This must’ve been almost 60 years ago, the start of it. The primary agent eventually became the director of the bureau. But then he was still a street agent, and he had nothing going on. This was actually his first field assignment. He pestered the case manager constantly for something to do, and he usually gets sent to the file room. This time the case manager fucking just snaps at him, tells him to fuck off and go down to the nearby college campus to infiltrate some radical student group.

So, he does. He wanders around, goes into the student union, finds the community billboard, and sees there’s a flier for something called the Party of Workers and Students. The agent enrolls in classes under a pseudonym, shows up to the inaugural meeting, and the head is some stuttering, nervous wimp, which drives off a lot of people looking to be led, especially women, but the guy does make some veiled remarks suggesting a latent militancy within the organization, so the agent sticks around to see what shakes loose. After about a month’s worth of weekly meetings, they’re down to maybe six people, the stutterer, the agent, and four other students.

Having talked ideology to death, they’re starting to talk praxis, but nobody wants to just come out and say it, and the agent can’t, or he’ll blow his case with entrapment, but everybody is just at the cusp of talking about a bombing, or a shooting, and this lasts for months.

The agent is days away from closing the file on this when he is tasked by the case manager to go to a police precinct and finesse the arrest of an informant. He goes to the station house to sweet-talk the desk sergeant into letting this guy go, apparently some pothead.

The cops let him in, then bring him back to an interrogation room, and the pothead looks up, and it’s the stutterer. They just stare at each other for a minute, then the agent decides he might as well just interrogate him, because his cover’s blown.

Turns out this is his second arrest. The first one was how he ended up as “head” of the PWS. And it gets better. The arresting agency, the people who put him on to that assignment? ISB. The guy had no idea what they wanted him to do, so they came up with the name, taught him how to register the organization with the student union to get funding and resources, designed the logo, taught him how to use a mimeo or whatever the fuck they used back then to print the fliers. They had another informant try to teach him how to be hip, like teaching him words like “cat” and stuff. In fact, in a trivial but utterly bizarre coincidence, admin had accidentally given the stutterer and the agent the same cover identity, it’s just the stutterer went by Jack to spice it up a bit, and the agent went by John.

The agent walks out of the interrogation room to call the case manager, talk to someone in political branch and see if they can maybe salvage this, or at least figure out what the fuck is going on, and he no-shit slams into one of the remaining four members, a guy it turns out is a local cop, also undercover in the PWS. He’s actually in uniform, working regular patrol shifts, wearing a fucking Sam Browne belt and campaign hat like he’s about to invade Poland.

So they pow-wow for a minute, and then decide they’re gonna hold the stutterer so he can’t tip anyone off, then go arrest everyone else at the next meeting. And they do, and one dude’s a state trooper, another’s a state trooper from a different barracks assigned to the state sovereignty commission, and the last is another snitch, a heroin addict who was actually arrested with the stutterer the first fucking time, but they were both so fucking stoned neither remembered the encounter, and they were assigned different handlers.

They decide to cut the heroin addict loose, onto cash buys and other drug shit, all the cops dis-enroll from classes and leave the “party,” but they decide to keep stringing the stutterer along, to slow the pace of his education by half, by having him audit every class before he takes it, to maintain the party for as long as possible. Maybe they’ll snare something eventually.

They decided they needed him to do a membership drive, as no one had attended any of his meetings in months, maybe having been poached by other radical groups and such, and they come up with the idea of having a weekly newspaper. The stutterer practically breaks down in tears. He’s a sociology major (of course), not a journalism major, and that kind of workload would just demolish his grade point.

So they go back to the guys in propaganda branch, the dudes who did the logo and came up with the name the first time, and they set the whole thing up. They name it The Hammer and Compass, instruments which were the basis of the party logo, then do a riff on that for the paper’s logo, and honestly, just from an aesthetic point of view, this really looked like the real thing. They called station chiefs at embassies in the more obscure Second World republics for translations of locally produced media, then ran it in The Hammer. Really, really professional. They estimated that both the budget and staff of their phony paper was twice that of the actual student paper.

