[Review by Noah Burns]
[Writer: Mark Fish | Director: Nick Gomez | Aired: 06/15/2005]
It seems that while “Everything Nice” [1×02] and “Old Wounds” are brothers, “Everything Nice” [1×02] got more Minear’s milk. (Hey, I warned you.) “Old Wounds” has nearly the amount of depth that “Everything Nice” [1×02] had, but doesn’t communicate it nearly as well. In both “New Girl in Town” [1×01] and “Everything Nice” [1×02], there were no wasted scenes, and the dialog was of a consistently high quality. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said here. The speech by Brandt at the beginning is over the top (I think that was intentional, but not well executed – more on that later) and some of the dialog in the procedural scenes – the interviews with Brandt and his partners’ associates – is poor. That being said, beneath the problematic surface there is the aforementioned richness. It’s time to use the analyst’s knife and cut this thing open to see what’s inside.
I will start with an analysis of some of the character insights in this episode, and that should lead us into the themes quite naturally. Once again, I will be starting with the teaser. This one begins with our first case-pitch, in which the agents each bring a proposal for a case that the team should investigate. It’s an interesting idea on a number of levels. First, it tells us about Web’s procedure for finding cases: he isn’t just interested in what attracts his attention, but what attracts the attention of his team members. Furthermore, if we view Web as a guide for the troubled, which I do, case-pitch is the agents’ opportunity to tell Web what’s troubling them. He then decides which problem – or which agent – is most in need of help.
Each case pitch, then, tells us about the agent who pitches it. Danny’s pitch involves a lot of preparation and undercover work, but specifically involves wearing a costume, dressing up as a Hell’s Angel. This seems to be indicative of one of the only things we learn about Danny beyond his macho persona: he likes to dress up. According to Mel, he’s pitched similar undercover missions before in the hopes of getting to wear a “fancy disguise”. Back in the pilot, when Danny was tasked with forming a low-profile team to help Rebecca take down Simon, Web scolded him, “And this time let’s put the ‘plain’ back in ‘plain-clothes’; it’s not dinner theater.” And in the episodes to come he will be wearing several other disguises. In “Point of Origin” [1×06] he will be the one who dresses up as the genius arsonist, even though everybody sees him as, well, one taco short of a combination platter, as my wonderful high school English teacher used to say.
We also know that Danny’s name is “Love”, something he is mocked for in “Gem” [1×12], but that he puts out the image of a macho type who isn’t very interested in the deeper side of relationships. Danny, it seems, has something he’s trying to hide. And Web isn’t going to let him. He shoots Danny down with a very firm, “You’re not growing a mustache”, a line that I think could only be made meaningful on a Minear or Whedon show.
Rebecca has a lot of problems. We already knew that, but it’s disturbing to see them ordered and numbered so neatly in her folder. She thinks that she has them under control. But how can she? One look at what’s in her folder and I felt like I needed to be put on lithium. The photos are artistically disgusting, an epithet that I could perhaps as easily apply to the entire show itself.
The moment that Paul enters and gives a pitch, however, Rebecca is ready to forgo her pitch for his. Why? The moment Web says that it’s an ordinary case, she looks concerned. She can tell that Web is wrong. That explains her interest in his case. It doesn’t entirely explain why she would give up hers for it, however. She’s not particularly close to Paul at this point. They work together, but all of his friendly overtures so far have been rebuffed, so I don’t see her lying to Web as a favor to him. The only interpretation that makes sense to me has to do with how she was startled when Danny looked over her shoulder and she quickly closed her folder. There’s no way Danny could have lifted her pitch, so her reason for not showing him must be something other than protectiveness of her idea, although I think it does have to do with protectiveness on her part. Throughout the series we see Rebecca attempt to hide her wounds from others. Until “Little Girl Lost” [1×10] she will even deny that she is Becky George, as she does later in this episode. She tells Paul, “Becky George was taken from her bedroom by a stranger, Becky George was held for 18 months, Becky George got away on her own… I’m Rebecca.” Though we know better, that the wounds from the experiences of Becky George haunt her to this day, Rebecca denies her past self and the injuries to it.
