**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the James Bond films Skyfall and Spectre.**
“Orphans always make the best recruits,” remarks M (Judi Dench), the ice-cold spymaster, while standing in the frigid Scottish Highlands with her loyal protector, James Bond (Daniel Craig), by her side. She is, of course, referring to Bond—the iconic protagonist of what is arguably the most successful film series of all time. The moment between them marks this particular film’s turn into its third and final act, which sees Bond returning to his childhood home in an effort to keep the most important woman in his life safe from harm.
By breaking open Bond in such profound, psychological ways, Mendes puts his definitive stamp on the character by giving us a Bond with honest, conflicted emotions.The Oscar-winning Skyfall (2012) was many things upon release: a celebration of 50 years of filmmaking; an ode to one of modern fiction’s most important anti-heroes; a reaffirmation of James Bond’s place in the annals of history. But perhaps most unexpectedly, Skyfall was the first of director Sam Mendes’s duology of Bond films that broke open the one area of Bond’s life that had been sealed up for a half-century—his family.
In an interview with The New Yorker, Mendes—of 1917 (2019) fame—recalls a time from his childhood, when his father took him to visit his sick mother during her stay in Kingsley Hall, the famed psychiatric facility of Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing. “We went up on the roof to look out over London,” Mendes remembers. “My first memory is holding my dad’s hand and my mother’s hand. I tried to pull them together.”
An image that any child of a broken family will resonate with, the lesson here is that the children will always try to be the caretakers. When mother and father separate, the children become the custodians who feel obligated to clean up the mess. We never stop striving to reconcile our parents. Mendes certainly didn’t. Beginning with Skyfall and concluding with Spectre (2015), Mendes lent his subtle touch to the Bond mythology and turned the greatest action-adventure film series into a study on sons and their relationships to their mothers and fathers.
Skyfall sees the return of Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a ruthless and psychotic former spy who used to occupy Bond’s position as M’s most trusted agent, who even goes so far as to call her “mother.” He is Bond seen through a dark mirror, the yin to Bond’s yang, rejected by his country and those he thought he could trust. In other words, he is what Bond could very easily become. In this way, they are brothers, bound by loyalty to their surrogate mother.
Spectre carries the metaphor further, and re-introduces the greatest of classic Bond villains, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), by canonizing him as an old friend from Bond’s childhood, whose father took Bond in after his parents were tragically killed, and who came to favor Bond over his biological son. Again, Bond comes up against a mirror version of himself, one less physically imposing than Silva, but who is far more cerebral and calculating. Here, again, we find the imagery of brothers, one the humble recipient of unwarranted kindness on the part of the father, the other driven to jealousy by the father’s favoritism.
Mendes’s Bond film duology takes the well-worn elements of the classic Bond mythos and reimagines them on a grander, mythic scale. M is no longer a randomly assigned number but might as well be a diminutive for “mom.” Blofeld is no longer a face hidden behind the curtain with dreams of world domination, but a vindictive and jealous man driven by an inferiority complex.
In no uncertain terms, these stories show us the damage neglectful parenting can do. After M fails to protect her son Silva, he returns as her reckoning in Skyfall. Dame Judi Dench shines brightest among all the quintessential Bond women thanks to her performance in this film as the one woman of whom Bond could never take advantage. Much of the film’s emotional weight rides on her realizing that a lifetime of mistakes and mistrust have brought her to this moment, on the run from Silva, the prodigal son who’s come back with nothing but vengeance in his heart. How telling that her final words are uttered looking into Bond’s eyes—the faithful son in whom she has finally trusted: “At least I got one thing right.”
And in a brilliant twist on the much-maligned “villainous monologue” in Spectre, Blofeld addresses psychiatrist Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) rather than Bond to justify himself and explain his motivations. But there is no grandstanding in this particular exposition, no dreams of world domination. There is only pain and simmering indignation as he speaks of his father’s outrageous kindness toward Bond, saying, “He sewed the wounds of the poor little blue-eyed orphan, asked me to treat him as a brother. My little brother.”
By breaking open Bond in such profound, psychological ways, Mendes puts his definitive stamp on the character by giving us a Bond with honest, conflicted emotions. Through the character of Bond, Mendes is still trying to bring together the hands of his parents. Skyfall and Spectre take the traditional spectacle and cultural landmark that is the “Bond film” and reinvent them through a mythical lens to present a thoughtful and resonant examination of the landscape of the human soul. The shape of the adults into whom we grow is put there in childhood, just as there remain traces of the child inside every adult. And whether or not we want to admit it, we all become orphans sooner or later. The tragic element of a broken home is the same as all other tragedies in the experience of growing up—a loss of childhood innocence, and the forcing of the child to grow up far too quickly.
The first time I can recall my parents ever being in the same building was for my high school graduation. In fact, I can’t actually think of any words I’ve ever seen my parents speak to one another. Of course, they’ve talked about each other, but I don’t have any memory of seeing my parents talking together. I’m sure that I’d seen them interact before, but the living memory of graduation is the only one I retain. Even then, I do not recall them speaking. My mother and the man we lived with were standing at one end of the hall, my father and his wife on the other, and I remember standing there in that gymnasium—my own personal London—and wondering which of the two I should visit first. I don’t remember which direction I went, but in that moment, I remember wishing more than anything that I didn’t have to choose. It was as if I held my dad’s hand and my mother’s hand, and I wanted nothing more than to pull them together.
Six months later, sitting in a darkened IMAX theater in Knoxville, Tennessee, I watched the orphan Bond return to his childhood home with his surrogate mother in tow and had what I can only describe as my first truly religious experience—and I had been in church for eighteen years by that point. But seeing Bond, one of my many childhood heroes (I needed more supervision than I received) reconcile with that dying old woman and realizing just what her faith in him had rescued him from, I understood that the wounds accrued in childhood—the ones that always cut the deepest—could actually be healed.
The next year of my life was perhaps the most chaotic, but I had never been so sure of myself, nor have I ever been since. Against the judgment of both parents, I left home and traveled to Chicago to attend the Moody Bible Institute. While there, I found a surrogate, my own personal M, whose much-needed firm hand was always tempered by a grace and compassion that was ruthlessly unsentimental—a concept utterly foreign to the small town in which I grew up, where fathers domineer and cut themselves off emotionally and mothers overcompensate with a cloying, smothering, syrupy kind of mawkish “love.” I was even fortunate enough to find a family willing to take me in during my self-imposed exile from my own, though my version of Ernst Stavro Blofeld turned out to be far less sinister and actually a pretty decent human being!
The machinations of the divine are always nebulous when in motion, yet oh-so-clear in hindsight. It took me several years to realize just how profoundly Christ had rescued me through characters like James Bond. I was always a child drawn more to fantasy—make no mistake, the world of Bond is a fantasy—because it made more sense than reality, and actually helped me to make sense of reality, and Bond the character helped me to make sense of myself, as I suspect he’s done for orphans the world over.
But it takes one to know one. Just as it took Sam Mendes making Skyfall and Spectre to give us a Bond to whom we could all relate.