Saturday's TV Guide about the Ironside episode in which Don Galloway's character, policeman Ed Brown, finds himself in jail and realizes that the rough treatment he's receiving from the police mirrors the way he himself has treated suspects in the past. That presented, to me, an irresistible existential dilemma for Brown in the future: whether or not he can continue as he has in the past, using the tactics which are now coming back to haunt him, or if his police methodology, of necessity, will have to change in order for him to look in the mirror each morning; and if, as a result, he can continue to be an effective lawman.
It's an appealing question to ask, particularly when it comes to the detectives populating so many of the police procedurals on TV today - say, for example, Elliot Stabler, the jackbooted, crypto-Fascist thug masquerading as a policeman on the execrable Law & Order: SVU. What if a character like Stabler were to find himself, one dark night, lying prone on the rain-slicked pavement of an alleyway in a city like Chicago, where he's been on vacation. He can't remember exactly what's happened; apparently, judging by the dull ache throbbing at the base of his skull, he's been unconscious, although for how long he can't be sure because his watch appears to be missing. As he slowly pulls himself to his knees, he feels around and discovers his wallet, with all of his identification, is missing as well. He does, however, find a gun in the pocket of his coat - his gun, a gun which, by the smell of it, has recently been fired.
It's at this point that he notices the body of a man lying next to him in the alley, a man with a trickle of blood running down his cheek from a bullet hole in the side of his head. Stabler feels quickly for a pulse and finds none; the man is dead, although not for long, since the body is still warm. It's also at this point that he notices the people up in the windows, looking at him, or standing on the sidewalk, pointing at him; he hears the sirens from the police cars that have pulled up, and sees the blue-clad officers aiming their guns at him, telling him to freeze.
(Cue Serling voiceover.) Despite all appearances, though, Elliot Stabler happens to be an innocent man, the victim of a drug-addicted prostitute who knocked him out and then used his gun to kill the man lying next to him, a man who happened to have been abusing her while keeping her addicted to heroin for his own nefarious purposes. Yes, Elliot Stabler is in for a very long evening - an evening that's set to get even longer when it's discovered that the dead man next to him happens to have been a member of Chicago's finest.
As the scene opens, we find our hero being interrogated by Chicago homicide detectives. They want to know his past contact with Johnson. They want to know how they happened to get together that night. They want to know what they were drinking, how many they had, who paid for them. They want to know what they were talking about. When they ask how the argument started, Smith protests that there was no argument. No argument? they ask incredulously. It was pretty noisy in the bar that night, and they had the games on the tube. Are you telling me you didn’t raise your voices once with all that noise?
That’s different, Stabler says. Different, the two detectives say, looking at each other knowingly and laughing sardonically. You know what I mean, Smith says. Maybe we were talking loud – Talking loud? the second detective repeats skeptically. All right, maybe we were shouting, Stabler concedes. So you’re changing your story now, the first detective points out. What other things do you want to change?
I don’t know what you’re talking about! Stabler repeats. The last thing he remembers was Johnson waiving to a couple of girls who came over to the table, and then he felt something hit the back of his neck, and the next thing he knows he’s lying on the cold wet pavement of the alleyway behind the bar, with Johnson’s body lying next to him. He reached over to check Johnson’s pulse and found none, and that’s when the uniforms showed up.
And you’re sticking with that story? the first detective says. I’m just trying to tell you what happened, Stabler snaps. But how can you tell us what happened? the second detective says. You told us yourself that you didn’t remember anything after you claim you were struck from behind. It seems to me there’s a whole lot you aren’t telling us. Like what the argument was about.
Stabler repeats his innocence and accuses the detectives of trying to frame him, of building up a case against him because Johnson was one of their own. At that, one of the detectives slaps his hand against the table with a crack. Who do you think you’re dealing with? he asks Smith. We may not be fancy cops from New York, but we know how to solve crimes here in Chicago.
When he tells them he wants a lawyer, they look at one another again and repeat his words – he wants a lawyer, he says – and they tell him he can call one, but what does he need a lawyer for if things happened the way he claims they did? He tells them that they won’t let him explain, but the first detective interrupts. You really expect us to buy that?
It’s looking pretty bad for you, the other detective chimes in. You try to deny an argument that people in the bar heard. You tell us about a couple of dames that nobody else saw. You may not believe it, Stabler repeats, but it’s the truth.
