We’ve spoken before about American exceptionalism and TNT’s The Last Ship. In the ensuing seasons not only has The Last Ship pushed this narrative it has also come to push the idea that not only will the world be saved by an American but that said American will be straight, cisgender, able-bodied and male. In this way it fits right into a framework that we often see being played out in shows set in a dystopia. The Last Ship may be trying to pull off the summer blockbuster scaled down for television but it has failed to separate itself from the idea of what is the most powerful body (read: cis-het White men) and in so doing has not separated itself from the most common failure in dystopias.
From the very beginning, even though The Last Ship had a multiracial cast, the fact that it was set on The Nathan James - a navy war ship - means that a hierarchy of bodies was immediately established. With Tom as the captain and Slattery as the XO, from the very beginning the faces of power were represented by cis-het White men. There have always been people of colour and women on the ship but because of the military hierarchy, it was never truly possible for them to have real power. The nature of a navy power structure always made women and people of colour subservient to both Tom and Slattery. To question the orders of the captain and the XO is mutiny. Sure, The Last Ship plays hard and fast with the rules and military law, particularly when it comes to Tom’s own decision to mutiny when he chose to take back control of The Nathan James, or even the various times when Tom, in the guise of informing President Michener about their present situation actually informs him about what he plans to do, rather than asking for permission. In this we have come to understand that sedition is only for White cis-het men.
It is not accidental that two of the women who have dared to actively question Tom’s actions and or motives have been positioned as his love interest. In seasons one and two, that role was filled by Dr. Rachel Scott. Doctor Scott, as a scientist in charge of searching for the cure wasn’t directly under Tom’s purview and Tom’s first attempt to assert his power was when he ordered Rachel off the ice. Yes, Rachel complied but doing so didn’t stop her from giving Tom a piece of her mind. Their relationship would continue to be antagonistic for the remainder of her time on The Last Ship, culminating with Tom charging Rachel with murder. Rachel remained unapologetic for her actions to the bitter end. This revolt was only possible because of the underlying sexual tension between Tom and Rachel.
Similarly, Sasha Cooper was introduced in season three and like Doctor Scott before her, didn’t start off directly under Tom’s purview. We were told instantly that these two have history and now that their partners are both dead, clearly this presents as an opportunity to reignite an old flame. The show, typically, was not subtle and she was established as a love interest within minutes of her first appearance. Sasha has proven to be highly capable and has taken part in missions away from the ship which involve great danger as well as translating for Tom in his interactions with pirates. For the most part, Sasha falls into line and follows through with what Tom desires. The one time she chose to confront Tom about his decisions, she did so on the bridge and was quickly informed about time and place. Sasha is there to be a soft spot for Tom to land on and to follow orders just like everyone else on the ship.
It almost looks like these characters are allowed to rarely stand up to Tom because they are love interests. After all, if they were as cringingly subservient and fawning as the rest of the crew, these relationships would look really creepy and borderline abusive.
Along with Sasha, Allison and Roberta Price have come to prominence this season and unfortunately they fall squarely into the role of antagonist. They are directly responsible for the death of Michener and their goal is to end the United States as we know it. This is clearly going to put them into opposition with Tom and since the point of this show is that the cis-het White men not only always wins but is always in the position of the moral right (yes, it’s ahistorical as hell) it’s already clear that Allison and Roberta have been set up to be defeated. A strong woman in this case, exists to lose. A strong woman cannot be the equal of the great Tom Chandler - as we also saw with the defeat of Amy Granderson; a Black woman in power who was irredeemably and obviously evil and was defeated and dead within three episodes of facing the mighty Tom Chandler
People of colour really have not fared better on The Last Ship though they are very visible on the show. CMC Jeter, Alisha Ganderson (who happens to be the only LGBT character), Doc Rios and Cruz (who died this season) have been the most prominent people of colour on The Last Ship to date. Though they have pretty much been visible each season, because of the military hierarchy they largely exist without real power and are forced to follow Tom’s lead. These characters, however, don’t just follow Tom’s lead they also seem to worship Tom and never even have private moments of doubt regarding any decision that Tom makes. CMC Jeter in particular seems to exist to assuage any feelings of doubt Tom may chose to express. Honestly, I can’t even watch scenes with Jeter in, he sets my contact embarrassment off so badly. I think less of Tom for not trying to put a stop to his cringeworthy brown-nosing. If Jeter decided to ditch his uniform for a set of “I love Tom!” t-shirts, I wouldn’t even be surprised.
Through three seasons we have only learned about these characters in little droplets but outside of their function on the ship they are strangers to the audience. This is a classic example of how merely having POC be present is not sufficient for inclusion. Even if they’re frequently seen and for long periods of time, even if they’re part of every plot line, if their inclusion is no more important than the chair the White characters are sat on then we still don’t have meaningful representation. If they can be replaced by any extra who happened to wander across the set on the day of filming without meaningfully changing the plot then this is a problem. Inclusion Furniture is not representation.