Now, occasionally she will be asked a question about her abduction and will respond as if it were something that happened to her. She refers to the Pony Man as, “The Man Who Took Me”, implying that she was the one who was taken. In “Loneliest Number” [1×05] she even gives a first person narration of the events of her abduction. But when someone calls her Becky George she is adamant: that wasn’t me. To state the evidence clearly: Rebecca acknowledges the events of her past, but not who she was when those events happened. It’s not altogether surprising, then, that when she is faced with putting forth something of her own, even a case-pitch, for the group, she demurs.
In any case, Web rejects Paul’s case-pitch on the grounds that it is ordinary, and he, Mel, and Danny leave Paul and Rebecca behind in the briefing room to talk. Paul says that no matter what case he pitched, Web wouldn’t accept it. He thinks that Web is being antagonistic on personal grounds. Web’s comments about why he hired Paul back this up. He says to Rebecca, “You think it’s the cases he’s controlling? Right.” This brings us to the red herring that the writers use to trick us into having expectations that they can then subvert. In most shows this is done with plot, and the red-herring is usually an out of character action that is then explained by the subsequent events of the episode. Here, the red-herring is thematic, and in this case Minear and Fish use it to do more than surprise us. They use it to guide our perspective to something that they will then use to explore the topic that they are really writing about.
This episode is not about control. Let’s just be clear on that, for those of you out there who, like me, initially faulted this episode for committing the faux pas of blatantly stating the theme. Control is not the theme, which can be confirmed by following the one-step process that my aforementioned English teacher told us to follow whenever we couldn’t figure out what a Keats or Browning poem was about: Look at the title. Authors who put a lot of thought into their works put a lot of thought into their titles. That is axiomatic. And the writers of The Inside are very thoughtful. So no matter what it may seem like from the teaser, this episode is about dealing with “Old Wounds”.
It does beg the question, though, how thinking about control prepares us think about our past traumas. To get at this, I’m going to ask a different question, Why do the women who come to Brandt do so? He says that it makes them feel better. He claims that the women he ties up have the experience of going through something painful and coming out whole on the other side, and that this experience gives them strength.
In a rare convergence of opinions, neither Paul or Web are buying any of that, albeit for completely different reasons. Paul objects to Brandt, and to the idea of obtaining sexual pleasure through causing suffering. He refers to what Brandt does with these women as both ‘perverse’ and ‘torture’. His exchanges with Rebecca about this are juicy, so I’ll quote one at length:
Rebecca: You’re judging her [Madeleine Shore].
Paul: Yeah, that’s right. I am judging her. Because she chose to be with someone who got off on hurting her, rather than with someone like me who respected her. I admit it.
Rebecca: You don’t know what her life was. What happened to make her the way she was.
Paul: Maybe. But I do know we can’t only be defined by our wounds.
Rebecca: Maybe it was her way of dealing with it.
Paul: “Dealing”? Please. If you escape one monster only to be controlled by another, how is that “dealing”?
Paul denies that causing somebody pain in the name of healing them is either effective or acceptable. This is some difficult philosophical territory being opened up for us. If causing somebody pain can help them, it allows for the possibility that it could be moral to cause people suffering. Paul isn’t philosophically equipped (yet) to deal with that proposition because his absolute worldview cannot allow for something as immoral as “torture” for pleasure to become moral in any case. On the other hand, time after time we see Paul draw his weapon, prepared to use it if need be, which is a case of causing suffering and possibly death for a morally superior outcome, saving his or someone else’s life. This is a relative moral calculation, one that many moral absolutists make with astonishing ease given their belief system. Of course, you can believe that most moral questions are relative but some are absolute. My question for Paul in this case would be, “Why is killing for a morally superior alternative acceptable and torturing for the same morally superior alternative isn’t?” That’s the kind of question that Paul is going to be confronting head soon enough.
