The end of this essay contains spoilers for No Time To Die (2021). Please read at your own risk.
Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) struts down the aisle of a train at the 58:11 mark of 2006’s Casino Royale. By 58:14, everyone watching her — cold, closed-off 007 (Daniel Craig) included — has fallen in love with her, and she’s only said three words: “I’m the money.”
People smarter than me and infinitely more invested in the role of women in the Bond franchise may debate Vesper’s place as the “best Bond girl,” and who am I to argue, really? My pre-Craig Bond knowledge is nonexistent outside of one Brosnan outing (and that one I only watched for Toby Stephens’s homoerotic lip curl). I don’t anticipate filling in the blanks because, frankly, 50 years of Bond has always sounded exhausting and I have a 2 1/2-year-old now, so the likelihood of catching up at this point is basically none. But I can tell you this: I never would have cared about James Bond had it not been for Vesper’s electrifying presence in Casino Royale. Vesper was the one who pulled me into Bond the franchise, not Bond the man.
The ghost of Vesper Lynd haunts man and franchise both, just as she haunts me. As Adele once wailed about a relationship with a tragically premature ending: We could have had it all.
Looking back, it’s so clear that the first act of Casino Royale treads water until Vesper arrives. So much time is dedicated to establishing the character of Craig’s Bond to distinguish him from previous iterations. Too much time, arguably, when all we need to know are three simple facts. Bond has been newly promoted to 00 status within MI6, he plays by his own rules, and he is ruled by his own emotions more than he would like to admit. Dispassion comes easily to him in his line of work but only up to a certain point. Killing people is nothing. The human cost is something else.
When faced with the latter, simmering rage taints his actions with impulsivity yet also amplifies his efficacy as an assassin. Passion makes Bond deadlier, which begs the question: When M (Judi Dench) cautions him not to let his emotions cloud his judgment after his actions cause the death of an innocent woman he recently seduced for information, does she really mean it? Or is she manipulating Bond in ways that will come back to haunt her later in Skyfall, urging him to shut down because she knows it’s his emotions and not the lack of them that makes his judgment too clear?
It seems almost too convenient that Vesper’s introduction comes in the scene directly after M’s warning. From the moment Vesper sits across from Bond, you know – he knows – we know that this woman is different. Green’s smoky voice and smokier eyes are the least of her appeal, though paired with a visage so sharply cut from marble that it is rivaled only by that of co-star Mads Mikkelsen, they’re not nothing, either. Rather, the qualities that draw us in are her quick wit and the murky depths her wit conceals.
Vesper barely has to look at Bond before she sizes him up with devastating accuracy — metaphorically and literally, as he discovers later. Vesper allows Bond to teach her about poker on the train, letting Bond believe that she, a grown woman and an accountant with Her Majesty’s Royal Treasury, has never heard of one of the most common forms of gambling in the world. (It is worth noting that both Bond and the writers of Casino Royale cutely believe that Vesper could be so unworldly; Green wisely never plays her that way.) Vesper says, with perfect sincerity, “I like this bluffing thing.” And Bond has no idea, no idea, that from the moment they locked eyes, she has been doing exactly what he just described to her. Not playing the cards, but playing the man across the table. Bluffing within an inch of her life.
Of all the spies in this movie, she’s the best of them. Bond never stood a chance.
Is it Bond’s ego that sets the trap, or is Vesper just that good at fooling him? Two things can be true. These two people in particular are a perfect match for each other, even if the match ultimately isn’t made to last. Bond’s ego blinds him to Vesper’s secrets, if only because he mistakenly assumes her secrets have no relevance to the mission to reposition the villainous banker Le Chiffre (Mikkelsen) as a British ally. Meanwhile, Vesper’s unwillingness to simply go along with whatever Bond says acts not only as a hook for his growing interest in her but also as a smokescreen for her true motives.
If Bond were a worse spy, he’d be too distracted by trying to solve the mystery that is Vesper Lynd to accomplish his mission. Instead, he casually notes everyone has a tell (an involuntary reaction that reveals a poker player is bluffing) except for her, and he moves on. Bond’s personal intrigue into Vesper’s character never overshadows the international intrigue, which is only natural. He’s very good at his job, after all. But not great. He’s new, remember? This Bond isn’t quite great yet.
Great spies are heartless. The constant danger, the killing in the name of Queen and Country, the lack of meaningful connection to other human beings is supposed to keep spies heartless because that is the only way they remain assets to the establishments who need invisible men and women (dare we call them specters?) to do their dirty work for them. But in the midst of the danger and the killing, connection slips in through the cracks and revives what’s left of Bond’s heart.
It is Bond’s job to participate in the danger and Vesper’s to observe; those lines are not meant to be crossed. Bad timing and an obvious earpiece put Vesper in the middle of violence with Bond, and although Bond is the one who kills two of Le Chiffre’s dissatisfied terrorist customers to protect both himself and Vesper, her participation in the murders unmoors her. Necessity requires Bond to return to the poker game as if nothing happened, but for all her ability to hide herself from Bond, she can’t shake the new reality of her perilous game. Bond finds her in the shower, presumably hours later, still in jewels, purple gown soaked, curled in on herself, shivering, staring at something only she can see. He says nothing. He joins her. He puts his arm around her. He switches the water from cold to warm, and he holds her simply because she needs to be held.
