Dec 12, 2019 | essay

Getting Out of the Cold: Revisiting Toxic Masculinity in Lethal Weapon

Edited by Julia Rios

Copyedited by Chelle Parker

Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:

Eight minutes from the end of “Coyote Ugly,” the thirteenth episode of the third season of Lethal Weapon, Los Angeles Police Department Detective Wesley Cole is in a pretty floral hospital gown, struggling to stand upright as he hobbles in front of a speeding California Border Patrol truck with two bad guys in the front, bringing it to a halt. He’s clutching a bullet wound that’s only been patched up hours ago. The two crooked agents in the front, and the kidnapped Mexican refugee in the back, look at him with utter incredulity as he points at them fiercely and shouts, “Let him go!”

If this were Martin Riggs, the detective who Cole replaced this season, he would have probably just run headlong into the windscreen with a gun in each hand, and none of his wounds would be bandaged at all. Both of these things are kinds of machismo, but are they the same?

A while back, I made the argument that Lethal Weapon was in the best position to talk about how men can grow beyond their traumas and forge healthier relationships. I also argued that its first two seasons never truly fulfilled that, giving us a hero with overwhelming hurt who struggled to learn those lessons but ultimately took that hurt to the grave. With Riggs, played then by Clayne Crawford, now out of the show, the hero role is filled by a new character played by Sean William Scott.

Full disclosure, when the announcement was made, I went, “Wait, the Dude, Where’s My Car? guy? The American Pie guy? Is that a sign of what I should expect?” And in hindsight, I truly underestimated Scott’s capacity and the series’ new intent. Like Riggs in the previous seasons, Cole (played by Scott) is the white male lead of the series, and ultimately its “main character”: the one that the show gives us the most backstory lenses into the history of, whose internal conflicts take up the most screen time and are framed as drama rather than comedy. This is a judgment of the show, but more of an assessment than an admonition. It’s still saying something that Cole’s partner Roger Murtaugh, played by Damon Wayans, doesn’t get the same kind or frequency of emotional lenses into his own life even though he’s been here all three seasons — when he misbehaves, he still recovers well and with relative humility, even if he doesn’t have the same kind of baggage, and he consistently makes himself available to the men around him as a listening ear and source of guidance. But Murtaugh is never the focus as often as I would like.

Regardless, the givens: Wesley Cole used to be soldier, just like Riggs; he met his wife Natalie on the battlefield, when she was a medic; they fell in love and had a kid. Cole has grief about a young Syrian boy he befriended who died following him into danger, because of course there’s military baggage with an innocent and terrorism and Syria. He left the military thereafter, just like Riggs, only Cole chose the CIA before becoming a cop, working under a particularly cold handler who loved solving problems with extrajudicial killing. His marriage suffered and, fed up with killing cartel leaders in restaurant bathrooms, he joined the LAPD in the hopes of staying close to his now teenage daughter — and, deep down, of winning his ex-wife back.

Cole operates, in some ways, just as Riggs had before him. For instance, he also has disturbing flashbacks into his hangups, but Cole’s are more about his emotional connection to his mother than his violent run-ins with his father, the cartel, or other men. Cole goes back to his teen years of traveling around the world with his war-photographer mother; to the day they fought about his desire to join the military; about him leaning over her body in a Bosnian morgue, learning she’s been killed by a rocket, the coroner handing him her intact camera bag.

What results is a man who doesn’t necessarily resent being seen as weak in the face of violence. In fact, he is hesitant to get in fights, physical or emotional. He keeps his gun holstered even when he’s staring down the barrel of someone else’s. He pays for that Syrian boy’s spiteful older brother to go to college without expecting anything in return. When jealousy over his ex-wife’s new beau strikes him, he seeks someone to confide in rather than letting it fester, and makes decisions about other people’s happiness neither out of selfishness nor self-denial.

His interactions with his former CIA handler, Barnes, are also enlightening. Barnes speaks to him in the way we reserve for men — of self-sacrifice, commitment to violence, toughness, stoicism, and brutality. He tries luring Cole back with this language, and it always seems to coincide with Cole’s own struggle with belonging. It’s obviously predatory, and we can even see Cole subtly become colder under the weight of it, but he struggles upward against it, mainly due to Murtaugh’s insistence that men who place their lives in each other’s hands can and should talk to each other.

This is perhaps one of the better lessons of the season: sometimes the things that teach us how to be men also turn men into tools. Sometimes we don’t know we want to escape that fate until we’re finally out of those spaces. Sometimes the systems upholding these gender roles will do anything to get us back into thinking of ourselves in cold, cruel ways. Whereas Riggs dies without getting the room to learn this lesson, we meet Cole precisely because he wants to learn it, for his family’s sake.

So here’s my one gripe about this season: he gets the girl. After Cole learns to be better, be selfless, let go of jealousy… Natalie leaves her fiancé at the altar, jumps into his truck, and they ride off into the sunset.

I think giving him the girl kind of undermines what was otherwise a nobler character arc than in seasons prior. I wanted the show to say it was okay to find peace in not getting back with the one that got away, even if that peace is hard-won. I wanted it to say hanging on to emotional baggage makes the relationships you want harder. I wanted it to say that you should open up more to the men around you who want to save you from troubling ideas of masculinity.

None of those stories necessitate getting the girl. In fact, a lot of them taste best with the opposite.

Consider this: the reason such a strong case can be made for writing different kinds of men on screen isn’t so we can show how much struggle you can endure until you deserve the things you want. There’s room for that, to be sure, and even responsible ways for film and television to tell men how to work for those things. But there’s also much more room to be made for stories that tell men that self-mastery is often its own reward, and you can still have the same healthy relationships you need to survive without attaching your own wants to them.

Where the show goes next is up in the air, of course. If it does come back, I can only hope this is the midpoint of that story, where a man’s final closure isn’t wrapped up in finally getting the things we tell men to hungrily pursue, but in truly learning how to be our best without them.

© 2019 Brandon O'Brien

About the author

Brandon O'Brien

Brandon O’Brien is a performance poet, writer, and game designer from Trinidad and Tobago. His work has been shortlisted for the 2014 Alice Yard Prize for Art Writing and the 2014 and 2015 Small Axe Literary Competitions, and is published in Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, Reckoning, and New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean (Peekash Press, 2016), among others. He is also the poetry editor of FIYAH Literary Magazine.