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January 19, 2011

We’re the Good Guys! Why are we then promoting torture on television shows?

I had a doctor’s appointment today. It was nothing serious, I just had to get a spot on my foot checked out. Turns out, it was a small wart, and the cure was to apply liquid nitrogen to it until the area was slightly warmer than the dark side of Pluto. The doctor warned me it would hurt a little until he was done applying, which was fine. But I underestimated him: it hurt, a lot. I tried to hold it in as long as possible, tried to ignore the pain on the sole of my foot, but after a bit, I had no recourse but to utter an expletive. No Canadian winter frostbite even approximates the cold of liquid nitrogen.

I was curious to see how long I could hold out in pain. Like the average person, I do not really suffer intense bodily pain on a daily basis. And, like the average person, I watch a lot of television. In the void of the writers’ strike, I’ve been forced to retreat to the safety of my reruns, and I’ve been watching episodes of Prison Break and Lost for the millionth time. So, safe to say, in the past weeks I’ve been exposed to a lot of violence on television. Specifically, both shows, and others like 24, have very specific kinds of visual violence. To be sure, though I haven’t really watched too much 24, all the shows have extreme violence depicted, or at least as much as you can get away with on broadcast television, which seems to be a good amount. And it’s a very specific violence: the plots of all the television work specifically to moralize the violence. Curiously, all three shows offer their fair degree of a certain kind of violence: torture.

The torture scenes are perhaps the most heavily moralized. While other scenes of violence or deviant behavior could be said to have humanizing elements in favor of the assailant, depending on the nuances of the plot, it is the torture scenes that are strictly coded. Needless to say, torture is an area of contention even without having to deal with the machinations of the conservative nature of broadcasting. Prison Break in this regard has obvious examples. In the first season, we witness Brad Bellick, the disgusting Fox River CO, torturing various inmates. The way in which his character is coded, either through corrupt plot lines or even in something as simple as his sweaty appearance, helps moralize his torture scenes. When watching him torture prisoners for information, the text makes sure that the audience knows that this kind of torture, as one would expect, is “wrong.” We identify with the victim who is being unfairly punished for information. The torture is often difficult to watch, as one would expect.

However, that is not to say that all torture on television is moralized as inherently “wrong.” What’s more, since all of these shows have fairly recent production runs, and certainly they’ve all been released after 9/11, there are various instances where, not only is torture codified positively, and even necessary, but we identify fully with the torturer rather than the victim. Sayid’s character on Lost is perhaps the most intricate example. In the first season of Lost, we initially learn of his backstory in the Iraqi army when he is torturing Sawyer for information. In this case, both his present on the island and his past in the army are codified as evil. We do not know much about Sayid, but we see that he is an experienced torturer, and is even going ahead and being violent to Sawyer, a man who he does not know and ostensibly has to live with for the next couple of days. There is an intimacy in the torture, then, that seems too cruel — surely there were other methods of extracting the information from Sawyer, who may or may not even know what they want? If anything, Sawyer is one of their peers, and it is difficult to reconcile with Sayid’s actions. The audience, in this scene, identifies with Sawyer, who is codified as a rebel, an opportunist, and a cynical realist.

Things change relatively quickly. The more we learn about Sayid’s backstory, the more we realize that he has a deep remorse for his torture victims, something that becomes quite evident in the third season, when one of his flashbacks sees him captured by the husband of a woman he had tortured for information. Interestingly, as we are seeing this remorse, during the second season, we also witness his most brutal and explicit forms of torture, on Henry Gale, a suspected Other, who turns out to be Benjamin Linus, leader of the Others. Ben is codified as an insidious liar, and it is only through the camera’s privileged position in the scene that we know more than Sayid. And this is the irony; Sayid tortures Ben to get knowledge that the viewer, to some extent, already has. The camera is free from physical and logical constraints and can move anywhere on in the scene. That is why, even when Henry Gale seems to be telling the truth, as with “his” crashed balloon, we are still suspicious of him and identify with Sayid and the other Oceanic 815 survivors. There is one lingering scene where Michael Emerson shows his acting chops that fully aligns the viewer with the torturer: the camera is locked in with Henry/Ben, and through the armory wall it hears that Locke is losing it. The camera cuts from Locke throwing things around in rage outside the armory to Henry/Ben locked inside, smiling in what has to be one of the most devious smiles over broadcast. In this knowledge then, privy only to the viewer, does the alignment gain the most legitimacy. The torture for information is not only the “right” thing to do, it is downright necessary.

It is interesting then, that most of these examples justify their excessive torture as a means to achieve information needed for survival. Furthermore, it is probably significant that these shows gained the popularity they did after 9/11: the connections are fairly obvious, if superficial, ranging from hunting terrorists to airplane disasters to exposing potentially corrupt governments controlled by multinational corporate interests. All three shows, and others, feature torture that is heavily moralized, often times in a staunchly binary divide, where “good” torture is done by the good guys, the viewer, and “bad” torture is done by the enemy, against the viewer. “Good” torture happens, then, when the viewer is in a position to confirm knowledge that the torturer on scene does not yet know; through the freedom of the camera and editing processes, the viewer in these shows often takes on a much more omniscient position than any individual character; the viewer is a gestaltian creation formed by individual characters. And in a post-9/11 (a term I am somewhat loathe to use, and has possibly been bastardized more than “postmodern”), hyperrational world, the reality of the matter is that information is much more valuable than any currency (something thematized very obviously in a world like Lost or, to a lesser extent, in Prison Break). The ends have long justified the means, especially when grounded in a late-capitalist society which privileges the unattainable end over anything else. And as long as the camera holds its utopian position of power in the visual medium, being able to deliver any information to the viewer, the torture is justified and legitimized.

That being said, liquid nitrogen would be a hell of a torture device.

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1 Comment(s)

  1. Pamela | Jan 19, 2011 | Reply

    I’m just curious. What makes you think we’re the *good guys*? This government is as corrupt as any other and more corrupt than more than a few. The only difference is that they’ve lied about it more effectively. But it’s unraveling fast and I suspect in the next few years, there will be very few Americans left who still think *we’re the good guys*. And that should tell you why moralized torture is on tv. It’s part of the brainwashing of the Sheeples.

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