While the gun collection at Skyfall has been sold off to an American from Idaho, Kincade assures Bond that “sometimes the old ways are the best.” He places a hunting knife on the table with the few other weapons available. Bond will later kill Silva from behind with Kincade’s knife.
At a hearing held to demonstrate that the democratic process still works, M, as head of MI6, is attacked for allowing to be disclosed the identities of NATO agents embedded with terrorist groups.
The chair of the hearing, a minister of parliament, questions M about MI6’s failings.
As she pursues her line of questioning, however, the minister is bracketed by M and M’s assistant.
Moments before the hearing abruptly ends, M speaks in defense of MI6 and the increasingly important 00 section in today’s world. “Well, I suppose I see a different world than you do, and the truth is that what I see frightens me. ...Our world is not more transparent now, it's more opaque. It's in the shadows.” The musical soundtrack swelling as she speaks in favor of the “old ways,” M quotes Tennyson, the 19th century poet who celebrated the British empire.
Obfuscation follows obfuscation. Silva and his men, posing as police officers, disrupt the democratic hearing, and Bond rescues M by filling the room with gas from fire extinguishers.
As much an entertainer as he is the villain, Silva’s entrances are consistently dramatic. With Bond tied to a chair in the foreground, Silva slowly approaches from afar, telling the story of his grandmother’s island and how the rats on that island were eventually conditioned to eat one another.
Silva discloses how M has lied to and thereby betrayed “James.” She knew that 007 was not physically or psychologically ready for field work. “Mommy was very bad,” Silva comments. Solicitous of 007’s condition, Silva examines 007’s well formed but scarred body and empathetically observes, “See what she’s done to you.”
Silva gently and affectionately caresses Bond's cheek in the same way that he will later caress M when she is dying.
“First time for everything,” Silva comments as he caresses James’ thighs. He mocks James for trying to identify the “regulation to cope with this.”
“What makes you think this is my first time?” Bond replies. Silva displays embarrassment at the retort. “Oh, Mr. Bond.”
Silva laughs at Bond’s insistence that the world has not changed, that England, including MI6, is not a thing of the past in the contemporary, global environment.
While Silva is not introduced until late in the movie, his skill as a computer hacker of MI6’s computer network is early on demonstrated when he hacks into M’s computer, mocking British intelligence, re-introducing death in the image of a skull, and cautioning M to “think on your sins.”
Bond experiences for the first time rush hour crowds in the Tube.
Q, however, readily locates Bond, notwithstanding the underground and its crowds. Bond’s movements are easily tracked.
Each of us is, in fact, easily tracked. Q examines the screens that display the rush hour crowds. Cameras are everywhere in the Tube and elsewhere.
Computer codes, of course, are no match for 007. He intuitively and readily deciphers Silva’s “security through obfuscation” that has mystified Q. He uncovers a map of the old London underground.
Anticipating, however, that MI6 would decipher his code, Silva has successfully hacked into MI6’s computer network, thereby opening the doors to the underground beneath MI6’s underground operations as well as the door to Silva’s transparent cell.
Significantly, M, the white haired, experienced head of MI6, has the last word in this hearing in which she is harangued by a younger, female member of parliament, taking M to task for MI6’s failings. In response to the MP’s ceaseless verbal attack, M delivers an emotionally appealing case for the “old ways,” quoting Lord Alfred Tennyson’s martial-like poem Ulysses:
The 19th century author of such poems as The Charge of the Light Brigade, Tennyson represents British imperialism at its height. M’s celebration of that vision and Bond’s apparent success in defeating the threat to the empire seemingly confirm that the “old ways” are still “the best.” That paean to the “old ways” is enunciated by Kincade (Albert Finney), an equally white haired character, who has continuously if quietly served as a caretaker for Skyfall, the castle-like home in Scotland in which Bond’s parents raised him until their early (and unexplained) deaths. Kincade utters his praise for the “old ways” at the very moment that he hands Bond the hunting knife with which Bond will kill Silva. Returning to his roots—or rather to the home of the Scottish-born Sean Connery, who played the first Bond in the franchise—Bond in Skyfall, as played by Craig, reanimates the franchise character by simplifying it.
