‘Valor,’ ‘Seal Team,’ and ‘The Brave’: The Tropes and Triggers of TV’s New Breed of Military Drama
The opening scene of Shooter, a USA Network drama starring Ryan Phillippe as former Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger, could be read as a sort of conservative fable. As with many fables, it begins with the hero encountering an animal in the woods: a wolf whose foot is caught in a trap. Although Swagger initially sees the animal through the sights of his gun, he is moved by its plight and frees its leg, only to be accosted by two bungling, loutish hunters who claim the illegally trapped animal is “theirs.” “Let me guess,” Swagger asks one of weekend warriors, sneering at their cowardice. “Dentist?” When they pull a handgun on him in a moment of machismo, he beats them to the ground and shoots them with tranquilizer darts, asking how they like being hunted when they can’t move.
Like many military dramas, Shooter is half wish-fulfillment and half coping mechanism, an elaborate retelling of a cultural myth that has only grown stronger in an era of perpetual mass shootings: that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Its carefully crafted moments of comeuppance are designed to feed a very specific brand of power fantasy, one where violence is justified—even celebrated—by the moral and physical superiority of its square-jawed hero.
And Shooter, now in its second season, is no lone wolf. Thanks in part to the ascendancy of Trump, the fall season of television features no fewer than three new military dramas that feel painstakingly targeted to red state viewers: Valor, Seal Team, and The Brave. Although each displays its own particular brand of sometimes jingoistic patriotism, all offer insight into the hopes and fears of the conservative male psyche, and how it is torn between lionizing violence and coping with its ruinous effects.
The hero of all four series is, invariably, a white man; his name could be Jason, Adam, Bob Lee or Mike, but he is always a good, God-fearing man. He also has spectacular combat skills, which he deploys both at home and abroad against foes who have little regard for decency and human life. Although spectacular displays of military might in foreign cities are commonplace in these shows, their targets tend to be remarkably free of non-combatants—a convenient narrative, given the thousands of civilian deaths caused by U.S. forces overseas. The heroes of NBC’s The Brave, on the other hand, meticulously ensure that children have cleared the square where they plan to execute a dangerous operation, and then shake their heads gravely when militants murder not just the target they’re hunting but his wife and child, and later drive a suicide bomb onto a beach where children are playing.
While Valor and Shooter don’t entirely avoid the bogeyman of Islamic extremists, they take aim at different fear of Second Amendment-loving gun enthusiasts: the U.S. government itself. Channeling the paranoia of the alt-right—which is often split between deifying the military and distrusting the government—the shows focuses on shadowy conspiracies within intelligence agencies that place average joes in deadly and impossible situations and require them to lethally color outside the lines in order to survive. How else can the overpowered be the underdog? Valor, which premiered on The CW Monday night, focuses on two helicopter pilots who get embroiled in a secret CIA plot that they can only escape by killing a government operative (in self-defense, of course). Shooter goes one step further, as Swagger is framed by deep-state operatives for the assassination of the the Ukrainian president, and is forced to murder his way out of his unjust imprisonment so he can clear his name.
If death must be present—and in stories about guns, it must always be present—then a moral justification must be created that allows our heroes to remain heroes. Their tactics might not be legal or sanctioned by the military, but they are always “right.” When a morally flexible former comrade suggests killing their foes preemptively, Swagger insists that their killing must adhere to the same “code” of self-defense that guided them during war, one that he believes always served the greater good. “Who gets to decide that?” asks his comrade. “Not you and me. It’s always some douchebag that’s 10 levels up with nothing to risk.”