All of this would be interesting, but not especially important, if we didn’t have the subtext of Web’s relationship with Rebecca in the background. Paul is setting up the argument, whether he is aware of it or not, that Web’s use of her traumas in order to solve cases, and even to heal her psychological wounds, is immoral and ineffective.
So what does this tell us about the relationship between control and trauma? Again, the women who go to Brandt do so because of pain. They have wounds that they cannot heal, and so they are compelled to try and exorcise them through Brandt’s ritual. But if these women are being compelled by pain, they are not in control of themselves. They are forced by pain to seek out more pain, and in this sense, they are never free, “To end the game at any time.” Brandt is perpetuating their cycle of loss of control. But wait… “Isn’t that just like what Web is doing to Rebecca except without all the sex?”
Except it turns out that the “without all the sex” part is really important. Brandt is taking women whom he knows to be psychologically damaged and inflicting pain upon them for his own sexual gratification. Web is taking a woman who had very great pains inflicted upon her, probably including sexual trauma, in the past and putting her in situations where she can choose to use that pain to give her insight into others. Brandt is creating new wounds for selfish purposes and creating fresh scars, wile Web is opening up old ones for altruistic purposes and helping Rebecca to heal herself. Rebecca will soon be becoming able to deal with her demons independent of Web. She will become a free person. This is a change that Brandt cannot affect.
So Paul is right about one thing for sure, and that is that, “We can’t be defined only by our wounds.” That is what the villain of the week is all about. Web describes how Strong saw Brandt’s conquests every night on his stakeouts (the same thing that the team was doing to Brandt…), and that Brandt’s “control” of his partners was felt by Strong as well. In order to describe this, I have to invent a barbarous phrase, and say that Strong was vicariously psycho-sexually assaulted by Brandt (yuck on so many levels), which to Strong was as real as a sexual assault.
Strong is kind of an interesting variation on Simon Gunther. Whereas Simon internalized others’ perceptions of himself until he became nothing, Strong internalizes his perception of another, namely of Brandt as a man in control of him. He feels so dominated by Brandt that he has to construct a fantasy world in which he can reassert his own control over the situation. The problem with this strategy, as Rebecca points out, is that Strong was never in control. Even when he was raping Brandt, he was doing so because of his perception of Brandt’s control over him. This is an interesting (if utterly perverse) analogue of the dynamic between Brandt and the women that he had sex with.
“Old Wounds” is the last part of the three part prelude of The Inside. Each episode is a tragedy, and the flaws that bring down the characters constitute the dynamic forces at work in the souls of the three lead characters. The tragic flaw in “New Girl in Town” [1×01] is the inability to see oneself at all (an extreme case of Rebecca’s denial of Becky George); in “Everything Nice” [1×02] it is the inability to see the darkness within oneself (a extreme case of Paul’s “frosting with sentiment”); and in “Old Wounds” it is the inability to control the darkness once you’ve been forced to look at it, (an extreme application of Web’s “sadistic” methods). This is, of course, an oversimplification, but a helpful one, and it allows us to identify the themes of the prelude as they recur and are developed in the remaining episodes.
Unfortunately for “Old Wounds” in and of itself, despite the depth that is below the surface, the surface just isn’t fun or artistic enough to make this a great episode. This episode lands below its brother “Everything Nice” [1×02] in the “good” category.
Web: You brought me a murder, Rebecca brought me a series. That’s what we do.
The Inside doesn’t deal with crimes of passion or circumstance. There are no cases of jilted lovers taking revenge on their exes or heated arguments ending with the sound of a gunshot. The killers on the show feel, somehow, worse than that. And indeed they are, not only because their actions are more grisly or because they kill more people, but because their motives are more threatening to our humanity. Real killers of this sort are called “monsters” in the press. What is it about them that makes us so unnerved by them beyond our revulsion from any murderer?