The movie focuses on Craig’s tortured character[open endnotes in new window] and eliminates much of the complicated special effects and gadgetry that had encumbered the franchise so that it had become indistinguishable from its blockbuster competitors. Bond and Q both comment upon this return to simplicity when Q’s gadgetry consists only of a Walter PPK pistol and a radio device. Q, in particular, observes that “exploding pens,” referring to a gadget from Golden Eye (Martin Campbell 1995), are a thing of the past. Despite all of the noise and visual chaos of the final confrontation between hero and villain, there are, in fact, only one large helicopter, stone-piercing bullets, and explosions. The setting, an isolated, countryside home in which Bond was raised, renders this confrontation a seeming resolution of Bond’s failed psychological evaluation: “pathological rejection of authority based on unresolved childhood trauma.” Skyfall seems to enact a Freudian drama in which the central, male character overcomes his past and thereby becomes an adult man. From that perspective M’s death and her replacement by Mallory resolves Bond’s personal, oedipal conflict. Bond is triumphant.
Yet viewing the narrative in this manner fails to take into account that Bond as a 00 agent licensed to kill ultimately fails in his mission on behalf of the state. Leaving aside for the moment the unsportsman-like manner in which Bond kills Silva from behind with Kinkade’s knife, Bond’s killing of Silva is hardly a triumph for Bond. He does not prevent M’s death. She dies moments later in Bond’s arms. The supposedly greater threat that Silva represents—disclosing the identities of all NATO agents embedded within terrorist organizations throughout the world—is, in fact, largely irrelevant to the central narrative of the movie. As we eventually learn, Silva had stolen the computer file with those identities and disclosed five of them only so that MI6 would hunt him down, capture him, and thereby enable him to see M “one last time.” In failing to save M, Bond thereby fails in the movie’s central narrative. Appearing somewhat pained, M confesses to Bond—only after Bond has captured Silva—that she gave up Silva to the Chinese in exchange for six other agents, because Silva, a former agent of MI6 in Hong Kong, had supposedly gone “rogue.” He had hacked into the Chinese computer network and the Chinese were “on to him.” It is that betrayal of a son by his “mum,” the term used by Bond to address M, or “mother,” the word that Silva associates with “M,” that is at the emotional narrative center of the film. Thus, by failing to save M, Bond has failed in his mission.
Skyfall, a movie supposedly about MI6 British agents, is more about “family” and the betrayal of one’s family members than about “god and country.” It is more sympathetic to those betrayed than those who would uphold the myth of “god and country.” As Bond remarks to M, being “dead” has given him perspective, at least momentarily. Bond’s temporary outsider perspective is underscored when M coldly informs Bond that his apartment and all of his belongings, including, as we later learn, his childhood home Skyfall, have been sold, and that he must look elsewhere for a place to stay that night. Orphans do indeed make the best recruits, as M later tells Bond, an ironic observation in light of the movie’s identification of M as “mum” or “mother.”
Not surprisingly, therefore, M’s obituary of Bond lacks emotional content. She speaks only of his institutional role, the “god and country” side of him, and is silent about his worth apart from that role. It is wholly appropriate, too, that when Bond hugs the dead M in his arms, the music is martial, as the camera tracks backwards. God and country, the result of longstanding conditioning, prevail in the Bond mythology. Its characters are heroic in sacrificing themselves to their institutional roles. Thus, while supposedly “old school” in its portrayal of family, it affirms contemporary, corporate values in that “mother” and Bond, her “good” son, are most admirable when they are wholly distant from one another. There’s nothing personal in their actions; it’s only about business.
