"The Shield": Crime and Punishment, By James J. Murtagh, M.D.
Police Drama vividly portrays a lower circle of hell for a guilty conscience.
Warning: spoiler alert. If you have not seen the final episode of The Shield, do not read further. The episode contains a major plot twist which is discussed in this Op- Ed.
Latin proverb for "corruption of the best is the worst of all."
It is fiendishly appropriate that the television
police drama, The Shield, ended its series in 2008, exactly 700 years since
Dante began writing the Inferno. The Shield, possibly more than any
other series, demonstrates the most intense hell on earth, forcing its worst
characters to kill the people and things they love best.
Exquisitely appropriate punishments are meted out
to the guilty, with twisted, but appropriate, justice. There is no escape for the
damned, spiraling into lower and deeper cycles of pain.
For seven years The Shield, like the Sopranos,
and HBO's "The Wire", shows evil in all its seductive guises. Of the
three series, the Shield was most shocking, even moving its audience to cheer for the
central character, Vick Mackey, the macho corrupt police detective at his most
murderous and torturing self. Even Mackey's murder of a fellow policeman evoked a
morbid fascination. How much could one man get away with?
Mackey initially plans to get away Scott-free
through a devil-deal to turn state's evidence and become a snitch himself. He claims
he beat the system. Or has he?
Wrong! Fate reserves circles in hell for
treacherous murderers even below simple murderers. Not being caught appears
infinitely crueler than being fried by 2,400 volts in an electric chair.
For his immunity, Mackey betrays everyone and
everything he cares about. Mackey is sentenced to life in a cubicle, cut off from
anything or anyone he ever cared about. He is in a deep freeze as cold as great lake
Cocytus Dante described at the bottom of the ninth circle of hell, reserved for the
great traitors of all time.
Hell's best-kept secret is that we create it for
ourselves. Mackey connived, threatened, hoodwinked and betrayed to get this cubicle.
It is nothing but an existential nightmare.
Others also receive punishments befitting their
great sins. Mackey's one-time sidekick, Shane Vendrell kills his own wife and child,
then kills himself. But not before Vendrell realizes the enormity of his crimes and
comes to true contrition.
In a subplot, a sixteen-year-old serial murderer
is caught. A haunting reminder is made that this boy could have grown up to be Vic
Mackey, and there is little moral difference between the boy murderer and the
ex-police cop. Both operate on the same ethic.
Robert Frost wrote that torment by ice can be
much more painful than by fire, metaphorically contrasting passionate torments with
death by hatred. Mackey's fate is death by ice, frozen into a bland cubicle,
with no hope of redemption.
What is the best way to punish a depraved guilty
man? To punish him? Or just possibly, not punishing the guilty is even worse
Dostoevsky also believed that punishment was
essential to redemption of the human soul. Mackey escapes being caught, and loses his
one remaining chance, and he must endure a long unhappy life.
Shakespeare, repeated over and over variations of
a single story, namely, murder, guilt and consequences. Could Macbeth have endured a
hollow life if he had survived as tyrant, surrounded by luxuries won by murder?
Macbeth preferred his head on a pike to life in bloody Inverness. Something tells me
that Mackey would have been much happier ending everything in single combat.
Shakespeare granted the release of death as the
greatest boon to both homicidal heroes and villains. Hamlet, Vendrell and Mackey
all lived in worlds "rotten." The ghetto's of Los Angeles have much in
common with Hamlet's Denmark.
"To never have been born may be the greatest
boon of all." Vendrell, paralyzed beyond Hamlet, not even able to ask "to
be, or not to be," instead murders what he loves.
Not all villains could be punished by no punishment. The Iagos and Richard IIIs delight in escape. Could fitting punishment depend more on the nature of the criminal, than on the crime? For some criminals, capital punishment is devoutly to be wished. For Dante, divine punishment was necessary for the operation of a divine Universe.
Do we, in the modern world, including our
leaders, suffer even more because the possibility of punishment often seems remote?
For Dante, redemption came only after being
caught, being punished, and renouncing sin. For The Shield's Mackey, there is
no punishment, which turns out to be, for at least one criminal, the worst punishment
James J. Murtagh Jr.