On American Dystopia and the Great White North

Dystopian fiction can be tricky. Assuming you’re setting it on Earth, you either need to have the whole world go to hell, which isn’t all that probable, or the shit show is more localized, in which case you have to address how the rest of the world interacts with the place where the story is set. I’ve been set to thinking about this a bit thanks to two recent bits of television.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is as localized as dystopia can get. It’s told entirely from the point of view of the titular handmaid, June, and doesn’t concern itself at all with the outside world. Gilead is what she experiences; nothing more.

The TV adaptation probably couldn’t have worked if it maintained that rigorous POV, so it wisely broadened its world from the get go. In the first season, therefore, we learned that June’s husband and her best friend managed to escape to Canada, where there’s a growing population of expats from the area that used to be New England. But we don’t really know what that means in a global socio-political sense.


That was evident in the recent episode “Smart Power,” where Commander Fred and his wife, Serena, take a diplomatic trip to the Great White North. They’re received professionally, if coolly, in the manner you’d expect for delegates from a nation with which the Canadians have at least some normal relations. But do they? We don’t really know. Things are complicated when an American agents of some kind offers Serena a new life in Hawaii, one where she actually gets to control her destiny.

All this is a bit confused because we don’t really know how Gilead relates to the rest of the world – or what the rest of the world thinks of Gilead (once some info leaks out during the Commander’s visit, we quickly find out, at least partly). How big is Gilead? We know it’s centered in New England, but what of the rest of the United States? Does Canada recognize it as an independent nation? If so, why? What does the United States look like?

None of these were really important in the book, since it was June’s story above all else. But by broadening the focus (something that had to happen for the TV series to continue), these questions become relevant and I’m not certain the show’s brain trust really has the answers.

The recent HBO adaptation of Farhernheit 451 suffered even more acutely from this problem. It makes explicit the story’s setting (Cleveland) and, via an implausible update that involves the works of humanity encoded into DNA, sets up an endgame where Montag has to help someone escape to Canada to rendezvous with some scientists. We’re never told if that’s just because that’s where they are or because Canada is the safe area we always assume it to be.


This is particularly important to Farhernheit 451 given its semi-hopeful ending of an underground group dedicated to actually memorizing great works of literature to ensure they don’t disappear.* That still happens, but it’s now supplemented with the DNA thing. But if Canada is a safe haven, if it exists outside of the dystopia the United States has become – then why the need to preserve all knowledge? Isn’t it safe elsewhere in the world?

To a certain extent this is an issue with any speculative fiction worldbuilding. Writers need to have some idea what happens beyond the bounds of their stories, since those things should influence those stories in some ways. But it’s compounded dystopian fiction set in the “real” world because readers and viewers presume the world is as it is in real life, unless we’re told otherwise. That can lead to confusion, or at least some disappointments.

* Kudos to the writers for updating the preserved works to include writers who are women and people of color (and even some women of color!). However, the impact is a bit muted since only the minority characters are memorizing the work of minority authors.


Homeland Is Through the 49-State Looking Glass, People!

For its first couple of seasons, Homeland was among the best TV on the planet. Tense and twisty as any good thriller, it had the overlay of asking interesting questions about what drives people (in this case the lily-white costar) to terrorism? Things have slipped considerably since then, but it’s still an entertaining, and occasionally thrilling, show.

The further it’s gone, however, the further Homeland has moved into its own alternate universe. That’s only natural – any fiction is building its own world, after all. But after six plus seasons, Homeland’s America doesn’t look quite like ours does, and not just because President Trump was too wild a plot twist for a show like that.

In its current season, Homeland is charting the fall out of a presidential election that ended with an attempted assassination. One of the newer characters, O’Keefe, is an Alex Jones style radio/internet personality who starts the season on the run from the new president’s henchpersons. He hides out with numerous sympathizers and broadcasts screeds of resistance.

Which brings us to West Virginia.

In the second episode of this season O’Keefe makes his way to a farm in a rural area that becomes his final safe house. When the family who lives there (and some of their neighbors) welcome him, it’s with a story about a site nearby where the first battle of the Civil War was fought. It’s made clear that the site is Philippi, which places the action in West Virginia.

At the risk of sounding like Grandpa Simpson, I am not making this up. See this write up of the fourth episode:

With the FBI surrounding his West Virginia hideout, O’Keefe and his loyal listeners settle in for a long siege with power generators, jugs of water — and lots and lots of guns.

Or this article from a Virginia newspaper about the actual location where those scenes were shot:

Landon Graham said he was approached in September 2017 about using his rural property to serve as the location for the hideout, which in the show is supposed to be somewhere in West Virginia.

‘They wanted something that looked like West Virginia because that is where the scene was supposed to be. But getting to West Virginia is a nightmare so it’s better to be near Richmond,’ he said.

