The Protector: Reflections on Seasons 1-3
Throughout the three seasons of the first Turkish original from Netflix, the audience has been witness to the adventures of Hakan Demir, who goes from being an ambitious but luckless young man to an unlikely hero who suddenly discovers his lineage linked to an ancient order tasked with being the Muhafiz ( The Protector ) of Istanbul. With a ring, a dagger and a talismanic shirt all of which have special powers, he is bestowed with the responsibility of keeping the city safe from the shenanigans of the Immortals, another ancient order who thrive on wreaking havoc on humankind. He is helped by the Loyal Ones, who are mortal human beings tasked with protecting his life at all costs. With training from Zeynep, one of the leaders in his army, he must become a worthy warrior within a short period of time, as the threat of a reprisal of the full set of Seven Immortals looms large.
Hakan & Zeynep
As part of a superhero fantasy genre, if you are looking for a formulaic story of a superhero who ends each episode with yet another successful escapade, you will be disappointed. The Protector is far more about Hakan’s journey of becoming the Protector than it is about being one. We see Hakan struggle with loss after loss, ranging from plot devices that push him to rise up to the role of the Muhafiz to bungled plans that test his emotional intelligence and leadership skills. And through each loss, we see him come out stronger on the other side, having learnt from his mistakes and grief.
This process of exposing a character, during both his moments of weakness and glory, is a trait in Turkish drama that its fans love. The actors must express a range of emotions as they strive for the higher moral ground while their passage to the epic love interest is usually fraught with obstacles to be overcome. Cagatay Ulusoy as Hakan and Hazar Erguclu as Zeynep, the head of the Loyal Ones, portray this journey with a sensitivity that is rightfully expected of such committed, experienced young actors.
Unlike the typical monogamous protagonists of Turkish drama, we see a promiscuous Hakan who falls in love with women who are precariously close to or within the world of the Immortals. Time and again, he faces away from the love of Zeynep, a worthy partner in crime. This is despite several clues in the series that suggest that the Protector always marries a Loyal One, as they can fully appreciate the Protector’s moral duty. It is also next to a beloved Loyal One that the Protector can recharge his lost powers. However, as the Oracle tells Zeynep in her customary cryptic words, the relationship between the Protector and the Loyal One can be as powerful as it can be dangerous. Which may be why we keep seeing Hakan and Zeynep weave in and out of a hint of a relationship.
“The Protector and the Immortals attract each other, like opposite ends of a magnet”. This prophetic statement was made by Professor Kemal in The Protector’s first season. This was reinforced through few other scenarios until the end of Season 3. Whether the pull of the universe or other unexplained physics, in Season 1 we see Hakan fall desperately in love with Leyla, who turns out to be a personal assistant to the lone surviving Immortal Faysal. Throughout his passionate trysts with Leyla, we also see that it is the sassy, skilled fighter Zeynep who comes to Hakan’s rescue repeatedly, being there as the only rock he can lean on, learn from and fully trust. In the middle of Season 2, under the control of Immortals, Leyla becomes a threat to Hakan’s life and it is Zeynep who saves him at the last minute.
Hakan & Leyla
At the beginning of Season 3, as Zeynep recovers from a gunshot wound with the hope of living her love with Hakan, the Oracle tells her that Zeynep will cause her love to die. This shakes Zeynep to her core. Her life’s mission is to protect Hakan, and her mind and body is trained for that. She also fell in love with Hakan from the first time she met him, and it wasn’t because she was enamored with being in love with the Muhafiz. Her inner conflict arising from the knowledge that she might cause Hakan’s death pushes her to what she knows to do. Put on a mask of indifference and walk away from Hakan so that they can both pretend what they had shared was nothing akin to love.
Hakan & Zeynep relationship
Zeynep is no stranger to an adult relationship with a male partner. She has enjoyed an active sexual life, and does not cower to any male figure, either in the bedroom or elsewhere. For both Zeynep and Hakan, their attraction towards each other is not only the shared mission of saving Istanbul at any cost, but also a natural comfort in kindred spirits who are equals in many ways. Both have suffered deep loss and they both see past the other’s bravado to understand the wounded souls underneath. It seems they each fear the other’s loss, and the pain of unrequited love pushes them harder to keep the world’s balance in place.
Despite their soul connection, Hakan’s willingness to accept Zeynep’s departure might lie in something Faysal had said in Season 1. Through the centuries, Faysal has encountered other Protectors from Hakan’s ancestral line but claims that Hakan is a standout. He suggests that Hakan draws even more power from his pain and perhaps his pain of losing Zeynep as well makes him the sharpest warrior he has ever been.
Hakan and Zeynep put this to test when Hakan has to make a choice between saving Istanbul or Zeynep. With all the training Zeynep herself had given Hakan, he makes a painful but conscious choice to save Istanbul. Presented innocuously, it was a pivotal moment in their relationship; his choice and her acceptance of the inevitability of Istanbul being the priority.
