Outside the Government: The Categories of Life

(27 comments)

It’s August 5th, 2011. Yep. LMFAO again. In news, terrible flooding strikes Thailand, the US manages one of its periodic narrow aversions of global economic catastrophe by increasing its debt ceiling, but suffers a downgrading to its credit rating anyway, and some guy named Mark Duggan is killed by the police in London, but really, what are the odds that that’s going to go absolutely terribly. 

While on television, Miracle Day reaches the halfway point. “The Categories of Life” is a ruthless, effective thing. It is not quite a surprising piece of television - it is an episode built around major character death, which is by this point an absolutely bog standard trick that television pulls. But Jane Espenson has been around the block more than enough times to execute it correctly, and “The Categories of Life” is a well-worked example, with the standard approach of focusing the episode heavily on the character you’re about to off, and initially making it appear that they’re going to be newly minted as a primary character before unexpectedly killing them.

There is a certain degree to which this is an inherently flawed practice, especially given how common the episode structure is. The use of shock deaths as a default way of adding tension to a show has become a cliche and a crutch - an easy way to generate the feel of something being a “major episode.” Torchwood has been plenty guilty of this in the past, most infamously with the finale to Season Two, but it’s hardly a Torchwood-specific vice. 

The most infamous version of this phenomenon, named by comics-writer Gail Simone in reaction to a particularly grim plot twist in an issue of Green Lantern, is the trope of “women in refrigerators,” a trope whose naming serves to identify and condemn the tendency to use female characters for the job of being gratuitously killed in order to anger and motivate male characters. And the killing of Vera Juaraez, the series’ most promising new character, in order to give Rex some more man pain, fits squarely and frustratingly into this tradition, so much so that the means of her death - being incinerated in an oven - has to go down as the most bitter joke Jane Espenson has ever written. 

And yet for all of this, “The Categories of Life” bristles with a potential not previously seen within Miracle Day. Part of this is the fact that Miracle Day has been consciously configured to take character death off the table. Shock character death is, it has to be admitted, a materially different trick in a show where nobody can die, and the fact that the previous episodes contained three separate instances of a character who visibly should be dead being shown to be alive, including the gruesome eyeball-in-a-crushed-car scene at the end of “Escape to LA,” further emphasized the illusion that this was a show that wasn’t going to kill characters. And so killing Vera feels wrong and shocking in a way that other television deaths don’t. 

It’s also notable that Vera’s death is in many ways an exclamation point at the end of an episode that is consciously focused on other things, namely being furious about health care. There’s a conscious decision to split the series up, with Gwen and Rhys getting a Wales-based version of the plot that Rex, Esther, and Vera get in California. Both deal with the overflow camps and the practice of incinerating the category ones, but their take on the horror of it is strangely divergent. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this is the relatively clear value judgment involved. The American camp is focused not only on the module and what happens there, but on the scandalously bad conditions of the camp. The detail of monitoring patients vitals so they can be reclassified quickly is beautifully horrific, as is the expansion of triage-style emergency care to become the norm. It becomes a story not only about the moral horror of incinerating people who are still alive, but also about the fact that it’s being done badly and in an institutionally corrupt way.

The Welsh camp, on the other hand, is broadly presented as a better place. Some of the most abrasive details like the colored clips to denote status are eliminated, and there isn’t the running theme of unsanitary conditions. (Yes, there’s apparently cholera and the like, but the difference between that and the shots of people with actively necrotic wounds is profound.) The Welsh camp also appears reasonably well-organized, in an almost classically British fashion. Instead, Gwen’s horror is at the fact that health care is being managed by private companies, which is an absolutely ludicrous complaint to raise in American television, where essentially the entire health care system that is not the VA system is run by private companies. It is a reasonably barbed point in 2011 in the UK, where it comes off as an active critique of the government’s policy with regards to the NHS, and is a clear part of the series’ conscious concession after two entirely America-centric episodes to justify the license payers’ money, but it’s a materially different point than the one being made about America.