Bond is at his best here in the shower scene of Casino Royale. Not when he’s chasing airplanes or staring down a man who weeps blood, but here, when Vesper brings out a side of him that either never existed before, or was supposed to be long dead and buried. In giving him a reason to remember that he is a man and not just a killing machine, Vesper changed Bond forever. When he fell in love with her, he gained a heart and gave it away in the same instant. He perhaps doesn’t realize this until Le Chiffre’s desperation after losing the poker game prompts him to stage a kidnapping of Vesper (the staged part is, of course, unknown to Bond) in order to abduct and torture the secret agent who orchestrated his downfall. Bond’s own feelings for Vesper only become known to him when the unthinkable happens and he gets so close to breaking, not from Le Chiffre’s extremely ballsy method of torture (I’m so sorry) but from the sound of Vesper’s screams in another room.
Those screams save Bond, in a way. The emotions they awaken in him bring clarity he previously lacked. By the time Le Chiffre is dead and they’ve been rescued, Bond already suspected Vesper was a woman he can never truly know. As he recuperates, though, he accepts this fact about her and accepts that he loves her anyway. What could be less like a spy, whose very existence depends on discovering every last one of any given person’s secrets? It’s a failure on a molecular level of who he is supposed to be, but that failure sets him free from the isolated life his cold past and colder surrogate mother figure (both to be explored later in Skyfall) have groomed him to believe is the only life for which he is suited. Bond exchanges that life for something even riskier than secret missions and extrajudicial assassinations: a simple life. A future with the woman he can never understand, the woman he loves.
The guilt weighs heavily on Vesper, the reason for her tears at Bond’s revelation of her name being the password for the transfer of his poker winnings knowable only after the rest of the movie unfolds. But she never wavers. Despite a fate she can’t escape, she steals as much time as she possibly can with the man she loves. She steals it with all the life she has left, making the most of every moment with Bond before her past catches up with the both of them.
It was never Vesper’s intention to fall in love with Bond. To conceal her true objectives from him was vital, of course, but never in the methods of the stereotypical female double agent (think Elsa from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). She did not actively seduce Bond — if anything, she actively tried not to, both to protect herself and keep her inevitable betrayal as clean as possible. Just as Bond could not have predicted Vesper cracking his icy shell, she could not have predicted finding in him a man better than the one who embroiled her in all this chaos and gave her a necklace she can’t bring herself to remove until her final day of life. “It was time,” she says. But it was always too late.
In the tradition of one-and-done dames, Casino Royale had to end with Vesper’s corpse. A foregone conclusion, as clumsy as it is regressive. Vesper’s betrayal and death were weapons of screenwriting designed to leave Craig’s Bond a more broken man at the end than he was at the beginning, an aggravatingly familiar trope set in stone before the shepherds of this more modern and serious Bond reboot knew what they had both in Green and in the character of Vesper Lynd herself. By the time they did know, it was too late to take it back.
As a sequel to Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace was doomed from the start. In the midst of all its production woes, it had the impossible task of reckoning with Vesper’s actions. For expediency’s sake, it tackles the issue merely as a plot device rather than a real exploration of Vesper’s character and motivations. The result is unsatisfying for both the audience and for Bond, embittering him unnecessarily and freezing his character development in place. Quantum of Solace does not, in fact, provide solace. For anyone. The unfinished business and wasted potential of Vesper hangs over the rest of the Craig era, a ghost too vibrant and consumed with unfinished business to fade away quietly into the night.
With the benefit of hindsight, one can imagine a different trajectory for Craig’s Bond movies if only Vesper had not sacrificed herself for such lofty pointlessness. If she, alive and whole in a more compelling sequel to Casino Royale, had been able to tell Bond herself why she betrayed him. At the end of that movie, she could have been Bond’s ally again after redeeming herself for her duplicitous role in the Le Chiffre affair. Or, in the opposite direction, she could also have become Bond’s nemesis, his very own Irene Adler — the woman he can never conquer, never predict and never love any less for it. Skyfall is very nearly an untouchable masterpiece, but imagine a version of it where Vesper guides Silva’s hand to hit Bond where he’ll hurt the most. Imagine Spectre with Vesper at the center of the conspiracy instead of a botched Blofeld. Imagine a No Time To Die where Bond sacrifices himself to save a daughter with his eyes and Vesper’s smile. Whether Bond’s beloved or Bond’s ultimate foe, either option is better than dead.
But Vesper Lynd is dead. Three out of the four movies that follow her death are totally crippled by it; Skyfall survives simply because it’s the one film not directly or indirectly about her or the repercussions of her death on Bond’s psyche. Bond the man and Bond the franchise simply never recovered from allowing Vesper Lynd to die.
What else is there to say? At least now, after all this time, she and James are finally together again. RIP to the best there ever was.