One afternoon, after a brutal graduate colloquium in which faculty behaved like spectators at a medieval bear baiting, I sat at a local bar with a friend. Each of us had realized that the reward for the PhDs we had spent years working toward was the prospect of turning into the humorless motherfuckers we had just spent the last two hours with.
“If you could be anyone else,” I asked, “who would you be?”
Her answer was specific. She named being the holder of a job that approximately eight other people in the United States held. I said I really just wanted to be a person who wrote for a living. We laughed at the fantasy of transporting ourselves into others’ bodies, others’ lives at right that moment—the “anywhere but here” plaint of the miserable.
Ten years later, I helped her celebrate when she earned the very job she’d named. These days, she’s famous, and I wonder if there isn’t someone, somewhere who wants to be her. That desire to be someone else is the premise of Amazon’s delightful new series, Sneaky Pete.
As Natalie Zemon Davis writes in her history The Return of Martin Guerre, nearly five centuries ago, in 1556, a bearded man returned home to the village he had left in 1548, at age 24. He had left behind his wife of 10 years and a 2-year old son. Now, having fulfilled his desire to see the world, Martin de Guerre came home and back to the bed of his wife, Bertrande.
For three years, their re-kindled marriage flourished, and during that time Bertrande gave birth to two daughters. But not everyone was thrilled at the return of Martin de Guerre. Martin’s father had died during his absence, and Martin’s uncle believed that this man was an imposter.
Uncle Pierre had Martin arrested.
At a dramatic moment in the proceedings, a one-legged man swung himself between crutches into court. As soon as Bertrande saw him, the truth was obvious: He was the real Martin Guerre, who had lost a leg to a canon shot in the wars in Spain. Bertrande immediately threw herself at his foot and begged his forgiveness for having taken an imposter into her bed. And the imposter, a man named Arnaud du Tilh, also known as “Pansette,” (the belly), was found guilty of “imposture and false supposition of name and person and of adultery.” Arnaud du Tilh was executed for the crime of “stealing a heritage.” And even though it’s clear that Bertrande must have known from the beginning that she had taken a stranger into her bed, cultural low expectations for women worked in her favor. The court ruled that Bertrande had acted in “good faith because women are fragile.”
But the question is, is the return of Martin Guerre a tragedy? And if it is, for whom? In reading the story, it is clear that Arnaud treats Bertrande much better than Martin ever did. By all accounts, Martin was a crappy husband.
Arnaud du Tilh had assumed Martin’s identity after listening to his stories while they served together in Spain. Arnaud may have recognized that Martin had left behind a charming life in a small village with a clever, beautiful wife. Arnaud did his homework, spending years gathering information to pull off the ruse. Bertrande must have coached Arnaud privately so that he would know the intimate details of their relationship when in the bosom of the family.
In contemporaries’ telling of the story, Arnaud du Tilh was the man who was to be admired and envied, but he also served as a warning to men that they should treat their wives gently, lest they be replaced by a better man.
For those of us who binge-watched Sneaky Pete, the emotional parallels with Martin de Guerre resonate. (Amazon has already renewed the series for a second season.) The real Pete is the cellmate of Marius, played by Giovanni Ribisi. Marius is a conman who, in a moment of tragicomic brilliance, fakes a bank robbery (albeit with a real gun and by scaring the bank customers) in order to avoid being killed by his pursuers. These include Vince (series co-creator Bryan Cranston), an ex-cop turned gambling-den owner, who has already killed Marius’s long-time partner, Charlie, and chases Marius in order to kill him—and to get back the $100,000 Marius stole from him while setting up a long con.
Three years after his fake bank robbery, Marius is released. Having spent those years listening to Pete’s non-stop stories of his long-lost family, from whom his mother took him away 20 years prior and who Pete believes are in “bonds,” Marius assumes Pete’s identity and goes off to reunite himself with the rich Connecticut bond merchants who haven’t seen “Cousin Pete” since he was a child.
Marius/Pete discovers that his new family are not bond merchants at all. They’re bail bondsmen, and in a series of reveals, Marius/Pete discovers that in this family, even Grandma—played by the actress who has exhausted my vocabulary of superlatives, Margo Martindale—are as bent as butchers’ hooks. In fact, they need Marius/Pete’s cons to get them out of their own cons.
And, just as the initial misunderstanding that lands Marius/Pete in a rundown bail bond office turns on the word “bond,” much of Sneaky Pete’s humor is based on the interplay between truth and fiction, what is real and what is fantasy, and the gradual understanding of what constitutes “family.” Sneaky Pete’s revelations are unlikely to earn commendation from the Family Research Council for wholesome family entertainment, but for those of us who understand that families comprise people who love each in whatever structure works for them, it’s the ultimate show about family.
Sneaky Pete is ostensibly a show about the complications that ensue when a person assumes someone else’s identity. While commercials worn us nightly to watch out for “identity theft,” the assumption of our Social Security number or the stealing of our credit cards is not the assumption by someone else of who we really are. That’s simply stealing our financial identity. Marius assumes Pete’s life, but because the real Pete has had no contact with his family in 20 years, no relationship exists. There are memories, which are the shadows of the prior relationships, but from the moment Marius shows up as Pete, he begins to create a new person who is creating new memories with Pete’s family that the “real” Pete has no access to.
Though the pressure Vince puts on Marius to return the money drives much of the action, the real source of tension in Sneaky Pete is the possibility that Marius will lose the love and happiness he finds among the band of misfits into which he’s inserted himself. The writers create an unbearable dilemma for Marius: Does he risk exposing his identity to his new family in order to save his real brother, Eddie (Michael Drayer), who is being held hostage by Vince? Or does he allow Eddie to be victimized by Vince so that he may hold onto the happiness that he’s found?
The writers make clear that money, which is the basis of identity theft in current American life, is practically inconsequential. While there are dire consequences for not having money—and all of the money issues are the consequences of a character’s desire to get rich quick—the ethos of Sneaky Pete is that it’s not about the money. It’s about changing your character to become the person you wish to become.
We dream of being someone else because, from time to time, the last thing we want to be is ourselves. Assuming someone else’s identity is akin to teleportation, allowing us to get ourselves out of the mess that we’ve made. And if we could do it without hurting someone else, why not?
After all, in Sneaky Pete, it’s hard to determine who is being harmed by Marius’s deception. The real Pete is in jail and hasn’t had contact with his family in 20 years. Marius is, for the first time in his life, making other people happy. Stepping into Pete’s life pushes him to realize that he can change. He doesn’t have to be the con man who hurts people all the time.
Just as Arnaud du Tilh assumed Martin de Guerre’s identity because he wanted the family life that Martin had rejected, ultimately, Marius wants Pete’s identity not because it’s going to bring him financial nirvana, but because it’s going to release him from being Marius—who doesn’t care about anyone else—to become Pete, who is at the center of a loving family.
Marius may have assumed Pete’s identity, but he’s still Marius. Just a better Marius.
Sneaky Pete is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Lorraine Berry left academia and now lives near the beach in Florida. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, LitHub, Vox, and other outlets. Follow her on Twitter @BerryFLW.