Bond Girl: Re-Watching and Re-Evaluating Skyfall
Original illustration by Emilie Majarian for The Mary Sue.
Welcome to Bond Girl, a series where we’ll be re-watching and re-evaluating every James Bond film until Spectre’s release.
Content warnings for an image of an injury and violence against women.
GoldenEye may be my favorite James Bond movie, but Skyfall is the one movie I recommend to everyone that hasn’t seen a James Bond movie before or that stopped watching them back in the seventies. It has it all: gorgeous scenery, interesting characters, a sleekly modern plot, and of course more than enough thrills to keep you on the edge of your seat.
Skyfall is the twenty-third James Bond film out from Eon Productions and Daniel Craig’s third time in the role. Released in 2012, the film’s focus is spread across a few different avenues but its center revolves around Bond’s slow recovery from nearly dying, his past (and M’s) coming to bite him in the butt, and what happens when you lapse in the proper care and treatment of your agents of international espionage.
Let’s start at the beginning:
Set at some point after Quantum of Solace, Skyfall opens with a very blurry Bond stalking down a hallway in Istanbul, chasing after the mercenary Patrice that has managed to get his hands on a hard drive filled with top-secret information about MI6 operatives. One thing leads to another and it leads to a lengthy chase scene with Moneypenny chasing Bond chasing Patrice through the streets of Istanbul in a scene feels similar in tone to the chase scene early on in Quantum of Solace.
At first glance, it feels like this is going to run the same course as the films before it with the twisting knife of action coming after the opening credits. Whatever horrible things set to happen to Bond, you think, will happen after Adele sings. Roughly twelve minutes into the film though and you’re proven so very wrong.
Moneypenny shoulders a rifle and watches as Bond struggles with Patrice atop a train at the same hime that M and her aide Tanner give her orders via an earpiece. As Moneypenny repeats that while she may not have a shot, it’s not a clean one, M gives her the order to take the shot despite the potential to hit Bond.
She shoots Bond, sending him off the train down into the water several yards below and starting the lowkey trippy opening credits sequence where Adele sings her heart out and Bond wanders around shooting at shadows and mirrors.
You’ve got to admit that it’s kind of funny how in fifty years of Bond films, Moneypenny is who winds up taking Bond out instead of any number of villains with a grudge and an axe to grind. This is literally something that Fleming would never have been able to come up with and that’s what’s brilliant about it. The opening is amazing because it’s so unexpected and because out of all the ways that anyone could imagine Bond “dying”, death by Moneypenny couldn’t have been one of them.
After the opening credits, the film picks up three months later. M is in the process of writing Bond’s obituary, Moneypenny, has been removed from field duty, and M is under heavy scrutiny for her actions over the past three months. Sitting in Mallory’s office, M is told that her failure means that the government wants to retire her.
When Mallory tells M that she should “leave with dignity”, she looks up at him and delivers what is probably the best line in the film: “Oh, to hell with dignity. I’ll leave when the job’s done,” before (probably) storming back to her car with so much anger in every step that she sends staffers running for cover.
On the way back to MI6 headquarters, M and Tanner receive word that not only is MI6 being hacked but it’s literally coming from inside the building—from M’s own computer at that. It’s suitably dramatic with M getting out of the car and striding toward an officer to give him a stern talking to just in time for MI6 headquarters to explode.
The scene switches to Bond on the other side of the world.
Having taken his untimely “death” as a sign to retire early, he’s living what should seem to be the good life away from the drama of MI6. However, even before he finds out about the explosion, Bond doesn’t look good. He looks gaunt and unkempt, covered and scars and staring off into the distance as if he’s thinking too hard about uncomfortable things. Honestly, he looks like he needs a hug instead of another drink.
In the aftermath of being shot twice (first by Patrice and thenby Moneypenny), Bond has turned to drinking and he takes several pain pills at a time, swallowing them down dry before walking down to a beachside bar populated by locals even at the early hours before the sun rises.
In retirement, we see that Bond is not content. He’s not okay. He drinks to numb the pain and then stalks about the scenery like a wolf. After sunrise, we see him in the now-empty bar as the news plays in the background. At the first sign of trouble in England playing out in the news, Bond decides that his uncomfortable retirement isn’t for him and essentially comes back to life, surging back into the fray at M’s side.
