Wednesday 29 August 2012

Lessons from Television: Borderline Nihilism and Boardwalk Empire

Every good story has a message, if not a moral. An underlying idea that permeates the text, giving meaning to the narrative. Shape. It can be touchy-feely banal ('Love conquers all'), or cutthroat cynical (Chinatown's 'Being rich lets you get away with murder'). 

Happiness writes white on a page, so entertainment delves deep into dysfunction. Yet underneath the surface struggle there's still that little meme nugget, the driving message. It can offer light at the end of the tunnel.

So what's the message of shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, True Detective, and Boardwalk Empire? What meaning are they peddling?

HBO's The Wire, one of the most difficult and rewarding shows ever shot, depicts institutions being as flawed as the basket case humans that created them. Good work gets done only by persevering through absurdity and infuriating dysfunction. Most politicians are inveterate, venal liars, cops careerists more concerned with making their statistics look good than actual policing, and criminals are just businessmen out to make a buck in a difficult world. Selfishness both holds them back and propels them forward, abliet by the smallest of increments, when interests overlap. It's civilization through baby steps. A million mile walk on your knees, sans knee pads.

Even the motivations of the protagonist, ornery cop Jimmy NcNulty (the fabulous Dominic West) are laid bare as being utterly selfish. He fights crime to gratify his ego. Prove he's better, smarter, than the crooks. It's a profoundly libertarian view. You'd think the show was written by Milton Friedman. In The Wire, government provides solutions only when wrapped in massive amounts of waste and incompetence. The best person to look out for you is... you. 

Creator David Simon has described it as an angry show: "The Wire is making an argument about what institutions -- bureaucracies, criminal enterprises, the cultures of addiction, raw capitalism even -- do to individuals."  It's not a show that puts corporations or big government in a positive light. Still, and this is key, Simon leaves the door open for hope. Institutions are not entirely irredeemable. The problem is more one of inefficiency, cross purposes, and ineptness than outright malevolence.

It's nowhere near as angry or dark as Boardwalk Empire.

Empire, another HBO original, goes farther, painting a mercilessly negative picture of American society and culture, a nihilistic canvas of corruption and murder. Steve Buscemi plays Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, the corrupt treasurer of Atlantic County, based on real life political boss and racketeer Enoch L. Johnson. Affable ol' Nucky and his scheming political peers are either on the take or outright criminals. Elections are rigged. Political offices for sale. Prohibition is exposed as a tragic, well meant joke that facilitates the construction of crime empires, many of which are still with us today. Hello, Joe Kennedy and Samuel Bronfman. 

The police are even worse than the politicians. Better known as Murder Inc., they kill citizens on the whim of their political masters and actively protect organized crime. They're thugs with guns, irredeemable and amoral, without exception. It's so negative it feels like caricature.

The FBI is represented by a bat shit insane Christian fundamentalist, Nelson Van Alden (played with disturbing effectiveness by Michael Shannon), and his partner, a treacherous Jew, Eric Sebso (Erik Weiner), who kills his own prisoner for cash. I kid you not. Eventually Alden turns on Sebso as only a madman can. Then he shacks up with a prostitute and fathers her baby. You can hear the screenwriter's cackling. Alden makes Fox Mulder look like a choir boy.

The existence of the cesspit known as Atlantic City is credited to a ruthless thug known as The Commodore (Dabny Coleman), who's even worse than Nucky. Realpolitick is his only way. Life's a ruthless, bare knuckled struggle to the finish. That's how things work in Boardwalk Empire. Not exactly what they teach in public school today, is it? Not every criminal gets a prize for participation.

And what makes Nucky better? Where is virtue here? You guessed it: love of family. That's the redeeming virtue. Everything begins and ends with kin. Nucky takes care of his own, to be sure, which is why he's seen as admirable by the show's erstwhile moral centre, Margaret Schroeder (the fantastic Kelly Macdonald). Initially a Prohibitionist, she throws her ideals to the wind like soiled diapers before the first season ends.

And if you aren't one of Nucky's chosen, watch out. He'll do what's necessary. Get in his way? Bang! He accepts his flawed, selfish nature and acts upon it without reservation. The greater political system is just a cash cow to be milked and manipulated. He'd make a great dictator.