VC: @hasanuneronline / twitter
Istanbul or Zeynep
When Zeynep walks away from Hakan, citing a frivolous reason about it not being the right time, he is deeply hurt and feels abandoned at his greatest time of need. It is during this void that Hakan gets closer to Nisan, who eventually reveals herself as the Vizier, the most powerful of the Immortals. She plays with his emotions, psyche and trust throughout Season 3 and only discloses her identity after they share a passionate night of love during which she gets from him the missing piece of a key she had been searching for. Once again, Hakan gravitates towards an Immortal when Zeynep is on the sidelines and it seems that with the added power from his pain comes the cost of clouded judgments with his love.
In Season 3, as he comes into his own without having Zeynep as a crutch, Hakan is clever with his ploys and gains clarity on how to confront the Vizier. It is Hakan who understands the Oracle’s words that he needs to die and then be revived so that his powers may be restored. Zeynep, who has been looking for signs of causing her love to die, finds validation in the death of Ruya and near death of Burak, both of whom she had come to love. She fails to understand that the Oracle’s vision did come true when she was the one who smothered Hakan to death before he was revived again.
The season ends with the Vizier being at her most powerful, having opened the inter-galactic portal to allow in an army of Immortals to join the converted humans she has amassed on earth, with Zeynep a victim among them. We learn that Vizier had been in love with Harun, Hakan’s first ancestor that we are introduced to through Hakan’s drug induced flashbacks. She was also the first Immortal killed by Harun in the 15th century. Her current thirst for vengeance is driven by her sense of betrayal by Harun, to whom she had given her most powerful asset – the key to her world. This woman scorned will not stop at anything. The cliffhanger scene for the latest season shows Hakan understanding the Vizier’s motivations, taking possession of the key to close the portal while human immortals flood Istanbul, and traveling back in time to appear in the body of Harun, who is in a loving relationship with Nisan/ Vizier during a period where Harun was yet to receive the powerful talismanic items to fight the Immortals.
In addition to Hakan’s journey, that is impressively portrayed by Cagatay in a multi-dimensional performance, The Protector also explores or suggests several recurring themes from our daily lives. It tests loyalties and motivations, human fallacies that present themselves as a cancer to humanity, philosophizes about the true meaning of life and love, the value of the age-old quest for immortality, and more. The story, which is based on a book trilogy called Karakalem written by N. Ipek Gokdel, stays true to some of these introspective and thematic innuendos also made in the books.
The production value of The Protector has improved with time. Seasons 1 & 2 were shot concurrently and shares a certain aesthetic value. Seasons 3 & 4 were shot concurrently, and is significantly enriched with special effects and visual details, including more elaborate set designs, that I expect to continue into Season 4.
Special effects by the team at 1000Volts Production
The uncanny timing of Season 3, that opens with Istanbul’s struggles against a deadly virus released by the Immortals, is an eerie parallel to what we are experiencing during the global pandemic with COVID-19. The military grade responses, sense of desperation, opportunists and even a hoard of toilet paper in a short scene made me wonder if life imitates art or art was life all along.
Director Umut Aral has a special gift for showcasing Istanbul at its worst and its best, with the scenography spanning from the ghettos of the city to the magnificence of its ancient structures, cultures and landscape. Cagatay physically transformed between the earlier seasons and the later installment, looking much more buff and mature. The only reason it doesn’t seem too incongruous is because his character has also evolved in maturity.
The other sidebar is the congregation of several of the cast members from Medcezir, one of Cagatay’s most internationally successful past projects. The trio of Cagatay, Taner & Hazar seems a nod to the fans, especially the mocking, fun relationship Burak and Zeynep shares with aplomb. Instead of being quirky Mert’s “butterfly”, the ditsy Eylul transforms into tough-as-nails Zeynep who is Burak’s “bookworm”. With a few other such details, this was a kind gesture from the production team for the fans who were eagerly awaiting the revival of this trio in a major production.
The famous trio from Medcezir & The Protector days
Based on the narrative thus far, and with knowledge that there will certainly be a Season 4 that is in post-production, I predict Season 4 will be about understanding the development of the Harun/ Vizier relationship and how he was able to kill her without a sense of remorse, whether it is Harun who kills her or Hakan as Harun and how that will keep history from repeating itself or how that makes him the most powerful of the Protectors. This time he may have to do it all without Zeynep by his side for much of the tumultuous journey. Having said that, I hope we will also witness the glorious path that Hakan takes towards his true beloved Zeynep, with both finally being able to embrace each other without needing to sacrifice their love any longer. With no assurances for further seasons, one assumes Season 4 will need to end on a note that provides a complete story for The Protector, and fans cannot wait.
I end with a video by Cagatay Ulusoy North America, that I feel captures the essence of the love between ZeyKan (as fans lovingly refer to Hakan/ Zeynep). I can only hope that theirs become a love story for the ages.
(c) mh/ @entrespire , twitter
Special thanks to Instagram accounts: @_ulusoyiistt @culusoy_fanclub @team.cagatayulusoy.arg @sweetangel_bia @cagataynorthamerica for helping to source visual assets and ideas for this piece.
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