If Skyfall is a family drama, however, then the movie also posits M as Silva’s “mother” and Silva as Bond’s “brother.” As brothers, Bond and Silva share the same cinematic purpose, namely to entertain us with their toys. Bond’s pre-credit sequence is intended to amaze—the car pursuit through the alleyways of Istanbul, the motorcycle pursuit on the literal edge of the rooftops, and the foot pursuit on a train with cars and a giant, mechanical claw. When asked by M, who is following the pursuit in London by “point and click” satellite technology, what is going on, Moneypenny can only lamely respond, “It’s hard to explain.” In a self-conscious nod to the similarity of their toys, Silva later brings a subway crashing down upon Bond with the wry comment that he too has the “latest” technology, a radio transmitter—the same toy given to Bond by Q. While the handmade weapons which Bond, M and Kincade devise can be interpreted as the triumph of the “old ways” over Silva’s “point and click” “hobby,” Silva is no less an adherent to those “old ways” than is Bond. Silva also was once a 00 agent who reported to M, though in Hong Kong when it remained under British rule. Always theatrical in his entrances, he also seeks to amaze his audience no less than Bond, the movie’s supposed hero. As Séverine (Bérénice Marlohe), Silva’s mistress, notes, Bond’s introduction of himself into Silva’s affairs threatens to overcomplicate the plot. Silva, however, outperforms Bond. As Q notes, Silva’s narrative, in which he reintroduces himself into the affairs of MI6, has been years in the making.
Silva was once the favored child of “mother.” Having, however, ascended to that role, Bond remains committed to remaining the favored child, no matter the cost. In response to Silva’s lengthy tale in his first scene with Bond about rats that devour one another, Bond instructs Q to leave a trail of “bread crumbs” to Skyfall so that Silva won’t “smell a rat” and then triumphantly declares himself in their last scene together as the “last rat standing,” as he kills Silva from behind. Q’s earlier comment to Bond that MI6’s “new digs,” which date back to the 18th century, would be “fascinating” but for the rats, likewise places in context Bond’s self-satisfaction in killing Silva. If the “old ways” are the “best,” then they are also the most primitive and brutal ones. As Silva points out, Bond is what M has made him rather than the result of any conscious choice on his part. Bond is the result of conditioning that places a greater value on the competitiveness of a free market economy, a rat race, than on cooperation. “Cut-throat razor. How very traditional,” Eve Moneypenny appropriately observes. Of course, a rat’s triumph is at best ephemeral. Looking beyond the movie Skyfall, Javier Bardem as Silva will be replaced by another villain. Judi Dench as M has already been replaced. Q (played for over 35 years by Desmond Llewelyn) is now a young boy with bad complexion. Bond and Moneypenny may have one or two more “close shaves,” concludes Moneypenny, an allusion to their possibly continuing sexual relationship, but they, too, including the actor Daniel Craig, will eventually be replaced—discarded as not needed like the sheared off mirrors to Moneypenny’s vehicle in the pre-credit sequence.
Moneypenny is, of course, only one in a long line of “good Bond girls,” women whose role is to serve Bond sexually and in the process repress their desire. While others in the Moneypenny role have pined after 007 as they sat outside M’s office, allowing themselves to be flirted with but never consummating their desire, Eve is the first Moneypenny to sleep with 007, visually symbolized by the clichéd image of nighttime fireworks. That Moneypenny is a field agent entitles her to perform that role. She is also, however, a failed field agent, who nearly early kills Bond on M’s instructions to take her shot and as such leaves the field permanently. Serving under Garth Mallory, the new M, she first assists him by spying upon Bond and still later assumes the stereotypical role of M’s office secretary. Notwithstanding the flirtation and the momentary, off-screen sexual encounter, there is no emotional relationship between her and Bond. Moneypenny ultimately serves to promote the image of Bond’s male prowess. As characterized in the song lyrics to the movie’s opening credits, she may “feel the earth move” at “this moment so overdue,” but "you'll never take my heart." She functions to enhance Bond’s image.
