How Police Brutality In ‘Powers’ Is Different From Police Brutality On TV

When I first wrote about Deena Pilgrim last week, commenter Seth D. Michaels wrote that “I have a weird, hard-to-shake emotional reaction to depictions of police brutality, particularly as carried out by female characters” like Deena, or Kima Greggs from The Wire. Now that I’m done with the second volume of the hardcover edition of Powers, I wanted to dig into that a little more, especially after Deena acknowledged to Christian that she’d killed Johnny Royalle and almost beat Harvey Goodman to a pulp.

Superficially, the book seems to defend Deena’s actions, particularly in the scene where Christian asks her to work with him again and apologizes for judging her for the murder. “In my day, I had to—decisions had to be made that I would rather not have questioned,” Walker says. “I, of all people, should not have moralized on you. I don’t care what happened to Johnny Royale…the guy clearly gave up his membership card in the human race a long time before we had anything to do with him.” But I think Powers pretty forcefully establishes that the reason Walker is okay with what Deena did, the only reason we’re supposed to be semi-okay with her beating Harvey Goodman to a pulp in custody, calling her “Cop killer! Hero killer! I’ve got two words for you—pain management,” and warning her “You think I’m fucking around? You think I won’t kill you right here?” is that the system is irretrievably broken.

Harvey may be a fanatic, and I’m not sure she’s right that superheroism is going to lead to environmental degredation, but she is pretty much right that “Every one of these so-called superheroes inflicts his own brand of justice and morality on our society without any understanding of the ripple effect.” I sympathize with Diana Shutz (whose Dark Horse Coffee I assume is a riff on the comics label), the character who tells “Powers That Be” that:

We have created a society where we freely allow men and women to take the law into their own hands. Cape or no cape—brightly colored logo or not—a superhero is a vigilante who is taking the law into his own hands. We root for who we decided is the good guy, and we boo for the person we decide is the bad guy. And we never consider that just the idea that we allow these people to put the law into their own ahnds, that we let one person make a moral decision for another person, is wrong.

Deena’s actions are only excusable in a world where morality has entirely broken down. And in beating Harvey, she’s seeking a narrow factual truth, but denying a larger one — that the heroes she protects blur her own authority. It’s the inverse of all those television shows that suggest that cops who beat up pedophiles and murderers are letting a larger truth leak through — that we’d all like to exact retribution on criminals — they’re just supposed to restrain themselves where we couldn’t necessarily. That’s complex, but it’s a powerful indictment.