Legendary Relationships: A Tale of Two Mentors (Annie, Joan, and Lena on Covert Affairs)

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by Liz Fisher

“Legendary Relationships” is a regular column which will examine relationship moments between women in popular media.



I’d like to warn you, readers, before I begin that this post will have some pretty big spoilers for Covert Affairs through episode 3.09, “Suffragette City.” If you not watched the show yet and like to be surprised, save this article for later and start watching the series. Take my word that it’s darn good spy fun, drama, and intrigue that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, especially this season. You want this show in your life.

Annie: "I've had a few mentors and I disagree with them every day."

Sayid: "How do you respect a man you disagree with?"

Annie: "Both my mentors are women."

Sayid: "The CIA is indeed a complicated place."

Annie: "I respect them. They succeeded where few women have. Even when we disagree, I know they'd look out for me."

Covert Affairs this season has been the story of Annie Walker and her two mentors. In the above exchange, Annie was trying to turn the chief of staff to Yemen's Prime Minister into a CIA asset. She urged him to stay true to his own beliefs even if they differed from those of his mentor, something Annie herself has always done.

When Covert Affairs began, Annie was a brand new CIA agent and Joan Campbell was her intimidating and wise in the ways of the agency boss. Their developing relationship has been a highlight of the show's three year run. From tentative beginnings they've come to a mutual respect for one another and a strong working relationship as Annie has come into her own as an agent.

That dynamic was shaken up at the beginning of this season when Annie was reassigned to another department against her and Joan's wishes. There Annie worked for Lena Smith who gave Annie a great deal more autonomy in her missions than Joan ever did. Annie grew used to her newfound freedom and, when circumstances lead to her return to Joan's division, she tried to bring the more collaborative approach she'd used with Lena with her.

When Annie pushed for more leeway, Joan pushed back. She made it clear that, though she was willing to give Annie a chance when she thought it was warranted, she was still the one in charge. It was clear to the viewer that the limits Joan placed on Annie were meant to protect both Annie and the agency and had nothing to do with lack of trust in Annie or her skills but Annie did not have the same clarity when it came to Joans intentions.

Despite their respect for one another, the secretive nature of the CIA has made Joan and Annie’s relationship difficult. Recently, when Annie learned that someone at the Agency had asked a Mossad operative she frequently teams up to review her fitness for duty, Annie suspected Joan. And when Annie struggled to convince the would-be asset Sayid to work for the CIA, her worry that Joan had lost faith in her became clear. "We both fear that we may lose our mentors or that our mentors may lose faith in us but this is your choice," she told him.

At the end of the episode Annie made her own choice and requested a transfer. Joan and Annie’s inability to communicate with one another clearly, due in part to the nature of their work and in part to their personalities, allowed a rift to form between them. Joan's stricter leadership and Annie's belief that it was Joan who ordered her evaluation left Annie to wonder if Joan had as much trust in Annie as Annie would like. And Annie’s struggle to make sense of her place in the CIA and her suspicions about Joan have left Joan feeling that Annie may no longer find her mentorship valuable.

Joan and Annie’s new mentor Lena clashed many times throughout the season. While hints have been made of a mission gone wrong in their past that lead to hard feelings, many of their disagreements have been about Annie. Recently Joan learned Annie had become intimately involved with someone she was gathering intelligence on while under Lena’s command. Joan confronted Lena, voicing her concern about the potential fallout for Annie and her fear that Lena was not looking out for Annie the way Joan would.

In a shocking twist at the end of the September 4th episode, viewers learned Joan was right to be conflicted about Lena’s place in Annie’s life though not for the reasons she or the viewers might have previously thought. Annie had just turned down an offer to run away with Simon, the operative she’d become involved with, and was about to head back into the CIA when Lena arrived and shot both Annie and Simon. Simon died and Annie ended up near death in the hospital.

The episode that followed found Annie unconscious while Lena set her up to take the fall for information Lena herself had leaked to America’s enemies. Joan was conflicted at news of Annie’s supposed betrayal. While she was willing to accept the possibility that Annie could be guilty, perhaps in part of the distance that had grown between them recently, she was not willing to accept it blindly.

When Arthur, head of the Clandestine Service Department and also Joan’s husband, had no doubts about Annie’s guilt Joan was quick to champion Annie’s right to defend herself. “In the two and a half years that we have worked together, she’s proved herself to be an invaluable operative... You have never doubted she was guilty, have you? You didn’t even try to defend her. So what about the operative that depends on you to have their back?” she asked, full of disbelief and anger at Arthur’s willingness to condemn Annie so quickly.

Though it was evident Joan had her own doubts, she risked her job by allowing Annie’s best friend Auggie to overhear her security code so that he could review the evidence against Annie in hopes of refuting it. And, when Auggie found something, Joan was quick to help him investigate. While she may have had her misgivings, Joan wanted Annie to be innocent and was going to defend Annie until Annie was awake and able to defend herself. Joan and Auggie were able to find circumstantial evidence pointing to Lena. While it didn’t convince Artur of Annie’s innocence, it was enough to buy some time before she was decommissioned.

Joan and Auggie then rushed to Annie’s hospital room where they found Lena attempting to suffocate Annie. As Joan tackled Lena and chased her out of the hospital, her anger at Lena’s betrayal of the agency and especially Annie was evident.

The episode ended with both Joan and Auggie standing vigil as the doctors tried to restart Annie’s heart. While Annie may have been wrong about one of her mentors, Joan proved Annie’s previous faith in her was more than justified. Even when it meant facing off against the rest of the CIA, ignoring evidence that Annie might be a traitor, breaking the rules, risking her job, and putting herself in danger, Joan had Annie’s back.

In addition to being a fascinating and well-told story, having every player in this particular triangle be a female is a unique and wonderful thing. This kind of intrigue and confused loyalty between women having nothing to do with a man in their lives but rather honor, integrity, loyalty to one another, and service to one’s country is a rare treat on TV. I cannot wait to see how Joan and Annie deal with the fallout from Lena’s betrayal and where they go, individually and together, from here.

(And do tell me if I’m wrong about this being unique, readers. I’d love to watch all sorts of lady-centric spy drama if you have recommendations!)