Outside the Government: Dead Man Walking
It’s February 20th, 2008. Duffy is at number one with “Mercy.” Goldfrapp, Kelly Rowland, H Two O, and Feeling also chart. In news, Kosovo declares independence from Serbia. Steve Fossett is declared legally dead. Toshiba abandons the HD DVD standard, leaving Sony’s Blu-Ray format as the preferred physical medium for high definition content, which would be great if digital distribution weren’t about to eat physical media alive. And Fidel Castro resigns the Presidency of Cuba.
On television, meanwhile, we have Dead Man Walking, the first episode featuring the reincarnated Owen. From the start, there is something odd and haphazard about this plot line. The nature of the plot was changed at the last minute – originally it was to be Ianto who would die and quasi-return. Similarly late in the game was the decision to kill Owen and Tosh in the season finale – they weren’t informed until a month or so before filming began on the episode. This is, in other words, not entirely well thought through, as evidenced by the kind of weird double death of Owen.
On the other hand, the basic contours of this plot are so very nearly bullet proof that it’s difficult to complain too much. From its first episode, with the resurrection glove and the revelation of Jack’s immortality, Torchwood has been a show about death. The way in which Dead Man Walking returns to these basic tenets of Torchwood gives it an odd power that other episodes this season have lacked. For the first time since Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang we have a story that only Torchwood could actually do.
The problem is that there’s still a significant muddiness to this. Yes, it’s a very Torchwood story, but giving the series a second quasi-immortal character is a strange decision. It’s difficult to read Owen as anything but a poor man’s Jack. Even the adventure this time feels like a knock-off. The incarnation of death itself feels like a weaker version of Abaddon from End of Days, right down to Owen’s eyes turning jet black and him chanting in incomprehensible languages, which is apparently a fixation for Matt Jones, who previously wrote basically the same thing in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, and which similarly evokes the “ancient evil coming out of the darkness” thread of those stories. Even the resolution – the immortal character allowing death to attack him and proving too strong – is essentially the same.
On top of that we still have Martha, although in this case she’s sidelined relatively early, and in such a way that she has a sensible function within the story. With Owen serving as the episode’s central mystery, he can’t very well do all the medical technobabble himself, which is a problem given that the mystery, in this case, is all medical technobabble. Having another doctor in place is useful, and Martha is one who can be imported without much explanation. Notably, once the story gets out of “explain the technobabble” and into the actual adventure at the hospital Martha is completely sidelined through what is pure plot contrivance, allowing the actual Torchwood cast to get on with it.
(The haphazard construction of the season makes this slightly more complex. If Ianto was originally to have Owen’s plot, the need for Martha to explain things would be obviated – Owen could do it just as well. But this is, in many ways, an overly hypothetical criticism; scripts in the Davies era are generally worked out from a confluence of images and requirements. The role Martha plays in the story is, in other words, determined in part by Owen being the one to die and come back, and in all likelihood the episode would have had a very different shape with Ianto in that role.)
The overall result is that Owen’s quasi-death is an oddly muted moment. It’s never quite clear what the show is doing with it, and it feels on the whole like an idea that got cooked up, developed briefly, and discarded on the grounds that it wasn’t quite working. On the basis of this episode, it’s not hard to see why. One assumes that the point of the exercise was, in fact, to make Owen more directly parallel Jack as a character. This explains why Ianto was the first choice – the idea, presumably, was to give him and Jack a shared experience in being immortal together. But, of course, Davies would never be one to give up the ability to do a plot about how Jack is immortal and will have to someday watch his lover die, and so this wasn’t going to work. And rightly so – the entire appeal of the Jack/Ianto romance hinges on the fact that Ianto is so very ordinary in contrast to Jack’s bombastic nature. To elevate Ianto into the realm of the supernatural would be to completely butcher the character.
No, if someone’s going to become immortal it does have to be Owen. And so the point of the exercise becomes giving Jack and Owen grounds to relate to each other on, in contrast to the extreme frostiness they ended the first season on. Hence the scene in jail, where they ostensibly get the chance to bond. And yet very little happens in that scene beyond a massively gratuitous projectile vomiting joke. The underlying mechanics are all there, but when it comes time to actually have a scene in which Jack and Owen relate to each other, there’s nothing to do.
The problem is that there’s nothing for their immortality to be a metaphor for. How two characters are meant to bond over their mutually odd relationships with death is not entirely clear. In this story, at least, Owen is not so much immortal as a mayfly, liable to die at any moment – although they quickly get this stabilized such that Owen is instead alive indefinitely. So we have that bit of dialogue about Owen taking in the feeling of the bricks in the jail cell while Jack doesn’t notice them. But this is all theoretical emotion. There’s no aspect of ordinary human life it relates to. It seems to be trying to get to a commentary on living in the moment versus acting as though you’ll live forever and missing the little things. But it’s strained at best.
The real problem is that getting Owen and Jack to relate in the first place is a big ask. Because Owen is, on the whole, a fairly thin character. It’s telling that the first season of Torchwood considered killing off both Ianto and Rhys before thinking better of it and keeping them in place, whereas the second season ultimately does decide to kill off Tosh and Owen. Because they are the two characters on the show designed, in a large part, to be generic stock characters. Owen is the asshole secondary male, and Tosh is the shy but brilliant computer nerd. Every show like this has those two characters, and neither of them are really designed to do more than fulfill the broadest outline of a plot role. It’s impossible to advance Owen as a character because to do so is to undermine his role in the narrative too significantly. So they try something akin to what Skins ultimately tried with Tony, but ultimately falter because you can’t tear down and build up a secondary character in the same way. To have a dramatic redemption arc Owen needs to be moved to the center of the narrative. And at this point the center is too crowded for him to get it. Even in this episode, the high point isn’t anything to do with Owen; it’s Gwen’s anguished phone call to Rhys, a moment that feels so much more human and relevant than anything to do with Owen the reincarnated corpse. (The scene is acutely familiar to anyone who has lived with someone who works in an emotionally intense, draining job. Like, say, nursing. Or extraterrestrial defense.)
