Who are we? Is there a difference between who we truly are at the core of our beings and the image that we present to the world? Or are these various versions of ourselves simply illusions?
The Starz Network original series Power, from creator Courtney Kemp Agboh explores all of these issues. The series surrounds the life of James “Ghost” St. Patrick as he attempts to leave the street life behind him in search of a legitimate enterprise. Ghost is fractured, literally split between two different worlds. He straddles the line between his new “legitimate” nightclub Truth where he presents himself as James, and the street empire that he’s operated for years under the pseudonym Ghost.
At first reflection the character seems to operate in the very same vein as The Wire’s Stinger Bell (you’ll see some familiar faces from The Wire throughout the season.). And yet, the characters aren’t the same, not by a long shot. Unlike Stringer, Ghost has become very skilled at hiding who he is, almost to a fault. He desperately yearns to be James, the man who made it big in New York City. He wants a legacy that he can show off to the world, something that he can be handed down to his children. He’s exhausted, motivated by fear. He realizes that there is only a matter of time before he’s either locked up or killed and he has children to consider. Unable to reconcile that image with himself, he seeks asylum within the walls of legitimacy, or more literally within Truth.
One of the true brilliances of the show is the juxtaposition between both worlds that Ghost operates within. When Ghost is first introduced to the audience, we see him navigating his way through the club; making sure things are running smoothly. Shortly thereafter, he is pulled into the alleyway to handle some issues with his street business. All too quickly we see James’ legitimate business persona shatter and Ghost is swiftly revealed.
From the get go, it’s obvious that the strain of the street life is wearing thin on Ghost. Truth is supposed to be his way out, a way for him to be accepted as a true member of society. However, what we want for ourselves and what others want for us (especially when it affects them) is not always one in the same, as is the case for James.
Ghost’s best friend and business partner Tommy, as well as his wife Tasha resist this new James. Like The Wire’s Avon Barksdale, Tommy scoffs at the idea of being truly legitimate. He sees Truth only as a way to clean the drug money, not as a retirement plan in itself. The street life is all that Tommy knows; the only white boy in a predominantly Black environment; Tommy thrives on the chaos and violence. (For all you Gladiators my best friend refers to Tommy as the hood Cyrus Bean.) Tommy’s whiteness is interesting in the fact that it makes him visible, he stands out. It may actually be what causes he and Ghost’s operation to be exposed.
Likewise, Ghost’s wife Tasha is finding it extremely difficult to grapple with his new persona, James. In the not so distant past she seemed to truly have been his partner. However, following the opening of Truth, Ghost seems to be slipping out of her grasp. Refusing to lay down and assume the role of long suffering wife, she desperately tries to retain his interest. Like Ghost, she teeters between two lines. She’s both the young girl from the hood enamored by the giant that is Ghost as well as the nearly polished housewife, Mrs. St. Patrick; a role that she’s not quite comfortable with. One thing is clear, Tasha is not to be subdued, and mistaking her for the sole purposes of eye- candy would be a grave mistake.
Ghost’s already complex life is made even more complicated by two things. This first is that he and Tommy’s street business is under attack, which literally brings their operations to a halt. As Ghost tries to leave the street life behind, Tommy is left with the majority of the dirty work and tough decision-making. He constantly puts his neck on the line, while Ghost festers in distractions. The continuous conflicts between the pair aggravate their already strained relationship.
Ghost’s second complication is Angela, his high school sweetheart who left him behind for better opportunities. To Angela, Ghost is Jamie, the boy she once loved. Angela knows nothing of Ghost’s illegitimate dealings. Instead, she sees him as the owner of Truth in his business suits. To her, he represents the man she always knew he could be. He revels in the fact that she seems him for who he wants to be. But as Tommy declares, “Angela was trouble then, and she’s trouble now.”