And, perhaps more importantly, it’s a subtler point. Both ultimately coalesce on the moral obscenity of murdering people who are not actually dead, but even in this obscenity there are differences. The American camp appears to be staffed by people who don’t know what goes on at the modules, whereas the British camp has gotten to where there’s a euphemistic grim joke about them, calling them the “burn unit.” Those who are asked profess a sort of willful ignorance, whereas in the American camp Colin’s assistant, Ralph, actually asks about the modules, even if he also accepts the order not to ask too many questions. So in the British story we’re given a sort of It Happened Here vibe in the old “how a country could fall to fascism” tradition, whereas the American story is an unambiguous and aggressive take on current political trends, with Colin being depicted as a grotesque parody of the sort of administrators and leaders the country actually had during the Bush administration. The British one is, to be sure, rooted in a critique of current governmental policy, but is also consciously structured as a more diffuse critique.


At the heart of this is the presence of Colin, an actively malevolent villain, within the American story. This changes the critique from a diffuse one about broad social responsibility to a critique about a specific and crashingly unsubtle person. And while this is perhaps less interesting than the British story, which continues to play off of the themes central to Children of Earth, it still works and feels like anger directed at the right sorts of people. And with this buildup, Vera’s death, though a frustrating contribution to an overall negative trend in television, feels like an effective and emphatic sort of resolution, especially given the added shock of a death within the context of Miracle Day. The result is the first episode where it really feels like the show knows what it wants to accomplish and where it calmly and emphatically goes out and does it. At last, the point, or at least a point of the exercise stands triumphantly revealed. It’s not a perfect episode, and it’s worth noting that I’ve just not used the phrase “Oswald Danes” this post, but it’s at least one that feels like it justifies its own existence. At last, we’ve gotten to the excellent part of this Curates Egg. 

Comments

Spacewarp 3 years, 2 months ago

Now this is where I think reviewers and crtics often want to have their cake and eat it. Vera , "the series’ most promising new character" is killed "in order to give Rex some more man pain".

No, Vera is killed precisely because she is the series' most promising new character. Yes, she's female, but that's because RTD & co wrote a strong female character and gave the role to a strong female actor. You build your character up, ensuring that the viewers invest their interest and their time in him/her, then kill him/her off for maximum impact. You're correct that that's what they do.

But to imply that it was only done because Vera was a girl, so Rex could get angry is frankly insulting.

Either Vera is a strong female character in a role normally reserved for male actors, making her death more devastating, or she's simply damsel plot-fodder so why build her role up in the first place. You can't have it both ways. Especially since Esther would fit the bill far better, considering the growing relationship between her and Rex. Which of course is what does happen to her in the final episode.

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David Anderson 3 years, 2 months ago

I think the argument is that these days audiences don't buy damsel plot fodder roles played straight; they ask why they should care about a character whose only function is obviously to cause trouble and emotional distress to the other characters. So if writers want a female plot fodder role they make sure to write a strong female character to put into it. But writers don't as often build a male character up ensuring that viewers put their time and interest into him, and then kill him off for maximum impact. I'm certainly struggling to think of an example outside Game of Thrones.

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SpaceSquid 3 years, 2 months ago

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SpaceSquid 3 years, 2 months ago

I'm certainly struggling to think of an example outside Game of Thrones.

Rory? No, wait...

Could we maybe build a case for Ianto? I haven't seen CoE since it was first broadcast, but there was certainly effort put into fleshing his character out early in the serial.

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 2 months ago

If I can add to David's already-excellent point, the trope has become even more offensive now that audiences find it more difficult accept the existence of a pure damsel plot fodder. The pure damsel was at least transparently dull. Even though she was purposely designed to serve as a plot-motivating sacrifice to add drama to a male character's story, at least she didn't tantalize the audience with possibilities of being anything more than that.

But now, because such pure damsels are largely seen as retrograde and sexist, the sacrificial ewe lamb actually has to be made interesting. That was the case with Vera Juarez — she was a more interesting character than Rex Matheson, Steely FBI Agent™. RTD killed a character that should have supplanted his boring protagonist for the sake of drama for his boring protagonist. Yes, Vera's death is a tragedy, and it's a tragedy not only because we've lost such an incredible character, but because losing Vera this early in the show actually harmed Miracle Day as a narrative.