That’s not what I think, the other detective says. I don’t think it happened that way at all. I think you and he were involved in some kind of deal, and when it came time for the payoff, Johnson tried to back out, and you leaned on him. Look, we know what Johnson was like after he had a few in him. He gets loud, gets in your face a bit, maybe he even starts pushing you around. It’s instinct – all of a sudden the gun’s in your hand and the hole’s in his chest and he’s lying there with blood pumping out onto the cement.
We understand, his partner tells him, there are more than a few guys in the squad room who’d give you a medal, but you know how it is – we’ve got a job to do. If you just give it to us straight, we can talk to the DA and see what we can get. Man one, maybe, instead of murder two or even murder one. I think he might go for that, the first detective adds, But it’s going to go a lot easier for you if you just play ball. And you know how messy lawyers can make things.
Smith tells them he’s not talking anymore. Oh no, the second detective says. You’re going to have to do a lot more talking before this is all done. You’ll be talking to the DA, and then the grand jury, and then the prosecutor at the trial, and you’d better hope that mouthpiece of yours comes up with a better story than the one you’ve been trying to peddle.
Fifteen years, the first detective says. That’s what you’re looking at. Maybe the last best years of your life. What are you going to do after that, after you get out? What are you going to be in shape to do after that, pretty boy?
It's at this point that Stabler, pushed beyond his breaking point, stands up, takes a cup of cold coffee that's been sitting on the table, and flings it in the first detective's face. The detective blinks away the moisture, moves across the table with lightning speed, pushes Stabler against the wall and slugs him in the stomach. Don't try to get tough with him, pal, the second detective says as Stabler struggles to get his breath back. He's got anger issues, too.
Eventually*, everything is cleared up; the woman is arrested on a separate charge but, thinking the cops are after her for the murder, confesses all. Stabler's identity is confirmed. and he is released from custody. No hard feelings, the first detective says, we were just doing our job, after all. Adds the second detective, Even you have to admit you looked pretty guilty. Stabler glares at them, resists the impulse to start throwing punches, and leaves the precinct house, headed back to New York.
*Don't bother me to provide the details on all this; I'm not writing a spec script, after all.
While contemporary television does a very good job of turning drama into soap opera, I think they're much less adept at having characters - especially the leads, the putative heroes of the story, truly look at their own behavior in terms of how it affects not only the people they interact with, but how it affects themselves: their souls, the meaning they attach to their own lives. Stabler has undergone counselling, though which the viewer has been able to learn the demons that plague him*, so we know that the psychological boarder has been breeched. But is there no sense of irony when Stabler then resorts to the very behavior he condemned when it was turned on him? Television does sex and violence well; conscience, not so much.
*How someone with the psychological problems he has ever got on the police force in the first place, let alone a special victims unit, is madness. If this kind of thing actually happens in real life, no wonder we have some of the problems with law enforcement that we have today.
I don't know how Ed Brown wound up dealing with this conundrum. I suspect Ironside probably used it as a learning moment, to teach Brown that suspects are people too, which may have be a bit simplistic if you're talking about a cop like Stabler, one who has no business being in a position of authority in the first place.
In writing about the id, Freud described it as "know[ing] no judgements of value: no good and evil, no morality. ... Instinctual cathexes seeking discharge—that, in our view, is all there is in the id." When the ego "attempts to mediate between id and reality, it is often obliged to cloak the [unconscious] commands of the id with its own [preconscious] rationalizations, to conceal the id's conflicts with reality, to profess ... to be taking notice of reality even when the id has remained rigid and unyielding."
In other words, someone like Stabler will probably wind up on the verge of a nervous breakdown. While he thinks he operates under a moral code that differentiates between good and evil, but in reality these are simply constructs that he has built to enable him to function in his mission, which is essentially to revenge himself against his parents, whose faces he subliminally sees every time he looks across the table at a suspect. (He could have even chosen police work not to even the score, but as a kind of unconscious death wish, a desire to destroy in himself that which he sees in others.) When such a man fails to differentiate between the actions of those he holds in contempt and his own, similar actions - or, even worse, recognizes them but rationalizes their legitimacy - then we see a disconnect that will eventually catch up with him and bring him down. Thrust into this kind of a situation, Stabler will probably find that his ego is unable to mediate the dispute between his id and his long-dormant super-ego (which, after all, Freud felt was formed by the parents), and his world will come crashing down like a house of cards.
As I said, I don't expect anyone to ever produce a script like this for any Law & Order iteration, or any other procedural that mucks up the airwaves nowadays. When you're building up a quasi-police state where anything goes and the only objective is to solve the case regardless of the consequences, all the while holding the public in contempt, you don't stop to consider things like conscience. It just gets in the way, after all. And we can't have that, can we?