Saturday, August 17, 2013

Killers and Cops

For years, I avoided shows and movies that I thought were callous about the value of human life. I didn't read detective books or watch movies about serial killers (everything from Pulp Fiction to Silence of the Lambs.) Many people who have lost loved ones to violent crime tend to do this - I'm not alone. (For more, listen to the brilliant episode of This American Life called "How to Rest in Peace.")

I seem to be watching a show now that is immersed in the "serial killer" genre, and that has me thinking.

Now, first, the show is brilliant. Luther is the show. I'm a little late to the bandwagon - it came out in 2010 and hit our side of the pond in 2011. I'm watching it now on Netflix, and I'm riveted. It stars Idris Elba, who is one of the most compelling actors I've ever seen. Luther is driven and ruthless and unpredictable, a pitbull in the clothes of a homicide detective. He's haunted by what he does for a living. But his chief tendency is tenacity. He will not let go of a crime until he has tracked down the perpetrator and either brought them to justice or otherwise stopped them.

I love the show. I love the depth of each character, the fact that characters never seem to do what you expect them to do. I love that the writers inflict real consequences on their characters. Like Joss Whedon, the writers of this show know that to care about the main characters, you have to see them in genuine danger. Luther might lose his job. He might be killed. He might lose people about whom he cares dearly.

And I love his foil, Alice Morgan. She is an adversary for him, a foil, his dark conscience that whispers the worst things into his ears. When Luther wants to bring someone to justice, Alice wants to stab him to death and leave him in the street. There is a scene in the fourth episode - if you've seen it, you know the one I mean. The scene places Alice and John Luther at opposite ends of a phone line, and they both end the scene screaming, broken apart at the seams. Alice does something unspeakable and when Luther tries to chastise her for it, she screams at him, "I did it for you, pig! Filth! I did it for you!" It explodes off the screen. I've rewatched the scene at least five tiimes, and I may do it again tonight before I go to sleep.

And it's about killing. Bodies fall. People are killed, serial killers track their victims mercilessly and dispatch them brutally. It's a very bloody show. But ... and maybe this is because I don't watch a lot of these shows... the murders have consequences. They are bloody and messy and they leave holes in people's lives. The detectives are upset - traumatized sometimes - by what they see. This is as it should be.

I can watch a show like this. They care about the lives of people and they pursue killers, not as puzzles to be solved, but as menaces to be removed from society.

When my brother was murdered, I thought we would never find the killers. My brother was one of a thousand victims in New Orleans, a city that was facing thousands of outstanding warrants before Katrina even happened. The city was overrun by crime and its police force was drowning. They wouldn't find the killers. They didn't have the time or the manpower to find them.

Four years later, one of the killers was found. And arrested. And I attended his murder trial, along with my father. And he was sentenced to life in prison (the most severe penalty I could accept - I refused to go along with the prosecutor if they pursued a death sentence.)

John Luther is a superhero of sorts. He's brave and true, ruthless and relentless, and he does things that most of us would never imagine. He puts himself in danger, time and again, to catch the bad guys. I like the idea that detectives are like that. When the most horrible thing happens to a loved one, I am comforted by the idea that those detectives, those police officers, are as haunted as we are. That they are staying up at night, trying to figure out how to solve the case. That they would do anything in their power to find the perpetrators. John Luther is a rampaging bull, but speaking as someone who has had to rely on the dedication of police detectives and inspectors and prosecutors, I'd always want someone like him on my side.