The differences between Angela and Tasha are extremely pronounced. Really, it has always been Angela for Ghost. (As evidenced by a rap that Tasha assumes is for her but all along had really been about Angela.) For him, Tasha was his first runner up. At one point, Ghost deeply respected his wife. She was his ride or die. But as the years have gone on, whether inadvertently or not, she has stifled his growth. At one point early in the season Ghost asks her: “When you met me what did you think I was gonna be?” She responds by saying: “The biggest goddamn drug dealer in New York City.” It is at that moment when Tasha loses Ghost, and his resentment towards her begins to fester. Tasha is unable to see the big picture, she can provide input on the street enterprise but she scoffs when Ghost works at the club. During the season final she tells him, “Ever since you opened that club you’ve been different Ghost, its like I don’t even know who you are.” Ghost replies by saying, “I’ve been trying to tell you Tasha, you ain’t been listening.”
In contrast to his wife, Ghost has a deep reverence for Angela. Like him, she’s worked her way up from nothing supporting her family and sacrificing personal extravagances. Like Tasha she is strong willed and unflustered, but polished in a way that Tasha could never be. Angela appears to have it all. As an attorney for the government, she is assigned as charge of the biggest case of her career. Unbeknownst to her, it’s a task force that is going directly after Ghost, who is New York’s biggest drug distributor.
As she struggles to find new leads in her case, Angela constantly puts herself in harms way. She schedules unmonitored meetings with her informant Nomar, and she constantly butts heads with the FBI agents assigned to her case. One of them, Greg, is a man she dates casually and keeps at arms length despite the fact that it’s obvious he wants more. Angela seems vulnerable only when she is with Ghost. Though she’s initially devastated to learn that he is married and has a family, she seems to get over it rather swiftly.
As the duo actively decide to pursue their affair, it’s as if they revert back to being fifteen years old. When they are together, they don’t face reality. In episode six “Who You With?” Angela tells Ghost, “ I want the reality to matter, it doesn’t when I’m with you.” They soon realize however, that reality is always there waiting, and it’s inescapable especially when constantly confronted with your own image. What is clear is that Angela and Ghost’s newly rekindled relationship is a ticking time bomb destined to implode. The metaphors are a constant. At the conclusion of episode three entitled “This is Real”, a courier delivers a stunning diamond necklace to Angela gifted from Ghost. Shortly thereafter, Ghost and Tasha’s baby daughter chokes on the souvenir that Ghost purchased at the Museum of Natural Science whilst on a date with Angela.
As the season draws to a close, Angela and Ghost seem even more desperate and delusional. They are under the impression that they can just move to Miami away for the problems of their New York lives and all of the drama and pain that surrounds it.
Two other prominent characters in the series are Kanan and his son Shaun. Now imprisoned, Kanan was once at the top of the organization that Tommy and Ghost now run. There is a deep level of respect that Ghost has for Kananen because the man taught him everything he knows. Despite his situation, Kanan is still powerful and because of this, he’s constantly urging Shaun to man up and take what’s his.
Shaun, a kid in his early twenties, acts as Ghost’s driver. Though Tommy wishes to begin teaching Shaun the grittier side of the business, Ghost resists thereby keeping Shaun naive and almost oblivious to what’s occurring around him. However, Shaun may not be as oblivious and naive as the audience originally perceives him to be.
Power deals with numerous themes over the course of its eight-episode season. I felt that it would be important to highlight some of these themes as significant threads that were a constant.
Since, the show was written and created by a woman, I found some of the intricacies and nuances of the show to be very interesting. On one had, I was enthralled when Angela’s boss (a woman) told her that in their type of work environment she did not have the luxury of marriage, children or any real personal life for that matter. She said, as a woman the one time you have to choose your kid over your job you blow your shot. Men never have to choose. Contrastingly, though I tied to root for her, I was disheartened by Tasha’s character. I found her exhausting. Her insecurities began to consumer her. In response to Ghost’s infidelity, she uses her own sexuality to try and entice Shaun. Personally, I though this depiction was a cop out on the part of the writers. In film and television women are often portrayed as petulant children when things don’t go their way. Tasha is no different. It was more alarming still that she pretends to act shocked when Shaun clumsily attempts to return her advancements. Angela also begins to come off as childlike as she revels in her affair with Ghost, not accounting for all those that she is hurting.