The representation that had me rolling my eyes the most has to be Takehaya. He started this season by kidnapping some of the crew of The Nathan James in retaliation for receiving a fake cure. Takehaya was set up as a strong and intelligent leader and seemed a fitting antagonist for Tom but he was quickly defeated. In a heartbeat, Takehaya went from the enigmatic, yet powerful Japanese man to a subservient sickly mess willing to do what ever Tom and or Slattery wanted. At times they patted him on the shoulder much the same way one would to a dog who had successfully returned the ball in a game of fetch. In the end, Takehaya simply slunk away to die, his purpose to Tom and Slattery completed.
Peng was also set up as an antagonist. For some reason, Peng decided to distribute a fake cure throughout Asia, thus making him a mass murderer (as with Amy Ganderson, this show doesn’t waste time with complicated development of the bad guys - they’re evil and need killing, it’s that simplistic). Peng filled the role of the evil shifty eyed Asian man for the Americans to hate and kill. Peng killed indiscriminately and expected his people to sacrifice their lives for him. Surely the choice of China as the great evil on The Last Ship was a purposeful given American anxiety over China’s role as a global power. It’s China’s threat to American dominance that allowed The Last Ship to set them up to commit pure evil without reason simply based in the fact that they are Chinese.
Perhaps even more troubling than Takehaya, is Captain Joseph Meylan. Meylan ends up on board of The Nathan James when his ship is destroyed in an attempt to sink a Chinese destroyer. Meylan, due to his rank is immediately invited into Tom’s inner circle, but he doesn’t quite fit in because he believes in playing by the rules and eschews the cowboy hijinks that Tom and Slattery have become famous for. Each time Meylan challenges Tom he reads like an uppity Negro who just doesn't know his place and the looks which Slattery and Tom exchange make it clear that this is just how he is viewed. Slattery suggests that Meylan should just trust Tom’s intuition just because everyone else does. Clearly he needs to borrow one of Jeter’s “I love Tom” shirts.
When Allison forces Oliver to sign an arrest warrant for Tom, it’s to Meylan the order is given. Meylan dutifully follows said orders which again marks him as less than because he chose to follow orders rather than break all military procedures and simply follow Tom’s leadership. If that were not enough when Tom does manage to stage a coup to retake The Nathan James and go after Peng, instead of staying on the sidelines because this is a direct contradiction of the orders he believes are coming from the POTUS, Meylen begs to help out. BEGS. WTH? It only took a few episodes from Meylen to move from a man willing to question Tom, to yet another fawning lap dog ready to do the bidding of the great cis-het White man.
Finally we have to turn to President Howard Oliver. I actually fell for the rope-a-dope on this one in a large way. When Oliver arrived to take over Michener’s job as president, I thought that The Last Ship had finally decided to end the secondary position that people of colour have been placed in. Without the kind of relationship between Oliver and Tom that existed between Tom and Michener, certainly, Tom wouldn’t be able to make unilateral decisions. Unfortunately that was not to be the case. Oliver, like his predecessor quickly fell into line and even asked Tom for time to establish trust between them. Ummm, shouldn’t Tom have been asking trust of the president rather than it being the other way around?
The largest problem with Oliver doesn’t even involve Tom at this point. As we now know, Michener was murdered as part of the coup and Oliver was essentially made a puppet leader to be controlled by Allison. At every turn, Allison demeans Oliver, refusing to address him by his title as POTUS, threatens his family and generally informs him that he is not the boss, it reminds the viewer that he has just been promoted to obscurity. Allison even forces Oliver to sign an arrest warrant for Tom and to even begin to order the end of the government. Oliver offers little resistance to Allison and spends most of his time pleading with her to see his position, much like a child asking to stay up for five extra minutes. Now that Allison has taken over the country and Oliver is on the run, he’s just another person of colour who is going to need saving by the great cis-het, White man. Thus, once again, The Last Ship is placing all of the power in Tom’s hands.
The Last Ship has never been the most subtle of shows - it’s love of American Exceptionalism has led to the antagonists being a smorgasbord of things that make Americans anxious: Russians, Taliban, European-influenced politicians, China - and all of them set up to be inevitably defeated by the superior America: but even this dubious depiction is made worse by HOW that victorious America is presented. This America is the cis, straight white male champion, served and aided by “good” POC who fawn and serve (and hang around in the background when not useful) and mildly challenged by women who are interesting enough for him to want to sleep with while he defeats a series of foreign, usually POC, caricatures to further prove his strength and superiority. It’s not a new message and amount of hyper patriotic jingoism can make it palatable.