Justice and Narrative
The last episodes of our conversations concerning justice have left me thinking about some of the other narratives I’ve enjoyed over the past few years, particularly those that were televised. The 21st century has been filled with juicy storylines concerning morally conflicted protagonists, whose struggle to be good (in some way)—and the need for some sort of satisfying ending—seem to be at odds. It reminds me of the often memed MLK quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” If this is true, then the arc of the moral universe is primarily a narrative arc. The bend that MLK notices is one that we employ as a way to create meaning—we anticipate the direction that the arc will take and recognize a successful conclusion. Spoiler Alert: I’ll be talking a bit about The Sopranos, The Shield, The Wire, and Deadwood.
The ending of the Sopranos was long discussed as a sort of cheat—a sudden fade to black in what appeared otherwise to be the middle of a scene. Rather than merely its abruptness, I feel that the heart of the dismay over the ending is that viewers never knew what kind of justice Tony would meet (or at whose hands he would meet it), and how it would affect his family life. The ending worked, to the extent that it did, because it respected the ambiguous feelings viewers developed relative to Tony, whose psychology and activity dominated the show. Tony was repugnant and dishonest in many ways, difficult to like or love, but had redeeming qualities that showed that he arguably did the good that he knew, to the extent that he could. It became easy to see Tony as a reflection of an unjust world rather than having a uniquely unjust character. In such circumstances, leaving the fate of Tony undecided seems unsatisfying precisely in the way that life is satisfying—we never truly learn the ending of stories, which are always revisited and rewritten, and thus never actually can know that justice has been fully achieved.
The Shield, an underwatched show that appeared on FX, featured a policeman as an antihero. Developed by Kurt Sutter, also responsible for the equally interesting Sons of Anarchy, the Shield explores questions of fallibility in depicting the efforts of a decent person who is willing to benefit personally as well as professionally in making sure that his section of LA was kept free from violence. Unlike Tony, viewers could see that Vic Mackey was ultimately a decent human being who wanted to do what was right—and could also tell how those higher up in the institution were no better at enforcing justice. But more than depicting the brokenness of the world, the story was one that provided one of the most satisfying conclusions regarding the fate of Mackey I’ve ever seen—it gave a sense that justice was actually done in his case, a justice that balanced the accounts of his life with a peculiar appropriateness.
The Wire took on the subject of the injustice of the world from a different direction, featuring a cast of characters that depicted those who struggled to provide justice and those who struggled to survive. The show was notable in showing what was loveable about almost every character, from bandits to detectives to politicians to addicts, and showed how difficult it was for any one character to achieve a justice that felt good, even for a moment. Justice failed the characters, both institutionally and personally. The moral arc of the universe in Baltimore bent toward stagnation and spectacle rather than the people populating the world. It was superior to the Sopranos to the extent that it featured a world of moral ambiguity caused not because one rooted for an anti-hero (Tony), but because one was forced to witness the nature of our world as one where the best answers never come into being. Each season of The Wire took a different focal point, examining how the world slows the progress of justice in terms of the proliferation and motivation of crime (for those with few other alternatives), in terms of the difficulties in enforcing the law, in terms of those attempting to govern and create law, in terms of how children are (and are not) educated, and in terms of the role of the media in creating this world.
Deadwood, however, is probably my favorite show that questions the nature of justice. It begins with one character exclaiming “No law at all in Deadwood!” and moves from there to examine what happens within a social order whose legal status is continually unknown. Justice of a kind is served—but in a way that always feels somewhat incomplete. What makes this show impressive is its way of showing how justice ultimately rests on the shoulders of individuals. Each character is fallible; each character is limited (differently) in terms of what he or she can or desires to do. Aside from a minister, there’s no true innocence in Deadwood—but that doesn’t mean that the place is a moral quagmire. The show is warming in allowing justice to manifest in a series of discrete actions. Promises are made and kept. The dead are honored. Compassion and mercy are shown, sometimes unexpectedly. It provides a sense of how justice emerges from the bottom up, sometimes, and does so without the strong line of law that divides The Wire. The show is violent and bloody in ways that remain unresolved, but there’s an integrity to the show that leaves viewers feeling hopeful that, ultimately, few people are absolutely beyond redemption.
The Shield took great pains to punish and reward its characters adequately. The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood each provide differently unsatisfying conclusions to their stories. In the case of Tony, one remains unclear about what kind of justice ought to be handed down to him—and in the dark concerning what actually occurs. The Wire shows the difficulty of remaining just in a world so broken by corruption and economic blight—each of its characters experiences differently the modest work of living with integrity, with varying degrees of success. Deadwood, which was cancelled prematurely, never completes its arc. But one senses, in some ways, that it is the show that could most easily continue indefinitely—its depiction of good and evil, fragility and struggle, show that justice is only ever encountered in the interactions between two individuals. …or, ultimately, only within the self.
If the arc of the moral universe is long, it’s because we want the story to play out. If it bends to justice, it’s because we anticipate what it means that a character—one we watch, one we live—meet a true end, one that recognizes and acknowledges the sum of good and bad accomplished during a life time. The art and culture produced over the past 15 years tends to depict justice as a problem and a struggle, but also points to the possibility of justice being continually undertaken. We participate in a compromised and broken political and cultural system, but still have the power to behave justly within this space—one conversation at a time.