Race, power dynamics, and the missed opportunities of Great Pretender

By: Beata June 11, 20210 Comments
Abby pretending to be princess.

Content Warnings: Discussions of racism, class, human trafficking of children and war trauma.

Spoilers for all of Great Pretender.

Great Pretender is an original anime series on Netflix that follows the eccentric lives of outcasts turned con-artists travelling the world to scam rich and corrupt people out of their money. The initial premise promised colorful heists alongside an interesting story about how these characters would use the resources they stole to help the victims of their targets get another chance to start a new life. 

The series succeeds at depicting how differently power dynamics play out around the world, but unfortunately fails to consistently empower its racialized characters. This ultimately weakens its larger theme about outlaws who take justice into their own hands because they know oppressive systematic structures aren’t going to look out for them.     

Protagonist and small-time scammer Edamura Makoto starts out tricking elderly folks into buying expensive water filters. Despite Makoto’s initial attempts to make an honest living, he found himself unable to find a job due to his father’s conviction and eventually resigned himself to fulfilling society’s expectations that he would become a criminal like his father. However, everything changed when he was forced to join Laurent Thierry’s team of con artists and discovered that he could use his skills to help people.  

Makoto gloating after a scam and buys capsule toy figures.

Returning Power to the Disenfranchised 

Throughout the series, Makoto is uncertain about joining Laurent’s team full-time, but he does witness the difference he can make by being a swindler and empathizes with the various people he meets that are trying to make positive changes in their lives. The best example of this is shown in the first arc set in Los Angeles. This heist requires the crew to trick Eddie Cassano, a wealthy white movie producer, into buying the recipe for a fake drug. Producing movies is just a cover for Cassano’s real work as the biggest drug trader on the West Coast, and both roles allow him to exploit young women by turning them into sex slaves and often killing the “unlucky ones.” While getting closer to Cassano for the job, Makoto meets Salazar, a bodyguard who’s trying to leave his life of crime and create a stable home environment for his son, Tom. 

Salazar previously ran his own gang before Cassano seized his turf, and he settled into working as Cassano’s bodyguard to gradually ease his way out of criminal activities. Salazar’s insight about his own situation highlights how racism affects the everyday lives of people of color in the United States and why some people turn to crime, since they see it as one of the few options available for them to escape poverty and other forms of structural oppression.

Salazar serving Eddie Cassano a drink.

Unlike Salazar and Makoto, Eddie chooses to continue his criminal activities because his whiteness and wealth gives him the power to navigate both the criminal and legitimate world without experiencing many repercussions. Eddie’s entitlement proves exploitable: the confidence crew uses his ignorance about Japan to make him believe that “Sakura Magic” is a futuristic drug that can be produced in Japan and duplicated in the United States, despite Japan being known for its strict laws against drugs. White people tend to exoticize and create racist ideas about the people living in non-European countries and Makoto is fully aware that Japanese people are seen as “safe” and “unassuming.” Rather than trying to change Eddie’s assumptions, Makoto takes advantage of these stereotypes to return some power to the people Eddie exploited. 

Salazar’s characterization and connection to Makoto makes it meaningful that the confidence crew were the ones that gave Salazar a chance to restart his life instead of being implicated alongside Eddie. While this may oversimplify how much effort is required to reintegrate former convicts into society, there’s something to be said for the gang’s faith and empathy for him as “criminals” themselves who weren’t given second chances. If given the opportunities and resources they need to start over again, former convicts can have fulfilling lives.

Salazar being given a second chance to start a new life with his son Tom.

The confidence crew extended this same kindness to Christina, a minor character in the London heist who briefly reflects the everyday realities of low-income Black and Brown women across many nations. In Christina’s case, she dealt with sexual harassment from her employer and was unjustly fired when she refused his advances. Even when people of color follow the “right path,” they remain at the mercy of institutional racism with few resources to rely on. 

During this arc, Cynthia used her privilege as a wealthier white woman to help her old friend, stealing money from her ex-employer so Christina would be able to live a comfortable life with her son. The conversation about allyship and community can be complicated, but Cynthia’s actions showed how important it is to use whatever privileges you have to help people that aren’t always able to fight back. Salazar and Christina’s inclusion showed the potential of how good Great Pretender could’ve been, if it remained focused on its original idea to rob those benefiting from oppressive societal structures and uplift marginalized people.  

Chris being told by her shitty ex-box she'll never win a court case against him for sexual harassment.

Questionable Coding and Oversimplified Trauma

Unfortunately, the Singapore arc began to stray from the show’s original intention and failed to empower its primary characters of color. One of the biggest problems in this arc is the portrayal of the Ibrahim brothers who demonstrate how rich people of color utilize their class privilege to remain wealthy despite being part of a minority group themselves. There’s a lot to be said about the influence rich minority ethnic groups have in Singapore, but the show has a questionable approach when deciding which brother deserves a redemption arc.  

Sam is presented as the more evil and less attractive brother, with both of these traits being correlated to his coding as a “traditional” Muslim. He wears a keffiyeh and kandura, clothing that distinguishes him from his more westernized brother Clark. Sam is also blatantly misogynistic, as shown by his violent reaction to Cynthia flirting with him. And Clark’s redemption comes at the cost of cementing Sam as the irredeemable villain, perpetuating the stereotype that “traditional” Arab Muslim men are more “uncivilized.” 

A picture of the Ibrahim brothers.

