May 3, 2017

When the interrogator becomes the interrogated

I want to come back to something I mentioned the other day, that throwaway line in 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.

OK, this might all have been a little melodramatic - and I stress that this is my own creation, not something that you've ever seen or likelhy ever will see on SVU - but the point I'm trying to illustrate, the one that I'm most interested in, is that crisis that's bound to hit Stabler, or someone like him, the next time he interrogates a suspect and resorts to the rough stuff that's apparently his default mode. Will he remember what happened to him in Chicago? Will he have flashbacks whenever he finds himself echoing the words that the detectives threw at him? Will he see the irony of the suspect's protests of innocence, when the Chicago cops laughed at his own claims?

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?


  1. NBC, for about 4 months, had 2 characters in completely different shows with the same name, as IRONSIDE lasted until Jan. 1975 and Jack Albertson played Ed Brown on CHICO AND THE MAN, which premiered in Sept. 1974.

    1. I did not remember that! You'd think, with an enter encyclopedia of names in front of you, you might have been able to avoid it. Is that the only case of duplicate names at the same time that you're aware of?

  2. Ed Brown is thoughtful because he exists in the post-Miranda judicially liberal late 1960s and early 1970s. Ed is part of one of the first truly multi-cultural crime-fighting teams, comprised of a wheelchair-bound police chief, an African-American male, and a female police officer.

    Elliot Stabler is a reactionary because he exists in a post-9/11 world in which many police officers are, like Stabler, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD symptoms, and a world in which police departments like the NYPD have become more militarized and less tolerant of citizens' rights.

  3. I waited a while to write this, for obvious reasons:

    First off, the character of Elliot Stabler was written off L&O:SVU at the end of the 12th season, when Chris Meloni's contract ended in 2012 - five years ago.
    During the 12 years Stabler was there, he underwent many crises of the sort you describe - at least three or four a season - and if he wasn't plagued, it would be one or another of the SVU cops, like Olivia Benson (the offspring of a rape), Fin Tutuola (an ex-undercover narcotics cop), John Munch (a devout conspiracy theorist), Capt. Don Cragen (a recovering alcoholic), and several others who served briefer stints.

    Back to Stabler for a bit: he was the one SVU regular who was a family man: wife, five children (one born in an episode under crisis conditions), and a practicing Catholic (shown many times over the 12 seasons).
    Stabler was somewhat of a moralist, a consequence of dealing with sex crimes for so long, but that was also true of all the other SVU detectives - and in many cases, they all made allowances to one degree or another. Over the years Stabler might have started out reactionary, but every now and then he could surprise us with moments of compassion for those he was investigating: at the conclusion of one episode, he said to a new SVU detective, "Welcome to the world of gray."(It makes sense in the context of the episode.)

    All of the foregoing derive from my actually having seen many episodes of SVU - watching and paying attention to the stories and the characters, staying, coming, and going. The operative word here is complexity - nothing in a typical SVU episode is ever as cut-and-dried as it seems at first. Above all, each and all of the SVU detectives is shown to have conscience about what they do - at some point all of them have been called on the carpet for going over the line , and several characters have paid a major price for it, in career terms.

    As I said above, I've seen many (if not all) of the SVU episodes - indeed, I've got many of the DVD sets, and I'm prepared to back up everything I've said here with the shows themselves, at your convenience.
    From Stabler's 12 seasons, and from the 5 seasons since.

    That "Jack-booted,proto-Fascist" line - not worthy of you, or of this blog.

    The defense rests.

    1. Oh, by the way ...

      Fun fact about Don Galloway, who played Ed Brown on Ironside:
      He was a major Hollywood conservative, occupying that niche in the Screen Actors Guild for many years.
      After he retired from acting, Galloway moved to New Hampshire, where he became a columnist for the Manchester Union-Leader.
      So make of that what you will ...

    2. Correcting a couple of errors from yesterday:

      I had the wrong year on Chris Meloni's leaving SVU: it was 2011, a year earlier - which means that it's 6 years that Stabler's been off the show.

      Also, apologies (of a sort) for getting your bon mot about Stabler wrong:
      ... Jackbooted, crypto-Fascist thug ...
      It's still an inaccurate cheap shot, but at least this time I got the wording right.

  4. Ah, Michael, Michael,

    I'm well-aware that Meloni’s been off the show for quite some time - just because I don't watch it doesn't mean my wife doesn't watch it, so I have a pretty good idea of what's going on.

    And your defense just doesn't hold water with me. I don't think Stabler has a conscience - I think he's a bully and a borderline psychotic who has no business being on the police force, or in any position where he has authority over anyone. Unless he lied about his family background, I can't comprehend of a psychiatric exam that would allow someone like him on the force, and if departments actually do hire these kinds of people, it would explain a lot about why there's so much violence between the police and the public nowadays. (I don't think his colleagues are much better.)

    Fascism (as opposed to either National Socialism or Communism) is not only totalitarian, it's also strongly nationalistic (see Goldberg's Liberal Fascism) and institutional. The occasional instances of compassion aside, I think this character is a guy who has total contempt for the public, which doesn't make for a very good public servant. I think that the description fits him well. (In fact, when I asked my wife if that description of him was accurate, she said, "That's pretty much it.") If I'd wanted to simply call names, I'd have called him a Nazi - but not only does that cheapen Hitler's evil, it's too much of a cliché. I wouldn't retract one word from my description of him. Is it really name-calling if it’s not only true but accurate?

    I also view his so-called Catholicism with some skepticism. I don't think a true Catholic behaves the way he does; not, at least, without spending so much time in the confessional that his confessor finally tells him to give up his job as a near-occasion of sin. (At least my confessors would give him that advice.) You can call yourself a Catholic if you want; hell, you can call yourself anything, but the proof is in the pudding, and he doesn't resemble any Catholic I see in my parish. I will give the show this much credit: at least they don’t suggest that he was molested by a priest back when he was a kid, which is the kind of thing I’d expect from a Wolf-helmed series.

    Obviously, you wouldn't agree with my assessment that the L&W franchise, with its consistent left-wing ideology, is lulling the audience into the idea of accepting an authoritarian police state. Mind you, they'd never admit to that - they'd only speak of a police state in right-wing terms. Granted, politically I'm very much of a conservative, but that's what makes me all the more skeptical about the modern militarized police department. As Perry Mason – or at least Erle Stanley Gardner – once wrote, “I have never stuck up for any criminal. I have merely asked for the orderly administration of an impartial justice...Due legal process is my own safeguard against being convicted unjustly. To my mind, that's government. That's law and order." Not the contempt for same that is shown in SVU.

    I realize we're talking about a fictional character; thus, whether or not he's a good Catholic or a psychotic is all much ado about nothing. It's what he symbolizes, as is the case whenever I'm writing about television, that bothers me in this case. Since it's my blog, I'm going to keep calling them as I see them.

  5. Crime pays off. Big Brother is watching you!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!