Monday, November 24, 2008

Quiet Desperation in Rhode Island

This week's episode of Brotherhood on Showtime may have acknowledged William Shakespeare in its title ("The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth"); but the "poetic wisdom" of the story line came straight from Henry David Thoreau:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Indeed, had the series been set in the vicinity of Boston, Massachusetts, rather than Providence, Rhode Island, a more appropriate title for the episode might have been "In Search of Walden Pond." The episode did little to advance the overall narrative of the series; but, using the setting of a Labor Day Weekend, it offered a reflective examination of all the major characters, all but one of whom had retreated to a Walden-like setting. The reflections may not have been as deep as those Walden inspired in Thoreau; but, this being television, we should be thankful for the few crumbs of reflection we get!

The episode was basically structured around three "Walden surrogates." The most important of these (emphasized by its role in framing the entire episode) actually involved a physical body of water in the form of a lake whose shore serves as the border of a country house. This is where Tommy Caffee wants to take his family to retreat from the world of Rhode Island politics, having become fed up with it all in the previous episode. His is the embodiment of a life "frittered away" (again, Thoreau's words); and the key question is whether or not he can recover his life in a pastoral setting so alien to the life he has led since birth. Indeed, the setting is so peaceable that Freddie Cork, a lion (somewhat weakened) of the gang world, is there by the lake playing badminton with Tommy's family, perhaps as in indication that reality will intrude on this ideal retreat sooner than Tommy may have anticipated.

The second Walden is a bed-and-breakfast in some unnamed Rhode Island town on the Atlantic coast. Declan Giggs has come here to try to patch up relations with his estranged wife Cassie. This "kingdom" is far less peaceable when Cassie encounters her boss; and it comes out that she had an affair with him while separated from Declan. Both characters then drown themselves in drink, leaving their "Walden" in greater (and noisier) desperation than when they arrived.

The final Walden is an anonymous motel room where Colin Carr hopes to final consummate his passion for Kath Parry, whose life with Michael Caffee (Colin's boss) has been steadily deteriorating. The setting is anything but pastoral; and the interplay is as awkward as it is dangerous, particularly in the context of Michael's uncontrollable capacity for violence. Both of these characters are mired in quiet desperation out of the necessity of their situation. The progress of this mini-narrative is thwarted every time it inches forward; and, in the context of what we know about the possible consequences, this is probably just as well.

Indeed, in the course of his one-hour episode, Michael is the one character who does not find a Walden to which he can retreat. It may be a holiday weekend, but he remains all business. However, this is probably because his "business" is his only strategy for warding off the symptoms of his damaged brain. Thus, while a Walden is offered to him in the form of a barbeque at the home of the Italian gang leader, he can do little other than aggravate the Irish-Italian division, ultimately getting cast out from the would-be Edenic setting.

As I said, none of this has really advanced the underlying narrative. Rather, it used the holiday setting as a pretext for taking stock of the characters. Whether or not the Walden concept was deliberately intended as a setting for this stock-taking, the shoe turned out to fit very well, providing some comforting evidence that, every now and then, television can still satisfy the literary mind.

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