Last week, in the midst of a stifling heat wave and on the recommendation of a trusted friend, my wife and I sat down to watch the first season of the critically acclaimed television series Damages.
The plot is as hot as the weather: We’ve only watched a few episodes, and already we’ve seen three or four major twists, dead people, dead animals, and a handful of New York apartments so ridiculously opulent that one imagines they can only be had by committing crimes far more heinous than those investigated by the series’ fictional lawyers. The cast, governed by the incomparable Glenn Close, was superb. The show was beautifully shot, reasonably well written, and smartly edited. And yet it left me with an uneasy feeling: It was just too evil.
In the Damages fictional universe, evil is treated with both reverence and glee, like an ice cream truck stumbling down a suburban street dense with children on a summer afternoon. If a practical goal can be achieved by being just a little bit evil, the show’s characters opt for being a lot, and if an absolute villainy is required, they orchestrate ingenious ballets of betrayals, lies, and abuses, all while looking great and grinning contently. It’s the Las Vegas theorem of morality: If you’re going to sin, you might as well go all the way.
This is a good prescription for drama—Damages started its fourth season on FX earlier this month and is enjoying a robust viewership. It’s also a dangerous one: Of all the things popular entertainment shouldn’t turn into trivialized pulp, evil is near the top of the list.
Evil—do we need reminding?—is both real and readily present; its demons—the murderous, the greedy, the hateful—flutter everywhere. But it never looks as good as Glenn Close, nor are its plots so perfectly coiled. Often, evil is no more than a dead-eyed and dull corporate executive, chewing on stale argot and robbing millions, or a man stirred by ignorance and fear to take the lives of others. In other words, evil is so terrifying precisely because it looks nothing like it does on Damages. It is not frequently banal, but it is always plausible, always present.
Which makes it all the more insulting when writers or filmmakers see the need to guild the lily—as if bad wasn’t bad enough!—and present us with a Grand Guignol. For a lesson in just how offensive this artistic overkill can be, compare Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest with Henning Mankell’s The White Lioness. Both are Swedish thrillers. Both revolve around a similar axis, featuring a murderous former KGB agent finding shelter in rural Sweden after communism’s collapse and perpetrating horrors. And both propel otherwise ordinary protagonists into a massive conspiracy with international implications.
The similarities end there. Larsson, a lumbering writer—“Jonasson saw lighting out over the sea. He knew that the helicopter was coming in the nick of time. All of a sudden a heavy downpour lashed at the window,” goes one characteristically inelegant phrase from the book—knows no better way to advance his sophomoric plot than by setting small charges of shock. That KGB guy? He’s also a sadist rapist who had fathered seven children in various countries throughout Europe, one of them a murderous hulk. His daughter? A bisexual hacker with a Gothic fetish who is raped, sodomized, and brutalized in many ways over many uncomfortable pages. The psychiatrist who orchestrates much of her torment? Why, he wouldn’t be complete without also being a pedophile.
Mankell, hallelujah, knows better. Perhaps the greatest thriller writer alive today, his former Soviet agent is a very evil man, the kind of chappy who, in the novel’s first pages, shoots a woman for no apparent reason and then goes on to shoot many more. But he’s also a human being, and one we can sympathize with: A professionally trained killer who had spent a lifetime serving an empire that no longer exists, he careens from kill to kill just trying to survive. How much scarier he is than Larsson’s cartoonish psychopath.
And yet, Larsson’s books are read by tens of millions, while Mankell’s, still popular, are not. One’s work is soon to be a major Hollywood motion picture starring Daniel Craig, the other’s a PBS miniseries featuring Kenneth Branagh. We need our killings supersized.
In this week’s intricate parasha, the Torah warns us against such tendencies. The story introduces the concept of the cities of refuge, six towns to which men who have killed unintentionally can flee the wrath of those relatives of the victim wishing to avenge the blood.
Emmanuel Levinas, the late French philosopher and Talmudic scholar, found this seemingly straightforward concept troubling. Isn’t God, he asked, omnipresent, and able to protect the innocent wherever they are? And aren’t we, as Jews, instructed to take refuge not in a city but in the Torah? These, he writes in Beyond the Verse, are all true assertions, but they ignore a key fact: We are, none of us, truly innocent.
“In Western society, “ he writes, “free and civilized but without social equality and a rigorous social justice—is it absurd to wonder whether the advantages available to the rich in relation to the poor … are not the cause, somewhere, of someone’s agony? Are there not, somewhere in the world, wars and carnage which result from these advantages?”
There are, of course, many such wars, much such carnage. And that, Levinas brilliantly argues, turns our own cities, the shining metropolises in which we live, expecting justice and protection, into cities of refuge. We are all, he writes, mostly innocent but nevertheless also somewhat guilty. We partake in oppression every day—of the poor, of the needy—but, mostly, we aren’t even aware of it. We are, he argues, asleep, human beings who are yet to wake up to the full potential of the bliss and responsibilities involved with being human. Like the inadvertent murderers in this week’s parasha, forced to leave their own towns and flee to the confines of the designated six cities, we moderns, too, live in constant exile in our own homes.
Or maybe this condition is not limited to moderns at all. Perhaps the Torah dedicates so many resources to protecting killers—even if they acted unintentionally—because it knows that without too much provocation, we can all turn murderous, and that without refuge, we’d never have a chance to restore that intricate balance between good and evil each of us strives to keep each day.
If only pop culture followed suit. If only our villains were presented at the twilight of morality rather than basking in the harsh sun of pure evil. There’d be fewer juicy roles for Glenn Close, but we’d all be better off.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.