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.