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SK 3 years, 2 months ago

Oh, come on, are you being wilfully obtuse? Of course if you're creating a character (ie, not using a pre-existing character) in a dramatic work whose purpose is to die in order to elicit a reaction from the audience then you're going to make the character female because, all other things being equal, the death of a women will provoke a stronger reaction in a human than the death of a man.

It's encoded into us, cross-culturally, from back when it didn't matter if you lost half the tribe's young men in a battle with your rivals but to lose a single woman was a disaster, that women are to be protected but men are expendable.

It's why casualty rates are higher in mixed-sex front-line combat units because the men take greater risks to protect their female comrades than they would to protect males. This innate, almost biological urge to protect the female of the species is so strong that it makes trained soldiers put their lives in danger; there is no such urge to protect males.

And as the purpose of a dramatic work is to evoke a reaction in the audience, and as a woman's death will produce a stronger reaction than a man's, then if you are creating a character to die you should make that character a woman if at all possible. Otherwise you are not getting the strongest possible reaction from your audience.

(Assuming the character has to be an adult, of course. You can get an even bigger reaction by killing a child, because again we are encoded to see children as objects to be protected, so their deaths are even more shocking than the death of a woman.)

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Josh04 3 years, 2 months ago

biotruths! we just can't help our sexist genes!

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BerserkRL 3 years, 2 months ago

where essentially the entire health care system that is not the VA system is run by private companies

Except that the "private" companies are the recipients of such whopping amounts of state privilege that they are essentially arms of the state and only nominally private. Both the US and UK healthcare systems are systems of bureaucratic/plutocratic control differing only in the details; the last thing either system would tolerate is the return of the genuinely private, patient-run system they worked so hard to demolish.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 2 months ago

Dear god no. Sociobiology is to biology what astrology is to astronomy.

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Anton B 3 years, 2 months ago

To be read in your best A Writer's Tale voice.

So Torchwood. Series four. Ideas. Went for a walk round LA. Dying for a smoke! But not allowed. Hmmph. Everyone's so health conscious here. Cancer. huh!
WAIT! I've got it! Captain Jack, lovely Johnny Barrowman, can't die. (Jack that is, not JB unfortunately!) We've established that for three series. But what if...oh what if? A twist! Now NOBODY CAN DIE.! Brilliant!
But why? How? Oh I don't know we'll make something up. Something about morphic fields. (What are they? I don't know. It doesn't matter).
So lots of old grannies having to be looked after who refuse to just shuffle off. And lots of walking wounded prosthetics (what is the fx budget?) It's horrendous. HORRENDOUS!
But wait...what if then. Then...We kill off a major character? Oh not a real one like Gwen or Lovely Johnny. No we'll make one up and then, having established no-one can die. They Die! Horribly. Brilliant. But how? I don't know can we incinerate them? In a big oven. Too gruesome? I don't know. But it's brilliant I tell you. BRILLIANT! We can get lovely Janey Espenson to write that episode. She'll make it funny and tragic and oh so heart-breaking all at the same time.
That's it. Enough ideas. I'm going out for more fags. (Cigarettes whoops! must remember I'm in LA. How could I forget? Torchwood! In LA. Brilliant!

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Daibhid C 3 years, 2 months ago

Looking at my LJ, I note that my take on the US/UK contrast was "Interestingly, the return to Cardiff is actually evidence of just how much the series is set in America: Britain's overflow camps policy is further advanced, making it the horrible example of what the US team is trying to stop."

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David Anderson 3 years, 2 months ago

I think astrologers could take offence at that. Astrology looked after astronomy in its infancy.

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Alan 3 years, 2 months ago

The first fictional character I was aware of who was "created to die" was actually male -- Thunderbird of the X-Men, who was presented as a somewhat belligerent and reckless Native American and was introduced in Giant-Sized X-Men #1 and killed in the next issue to show that the new series was "edgy."

