“This isn’t happening for a reason.” -The Boy, Game of Thrones
“They were real.” -Huck, Scandal
“You don’t want to be the last one caught holding a dog collar.” -Dan, Zero Dark Thirty
When Fox announced that it was bringing back 24, its serialized drama about counterterrorist federal agent Jack Bauer that finished its initial run in 2010, as a limited-episode special event in 2014, much of the commentary about the news focused on questions of structure, rather than content. Time Magazine television critic James Poniewozik argued that 24’s resurrection was part of an exciting move by Fox to make more limited series and more special events, a strategy that includes a shorter run for its serial killer hit The Following, a move that both was meant to accomodate star Kevin Bacon’s schedule and to ape the success of dark cable dramas with shorter runs, and an order of limited-run series Wayward Pines. Others saw it as part of Fox’s decision to walk away from a focus on female-focused comedies and return to an old, reliable—and male-centered—hit from its past. But I’m curious about another question. How is Jack Bauer, whose use of torture, as reported by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, prompted U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan to meet with the producers of 24 to talk to them about how the show was affecting American soldiers, going to play in a world where pop culture has become more thoughtful and searing about the impact of these tactics on both both the tortured and torturers themselves?
One of the most painful depictions of torture presently airing appears on HBO’s medieval fantasy Game of Thrones, where the destruction of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), formerly a spoiled ward of the Stark family, and now the prisoner of a man who appears to be systematically remolding him according to a monstrous blueprint. It’s a storyline that’s been so grotesque and emotionally agonizing that it’s turned off some critics like The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr, who have found themselves exhausted by what they see as an exploitative element to the proceedings, which are presented only in flashbacks in the novels on which the show is based.
But the relentless return to Theon’s cell, to his crucifixion, flaying, hooding, starvation, sexual manipulation, and last week, emasculation, seems precisely like the point, even if it’s so unpleasant to watch that I’ve taken to peeking at those scenes through my fingers on the first go-round and leaving the room for the second. Theon can’t escape his torture, and neither can we. His lead torturer tells him that “this isn’t happening for a reason,” and in point of fact in the narrative, it’s mostly not. The only new information Theon reveals, that he has not actually murdered the heirs to Winterfell, a Northern stronghold, doesn’t defuse a ticking time bomb scenario, but gets filed away for reference. “You’ve already told me everything, remember? Your daddy was mean to you. The Starks didn’t appreciate you. One good bit, though. The Stark boys. They’re still alive. Wouldn’t that be a hunt to remember?” the mysterious man reflects menacingly. When Theon asks “Where am I? Who are you? What do you want?” one of that man’s henchmen replies, “I want to do this.” Torture is arbitrary and endless, a manifestation of insanity, whether that madness is innate or simply the logical place men arrive at during an endless war.
And whatever else torture is, Theon’s destruction is systematic. Theon’s first made to feel ignorant, begging “About what? I don’t know what you want!” when asked to tell an unspecified truth. His position is stripped from him. “I’ll make you a Lord of the Iron Islands for this,” he tells a man who poses as his rescuer before revealing himself to be the architect of Theon’s misery. “We’re not in the Iron Islands,” the man reminds him blandly. Theon, who once had a reputation for his sexual appetites, discovers that in war, being male doesn’t guarantee you either sexual happiness or sexual autonomy when one of his captors threatens him with rape in retaliation for an escape attempt. His expectations that anyone will be merciful are slowly dismantled. “Water. You want some water?” his main torturer asks Theon, then tells him “I wish I had some for you,” while pouring out the water on the floor. And bit by bit, his corporeal body is pared away, first a finger Theon begs the man to cut off after it’s been flayed, hoping amputation will relieve his pain, and then his genitalia, taken from him as a way of robbing Theon of the part of his identity that’s bound up in his sexual prowess. “No, mercy, please. Mercy, mercy,” Theon cries as his emasculation approaches. “This is mercy,” his torturer tells him. “I’m not killing you. Just making a few alterations.” It’s an efficient and nasty definition of what torture is, not an intelligence-gathering technique, not a tool that must only be used occasionally with great regret, but the process of turning someone into something else, and often something less. And Game of Thrones is making sure that its audience understands the full weight of that process.
Homeland, the War on Terror drama from Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, the creators of 24, that’s set closer to home in both time and proximity has made a similar point over its first two seasons. One of the main characters, suspected double agent Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), is tortured twice. First, after he is captured by the terrorist Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban), Brody is forced to fight his fellow captive Tom Walker (Chris Chalk) until—he believes—he has killed the other man, and then he is required to bury Walker himself. He is held not just in solitary confinement, but in a windowless cell, for an extremely long period of time, until he is released into the custody of Nazir, who gives him food, introduces him into Islam, and most importantly, entrusts Brody with the care of his son Issa. After Brody returns to the United States and declines to carry out his suicide mission, he comes into the custody of the CIA, where an analyst stabs him in a hand. That treatment, in both cases, may not meet the Bush administration’s definition of torture as treatment that results in “organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death,” but it is forbidden by the Geneva Conventions.
