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Did We Really Need to Say Goodbye to This 'Mission: Impossible' Character?

By Sara Clements | Film | July 14, 2023 |

By Sara Clements | Film | July 14, 2023 |


Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to read the spoilers below for Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One.

One of the most memorable sequences in the Mission: Impossible franchise belongs to Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). In Rogue Nation, the beautiful and deadly assassin draped in a gold dress walks up the steps of a Viennese opera house. She brandishes a sniper rifle in one scene and climbs atop a man, wrapping her legs around his neck and twisting him to the ground, in another. The opera scene is not only a terrific action sequence, but it’s also the moment that the audience falls in love with her character. Incredibly strong-willed, an expert marksman and martial artist, no one is a match for her, even Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). As she and Ethan make their escape from the opera house, she orders him to remove her heels before descending via rope. This was a way to signal that the franchise would no longer be a one-man show. In fact, Ilsa stole the show from him.

There have been many female characters in the franchise before, but Ilsa is the first to be a central, recurring one and also a character that’s treated equally to Ethan. Acting as a potential love interest, the audience gets to see their bond change and grow through her three appearances. However, her future with Ethan and her own role in the franchise comes to a shocking end in Dead Reckoning Part One when she dies after being stabbed in the chest by the film’s antagonist, Gabriel (Esai Morales).

Did Ilsa have to die? According to the film: Yes. To explain the plot, as our own Lindsay Traves’ did marvelously in her review, the real enemy in Dead Reckoning is artificial intelligence - and it calls the shots. Bending and manipulating humanity to its will, this out-of-control sentient AI called “The Entity” predicts how this mission will go. One of its predictions involves the death of someone close to Ethan, specifically a woman in his life. This means either Grace (Hayley Atwell) or Ilsa has to die. Now, Grace is a new character to the franchise here — a criminal roped into stopping the AI — so killing her would mean a pointless introduction. But killing Ilsa, with all her history with Ethan, means that the AI would see Ethan on a mission controlled by his heart and not his mind. As Ethan wants to destroy “The Entity,” it decides the best way to get to him is for someone close to him to die, so he will only seek revenge and no longer the end goal of the mission he chose to accept.

Ilsa’s death ups the stakes and does make some sense. But if someone close to Ethan had to die, couldn’t it have been Benji (Simon Pegg)? Luther (Ving Rhames)? Both have been in Ethan’s life for much longer than she has. However, no death wouldn’t have changed the film’s outcome. So, was it necessary, truly?

I’m not saying that characters shouldn’t die in these movies. Sometimes, death makes sense and is warranted. But here, the way her character is underwritten and Ethan’s past is introduced makes Ilsa’s death sting even more. Both Ilsa and Ferguson don’t receive the proper sendoff they deserve. Ferguson does get some action scenes, including a fight using a sword in Ilsa’s final moments, but otherwise, she’s either not there or she’s just sitting around delivering maybe a handful of lines. At the end of Fallout, the whole team is together. At the beginning of Dead Reckoning, Ilsa’s off on her own collecting the pieces of a key that would stop the AI. But how does she know what she needs to look for and what its significance is? The narrative falls apart a bit here. It doesn’t even make sense that she would leave the team. She also has a hefty bounty on her head, which sees her fake her own death in the film’s first half. Because of this, her coming back to life in Part Two would appear nonsensical.

Ilsa also seems to be playing into a pattern that has plagued Ethan’s life even before he joined the Impossible Mission Force. In a flashback (new for this film), a young Gabriel is seen killing a woman Ethan loves, which sets him on his path to joining the IMF and essentially becoming the man he is now. Gabriel killing Ilsa is not only the continuation of a pattern but highlights how many films like to use women dying as a tool to propel a male character’s story forward.

So, did Ilsa really have to die? No, her death wasn’t necessary for the mission to be complete. For example, the AI’s manipulation of Ethan’s emotions by putting all his friends in danger would have led him to the same place: In hand-to-hand combat with Gabriel at the top of a speeding train. It’s almost like, with the setup of Grace, the writers couldn’t figure out how Ilsa can exist with another woman in the room. Ultimately, it feels like Ilsa was tossed aside for the latest model. Atwell is co-lead with Cruise here (which is fantastic and Atwell kills it), and at the end of the film, Grace is recruited into the IMF. This hints that she will play a significant part in future films, but if what happened to Ilsa is any indication, Grace’s fate is sealed thanks to a disappointing pattern for the franchise.