We all grow, but do we have to change? Prior to rekindling his relationship with Angela, Ghost seems to already have one foot out of the door to his marriage. While having sex with his wife, he thinks of the man he murdered the night before. He seems at all times in his head, never completely present in the moment. He is constantly on the go, always on phone, rushing, whispering, and talking behind closed doors. As the season moves forward, it’s obvious that he’s emotionally absent. Unable to see him for anyone other than whom he always was, Tasha can’t quite grasp that fact that he’s pulling away because she’s stifling his growth. He tells her, “You want me to stay the same and never change. It ever occur to you that I’m not the same street nigga you married?!” Having checked out so easily, it’s obvious that Ghost’s heart never really left Angela. I say this not to excuse his behavior, but he chooses to step out because he feels haunted by the “Ghost” of his past. In one pivotal moment of the season, when Tasha is asking him about his whereabouts he responds by saying, “I’m not going anywhere Tasha! I’m stuck right here where you want me.”
Ghost is constantly confronted with his image, rather through mirrors or reflection. Throughout the entire season, unless he’s nude, Ghost is impeccably dressed in tailored suits and coats. Only twice at the end of the season do we see him in “street” clothes. The clothing is a major component of his new persona. They seem to be very much a shield for him, a way to hide Ghost. There is a pivotal moment at the end of the season when we see him literally shedding “Ghost” to become James. As James, the things he has done as Ghost haunt him. Images of friends he’s killed and decisions that he’s had to make are ever-present. Unlike Tommy, he doesn’t revel in the sadistic nature of the business. Instead, he finds it stifling. When it is revealed that a friend has betrayed his operation, it’s up to Ghost to eliminate him. In one of the most devastating scenes of the season, we watch Ghost look his friend in the eye and murder him in cold blood, tears falling because in the back of his mind he knows that something about it doesn’t feel right.
Ghost’s money has provided well for his family They live in a stunning penthouse, wear expensive clothing, and he and Tasha are even able to buy their daughter the main lead in her school’s play. And yet, in episode seven “Loyalty”, Ghost discovers that money and dreams do not provide status. Ghost, in an attempt to expand is nightclub, hopes to partner with nightlife tycoon Simon Stern. Stem however, has no such ideals,literally scoffing at the idea that he may be equal to Ghost, and then blatantly displaying his racist ideals in front of Ghost. He asks him how he is able to draw in the “urban” crowd and get them to “act right”. It’s an extremely important lesson for Ghost to learn. In the “legitimate” business world, things like race and status can be more pertinent than “success.”
The season finale entitled “Best Laid Plans”, finds all of the characters in Power at a crossroads. Angela and Ghost attempt to make permanent decisions about their relationship. Tasha, finally accepts the fact that Ghost is no longer an active member of their marriage and begins to lay plans of her own. Kanan gets out of jail and tells no one but Shaun, and Tommy is sent to kill Angela’s informant Nomar, only to find out that Angela and the FBI are after Ghost. And throughout all of this, Ghost has a hit out on him.
The thing is, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” The majority of the characters are forced to face their realities, to face the very things that they’d been running from all along. Overall, Power was exceptionally well done. I find it to be extremely profound considering the fact that I ended up despising nearly every character. I did however love Angela’s sister who kept it one hundred at all times, and I thought Tommy was amusing or at least consistent in whom he was. There were flaws of course; it’s very difficult to feel bad for Tasha even though she’s initially done nothing wrong. I’m also not ashamed to say that I’ll be thrilled if we have permanently been rid of Tommy’s girlfriend Holly, I though she was nauseating and I didn’t trust her.
The show is extremely entertaining and also quite grown. The show poses some very difficult questions. Perhaps the answer is that we don’t know who we really are. Maybe we all straddle the line of who we hope to be and whom we present to the world. Or perhaps we are all just creating illusions, bubbles where we can be shielded from reality. For the next season, I’m hoping that James can become the man he’s always wanted to be. But for now it seems that Ghost has caught up with him.
Aramide A Tinubu recently finished her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema at Columbia University in Film Studies. She’s a Black Cinema geek and blogger. You can view her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.co or tweet her @midnightrami