Obviously a globalized world cannot function effectively with such limited circles of trust. Rather than good acts flowing out from the stable family unit, good is sucked in and ravenously devoured. The mere existence of a relatively prosperous American middle class (admittedly now buried in debt) suggests that this series tilts too negative. Faith in the political system has not yet been entirely annihilated.

The best thing that can be said for Nucky is that he's willing to engage in positive sum exchanges with neighbouring crime cartels. Trade rather than war. Great stuff. Good thinking for the long term. Prosperity will no doubt ensue. Unfortunately, being television, instead of stronger, mutually beneficial bonds, these arrangements weaken and collapse into gruesome bloodshed.

Nucky's flawed, magnificently so. The show's real trick is to make him sympathetic, and that it achieves handedly. Like Tony Soprano, he's the alpha male who won't live by society's rules. Ethical concerns? Ethical what? Please. So long as you protect your immediate family, you can ice anyone you want. Only Game of Thrones has more gruesome murders. And that's set in a fictional fantasy land mired in medieval thinking and open warfare.

Now, Boardwalk takes pains to show Nucky's enemies as nastier than he is, making extrajudicial execution just. The baddies are abusive. Poor family men. Mean to kids. Kick puppies. It's a lazy but standard screenwriter trope, a means to justify otherwise reprehensible behaviour and make unsavory characters sympathetic, if not outright heroic. Plenty of nasty people justify their actions this way. It's called propaganda. Read a history book.

So the show coalesces around Nucky and Margaret Schroeder, whose (natch) abusive husband Nucky (nobly) had murdered and dumped in the Atlantic Ocean.

The message?

'The system', such as it is, does not work. It's hopelessly corrupt. Due process? Forget it, darlin'. The law? A fool. To paraphrase Mao, justice flows from the barrel of a gun. Kill or be killed; so get a gun and fortify your house. Murder your enemies. Might makes right. True, law ultimately depends on force, but most democracies have built in safeguards and protections for citizens. It's been relatively tamed. Boardwalk Empire scorns niceties such as due process as contemptible and impractical foolishness.

And I thought George Lucas hated democracy. Too messy and inefficient. The creators of Boardwalk also yearn for a benevolent dictator, an enlightened philosopher-king like Marcus Aurelius. One who holds a baby in one hand (Nucky takes the vulnerable under his wing, justifying his murderous rampages) and a shotgun in the other. The problem, of course, is that Marcus was followed by the mad Commodus; you cannot guarantee virtue in the heir. Autocratic efficiencies ultimately yield atrocities.

The cops of Boardwalk aren't there to enforce law and order but to protect the dominant criminals who have seized legitimacy by winning political office in rigged elections. Killing whenever required, they have no moral authority. That rests, instead, with the crime kingpin. It'd be a morally inverted world if moral orientation here didn't spin with relativism.

Without a husband to support her and living in an age of systematic gender based discrimination, freshly minted widow Schroeder turns to Nucky for protection out of sheer necessity, a hapless waif in a cruel, hopeless world. She must be protected and sheltered by men with guns, who kill to provide. The state is for chumps and suckers, an institution only present to fleece the people and line the pockets of the rich.

It's a great representation of the thinking and self-justification of the criminal class. If the system is completely horrid and there is no justice, then what they do is perfectly moral.

Boardwalk's misanthropic bottom line? Nothing exists above tribalism, except corruption. It's utterly and entirely at odds with traditional liberal points of view. Social Darwinism at its ugliest, life on Boardwalk is 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short'. Interesting that Matt Damon, a liberal, should be behind it.

It's our society in a fun house mirror: most do not, in fact, live in a medieval hell. The populations of Western democracies are healthier, better fed, more peaceable, better educated and all around better off than ever before.

True, farthest fringes of society are still living in a world of hurt, of brutality and violence and lost hope, but today that's the exception rather than the rule.

In the medieval world, it was the other way around.

Both programs are excellent entertainment value, but have very different messages. The Wire looks down on brutality, murder and tribalism, while Boardwalk Empire celebrates them.

As the French writer Henry de Montherlant said, 'Happiness writes white on a page.'

We're the opposite of moths, endlessly fascinated and enthralled by the dark.

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