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Anton B 3 years, 2 months ago

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Anton B 3 years, 2 months ago

Ferro Lad from the Legion of Super Heroes (Adventure Comics 1966) predates Thunderbird by a good few years as a character introduced deliberately, only to be killed off two issues later.

On TV the first major character death in an ongoing sci-fi show was surely Toby Wren, played by Robert Powell, in Kit Pedlar and Gerry Davis' Doomwatch .

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David Anderson 3 years, 2 months ago

If the plutocracy are really benefitting from the NHS, they're running a really good bluff. Possibly too good a bluff.

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Spacewarp 3 years, 2 months ago

Where is the "Like" button when you need it?

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 2 months ago

I usually refrain from this, but I'd like to explicitly note that I think SK's comment is one of the most completely and utterly wrongheaded things ever posted on my blog.

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 2 months ago

Unless it's sarcasm so pure that no one can tell anything of the genuine sentiments behind it. Which I think defeats the entire purpose of being sarcastic.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 2 months ago

The last time I checked, the NHS was run by one of the wealthiest and most powerful corporations in the world.

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John 3 years, 2 months ago

What's always amazing about these kind of wildly sexist sociobiology theories is that they're presented as being obvious common sense that nobody could possibly dispute.

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John 3 years, 2 months ago

Man, this thread is bringing out the crank in everyone. Can you think of any differences in how health care works between now and 100 years ago that might mean that your "genuinely private, patient run system" wouldn't work anymore?

Can we come up with any examples of your preferred system working in any country in the world in the 21st century?

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BerserkRL 3 years, 2 months ago

Make something illegal everywhere and then ask for current examples. Nice trick.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 2 months ago

Here's some more info on the proposal in today's context, however: http://c4ss.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/C4SS-The-Healthcare-Crisis-A-Crisis-of-Artificial-Scarcity-by-Kevin-A.-Carson.pdf

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Spacewarp 3 years, 2 months ago

Sadly I have a worry that there may be something in SK's theory. Not because I agree with it, or want it to be true, but because as a 52-year old male who has spent several decades studying the human race (and myself), I have noticed this tendency in myself. I don't even think it's cultural, but far deeper down than that I recognise in myself the drive to protect members of the opposite sex. I have 3 children now, of ages ranging 11 to 33, and I would certainly die to protect them. I don't say that as a noble aspiration or hope on my part, but as a pure biological fact. If one of my children was about to be run over, I would be physically unable to prevent myself from pushing them out of the way and taking the hit for them. Personally I wouldn't want to do it (since it would obviously involve me dying) but I would have no choice in the matter. There have been a couple of instances where one of my kids has for a second been in danger (once from choking and once from drowning) and in both cases I felt my conscious thoughts completely supressed by instinct to protect. In hindsight the feeling was quite unpleasant. I know that if I encountered another human in danger I would attempt to help them, but if they were female the instinctive drive would be stronger, and I would probably put myself in more danger than if the person was male.

I'm not saying this is the sole reason for the tendency to put women in peril in drama, but I do suspect that deep down we may find there is an instinctive drive that makes some of us feel that this is satisfying dramatically. It is certainly a trope that seems to be satisfying to a majority of viewers, and may even explain why attack of female characters is so prevalent in crime drama. Whenever the victims are children, success and high ratings are almost guaranteed (see "Broadchurch"). I suspect the same is true when the victims are women. It's just that we don't have a Child equivalent to "feminism" or "sexism". I do strongly believe that a lot more is hard-wired into the human brain than we would like to accept, and our instincts go a lot deeper than we suspect.

As I like to say..."Man does not think. He only thinks he thinks."

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John 3 years, 2 months ago

Eh...I don't at all think there is any reason assume that such feelings are genetic when we have a culture that constantly reinforces these supposedly "instinctual" drives.

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John 3 years, 2 months ago

Just to be more explicit: health care is massively more expensive than it was in the 19th century because there is so much more it can do.

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