But this guy is now in his late twenties and doesn’t really cut the jib of a young, passionate Red radical. Time for grad school. They lean on the university to award him his degree, then enroll him in a doctoral program. They want to reposition him as a sort of elder statesman of radical student politics, some kind of grey eminence. They even get him his own class to teach for his TA requirements, called something like Marx and the Suburbs: Honkys, Guilt, and Radical Politics—Analysis of Interstitial Dialectical Matrices, the primary text of which was supposed to be a book the stutterer himself wrote as part of his larger dissertative work. But they had to write that, too.

Despite teaching this class for four years during the height of the Vietnam War, he failed to attract a single student organization in need of guidance, or any following of any kind. They got him a dialog coach, a personal trainer, anything they could think of to transform this awkward, nebbishy stutterer into some sort of communist Svengali, but it all proved useless. Almost, anyway.

By the Reagan Eighties, he had been positioned as such a staunch critic of American foreign policy he was invited by the Plekhanov Moscow Institute of the National Economy to be a guest lecturer. The bureau leapt at the chance to insert him in Moscow.

He was there for 20 years, and never once developed a source or produced a usable, actionable piece of intelligence.

The writer stares expectantly, but nothing further is said until he asks what happened to the stutterer.

1991 happened. Wall came down. Empire collapsed. I guess he stayed or was abandoned there. I don’t know.

The writer mulls this over for a bit. Conceptually, he finds it brilliantly absurd, but he’s thinking he’ll want to zazz it up a bit, as not a single person was killed or even so much as tortured. The third act problems are huge, almost indescribably bad. It just ends…

All the actors seem nervous, huddled in an empty pit classroom next to another, occupied pit classroom, talking in whispers with the writer, who is also acting as the director. He explains he wants a total verité experience. Half the actors in the classroom next door don’t know that the other half are also actors. They don’t know this is an action scene. They think it’s B-roll for a documentary about the ever-increasing cost of higher education. The remainder are outfitted with squibs and expecting to be shot, beaten, and so on.

Donnie and Dale are on-set as tactical advisors and trainers but will also be playing versions of themselves. As this is being shot in real time, by streaming GoPro cameras for that verité feel, it will be at least two days before they burst into the room and “shoot” the “Discordian terrorists,” ending the hostage crisis.

The writer whispers into his wrist mic: action. The actors file into the other classroom and shoot the husky girl with the lime and pink hair, just like the script says. They lock the crash handles with chains, just like the script says. They holler commands. They collect smartphones. They butt-stroke the professor, who takes an attitude, just as the script said he would, but it seems he fucked up the stunt, that he didn’t roll with the buttstock and the gash on his forehead seems remarkably real. Something for the gag reel: a young man tries to run for it, something not in the script, and yanks on the chain-locked doors in a frenzy as he weeps and screams. Shoot him in the back, says the writer into his wrist mic. The sweating actor nervously mumbles something about there being no squib and the director says not to worry, they can just CGI it later. The actor shoots the young man in the back and he dies groaning over the course of hours. The actors are shocked by how believable his performance is and wonder if his role will be expanded in reshoots. Best Supporting Oscar?

Then the actors engage responding police: these are our demands. First, the piece of shit David LaPorte will retract his statements of some nights past and offer his apologies…

And then Donnie and Dale walk out into the hall to take control from the responding local authorities. The writer is with them, posing as their consultant.

A snag which threatens the operation: David LaPorte cannot be found. Donnie, Dale, and the writer rush frantically to and from Spago, Gigi’s, Tama, Gamboge, Mírame, Ospi; they crash the Marmont, the Ivy, Katsuya, the Polo Lounge, Musso and Frank; they start calling snitches and dealers, they look at every single place, often four or five times, where an actor would want to be seen pretending to not want to be seen, any place he might go to shove something somewhere, whether it’s his dick into something or something into his nose or a vein, and they finally find the fucking imbecile at his ex-wife’s, lounging next to the pool in a jockstrap, oddly a sickly shade of pale despite the hostile sun, covered in hair so coarse it could be quills, huge brown bags under his eyes making him resemble a moderately retarded bank robber, the lumpy contours of his body making it seem as though it is made largely of warm butter and proofing dough, his unkempt, thinning hair cascading like a swarm of mutant daddy-long-legs over a monstrously large forehead. Again, it is unbelievable this man makes a living being looked at.
And he refuses. David LaPorte does not give in to the demands of terrorists.