A crime of passion is relateable in that it is very “human” (as opposed to “humane”). Jealousy, anger, pride, and the whole lot of violently passionate emotions are enlivening. When we are seized by great anger we feel more aware, our heart beats faster, our focus narrows to include only the present. In short, we feel very strongly connected to where we are now, and so naturally we feel more alive. And all of us feel this way from time to time, although, fortunately, very few of us ever feel this way to the degree at which we would become homicidal. A crime born from such a state of mind, though we might abhor it, is still one that is in tune with our humanity.
What Simon Gunther does is utterly inhuman. As I talked about in my review of “New Girl in Town” [1×01], he was driven to do it because his own humanity was denied for so long that it simply vanished. With no self, there was nothing to stop him from acting out his wounds on the women that he perceived as nobodies. As Web says, “We know who he is by what he does” because what he does is all that he is. There is no name, there are no possessions, and most importantly, there is no perception of self for him to maintain an identity with. He characterizes his behavior as making the women he kills “honest”, but what he’s really making them into is himself, which is nothing.
This is why these kinds of cases horrify us so deeply: they challenge our humanity itself. What we fear far more than death is nothingness. And this is why Web takes only these cases. The last criterion of identity from “New Girl in Town” [1×01] is the one that Rebecca tells us of: self-perception. One can take away our possessions, strip us of our name and title, and even incapacitate us, and all these thing will hurt us, but as long as we can still say in earnest, “I am” (God’s name for himself, I might add), one can never break us.
The killers on the show kill because they have become dead themselves. They do not grow (they simply commit the same action over and over again), they do not have a self, and this is the key to Web’s quote above. A single crime doesn’t interest Web because it has nothing to do with nihilism, but rather an enlivening, who someone became in a second given a set of circumstances and emotions. A series of crimes, on the other hand, occurs when the individual in question has turned their self-perception outward, projecting their nihilism into the world, and, through their chosen methods of murder, carving the last vestiges of their identities, their wounds, into the objects of their projection, the human beings who are their victims.
Rebecca’s perception of herself is lacking. She said in “New Girl in Town” [1×01] that she was made into a nobody a long time ago. We see this in the scene in that episode where she looks into the mirror and sees the Pony Man standing behind her. She is still his object of projection. But when Web has Rebecca empathize with Donna Burton, something very different happens when she looks in the mirror. She sees Donna Burton, alone. She sees a whole self looking back at her in the mirror. She has, in effect, rekindled her ability to self-perceive by self-perceiving as another through imagining that she is that other. We call this empathy.
And isn’t this how we often learn about ourselves? There is a certain kind of art that is sometimes referred to as “self-expression”, but in my opinion it is really something more akin to “self-creation” or “self-transformation”. Andrew J. Robinson, who played Garak on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, has talked about the paradoxical nature of acting: the more you imagine that you are somebody else, the more you grow as a person and become yourself. Playing a pathological liar taught him about the nature of lying, and thus about his own relationship with the truth. This kind of knowledge gives you the ability to exert agency over your actions (if you know why you lie, you can make a real choice about whether or not it is the right thing to do). Exerting conscious agency over your actions is individual freedom, the opposite of the self-blind projection described above.
Web is an artist, and the scene I referred to above is Rebecca learning from a master artist the art of empathy. She has quite a ways to go before she masters it, but doing the work has saved her from complete destruction at the hands of her old wounds.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Paul asks Strong, “When did you first suspect Cole Brandt was your rapist?” Very clever, writers, very clever.
+ This episode begins a running gag of Web making jokes, after having made fun of Paul for asking if he was joking in “Everything Nice” [1×02]
+ On a related note, I think that Peter Coyote is the real serial killer, because he absolutely slew me twice in this episode, the first being his glorious Martha Stewart not-joke…
+ And the second being that big smile on his face when Paul and Rebecca reach the point where she is kissed in their reenactment of the Brandt encounter.
+ For some reason it took me while, but I finally caught on to the similarities between Paul and George Skoll, the Christian doorman. George is a lone bastion of light in an organization of empty people who are trying to fill their dark souls. He is “all about the light.” Like Paul, he wants to save their souls, but, like Rebecca, the women go to Brandt (“Web”) instead.