And in both cases, Brody’s experiences as a survivor of torture are critical to building sympathy for him and understanding of his motivations. Brody was a loyal soldier, rather than an inherently evil man—which is often the way terrorists are understood in the public imagination—before Abu Nazir used torture to shape him into a terrorist. And after he decided not to carry out an attack on the Vice President and much of the military leadership of the United States, hoping instead that he could satisfy Nazir and change American policy through his work as a member of Congress, the CIA pursued and tortured him anyway. Homeland eventually became a more baroque show as the second season wore on, and Brody was blackmailed into murdering the Vice President anyway. Without that twist, Homeland might have been a more focused show about the consequences of torture, acts that lead Brody to betray his home country, his family, and his oaths of service, and then, after he had tried to reestablish his loyalty, exiled him from it.
On Scandal, torturers can also be torture victims. In the first season of the show, the hyper-competent, power-drill-wielding Huck, played with enormous sensitivity and menace by Guillermo Díaz in what is now one of the most underrated performances on television, was mostly the tool of last resort in fixer Olivia Pope’s (Kerry Washington) kit. This year, we saw him become the victim of torture twice. First, after he was framed for the attempted assassination of Presidential Fitzgerland Grant (Tony Goldwyn)—this being a soap opera, the real killer was a woman Huck met in the AA meetings he meets to handle his addiction to murder, instilled in him by his handlers at the CIA—Huck was beaten and waterboarded in an attempt to force him to confess. But unlike the ticking time bomb scenarios in 24, the terrible blow against the nation was in the past, rather than hovering menacingly in the future, and torturing Huck produced no useful information about the author of that act, because he had none to give.
Later, in a devastating episode, “Seven Fifty-Two,” we learned that this was not the first time Huck had been tortured. Huck has long had an obsession with watching placid-looking American families, and “Seven Fifty-Two” explained why: he was once a soldier with a lovely girlfriend, before he was recruited to join a secret torture-and-assassinations squad. During his time with that squad, and against regulations, Huck managed the trauma he was forced to inflict on other people by throwing himself into that relationship as a form of balance and penance. He married his girlfriend, cried with joy when she had their child, and kept his drill and his plastic sheeting safely at the office. But when Huck’s family was discovered by his boss, he was separated from them and thrown into a hole in the ground until he was so broken that he denied their existence. And when Huck repented, he was abandoned by the agency, yet another homeless, mentally ill veteran dumped onto Washington’s streets.
In the season finale of Scandal, Huck, his humanity somewhat restored to him, falters when he’s asked to torture a man to get information about the location of a card that holds data that proved the existence of a vote-rigging scheme that tilted the presidency to Grant. “I can’t do it. I thought I could, but I can’t,” he tells his colleague Quinn (Katie Lowes). “But she needs the card. Liv needs the card.” Sensing his desperation, Quinn grabs the drill and plunges it into their captive’s thigh. The man eventually tells them the number of a safe deposit box where the card is held, but it turns out his suffering and Quinn’s moral compromise have been in vain: the card in the bank is a decoy. Later, Quinn, herself a victim of brainwashing and identity theft, talks ecstatically about her first experience torturing another human being. “Watching him beg and scream, it was such a rush,” she tells Huck. But instead of applauding her, Huck slams a door in Quinn’s face and retreats to the darkness. He’s passed the ability and willingness to torture her like a disease.
And even when torturers don’t themselves become the victims of tactics similar to those that they employ, the experience of torturing other people is presented as profoundly damaging in Zero Dark Thirty. Dan (Jason Clarke) begins the movie as a jovial torturer who calls his victim, Ammar (Reda Kateb) “dude” and “man” with a repulsive familiarity, and shows little concern for his colleague Maya’s (Jessica Chastain) mental health as he uses her presence to sexually humiliate Ammar and enlists her help in waterboarding him. But Dan’s work eventually burns him out and he leaves for Washington, DC, telling Maya “I’ve seen too many guys naked…I’ve got to do something normal for a while. You should come with me. You’re looking a little strung out yourself.” I wouldn’t say Dan exactly redeems himself by switching from stuffing men in tiny wooden boxes to buying corrupt rich boys yellow sports cars with CIA money, a transition that doesn’t precisely involve truth and reconciliation, but it does provide a key, and torture-free, break in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Maya never quite takes his advice, and after she identifies bin Laden’s body, she finds herself utterly alone.
Howard Gordon, the 24 creator who went on to make Homeland, which has a rather different perspective on the War on Terror, with his partner Alex Gansa, told the New York Times that Bauer “has evolved through the years, and this new and exciting event series format is perfect to tell the next chapter of his story and continue to reflect how the world is changing.” I imagine that Huck and Quinn, Maya and Dan, Carrie and Brody, and Theon Greyjoy and the Boy, all might have an idea or two about those changes, and where Jack Bauer fits within them.