One issue with Skyfall and with James Bond as a whole is that we miss a lot of Bond’s motivation at the beginning. Why did he decide that playing dead was easier than returning to MI6? Why didn’t he go to a hospital because he still has a bullet inside of him? What is the motivation behind leaving a job that he’s good at to be miserable somewhere else? This isn’t the first time that Bond has been injured in the line of duty. Seriously, the entire credits scene of Die Another Day revolves around him being tortured for over a year, and he still doesn’t quit after that.
What is it about this opening, this shooting, that makes Bond decide that he’s not coming back to the agency?
We’re getting a more nuanced and more Bond with Craig but at the same time, much of what he does and the reasons behind it are a mystery to us. We deal with the cycle of death and rebirth on a small scale in Skyfall but even with all that Bond goes through to get there, we’re never quite sure why. His motives don’t make sense and that’s a weird weak point to have in the film.
Right here is actually a good time to stop and talk about our bad guy because he’s framing himself as “just like Bond” and where I will always have issues with Bond and his motives, Silva’s everything annoys me. So let’s talk about Silva and how he’s a good villain but a horrible character!
Like Alec Trevelyan in GoldenEye, Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva is a scored MI6 agent and is most likely an orphan taken in by the organization. Silva believes that M betrayed him and well in his case … she kind of did. His dramatic backstory revolves around how M essentially disavowed any knowledge of Silva’s existence after his capture.
But here’s the thing –
It’s actual protocol for the heads of espionage agencies to keep their agency out of trouble by denying that the agents existed in the first place. We’ve seen this happen in Die Another Day. We know it’s what happens. Sure, it’s not that fun to be on the receiving end of that sort of treatment, especially if it continues after you’ve escaped, but Silva should’ve known what to expect. Instead, he sees the logical next step that M takes as a personal betrayal of their bond.
Meanwhile, Bond probably can’t even keep track of how many times M has denied having him work for her or how many times she’s denied knowledge of his existence.
We can (and should!) compare Bond and Silva as characters because Silva spends a ton of time doing the same thing. He thinks that because he and Bond are both MI6 operatives, that they’re kindred spirits, brothers with the same cruel mother. And I get it—M’s not the nicest person around. She’s cold and she’s not very kind, but also she’s not their mother. She’s the director of MI6, not a handler.
It’s literally not her job to be nice and it’s not her job to coddle them.
So while she singles Bond out to an extent and she genuinely likes him every so often, she’s not obligated to give him any special treatment. And most of the time, she doesn’t unless that treatment can benefit her in some way.
I understand why Silva is so fixated on M and why he sees her as the reason for his emotional and physical scars (unlike Bond in Die Another Day, his cyanide pill was still intact), but at the same time: it’s not in M’s character to rush into rescuing anyone and it’s definitely not in her character to apologize except grudgingly.
At the same time though we’re seeing Bond as the other side of the coin. Despite how terrible he’s been at the international espionage game, Bond is still M’s golden boy. Even when he messes up badly, she tends to send people in to contain him first rather than kill him.
Bond is almost always on M’s shit list and she’s shown herself more than willing to do what she has to in order to keep her agency running smoothly. Somehow though, Bond doesn’t begrudge her this. I think it has a lot to do with expectations and how his expectation for M are different from Silva’s.
Bond doesn’t expect people to care about him. Silva on the other hand seems to expect that he’s going to get this attention because he’s the smartest and the boldest and the bravest and when it comes back to bite him all he can think of is blaming someone else for it. We don’t know everything that went down to get Silva captured and booted from MI6, the movie doesn’t go that deeply into detail, but what we do get is that Silva is very focused on blaming M for it.
When Bond messes up? He owns it. When M treats him terribly? He shows her up and outdoes her expectations.
And at the heart of it, Silva messes up when comparing himself and Bond because they don’t even interact with people in the same way. Silva sees other people as tools or toys to break. They don’t matter in the long run. Not even Séverine who he supposedly rescued from exploitation as a teenager. To him, everyone is cannon fodder or an obstruction and you can see why Silva would think that Bond is kin to him. You could see that Bond does care, that he’s more than an angry tool of imperialism. He does show that nuance and emotion that I for one felt were lacking in many previous Bond portrayals.
