Bringing Order to the Chaos

In the year since I last updated my blog, I've often thought that I should write about Law & Order. Not only did the flagship series of this great franchise go dark in May after a stunning twenty seasons, but I've spent much of my summer greedily hoarding and poring over old reruns on DVR. I've loved Law & Order almost as long as I've loved television, and something about its ending made me frantic to more fully immerse myself in the experience of it. And within this immersive retrospective, it became increasingly evident that this series was so much more than a mere procedural, its brilliance goes beyond its tightly wrought mysteries and innovative format. In re-watching much (though not nearly all) of the series' 456 episodes, one finds two decades of nuanced cultural dialog. With their myriad cases, some "ripped from the headlines", most purely theoretical, we observe the inner-workings of our justice system as applied to a sort of elaborate, hypothetical testing ground. The abstruse black and white of our society's laws are given shape and color, with voices speaking for all points of view, and we the viewing public sit in judgement, to sort out for our selves what meaning we can find.

Not long ago, having dinner with friends who share a similar admiration for Dick Wolf's master work (Olli Haaskivi and Chris Swan, to name names), I admitted a difficult thing: Law & Order is one of the only forces in the known universe that has ever caused me to reconsider my position on political or social matters; which is not to say that it's changed my mind, but by fleshing out the intangible principles by which our justice system operates, I've been made to see the other side of several controversial issues in a way that I've never been moved to by any op-ed article or political speech. This show is unique in its facilitation of dialog because it advocates for no one position. Characters of equal intelligence and esteem regularly disagree on the concerns of the day, sometimes calmly, sometimes with great fervor, but in the end they all work together, and respect each other, and despite their differing philosophies and styles, all have an equal stake in the fight for justice.

Perhaps the most compelling example of this is the show's ongoing debate on the use of the death penalty. Growing up the way that I did, I never questioned my inherent opposition to capital punishment, believing that support of it came primarily from what I considered a barbaric desire for vengeance. I still oppose it, that much hasn't changed, but hearing Jack McCoy argue in its favor certainly opened my mind to the reasons people have for supporting it, which thereby expanded not only my understanding of the issue, but also the of people with whom I disagree. We live in a world where far too often sound-bites and headlines stand in for true examination of the issues. But by applying the laws of our country to these imagined situations, Law and Order engages us in a much fuller debate, exploring all angles of every story.

Which brings me to the episode I watched today. "Aftershock" the sixth season finale, is as close as Law & Order ever gets to a "very special episode". Abandoning the usual formula of investigation followed by prosecution, this episode begins with a man strapped to a gurney, as another man prepares to administer a lethal injection, and a curtain is drawn back, revealing all the series regulars (except Lt. Van Buren, who explains later that she opted not to attend because of her uneasiness about the proceedings). They've come to watch New York City's first execution since the ban was lifted, and we see their varied reactions as the heart monitor eventually registers the man's death. For the next 55 minutes there's no case, no real plot, just each character coping with the event in his or her own way.

Briscoe and Curtis, who apprehended the man put to death, now find that they have conflicted feelings about their much celebrated success. Curtis wanders the city alone until he happens upon a female grad student (played by Jennifer Garner, who has never looked more beautiful), with whom he spends a frivolous day, talking about music, never admitting to being a cop. His escapism leads him to a one night stand, the eventual admission of which results in the break-up of his marriage the following season. Briscoe, on the other hand, has a awkward lunch with his daughter, from whom he has been partially estranged for some time. She pushes him to talk about his drinking, wanting to know when and why he stopped, and when he's unable to answer to her satisfaction, she tells him she preferred him as a drunk, and walks away. He wanders the city, burdened by her words, until that evening when he meets up with Jack in a bar, and decides to join him in drinking away their feelings about the day's events.

Jack's journey to the bar began earlier that afternoon, after his ride to the office with Claire became so tense that he left her car to find a taxi. Theirs was a beautifully rendered, complex relationship. During their time together in the D. A.'s office, it was made clear, although mostly sub-textually, that there was romance between them when they were off duty, but on screen they were all work and no play, except for the occasional lingering glance or off-hand remark. Until this episode, the debate over the issue of capital punishment had been primarily between these two, and this was reflected in their tension, both at the execution and in the car.

Upon his arrival at this blue-collar dive bar, Jack strikes up a friendship with one of the regulars over a game of darts, and spends the day talking with this near-stranger about their fathers, sharing many rounds of drinks in the process. He begins with happy childhood memories, calling his father a super-man, telling of how hard he'd worked to please him, but by night fall he'd moved on to darker memories of his father beating his mother, and of watching him die of lung cancer. We learn a lot about Jack in these scenes, the sort of things that he admits to his impromptu confessor he never talks about. Among them, that he'd hoped to be a cop like his dad, to fight for justice, but his father had wanted more for him and pushed him toward the legal profession. We learn as well that his father taught him, whether in sport or on the job, for McCoys "losing was not an option". It's in these revelations that we see beyond his academic, if impassioned, arguements about the need for the death penalty; no matter his reasoning or justifications, Jack is still fighting to make his father proud by punishing the bad guys, and winning at any cost.

Claire uses her day-off to visit her step-father in his classroom, where he's lecturing on the principles of law to the next generation of attorneys. She confides in him about her guilt and anger over playing an instrumental role in something she didn't believe in. She expects him to be sympathetic, understanding, and when he isn't, her world is thrown further out of balance. She expresses to him that she keeps working to find the middle ground between, "pragmatism, idealism and cynicism", which I believe is the the central conceit of the entire Law & Order franchise. But sadly, Claire is never able to achieve that golden mean. After a cathartic conversation with Lt. Van Buren, and several calls from Jack, she goes to meet him at the bar, only to find that he's left, believing she wasn't coming. Having missed him, she approaches Briscoe, who is now thoroughly drunk after spending much of the evening with Jack, and offers to drive him home. In the midst of an affectionate conversation between the two of them (Lenny tells her he wishes she'd been his daughter, because she doesn't hate him) their car is struck by a drunk driver, and Claire is killed.

This final scene is voiced over by Van Buren, reading a letter she's writing to her mother, expressing for the first time her feelings about the execution. She tells of the man's terrible crimes, the beautiful young girl he raped and murdered, and her belief that such a man deserved what ever happened to him, but ends by saying "today the state of New York got its revenge. And it's not enough. And it's too much", and then, as Lenny looks at Claire's bloodied face, the screen fades to black.

This is a classic example (the unusual format not withstanding) of what Law and Order does best. In an early scene, D.A. Adam Schiff expresses that it's their duty to "bring order to the chaos", and that's what this show does so beautifully. The system is as imperfect as the people it represents, there isn't always justice, there isn't always meaning, but what these characters do, for their world and for ours, is maintain the structure through which a world in an ongoing state of violent disarray can be sorted out.

So thanks, Dick Wolf, for twenty years if judicious discourse. My life, modern television, and dare I say, society as a whole, are in your debt. Here's hoping Law and Order Los Angeles lives up to its pedigree!


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