The Singapore arc is further complicated by Abigail’s unexpectedly brutal backstory. Abigail lost her parents after stunt pilot Lewis bombed her hometown in Iraq, and she eventually became a child soldier. Both she and Lewis are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to their time in combat and it’s clear that the show didn’t entirely know how to handle the depth of their pain with the sensitivity it deserved.  

In Abigail’s case, she’s unfortunately the victim of continuous U.S. intervention in the Middle East for the sake of controlling the region and its resources. The Singapore heist touches on complex topics including the dehumanization of Middle Eastern civilians to promote military violence and the guilt and trauma of veterans, but lacks any solid commentary on these issues. 

As a result, the story wasn’t sure what the proper resolution to Abigail’s backstory should be and ultimately leads to Abigail simply forgiving Lewis an episode later, which is an unsatisfying conclusion and a disservice to her character as one of the only Brown characters part of the confidence crew. The intense issues that Abigail was dealing with isn’t something that can be resolved easily. The show should’ve at least offered some long-term solutions to deal with her trauma, but it’s rarely mentioned once the arc is over. 

Lewis apologizing to Abby bombing her hometown.

Misplaced Sympathies and Deferred Responsibilities

The climactic Tokyo heist, however, is an interesting contrast to the Singapore arc because it examines the complicated power dynamics that exists between the Japanese and Chinese mafia. Suzaku Akemi is the leader of the Suzaku Association, and she controls the majority of human trafficking in East and Southeast Asian countries. However, the Chinese branch of the organization is infringing on her power by earning bigger profits due to the Chinese economic boom. Akemi’s anger at the branch’s growing independence and the arrogance of their leader, Liu Xiao, depicts the real world historical tension between Japan and China. These animosities were heightened during Japan’s colonial expansion in the first half of the 20th century and those same strained sentiments remain to this day, leading to issues like continuous territorial disputes.  

Aside from the power struggles between Akemi and Liu, another notable aspect is how they both completely dehumanize the Southeast Asian children they buy and sell. In order to maintain the status quo of the dominant Asian powers, they take advantage of the difficult socio-political and economic realities in Southeast Asian countries to find vulnerable and desperate families who are willing to sell their Brown children for a profit.  

Kawin telling Makoto the reality about human trafficking.

When Makoto was roped into this new heist he realized the entire human trafficking “business” is a systematic problem that everyone is involved in, from the recruiters like Ishigami to international airport custom officials. While Makoto initially had good intentions, one of the children he’d intended to save rightfully told him that saving them isn’t something he can do alone. Makoto didn’t have a long-term plan on how to help the children and acting impulsively about their rescue could’ve put them in more danger.  

The unfortunate reality is that a whole system supports human trafficking, and if the root of that isn’t destroyed then Makoto had no chance of substantively helping all the children; but the story falters from examining these nuances. The series also doesn’t explore how Makoto’s social mobility in the mafia is rooted in colorism, and he has to cope with the fact that he actually has privileges that can be downright oppressive to Brown Asian folks.  

Makoto telling the kids to smile more for the auction.

Even though he was forced to accept the role Akemi wanted him to fulfill, it doesn’t change the fact that he facilitated the exploitation of children. We eventually find out the children were secretly saved, but Makoto didn’t know that and became desensitized to the trauma he was inflicting. Makoto isn’t given any time to reflect and be held accountable for his actions; in fact, there are so many different plot points happening in the Tokyo arc that the show forgets to explore this aspect at all. 

In choosing to focus solely on the main storylines, the show treats the children like voiceless commodities. Apart from that one insightful moment from the oldest child Kawin early on, the series doesn’t spend any time with the children in a meaningful way.  We don’t witness their reactions when they realize they have been rescued, besides a scene at the end of Kawin being adopted by Cynthia, and we’re never shown how the children are coping with being survivors of human trafficking. Instead of empowering the most marginalized characters in the story, the show redeems its antagonists and abandons its original premise for the sake of a grandiose finale. 

Makoto translating for Akemi while he and Ishigami stand next to her.

Almost, Not Quite

One of the bright moments in the finale is the introduction of Dorothy, a Black woman who dated and taught Laurent how to be a con artist. While her brief appearance mostly focused on her relationship to him, her enjoyment in scamming terrible people was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise messy arc. Even though the possibility of her return is exciting it’s concerning that she was almost fridged for the sake of Laurent’s growth. There’s still a chance the show can redeem itself with another storyline featuring her or Abigail if a new season is made, but until then we can only hope.  

Despite the show’s female characters being just as interesting as their male counterparts, they often take a backseat to them with the exception of Cynthia’s storyline. The recurring character Si Won, an older Korean woman, didn’t get her backstory told beyond one or two lines of dialogue, which mostly serve to draw attention to the contrast between her past as a femme fatale and her current short, fat stature, and while it’s clear she’s still an important member of the team who’s crucial to the success of several heists, it would’ve been nice to learn more about her.  

Dorothy and Shi-won drinking wine together.

Great Pretender started off with so much potential to be both fun and make great social commentary, but lost its focus because it sacrificed storytelling for the sake of trying to end on a flashy note. The creators tried their best to research different locations and customs for the sake of authenticity, but it’s clear they weren’t prepared to explore those complex themes in more depth. Ultimately, I’ll remember Great Pretender as a colorful show that had good intentions, but which missed its opportunity to fully develop its themes of returning power to the characters of color.

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