face goes blurry and she drops her gaze to neck-level, but she holds the defiant smirk on her upper lip. A powerful man then leaves her office knowing only that he's suffered some ambiguous defeat.

But if Mary's just one of several Machiavellian operators, doing stings on other agents and consorting with drug dealers while fighting very little actual crime, you might ask how she claims any allegiance from the viewer. The beauty of her tactics is part of it, but Mary is a hero primarily because of what she stands for, which is linked entirely to what she stands against.

She stands for Canada, which means she stands against the United States. Intelligence is part of a subtradition of shows and movies through which American allies vented their rage at the Bush administration. Among these, the signal artifact was BBC's 2006 miniseries The State Within, in which an American secretary of state (Sharon Gless, appearing as an uncanny hybrid of Hillary Clinton and Dick Cheney) plots terrorist attacks against British citizens to pull the U.K. into America's wars. With its midfiasco yearning for British innocence, The State Within is, frankly, pathetic. Indeed, it's tempting to read it as a geopolitical version of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive—a dejected country with an aching memory of its lofty intentions falls asleep to ugly war footage on the telly and dreams of itself as a Kantian ingénue corrupted and roughly fondled by an evil superpower.

Intelligence largely rejects fantasies of national innocence and victimhood. Canada deserves protection by Mary Spalding, and Mary is redeemed by her efforts, not because Canada is pure of heart. Indeed, if Mary herself is any sign, Canada has a nasty streak it's rather proud of. Canada deserves protection because it's Canada. What Mary defends her country against is disrespect, the blatant violation of Canada's sovereignty by agents of its southern neighbor. Mary doesn't complain about this disrespect, or even mention respect at all. She merely claims a degree of it back through stealth and orneriness.

Mary's rivals are thus defined by their slavish cooperation with the U.S. Her sleazy colleague Ted sics a murderous DEA agent on Jimmy, forcing Mary to shield him from both the rogue DEA and the arrogant FBI. And then, late in Season 2, she learns of a shady American conglomerate called the Blackmire Group. Blackmire has CIA ties, a network of lackeys in Ottawa, a lust for Canada's natural resources, and a leading role in the "North American Unification Movement" (NAUM). Sleazy Ted moves back into the show's good graces by standing with Mary against this group, stepping up and naming NAUM for what it is: the first step in "a silent coup d'état."

OK, so the "O Canada" thematics get a little ripe with the Blackmire storyline, and this subplot points the show in a self-romanticizing direction as well. But Haddock has the good taste to use a vaguely Freudian symbol for Canada's threatened virtue, instead of invoking it directly. Thus, the resource Blackmire covets isn't the gunky tar-sands of Alberta. It's those clear and frigid Canadian waters—glacial ice and alpine snowpack, virginal meltwater freshly trickled in from Canada's pure arctic heart.

But if Haddock resorts to a corny water-virgin figure of Canadian innocence in this storyline, he plays to harder feelings in a parallel subplot involving Jimmy and his fellow dealers. While Mary is bugging Blackmire meetings and learning of America's illicit thirst for Canada's bodily fluids, Jimmy hears that a dangerous new gang is moving into the Vancouver drug trade. This gang is—you guessed it—American, up from Los Angeles and willing to kill for a piece of the action. The second and final season of Intelligence thus ends with a string of episodes in which the phrase "the Americans" is used exclusively to denote a ruthless and possibly brainless criminal invasion.

For Jimmy and his competitors, "the Americans" are not a moral or legal threat, to be denounced by Anglican vicars, enjoined by the International Court of Justice. They are an existential threat, which demands merely brute solidarity, a steeling of communal will. So Jimmy calls a meeting where Vancouver's drug bosses pledge to set aside their grudges and fight the fucking Americans. It's a rousing moment for all Canadians, real or—like me when I'm watching this terrific show—imagined. When the biker guy raises his glass to toast the new alliance, you can't even remember when you thought he was kind of a fascist, and he can't even remember when he wanted to kill the Vietnamese guy for killing his nephew, and the Vietnamese guy has completely forgiven him for killing his cousin, and that beefy Arab-looking dude is totally someone you'd want on your side when confronted by an existential threat, and seeing the show's dealer-hero accept the mantle of leadership at the head of the table is thrilling: Comandante Jimmy.

Haddock is making a boldly antinomian statement here. He's restaging the social contract as a war council, a criminal sit-down. He's saying Canadians, each and every one of us, should identify with these brave and violent felons. We need to wake up and face our ancestral frenemy. The Americans have breached the southern border. It's looking like 1812 all over again.

Correction, July 5, 2011: This reference to Ian Tracey originally misidentified him as Ian Scott. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Matt Feeney is a writer in Oakland. You can email him and follow him on Twitter.

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