Since I discovered that Netflix had DVD’s of all the television serieses I’d missed, I’ve been working my way through the WGBH Mysteries, beginning with “Cracker.” That got so intense that I had to look up the episode summaries to take a little of the tension out so I wouldn’t obsess between episodes. (There are three or four days between movies arriving and I’m only signed up for one movie at a time.) Curiously, by the time we got to the last episode of that series, my identification had moved from “Cracker” himself, who reminded me of a Portland drama professor I knew long ago, over to “Panhandle,” the skinny red-headed colleague who fell in love with him but was able to put up defenses against him much earlier than his wife had. I guess I put up defenses as well.
“Touching Evil” was a different animal altogether, though there were some overlaps in origin -- writers and all. That same vision of the world as a tortured and mystery-ridden place. Instead of the primary character being full of faults but basically huge and strong, Robson Green is a handsome, vulnerable man -- irreverent, even goofy. But he is a shaman. He was shot in the head, was dead for a moment, and then revived. This is said to have given him special powers.
Classically, a shaman is a person who has been to death and returned to tell us about it. In autochthonous societies, often someone who had seizures (for instance, Mountain Chief among the Blackfeet or Crazy Horse among the Sioux or even Louis Riel among the Red River metis) or survived a terrible disease or injury. I’ll come back to that.
But also, the question that is asked again and again is “what does dealing with the worst human acts do to the people who must face them?” We know for instance, that when there are inquiries into something like recent Serbo-Croatian atrocities, the perpetrators often had been the victims or aligned with the victims in previous atrocities. We see it again in Iraq. Those who go in to remove an oppressor and torturer become the new oppressors and torturers. They weren’t that way when they began. It’s as though they became infected. It is a familiar problem among police. The question is what the defense against that might be.
For a more academic version of what a shaman is, go to Wikipedia. Mircea Eliade and Joe Campbell describe a pattern in which the person “dies,” maybe because of a seizure or powerful drugs, “flies,” goes to the Other World to find an afflicted person, maybe to accompany them back. Not necessarily a person you would want to have living on your block, but useful in some circumstances. Alice Kehoe opposes this view, mostly because of her respect and affection for Native American Indians whom she has seen abused by many opportunists who want power or maybe just cheap titillation via mash-up religion. I knew Eliade and know Kehoe personally and do not have a problem with asserting the Bibfeltian “both/and.” That is, I think they are each right in their own context, but it’s important to keep the context straight.
The context of “Touching Evil” is as mysterious as any Tibetan temple. Filmed in a Masonic hospital, the cast descends stairs, enters tunnels, stands before tall windows, and summons visions via slide projections. There is always a smoky, milky quality to the air as though incense were being burned somewhere. Light is often tinted blue, as though cold, and the main characters keep their coats on, wear heavy shoes, but don’t wear hats. The offices are strict and orderly -- tables rather than desks -- and the boss, an impressive and deliberate fellow, keeps a bronze sphinx on his desk.
This is a grownups’ version of Lord of the Rings, Star Wars or Harry Potter and very much draws on the same material but all through the trope of atrocious and serial murder. (Indeed, the first villain is left over from Star Wars.) We don’t see much gore, which I take to be not so much a squeamishness on the part of the British as their Shakespearean awareness that what is imagined offstage is usually more powerful than what is acted out onstage. The exception is the last episode where the writers and so on went all out to make the story memorable. The theme is “fire” and the camera lingers on the horror of charred bodies. (The sheriff’s department in Cut Bank, Montana, once had a bulletin board of accident victims, including an immolation of an Indian boy whose mother finally forced them to take down. Until then, people stopped to look again and again.)
What made “Touching Evil” so interesting to me is that they went to such sources as Gaston Bachelard (I told you I read French multisyllabic stuff -- though translated to English!) for his theories on what fire “means.” In this show, everything “means” something and the trick is finding out what that is. A French immolator of women -- technically he seduced them into burning themselves, he says -- tells us that they died in “ecstaseee” rather than “agoneee.” The murderers here are often highly educated, one might say to the point of madness, and are “other,” at least to a working class straightfoward English guy like Creighan: they are long-haired Irish or high-flown French or maybe a rather peculiar scientist or a smarmy therapist.
But the central idea, perhaps originating with Paul Abbott, is that to catch the criminal, one must become a bit like them, but remain always in control, always making an accurate estimation of what is going on. (Sort of like being a writer.) In an early episode Creighan fails in this -- thinking he can talk a killer out of cutting the throat of an innocent girl. He couldn’t, so he was forced to watch the life die out of her accusing eyes. And such is the consciousness of the show that in the last episode, Creighan is redeemed -- he is “cleansed” as the French immolator described. Creighan goes to answer his door with Gaston Bachelard’s book in his hand. But he is unable to interrupt the forces that cause people to become evil. Thus the series is brought full circle without closing down the issues.
This show is notorious for suddenly killing people to whom we’ve become attached. There are few sex scenes, discretely done and meaningful. One of the real rewards is seeing Creighan slowly come to a close relationship with “Susan,” the tough and earnest team leader, who has a good heart. It’s very subtle, but in the last episode he begins to put his head alongside hers, to bridge their chairs with his arm. There has been so much space between them, off and on, that there is a great deal of power in what those simple camera shots convey.
“Homicide” is the only US crime show that approaches this depth and complexity -- at least that I’ve seen.