After a sojourn in the 1990s and oughts, we’re going back in time next week to discuss the 1962 movie adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. Get ready to get your Gregory Peck on.
This was my introduction to Oz, which all death penalty politics aside, was a fascinating experience. I tend to think of Breaking Bad as the most self-consciously artsy show on cable, particularly with the way it uses color. But Oz feels vastly more deliberately artificial, from Harold Perrineau’s narration and the backdrops thereof, from the way the show uses super-woozy shots to try to communicate what it feels like to be high. And the episodes are set up to feel like short story collections. Which makes it interesting to pick the story of Shirley Bellinger out of the fragmented glimpses we get of her.
She’s an interesting case: clearly and unrepentently guilty, but not particularly sympathetic, either. Some of the reason she’s off-putting is the way she performs her chilliness. “How comfy,” she says when she’s introduced to her cell. The facade of normality she puts on her imprisonment is downright unnerving. “Please, be seated. Would you like some tea? May I call you Tim?” she asks one of the prison administrators, immediately establishing that she’s in control. “The warden has informed me that I may choose the means by which I will die, and I thought you might be able to help me pick one out.” You’d think she was in denial, except then she simulates her own hanging with the yarn she keeps in her room. When another death row inmate asks what she had for her last meal, she tells him, “A nice Slim-Fast milkshake. A girl’s got to protect her figure, even if she’s a corpse.” Her composure is aimed at treating her jailers — and ultimately, the people who will execute her — like they’re the crazy ones, particularly when it lets her play with them and deny them information. “My lover was Satan in the form of a man,” Shirley says on her way to the gallows. “A lady never reveals such secrets. But I’ll give you a hint. Neither rain, nor snow.”
And that facade of normality, that attempt to put everyone else on edge, makes her less sympathetic when she tries to connect or to play for sympathy. “I’m wondering why anyone cares what my thoughts were,” she tells the news team interviewing her right before her execution. “Sure as hell didn’t didn’t care when my husband was drunk and beating me. Or when my father-in-law raped me. It wasn’t until I killed my daughter, that I did something horrific.” Shirley is living in a logic of her own making, where the failure of the system and the rules of society to protect her justify any attempt to be, as Augustus Hill puts it, “remembered for a thousand years. The things you did reaching across time and touching people not yet born…that’s why people write books, start religions, find cures.”
The only moment when Shirley and the rest of the world converge is when she’s faced with the noose that will hang her, the means of execution that she chose herself. On the morning of her execution, she jokes that a hanging will cure the crick in her neck. But when she’s faced with the reality of the thing she’s used to get company, the thing she’s joked about, she panics, saying she wants another chance to make a different choice, begging for salvation from God. She won’t get it. And giving it to her doesn’t really seem to satisfy anyone in the room. Embracing femininity doesn’t make Shirley less hard to execute — if anything, her emotional drag queen act is distancing rather than sympathy-building. Rather, it’s the way she clings to life in the final moment that makes her painfully human. When the state kills people on our behalf, it’s meant to distance them from the rest of us, to send the ultimate signal that they don’t deserve to be part of the human race. But no matter how much we tell ourselves we’re capable of making those divisions, I’m not sure we actually can.