But for all that this sounds like a continuation of what has been a fairly unceasing line of critique against Torchwood for three weeks now, it’s not quite. Much like Doctor Who, after an uneven and serially flawed era in the early 1980s engaged in a sort of exorcism in the Colin Baker era, Torchwood is on a road that includes improvement, even if it is not strictly speaking improving at the moment. It’s trying to fix its flaws, like that two of its main characters draw the show inexorably towards generic genre television. It’s starting to realize that it has a better show if it focuses on the bizarre and alien Jack and the way he relates to the very human people around him, and that the characters who come out of stock American television instead of out of human experience are infringing on that. It’s telling that next season the show focuses on the two series leads and the two characters it nearly discarded as incidental in the first season – a move that shows that the series eventually figures out what it’s actually good at.
Dead Man Walking, in other words, ultimately fails at solving the problems Torchwood is having this season. But it is at least an attempt to solve them, and one that correctly identifies what the problems are. There’s still a ways to go from here to a show that accomplishes what it sets out to do. But for the first time this season there’s also a clear road to there. On some level that has to be called a result.
November 4, 2013 @ 3:16 am
zombie season! zombie season! well, half-season.
November 4, 2013 @ 6:40 am
Zombie!Owen is not my favourite storyline, but at least it shows that the production team have realised that "Give Burn Gorman lots of different stuff to do" is a good strategy. He is a very fine actor who is, frankly, slumming it on this show.
November 4, 2013 @ 6:42 am
But, of course, Davies would never be one to give up the ability to do a plot about how Jack is immortal and will have to someday watch his lover die, and so this wasn’t going to work.
And yet, when he finally got around to doing that story, he cocked it up so badly that it provoked massive fan outrage and ruined what, for me, had been a very enjoyable series (TW:COE) up to that point.
Stuart Ian Burns
November 4, 2013 @ 6:44 am
Will you be doing the radio episodes? I'd like to see what you think of House of the Dead in relation to some of the above.
November 4, 2013 @ 8:31 am
I'm also interested in your take on Lost Souls, Torchwood's crossover issue with the opening of the Large Hadron Collider, so you can explain whatever the hell that was.
When Burn Gorman is good, he's really very good. Apart from some of his better scripts (like the wonderful Out of Time) and the up-to-11 crazy he can lend to storylines like Zombie!Owen and the Fight Club pastiche of Combat, Torchwood really hasn't made the best use of his talents, sticking him with a very programmatic character whose idiosyncrasies seem to be his own contribution to what on paper is a standard supporting character on CSI: Cardiff Spacetime Rift.
Gorman needs a role where he can play a strangely eccentric and unpredictable figure with the potential for a diverse approach to the character as he encounters widely different situations episode to episode, able to stick out but also fit in to the context and world the story demands.
Wait just a damn minute!
November 4, 2013 @ 10:48 am
Immortality is a metaphor for death obviously. Or being-towards-death. Or for not being-towards-death. I say metaphor, but it's not actually a metaphor. Call it an ironic synecdoche: it stands for that whole of the human condition of which death is an omitted part.
Actually, I think this ironic synedoche, rather than metaphor, is the dominant mode of symbolism in most sf. Thus, Budrys' Rogue Moon is about personal identity and death, Canticle for Leibowitz about the myth of progress, Left Hand of Darkness about gender, Light of Other Days is about loss, Blink about objects staying where they're put when you're not looking and having a future.
(The problem with metaphoric interpretation is that the interpretation always risks moving away from the specificity of the symbol towards some more abstract concept supposed to be primary. There's a risk of using other people solely as symbols for one's individual philosophical categories.)
The question isn't whether two immortals can represent anything; it's whether they cast any interesting light on what they represent.
November 4, 2013 @ 1:28 pm
Synecdoche, New York.
Owen's predicament is an apt dramatization of what it's like to feel dead inside. Obviously we aren't really dead when we feel dead inside, that in itself being a way of describing a numinous experience or an existential condition. Just having that portrayed is valuable, I say, and a great direction for Torchwood to take.
And it's a very different condition than what Jack has. As much as atheists might cheer when Jack reports that there's nothing on the other side, or darkness, void, what have you, that's just a little bit too on the nose. Jack's position isn't to comment on what it feels like to feel dead, but what it feels like to be reborn, over and over again, kind of like being on that perpetual wheel or cycle from which Buddhists try to escape.
There are other numinous experience that "immortality" may dramatize. One is the ego's desire to avoid death altogether, and hence of being permanently rooted in ego. The other, more figurative sense, is the annihilation of ego, and finding eternity in the here and now, in the Present. (Cue up the Xmas music, and hook up the Wardrobe.)
I'd have to watch Dead Man Walking again to remember more specifically what I really liked about this episode.
November 4, 2013 @ 3:29 pm
"feel dead inside" – the scene of Owen trying to pick up and realising his corpse is incapable of having an erection made me think they were going to explore the issues and effects of depression in men. As far as I can remember they only touched on it superficially rather than using it as the underlying theme, which is a shame.