A deadly virus has struck Istanbul. Panicked people flood the streets hoping to snatch up whatever necessities they can find. They attack each other while lining up for bottles of water. A girl keels over and vomits blood. Rather than helping, people run away. Scared of the contagion, everyone looks at each other suspiciously. The governor of Istanbul places certain districts of the city under strict quarantine and issues a nighttime curfew to be enforced by the police. Fires rage across Istanbul’s historic skyline, helicopters circle overhead. Chaos reigns.
No, this is not a nightmare scenario of Istanbul one or two months into the coronavirus crisis. It’s the third season of popular Netflix show The Protector (Hakan: Muhafız) released on March 6th.
The show’s creators have proven themselves to be remarkably prescient. Though this season was written and filmed months before most people had heard of COVID-19, these scenes showing the city brought to a standstill over a contagious virus resonate perfectly with everyone’s current fears.
In The Protector, the virus does not occur naturally but is the product of a nefarious cabal known as the Immortals. These unkillables have one goal: to destroy Istanbul. They are responsible for the earthquakes, plagues, and fires that have plagued Constantinople throughout its history. Fortunately, there is a counterbalancing force known as the Protector. With the help of his band of Loyal Ones (not to mention the use of a magical dagger, holy ring, and a talismanic Ottoman tunic), generations of Protectors have played an endless cat-and-mouse game with the evil Immortals.
The latest in this long lineage of Protectors is Hakan, played by the hunky Çağatay Ulusoy, a scrappy working-class guy who worked selling antiques in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar until he realized he had destiny in his blood. Over three seasons, Hakan and side-kick/love-interest Zeynep (acted by Hazar Ergüçlü) and a motley crew of Loyal Ones square off against billionaire Immortal villain Faysal Erdem (Okan Yalabık) and the rest of the Immortals.
With avid viewers around the world and recent news of a fourth season on the way, The Protector has been a success story for Netflix. The digital streaming platform released the first season of the show in 2018. Turkish television is big business. Last year alone, TV series exports brought in $500 million. After local streaming websites BluTV and puhutv released prestige-centered digital series like Innocent (Masum) and Persona (Şahsiyet), Netflix also wanted in on the action.
After the success of The Protector, the streaming giant continued to invest in Turkish original productions with 2019’s The Gift (Atiye) as well as teen comedy series Love 101 (Aşk 101) to be released later this year. The Ottoman-focused season of Netflix’s Rise of Empires also sought to bring in new subscribers from Turkey.
While Turkish network TV soap operas are often highly politicized, Netflix’s original productions seek to please everyone while offending as few as possible. These series are slightly edgier than what is deemed people’s family TV sets, with realistic swearing and more sex scenes, but they are not overly bold.
The Protector aims for a wide audience by building on the Marvel superhero trend whilst also offering a healthy dose of romance and love stories. It offers viewers the hip youth of current-day Turkey while also capitalizing on widespread Ottomania with a side-plot set in the 1460s. With its fairly realistic representation of contemporary Istanbul, The Protector does manage to avoid the most egregious forms of orientalism engaged in by Hollywood films from Midnight Express to 2020’s James Bond sequal Skyfall. Yet with pivotal scenes shot in the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, the Maiden’s Tower, and other historical sites on every foreign visitor’s itinerary, The Protector does have Istanbul’s tourism potential in mind.
One unfortunate by-product of attempting to please every kind of viewer is that The Protector ends up saying nothing at all. With a little bit of this and a little bit of that, the show is like the heaping tray of food one makes at an all-you-can-eat buffet. You should be satisfied after eating so much, but somehow the absurd combination of dishes and cuisines leaves you both stuffed and somehow still hungry.
A television series does not have to have a message, but from the first season of The Protector it has felt like the show is constantly on the verge of providing some sort of political allegory before losing its nerve and backing off. Let us recall that Hakan’s main antagonist is Faysal Erdem: an undying businessman with hands in real estate, construction, and finance; an all-powerful figure with links to the police, press, and government; someone who is set on destroying Istanbul but also feels periodic regret for “betraying” the city. There is also the issue of who will “win” the city, a plot-line at times reminiscent of election speeches, as well as the issue of preserving the city’s ecological balance against harmful plots and schemes.
While the show does sometimes seem to refer to political figures, municipal elections, and mega-projects, any allegorical reading of the show is eventually undermined but subsequent plot twists.
Now that The Protector’s third season carries undeniable resonances with the most hot-button issue of the day, contagious viruses, it seems the most we can expect from the show is this kind of accidental relevance. As Turkey gears up to deal with its first cases of coronavirus and panicked citizens begin hoarding basic supplies, let’s hope that commonsense prevails and that The Protector’s well-designed sets showing chaos in the streets remain more fiction than fact.