That physical prowess, Bond’s sexual voraciousness, is a given, but it too only functions as audience entertainment. Men in the audience can admire his prowess. Recovering after he is nearly killed, Bond is seen in bed with an unknown woman lying next to him who then disappears, having served her narrative purpose. Consistent with the longstanding Bond mythology, Bond is also successful in seducing the “bad Bond girl,” though since she is “bad,” Bond must fail to save her. In this instance the frightened Séverine loses her life. While her last words to Bond are, “I’m sorry,” Bond’s parting comment is brutal in its cold wit. Her death is a “waste of good Scotch.”
Moreover, women can also admire Bond as played by Daniel Craig, since he is as much sexual object as subject. The many shots of his partially naked, well-developed body are clearly included in order to please women in the audience: Bond’s exposed, well-formed shoulder from which he removes a bullet fragment, the gratuitous shot of Bond swimming laps and then drying himself under a blue light at his Shanghai hotel, and the fleeting appearance of his naked body crossing the screen and then entering the steamy shower with Séverine. Her comment that she feels “naked” without her Beretta applies equally to Bond and his Walther PPK.
This sexual tension of Bond as both sexual subject and object makes Bond’s initial encounter with Silva, his “brother,” so revealing. Tying Bond to a chair, Silva caresses Bond’s chest and thighs, remarking with sadness and regret upon the condition of Bond’s body as he will later likewise remark upon the deteriorating condition of M who has been shot. There is an explicit sexual overtone to Silva’s caressing of Bond. M “never tied me to a chair,” Bond remarks, both defending M but also rendering explicit the eroticism of his position relative to Silva. “Her loss,” replies Silva, openly acknowledging the genuineness of the attraction. Pursuing further his seduction and mocking Bond for trying to remember the ways in which his training has prepared him for this moment, the “regulation to cope with this,” Silva comments, “Well, first time for everything.” Bond’s retort is pitiful in its braggadocio: “What makes you think this is my first time?” Silva displays embarrassment at the retort. “Oh, Mr. Bond.” Sexual prowess and a well-developed body, for which Bond has been conditioned and which entertain us, is no substitute for eroticism.
It is one of the ironies of Skyfall that M, too, is no less the result of her institutional conditioning, thereby evoking Silva’s empathy in his final scene with her. As Mallory comments, M like Bond continues to live in “the shadows,” and these “shadows” symbolize both the spying and thievery of the Cold War espionage period in which the Bond franchise was born, and death that the contemporary “point and click” culture both advances and denies. Symbolically, “mother” passes on to Bond as his only inheritance a porcelain British bulldog, a memento of one’s service to country, as Bond stands on a rooftop and looks out on a bright but grey London skyline in which the only elements of color are the flags of nation states fluttering in the distance. The British flag is most prominent among them. M is discarded in the same way that she, as MI6 agent, traded Silva with the Chinese for six agents, told Bond not to waste time trying to stabilize the condition of the dying agent Ronson, and insisted that Moneypenny “take the shot.” “I’ll leave when the job’s done,” M insists when Mallory offers her an early retirement “with dignity.” Yet as she lies dying, she acknowledges to Bond, “I fucked up,” the unexpectedness of her curse underscoring how she “did her job” and the pitifulness of Bond's unsympathetic response. Regret is not professional, she told Silva in response to his observation that she shows no remorse for having betrayed him. In denying regret, however, she adheres to a movie mythology that denies her connection with people other than institutionally.
Silva is the one character in Skyfall who consistently refuses to accept his institutional role. If the villains of the Bond franchise have reflected and thereby commented upon its supposed hero, then the most interesting movies in the franchise have commented upon most provocatively that connection between hero and villain. For example, the villain Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) in Man with a Golden Gun (Guy Hamilton 1974) observes that he and Bond (played by the self-parodying Roger Moore) are one and the same character, except that Scaramanga gets to live well. In Skyfall the villainous Silva is the most emotionally appealing character. While, for example, the Bond mythology requires that Sylva must claim to kill Séverine because she is “redundant,” he does so, in fact, because she, like M, has betrayed him and in this instance at the prompting of Bond who uses her to find Silva, her employer.