The writer looks at his watch worriedly. His earpiece is buzzing constantly. The actors are terrified. Virtually everyone in that room has shit or vomited. Virtually everyone is in tears. The actors are screaming at the police that it’s just a film gone wrong, they’re trying to surrender, even offering their weapons to the hostages, who shiver and scream and refuse to touch them; Donnie’s on the horn with the local commander, he tells them not to fall for the bait, not to blow the doors, that it’s a trap, that they’ll detonate a massive explosive device if those doors are breached, to just stay calm.

Donnie hands LaPorte his pages. LaPorte skims them, refuses again.

Look, man, says Dale, I’m sure you’re cool and everything, but this attitude is really not helping.

LaPorte starts screaming, patly refuses once more.

Donnie pistol-whips him upside the face, and LaPorte collapses.

Look, you motherfucker, you are gonna do what you are told, and you are gonna stop fucking pretending that you are in charge of anything. You are not the writer, you are not the director. You are the actor. You will fucking do your lines as they are written.

LaPorte considers the blood leaking from the outsized nostrils of his bulbous nose, rippled with the magenta streaks of broken veins, yet still refuses.

I’ll go in and get his cunt wife.

LaPorte needlessly protests that it’s his ex-wife.

In any event, Dale drags her outside by her hair, then gut-punches her so hard she collapses into a whimpering puddle. Then he holds his pistol next to her head, firing four times into the pool, deafening her. She tries to scream but can’t draw any air. She just lies on the pavement, splayed, terrified. She pisses herself.

Next time I pull this trigger, it’s gonna be to put four in her fucking skull, not the pool.

LaPorte finally relents.

LaPorte is moaning over the poor quality of the lines the terrorists have given him. He can’t believe they want him to read this shit. He calls it insipid. He calls it trite. He says it does nothing to advance the language of film.

What’s wrong with it? asks Donnie.

Seriously? ‘I am wee Todd did? I am sofa king wee Todd did?’

What’s wrong with that? asks Dale.

LaPorte seethes, whips the pages up into the air, moans that he needs some direction, he needs some motivation. Donnie and Dale look at the writer, who approaches LaPorte, crouching next to him.

Do you need a bump, man?

LaPorte nods vigorously, says it’s by the bed. The writer snaps his fingers, tells Donnie to go inside and bring it out. Donnie hesitates, still smarting over the entire margarita affair, and Dale glares at him, mouthing the words hurry the fuck up, and he relents, then returns with a Mötley Crüe carnival mirror, a glass tube, a metal credit card, and a small mountain of white powder on top of it.

LaPorte starts carving up some rails.

Is that gonna be good? You can freebase, you know.

LaPorte shakes his head no, a strange look of guilt seeping over his face.

You sure? We can get some tinfoil. We can always get tinfoil. And a torch.

LaPorte mutters softly, indistinctly, a single tear streams down his cheek. He torques on the pile and inhales a truly impressive amount. Okay, he insists: he’s almost ready.

He just needs to know what his motivation is.

Your motivation is you don’t want to feel responsible for that fucking ugly bitch ending up face down in that pool, her skull shattered like a smashed melon from a couple .40 cal., because I will kill her if you keep fucking this up.

Okay. Okay. He’s ready.

And the performance he delivers is stunning. His words are issued in a subtly tremulous timbre, he is so believably remorseful, apologetic. He retracts his statement, every inconsiderate word. His guilt can be touched, just like those mea culpae videos of other celebrities appearing on morning talk shows or appealing directly to Instagram and YouTube audiences, to beg forgiveness for driving drunk and berating the police, or raping someone, or calling someone a nigger. He is wee Todd did…sofa king wee Todd did…and the pregnant pauses he injects into that line, not incidental, amateurish stumbles, but deliberate and richly emotive hesitations which communicate his humane fear of causing further insult and emotional wound as he wrestles both heart and mind to bring them into the perfect union needed to truly connect with others in utter, transparent honesty. He is brilliant. His grace is imbued with a rare humility. There is no difference between his performance and how he would act if he could actually ever feel this way. His love could be real.


