Sunday, December 2, 2007

Thoughts on SGA ep 4x09 -- "Miller's Crossing"

This really is meta for "Miller's Crossing", specifically on the whole, "is John a psycho" thing, but it takes a while to get there. Enjoy the scenery.

In Dorothy L. Sayers' mystery novel Murder Must Advertise, the murderer--a man named Tallboy--is a rather hapless type. He's a family man with a wife and new baby who got caught up in a tangled web of drug dealing and blackmail and on top of it all, has a rather cheap and unsavory mistress. His victim was the blackmailer, an unpleasant man who was also tangentially involved in the drug smuggling. Lord Peter Wimsey steps in and figures everything out with his usual panache and brilliance.

In the final chapter--perfectly titled "Appropriate Exit of an Unskilled Murderer "--it's the night of the pivotal drug bust which will supply the last link in the chain of evidence against Mr. Tallboy. Tallboy shows up at Wimsey's flat intent on confessing his crime, only to find, of course, that Wimsey's way ahead of him. Tallboy asks if he can run, if Wimsey will give him 24 hours, something he says he wouldn't ask or if it weren't for his wife and kid, but Wimsey says that it's too late for that. And then Wimsey reminds him that there's another way out, which Tallboy refers to as "the public school way out of it." He's rather bitter about the idea, making a mocking reference to what the headlines will say if he commits suicide, but he agrees that it's the only thing for him to do.

Wimsey points out that there is an alternative, something that will keep his crime out of the papers. "Go home now," he says. "Go on foot, and not too fast. And don't look behind you."

Tallboy does so, and the bad guy who'd been following him kills him because he's become a liability to the drug runners. Wimsey and his brother-in-law, Chief Inspector Parker, manage to bring the drug ring to trial without any evidence involving Tallboy, and neither Tallboy's family nor the people he worked learn the truth. The original murder had always been thought to be an accident and it's left that way.

This wasn't the first time Sayers let her murderer get out of a trial. It happens in Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club where the emphasis is less on the public school aspect than on the fact that falling on one's sword after doing something dishonorable is part of the military culture of the day. And again, there are innocent people whose reputations and honor would be damaged if the thing came to trial.

In "Miller's Crossing" the thing can't come to trial. Anyone who thinks that Wallace could have been publicly tried in the US or Canada is hopelessly naive. He was going to disappear into some oubliette of a military prison, left to live out his days in silence while a story was made up about his death in some tragic accident.

While John is more concerned with saving Jeannie--and tangentially Rodney, because it's probable that Rodney's guilt would eventually shatter him--than with seeing justice done, he's still telling Wallace to walk home slowly or letting him know that there's a loaded pistol in a drawer in the club's library. "These are the people whose lives you're ruining," he's essentially saying. "You have nothing left, nothing to live for, but I'm offering you a chance to not only make things right for the Millers, but for you to regain your honor." He doesn't need to say it, of course; for all his other faults, Wallace isn't a stupid man and can hear the offer John's making. And in the end, he takes the public school or Roman way out and falls on his sword.

This isn't saying that it's easy on the person who has to make the offer. In an aside in another novel, we learn that Wimsey--who already has PTSD/shell shock after WWI--was sick and was utterly unable to be social and spend time with the woman he loved after the events in Murder Must Advertise. And it's obvious that all isn't well in Johnland, something that's made worse by the fact that he actually had to spell the whole thing out to Rodney.

Sayers was writing in the 1930s to an audience who understood the concept of the public school way out. No one reading Murder Must Advertise would think Wimsey was a psychopath for talking Tallboy into walking out into the night so someone could murder him and thus spare his family the humiliation of a public trial. Wimsey--as is pointed out more than once in the series--is a man of a certain class and era, his is an older authority than that of the mere police, and so he can make offers that they can't. And the readers knew this and probably found the concept of the public school way out either quaint and out-dated or just and honorable. Tallboy had confessed to a murder Wimsey knew he'd done and in a society that condoned capital punishment, he had to pay with his life.

A modern audience isn't as likely to see that, hence John and Rodney's awkward conversation once they're back on Atlantis. John's talking to us as much as he is to Rodney, although the concept of the honorable suicide is probably more a part of John's military culture than Rodney's academic culture.

But in the end, it comes down to the same thing. No, Wallace wasn't facing death by hanging as a result of his actions, but he wasn't facing a trial and a certain amount of time in prison with the hope of parole and time off for good behavior either. He was going to spend the rest of his life locked up with nothing to do but brood. Although we didn't get all that much information about his personality, I think they made a good case for the idea that any real kind of life without his wife and daughter wasn't an option as far as he was concerned.

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