Throughout the movie Silva expresses a vulnerability found in no other character. He confesses his jealousy at no longer being “mother’s” favorite; he candidly discloses the gruesome tale of his grandmother’s island; and he empathizes with Bond in his concern for the deterioration of Bond’s knees as a field agent who continues to run. It’s exhausting, he later comments, and to what end? Like a child visiting his old home or relatives whom he has not seen in years, he finds M smaller than he had remembered. Silva mocks Bond for “still clinging to his faith to the old woman,” referring both to M and the country that she and Bond serve, their “pathetic love of country.” Nevertheless, Silva momentarily exchanges looks with M at the hearing at which M is testifying. As a result of that momentary look and hesitation, he thereby fails in his quest to kill her. Still later, he expresses remorse when he finds M bleeding and dying from a gunshot wound. “What have they done to you?” he asks, echoing his earlier sentiment about Bond and seeming to address some outside, larger institution. He caresses her face and, placing his head next to hers with gun aimed at her head, he asks that she “free us both with the same bullet,” allow them to escape the mythology which has imprisoned them through longstanding conditioning.
That M locks up Silva in a transparent cell that resembles the cell of Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme 1991), underscores that Silva is the central character of the movie in the same way that Hannibal Lecter was—a villain whose monstrous evil paradoxically made him both more sympathetic and central to the movie than its supposed heroine, FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). In his exaggerated gestures Silva, like Lecter, mocks the genre in which he plays. Yet at the same time those gestures underscore the deficiencies of the supposedly central character, the nominal hero. The lines he speaks, the meanings he conveys, are accepted by the audience only because they parody the concept of the villain as the obverse of the hero. Bond, in effect, plays straight man to Silva’s parodic hero.
Bond’s expressed “hobby” of “resurrection” resulting from his near death experience is an ironic, religious allusion when applied to the secular mythology of the Bond franchise. As Silva self-consciously notes, ironically the characters finally encounter each other in a chapel. Yet secular mythologies, such as the Bond franchise, have largely supplanted religious beliefs in Western culture. About to enter that chapel, Silva smiles in observing the gravestone for Bond’s parents at Skyfall, as though he recognizes that Bond, too, is an orphan and that “mother” has taken advantage of them both. The image of a skull (death) and a slot machine (chance) both appear on the screen to M’s computer. A variation on Psycho’s Norman Bates, who was also obsessed with mother, Silva is Skyfall’s conscience, though as the nominal villain he will ultimately be discarded. “Think on your sins,” Silva repeatedly cautions M through her computer screen. Evoking Othello’s line, “Think on thy sins,” when Othello is about to kill Desdemona in the mistaken belief that Desdemona has been unfaithful, Silva, too, comes to realize in the final scene in which he caresses M that he, too, has been mistaken in placing blame upon “mother.”
Silva is the Cassandra-like character who sees most clearly the contemporary world in which the Bond mythology exists, but he is ignored and unable to prevent those whom he loves, “James” and “mommy,” from continuing down a path of institutional conditioning and emotional coldness. With the openly erotic shot of Bond tied to a chair in the foreground, the camera allows us to watch as Silva slowly approaches Bond from afar, an entrance reminiscent of Bond’s emergence from the shadows. The camera dwells on Silva as he delivers his lengthy vision of the Bond mythology in his audience’s contemporary world:
Ever the skeptic who continues to live in the mythology of times past, Bond inquires whether “this is about M.” Silva replies,
Instead of missions exhaustingly pursued across the globe, Silva offers instead that Bond
Bond refuses the offer, sarcastically referring to the “gas explosion in London.” Silva is insistent: “Just point and click.” Bond is no less insistent in his sarcasm: “Well, everybody needs a hobby.” “So what's yours?” inquires Silva. Bond replies, “Resurrection.”