For all his attempts at coming across as genuine, Silva merely seems like a whining child trying to get M’s attention. Things fell a little flat with his character because while all the materials were there to make him into a villain that was formidable and frightening, at the end, he just came across as unfinished. He wasn’t quite where he needed to be and the constant push for his mommy issues even close to his death left me not feeling much interest in his character.
Another thing that was hit and miss for me in Skyfall? The film’s portrayal of women.
Yes, we get three women with recurring roles in the film: Bérénice Lim Marlohe as Séverine, Naomie Harris’ Eve Moneypenny, and Dame Judi Dench in her final appearance as M. However, the film does not do them justice enough in my opinion. Two of the three die and at the end, Moneypenny has given up her chance to be a field agent (essentially Bond’s equal) for the standard secretarial position we’re familiar with when it comes to the Moneypenny character. All three women are characters that could’ve gone on to greater and bigger things in the film and well… I’m not convinced that the writers made the best decisions.
The first time we see Séverine onscreen, it’s in Shanghai. She watches Patrice shoot a man in the head with a sniper rifle and then fall to his death after a scuffle with Bond. Cool and collected, Séverine is the quintessential Bond girl. She’s this gorgeous woman with a sharp smile and a loaded gun and she’s just so jaded but who wouldn’t be with the brief taste of her backstory that we get?
I like Séverine because she seems as if she has so much potential to her. She could’ve been Silva’s equal or a more valued member of his revenge plot. She could’ve been developed in such a way that left the character’s future up for debate. Instead, she’s killed off to reinforce how terrible a man Silva is as if we didn’t know that already.
I’d have liked to see her as a character that got to do something other than be a pawn. Her death was pointless and it isn’t even seen as memorable. No one seems to care that she’s been snuffed out like that and it’s terrible.
At least with Moneypenny, you know that she survives to the end of the film. When we first see her, our first Moneypenny sighting since 2003, she’s a field agent and close enough to Bond that they have a snarky back and forth banter set up. She’s a crack shot, a reckless but skilled driver, and she’s gorgeous. Obviously upon seeing her I proceeded to file away all the fanfiction and odes to Naomie Harris for later. I mean I’m seriously not kidding about how much I immediately decided that she was officially the Moneypenny I’d fight Bond over.
I like Moneypenny so much in this movie. She’s playing a junior agent to Bond’s senior but that doesn’t mean she’s any less capable than he is. In fact, I’d pay money to watch a movie about Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny in the field (or even a Moneypenny miniseries played by Harris or another young Black woman). She’s just fantastic in the role.
Another thing I can’t forget to mention about Moneypenny is her scorchingly hot chemistry with Bond. This is leagues above the flirtation we’ve seen between Bond and previous Moneypenny actresses. Have you seen the scenes in the Shanghai hotel room? The one where she’s shaving him?
How do you leave Skyfall with a desire for an intensely platonic Moneypenny/Bond relationship?
For the most part, I don’t hate Moneypenny’s characterization. I am uncomfortable with her character arc. Way back in April when I was watching Dr. No for my recap, I was so excited about Moneypenny and her role because it felt like she was just this hilarious woman who would steal the show from Bond. Of course, my murky memory betrayed me and with every movie it felt as if Lois Maxwell’s Bond was turned into more and more of a joke as far as her flirtation with Bond went. The same goes for our other Bond ladies who were definitely reduced to that sort of role (even Samantha Bond!!).
I don’t want that with Eve Moneypenny. What I want—and I know it’s partly a case of wanting to have your cake and eat it too—is to have a Moneypenny/Bond relationship where it’s a mutual thing and fully reciprocated between them as equals.
The decision to put Moneypenny as Mallory!M’s secretary and set her back behind a desk worries me because while being a secretary is a job I’d kill for right now, when stacked up beside her former job as a field agent you feel as if she’s been demoted. Sure, she did so by choice, but I’m unsure that we’re going to get her fleshed out more in Spectre than we did in this film. A major problem that Hollywood has is an inability to find a balance in how they portray Black women and I’ve been stressing out about this since I heard that Harris was coming back for Spectre.
