Portrayed by: Aaron Tveit
Show: USA’s Graceland
So few show cancellations stir as much rage in this writer as Graceland’s does because it means that we never got to see worthy characters find a modicum of solace to breathe after the iniquity of traumas they endured. And one of those characters is Aaron Tveit’s Mike Warren—the one whose arc went from A to Z so quickly, whiplash doesn’t even begin to summarize what it did for viewers. (Or, at least, for this viewer.) When you walk into a show like Graceland, you expect drama and pain, but I’ve yet to wrap my head around where the series chooses to go mid-way in Season 2. And a large chunk of the occurrences isn’t about what happens but how poorly executed the narratives are.
Still, this isn’t a critique of the show as much as it is a celebration of a character. Mike Warren was good and kind and so innately warm that when the series pushes him over the edge, he never once loses the light he’s bursting with on the plane ride to Los Angeles. Mike’s actions and, by extension, Aaron Tveit’s performances throughout the series showcase what it means to take advantage of innocence and the perils that come from a job that requires far too much. He enters a world full of jaded, apathetic people and tries his best to survive while keeping his morals unchanged. If there were ever to be a crossover with The Good Place, Mike Warren, like Charlie DeMarco, Joe “Johnny” Tuturro, and Dale Jakes, would likely end up there.
Mike Warren and The Valleys of Darkness
In more ways than one, Mike Warren is introduced to us as a blue-collar golden boy. You have to wonder about whether or not the character would’ve been as layered in the hands of a lesser-skilled actor. He doesn’t have too many complexities when we first meet him. He’s following in his grandfather’s footsteps, and he’s cheery. All the time. And in truth, it’s not a bad thing. I, for one, adore cinnamon roles, who are too good for this world, but I can understand why the series needed to flesh him out more from the first few episodes he’s introduced to us.
Conflict and complexities make characters richer; thereby, when someone as good as Mike Warren is set up to lie and deceit the people trusting him to investigate the person he’s working with, it forces him to continue looking inward about who he wants to become. Investigating Dave Briggs thus moved Mike into territories where he needed to understand the flaws behind his chosen career. He wanted a desk job, but instead, he was thrust into a battleground that deliberately allowed him to see that this position isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. There is corruption everywhere, and there’s especially corruption in the FBI, DEA, and Customs. Yes, they’re doing good, but they’re also part of the problem, operating in a system that’s designed to fail them.
While the premise of Graceland was always enamoring, it’d be riveting to see what writers could’ve done with today’s standards. How would they push Mike over the edge, and how would they deal with the ongoing abuse throughout the show’s run? Would they still try to redeem Briggs and, later, Paige? Would they still gloss over prominent storylines? We’ll never know. But what we do know is that though Mike Warren is tirelessly put through the wringer, he comes out with more heart than ever.
In truth, despite his kindness, Mike never needed to face the amount of trauma he did to come out “stronger.” Writers fixated too much on this narrative back in the days to diminish the strength in kindness, and while it was vital for him to see the flaws within the system, it was never imperative that he experience as much pain as he does.
And the valley of the shadow of death that Mike Warren crosses through is still appalling to think of today. For starters, he’s a pawn for every joke in the first season, which we could dismiss as humorous sometimes, but when the manipulation begins, the darkness becomes too much to discharge. There was no justifiable reason for him to burn Lina’s body and endure the trauma brought on by his actions solely to make Paige happy and then retaliate against him. There was no justifiable reason to have him clinically die for a few minutes only to bring him back and have his visions mocked by the person who got him “killed” in the first place. There was no justifiable reason for one crime after another to be as viciously brutal on his psyche without anyone else understanding the perils he’s crossing through.
Investigating Briggs was a thoughtful, carefully executed plot point that highlighted enough while allowing Mike to grow as an agent. But almost everything that happens in Season 2 felt like an unremarkable need to torture a character just because the actor was good at playing with every emotion. And that’s the thing, Tveit was always, always excellent in embodying the role, but it never meant that we should have to endure watching the character suffer without any repercussions for the people hurting him.
What Happens After Survival?
In every way, Mike Warren is a victim of abuse. There were moments while watching Graceland where I thought maybe, just maybe, Paige would understand the ramifications of her manipulation, but that day never came. And while I’m all for forgiveness, even if it’s fictional, it cannot be granted when it’s not earned. And with every mocking sentiment and every physical shove, Paige Arkin was part of the problem. If the roles were reversed, Mike would’ve been ostracized. But the truth of what he endures also comes down to the fact that the series didn’t have a concrete path for where it wanted to go.
We watched one train wreck after another with people trying to move forward and being pushed to the curb instead. It was too much at times. But amid everything he faced and how drastically he changed from the first season, Mike Warren never losing his light was an explicit showcase of his strength. He chose to believe in the idea that people could be redeemed and forgiven. He decided to believe in the notion that mistakes shouldn’t represent someone. There’s a period where Mike’s rank in D.C. gets to his head, but it’s still a sign of bettering himself than anything else.
Mike Warren is a perfectionist in every way, and in truth, sometimes people really, really need to me others halfway. Mike was always three steps ahead of everyone else, and instead of trying to understand him, they mocked him. Additionally, there’s a deleted scene in the DVDs that revealed Mike was diagnosed with ADHD as a kid. And if we look into these details along with how the character was treated on the show, it makes it far worse. While I cannot speak on behalf of everyone, I can talk about all the people I’ve met who are just like Mike, myself included. We don’t do things in halves. We give and give until there’s nothing left, and we’re left still searching for something to offer and reach for. Through every innocent life lost and every case that went off the rails because no one else pulled as much weight as he did, Mike lost pieces of himself in a type of darkness from which he didn’t know how to come out.
Still, despite all the pain he endured and the addiction, Mike consistently worked hard to ensure he was doing the right thing, even when he lost sight of what that right thing was. When all his pieces were dispersed, he looked towards every crevice to find more. There’s so much about Mike and his doe-eyed gaze that merits respect. To sum it all up would require more pages and more words. But with every obstacle, he fought with everything in him. He asked for help when he needed it and took two steps forward when all that people asked from him was one. He never wanted to lie to anyone. He never wanted to believe that someone could be worse than what they showed him. He never wanted to be anything but respected for the efforts he was putting in. He was intelligent and capable in more ways than one, but Mike’s heart always put him on top. It was the moments where he’d run to hug Johnny because he thought he was dead or the quiet beats when he continued to check in on Charlie every time he felt something was off. Ultimately, he wanted to fit in and belong while itching to get out. It was his immense capacity to forgive even when people didn’t deserve it and the innate desire to know the stories people wanted to tell because he understood that it was pieces of them he wanted to know.
Mike Warren’s vulnerabilities and ambitions made him the endearing character he was. He was all heart and warmth every time he came on screen, which made watching him suffer much more heartbreaking. It would’ve been tough regardless, but there was something about how the series continuously broke him during its run. He deserved better in every way. He deserved the world.