They’ve nailed it in one. LaPorte breaks down in tears, shivering, asking if they want to turn around and do another, but they’ve already checked the gate, they have it in the can. It’s already being distributed to media in, uh, “hopes the terrorists will surrender now that their demands have been met”. His ex-wife drapes a beach towel over his shoulders, he glances at the pool, sees an image of her suspended in that pool, its water, its lights, and her blood conspiring in a garish purple blending seamlessly with the twilight, her head exploded into something which could be described only as “a rapidly widening, disintegrating swirl”; he shudders, stops thinking of it.

The writer and the agents leave.

Donnie, Dale, and the writer return to the scene of the crisis. The actors and the hostages are hurling themselves against the chained doors to try to break them open. Some have screamed their lungs raw and are coughing up blood. The corpses in the classroom are beginning to bloat, doughy skin reeking of yeast puffing out and spilling over waistbands and socks. The stench is unbearable. A visible panic stretches across the faces of every police officer securing the perimeter.

The writer and the agents check their dog-eared scripts, studded throughout with brightly colored Post-Its, looking for this scene, for how it’s supposed to end.

Okay, I think we need to talk to the prop manager, get these rappelling seats situated.

The writer summons a PA, who gets the stunt guy, and they start getting suited up. The firearms safety guys continue to pitch a fit about everyone bringing their own weapons, nobody being cleared safe, and the writer tells them to chill, that they’ll be getting a bonus. One guy says something about calling the union and the writer tosses him a nickel bag, winks. The cops are baffled.

They suit up, even the writer. The black body armor vests and ballistic helmets contrast almost ironically with the agents’ lemon-colored suits, velvet slip-ons with gold buckles, collars vast and pointy like batwings. They look like a fucking mambo band going to war, to say nothing of the writer, who now resembles John McEnroe as Rick Deckard by way of Black Hawk Down.

They descend on ropes from the ceiling of the pit class, smashing through the vinyl tiles, creating a cloud of dust so thick they might have to reshoot or at least CGI this in post. Donnie mag-dumps his suppressed MP5 on the way down his rope, hitting nothing but the wall, but it looks cool as fuck. At the very sudden apogee of his descent, he flips upside down in a stutter, then lands on his head, knocking himself out.

The writer, this being his first dynamic entry, whether in film, reality, or some admixture of the two, gets the glove on his belay hand snagged in his D-ring and is trapped on the rope about a foot from the ground. He tries to shoot the rope, to sever it, but somehow misses 35 times, disintegrating the parts of the ceiling they failed to destroy while rappelling through it.

Dale, however, has a glorious entry. After gliding down his rope like some sort of acrobat, he lands softly, soundlessly, on his feet, like a cat, and approaches the actors, who abandoned their roles days ago, as they cower on their knees, faces streaked with tears, hands up, reaching defensively toward the muzzle of Dale’s carbine, as if casting a spell on it, and he fires, every time, every time finding his mark, through their palms, into their faces. The same with the hostages, whose deaths will be attributed to these doomsday terrorists or collateral damage.

All the actors are dead.

The blinding klieg lights of the news cameras surround the agents and the writer, blotting out any reality more than five feet away; Dale’s on the phone, conference call with three Senators; yes, yes, he can have anything he needs; they are eternally grateful for his agency’s grit and sacrifice. A journalist who instantly notices dozens of consistency and continuity errors in both the script and the footage they’re presented is fired, his Twitter account deleted, everything he’s ever written scrubbed from the archives of everyone who’s ever employed him.

The writer and the agents are heroes.

The writer is now the director, not merely of this film, but of the intelligence agency he rescued. He has offices in Burbank and DC, though there is no longer much delineation between his two positions. He swings his feet up onto the desks in both offices, in both wearing comfortable suede slip-ons in seafoam green. His linen slacks are white, his guayabera matches his shoes. The straw hat poised on top of the coat rack has a black silk band and a clutch of small, exotic bird feathers stuck in the band; it smells strangely of a sweet tobacco. Thick orange sunlight blasts through the slats of his blinds as he leafs through a script regarding a presidential candidate, a foreign intelligence service, an underage girl drowned with a latex bondage mask and her own urine; he can’t decide whether it was an accident or not. He presses a button to speak to his secretary, to ask her to summon Donnie and Dale.


For all installments of “Emperors,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2