What I would love to see in Spectre is Moneypenny going undercover or M training her to be the next M or a deputy in the department. I want to see her with more of a role besides “person that flirts with Bond and does office work” but at the same time, I don’t want to see her be desexualized or to have her sexuality and desire for Bond turned into a joke. We got a decent amount of that in Skyfall but will we get it in Spectre?
It took us seven James Bond films to get here.
I love Dench’s M but it rankles that in the film where she gets to do more and we see her holding her own amongst the British politicians, that she winds up dying. She was M for almost twenty years and we never got to know much about her until the film where she dies?
That’s not weird at all.
You know what else totally isn’t weird? (Except for how it is!!) Skyfall‘s reliance on pushing the “M as Mother” thing. None of the previous M’s have a parental relationship with Bond. He respects them as much as he is capable and even when bucking orders, he’s respectful about it. There’s been this slow slide to sort of maternalize M and make her into this mother figure for MI6 and Bond. It’s bad enough that Silva keeps referring to her as his mother throughout the film, but you get the feeling that the writer and director also liked the idea of M as a mother figure from before that.
There’s nothing wrong with being a mother, nothing wrong with implying that the head of MI6 has semi-familial bonds towards their agents. The issue is that they’re never going to do it again. Bernard Lee wasn’t a father figure to Connery or Moore’s Bond. Fiennes’ M isn’t going to put up with Bond’s messes due to the implication that he’s thinking of Bond as one of his kids. No villain is ever going to follow any of those men around calling them ‘Daddy’.
It’s a clear sign about how differently Dench’s M was developed and why she was the first M to be killed onscreen since the series’ inception.
Skyfall has many James Bond plot staples. It is also a film about a woman having to deal with a man harassing her and stalking her until the point that he kills her. A woman in power, a woman who has had that power taken away (in a call back to her role in the Brosnan films, M is treated like the very dinosaur she accused his Bond of being), and she’s killed off because of another character’s literal ‘mommy issues’?
I’m not okay with that. I’m never going to be okay with that.
It’s such a big issue for me because there’s no need for her to die either. M dies because they decided to wrap up her character. M dies leaving MI6 in shambles. She dies with marks on her name and short of her retirement. She dies and we get a close up shot of Bond cradling her body that’ll bring a grown man to tears within seconds.
And this really wouldn’t have happened with a man in the role of M. It probably won’t happen if Fiennes ever decides to leave the role. This sort of death, slow and painful in the arms of a man they care for or are close to, really seems to happen to women above anything. I’m just so steamed because I’ve adored Dench’s M my entire life. She’s been a role-model for awesomeness and kind of what I want to be if I’m ever given that much power for some reason.
The fact that she doesn’t get to retire and run off into the sunset with Skyfall’s jolly old groundskeeper Kincade angers me because like with Séverine’s death, I don’t see the point. We’re just reinforcing Bond’s manpain at this point and okay, we get the fact that Bond is bad at keeping the people he loves alive.
We don’t need reminders.
We just need more ladies in these films that make it to the end.
Despite all of that, Skyfall is still one of my favorite films of all time. It’s the first Bond film I watched as it came out in theaters and that’s a big deal for me. I saw Skyfall a month or so before I graduated from college and the feelings that I got from the film and the desire to basically research all of the things about Bond have lasted me this long.
When I first saw it, I loved it so much that I didn’t even critique it that first time. Normally, I tear movies I watch to shreds right after I watch them but I couldn’t even dream of doing it with Skyfall. It was that intense an experience.
I love Skyfall so much, faults and all. It’s been a wild six months and I’ve basically only consumed Bond as my main nerdy media in that time. I’ve learned so much about the franchise and got to research on so many different things that all tied into the Bond franchise. I’ve loved every inch of it and I wouldn’t do it any other way.
Thank you to everyone for reading, commenting, and tweeting about the Bond Girl recap series. It’s been a fun experience, and I’ve met some amazing Bond fans through it!
Spectre comes out in the US in November, and I’m looking forward to doing this again then!
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