Other shows delve more deeply into the gray areas of modern military combat, particularly Seal Team, the standout series of the bunch. When Senior Chief Petty Officer Jason Hayes (David Boreanaz) and his team are summoned to destroy a Syrian laboratory manufacturing the nerve agent VX, one soldier reminds Hayes that this biological weapon was developed by the American military, which tested it on volunteers in the 1950s before it was outlawed by the Chemical Weapons convention of 1993. “We’re the good guys,” insists Hayes. “We are the good guys, Ray, because we’re not actually using this stuff.” After more than two decades years of the JAG Cinematic Universe (i.e., JAG and NCIS), CBS has polished the formula to a high sheen: moral purity with extended clips.
Despite a low-key disdain for liberal politics—targets of skepticism include “microaggressions,” women who won’t let men buy them drinks and at least one joke about how fears of extremists are “racist”—the military teams we see studiously include women and minorities. Tolerance is a hallmark of a Good Guy, and so these heroes are tolerant, even as the larger ethos of the shows raises an eyebrow at progressive movements. The Brave in particular makes a pointed, clumsy effort to be inclusive, as soldiers announce apropos of nothing that they accept their Muslim colleagues: “Show me a man who believes in something greater, that’s a man I’ll fight beside.” When a female sniper tells her superior that he’s the first commanding officer to look at her and not see a woman first, he sympathetically answers that that “I may not see it, but I don’t forget it. Because I know that getting here was harder for you than I’ll ever understand.” Female soldiers are depicted as competent and fierce, though this doesn’t stop civilian women from serving as perpetual damsels in distress.
Valor offers a particularly confused blend of patriotism, female empowerment and sexiness. We meet our hero, Captain Leland Gallo (Matt Barr), in bed—being straddled by an attractive blonde, whom he enlists in an orgasmic call and response of the Army cheer “HOO-AH.” The show also makes a particular effort to show off the curves of its glammed-up helicopter pilot Nora Madani (Christina Ochoa), who veers from listening to a speech about not giving the brass reasons to question the presence of female soldiers to a steamy, rule-breaking hookup with her commanding officer.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of these shows is the way they orbit around American gun culture itself. The latest season of Shooter opens with a mass shooting at a Silver Star Award ceremony packed with Marines; Swagger, naturally, responds the way so many gun enthusiasts want to imagine they would in these crises and yet so rarely can: by picking up a weapon and taking the bad guys out. There’s a horrible and uniquely American irony in this bit of wish fulfillment theater, especially given that Shooter’s premiere was delayed in 2016 not once, but twice: first by a mass shooting in Dallas on July 7 by an Army veteran who killed five police officers, and again on July 17 by a shooting of Baton Rouge police that killed three.
To be fair, this is not a series that has made any secret of its politics; it is a show literally called Shooter with a hero literally called Swagger, and has always embraced gun culture as the solution to gun violence. Its civilian characters routinely open carry; in one scene, after Swagger enters a church and pulls a gun on a former comrade who betrayed him, the priest intercedes and Swagger apologizes for packing heat in the Lord’s house. “Guns?” chuckles the priest. “This is Texas. I see plenty of guns in church.”
Like so many of its peers, Shooter is a parade of gun violence, from the endless headshots of its Afghanistan flashbacks to its contemporary depictions of terrorist attacks and mass shootings. Although Swagger is retired, he continues to behave like an active duty soldier, picking off his foes with impunity on American soil. For a certain brand of gun enthusiast this is the best of both worlds, a fantasy that combines the honor and sanctioned violence of military service with the cowboy mentality of the lone gunslinger.
But rather than unnerving, his vigilante killings feel disturbingly routine after watching him kill dozens of men through the scope of his sniper rifle; spend too much time in a country where bullets are flying and bodies are dropping, and death begins to feel almost normal. Tragically, it’s a description that feels increasingly like it could apply to America as well.
When one soldier in The Brave says that the “bleeding hearts” need to learn that it’s too dangerous to save people in war-torn countries, another insists that “God gave us two hands for a reason”: one to help ourselves and one to help lift up others. “I got better uses for mine,” the first soldier replies. She holds up her gun like a talisman, as though it will ward off the violence that will surely follow, and never, ever stop.