And still, in this week’s episode, which takes place in the aftermath of a deadly raid on at the safe house, O’Keefe is taken into custody and taken to . . . Richmond, Virginia. This shift of location is odd for a couple of reasons.

First, assuming O’Keefe is being charged with a federal crime (which he surely is), he’d need to be taken to a court in the district in which he was arrested – that being the Northern District of West Virginia (I chuckled imagining my colleagues dealing with the guy). Clarksburg is surely closer to the fictional Lucasville than Richmond, which is in the wrong district, anyway.

Second, there’s later a memorial service organized for those who died in the shootout, which is also organized in Richmond. Again, why have such an event several hours away from where the event occurred? It would be like having a memorial for the Parkland shooting students in Georgia. It took place in a church, not a huge stadium or something. Let me assure you, there’s no shortage of churches in north central West Virginia.

So what’s up? Is this just sloppy storytelling on the part of Homeland? Did they suddenly forget that West Virginia is, in fact, its own state and has been for 155 years? Surely the writers of a critically praised, major network TV series wouldn’t so cavalierly wipe an entire state off the map by sheer negligence.

No, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Instead, I’ll choose to believe that in the land of Homeland, West Virginia never actually existed. All those references earlier this season were really to “west Virginia.” Yeah, yeah, that’s it! It has to be. What other explanation is there? They’re playing with the very fabric of existence, people! Millhouse was right!



Aliens For the Defense!

The first novel-length project I finished (which shall molder in box in my close forevermore) grew out of the fact that criminal defense attorneys routinely have their clients try and tell them whopper stories about “what really happened.” My personal favorite is a colleague’s client who explained that he tested positive for cocaine because he was helping a buddy move a couch and when he picked it up a cloud of white powder erupted and flew up his nose. My book took that phenomenon and aliened it up a bit (it involves the Flatwoods Monster).

Now, in my wife’s home state of Wyoming, somebody is trying to sell something similar, but I doubt any court (or defense attorney) is going to be buying. The defendant was arrested for being drunk in public, but he had a good reason:

Police say a central Wyoming man they arrested for public intoxication claimed he had traveled back in time to warn of an alien invasion.

* * *

The man told police he was only able to time travel because aliens filled his body with alcohol. He noted that he was supposed to be transported to the year 2018, not this year.

I suppose time travel isn’t an exact science, even for aliens But don’t worry, the invasion isn’t until 2048, so we’ve got time to prepare.

In the meantime, might I suggest an expert witness should this gentleman decide to go to trial?


Even Fantasy Has to Make Sense

One of the repeated comments about this shortened season of Game of Thrones (which wraps up Sunday) is that show runners have really cranked up the pace, running from big event to big event instead of letting things play out over time. Part of that’s due to the nature of the season (it’s only seven episodes long) and part of it’s due to where we are in the story. Once we have the scope of this world in our heads it’s not a problem to handwave away some of the timing issues in order to barrel ahead toward the show’s conclusion.

But there are limits, and the limit seems to have been breached by this past week’s episode, “Beyond the Wall.” A quick, spoilerly, recap of the relevant bits:

Jon and company go north of The Wall to capture a zombie ice walker to take back to King’s Landing to prove to everybody this shit is real. After walking for a bit they come across the army of the undead and, for some reason, pick a fight. Jon sends Gendry running back to Eastwatch for help, which provokes a raven to be sent to Dragonstone, which leads Daenerys to fly up to save the day with all three dragons. All the while, Jon and crew are surrounded by the undead army (until it’s dramatically appropriate for it to attack, of course).

Putting to one side the sheer stupidity of Jon’s “strategy,” there’s a big whopping problem with the timing of all this. We only see the army of the undead hold off overnight before attacking, but surely it takes several days (at least) for the Gendry/raven/dragon transport system to deliver fiery death to them, right? It’s at least something that has kicked some people out of the story, pulling them past their flying snowman moment. Even the director of that episode admits the timeline is “getting a little hazy.”

But that’s not really what I’m interested in (although I’m one of those people). I’m more interested in some of the defensive comments made in response to complaints. There are several in the comments to this write-up over at io9 – they’re fairly typical:

While you’re focused on a believable timeline, does it ever cross your mind that you’re watching a show about fucking dragons.


I’m sure it would have been fun to watch seven guys stranded on a rock for another episode while they waited for the raven and the dragon’s trip back because the audience wanted a show about magical ice zombies to keep things realistic.

Someone even posted an image of the gold standard for this kind of thing, MST3K’s admonition that “it’s just a show, I should really just relax.”

People are free to accept any explanation (or none) for why something seems off in a show, movie, or book, but I have to take issue with the argument that because something is fantasy anything goes.

One of the cool things about writing fantasy is that you can, generally speaking, make up anything you want. People who can wield the power of the elements? No problem. Mythical talking beasts who aid intrepid adventurers in their quests? Bring it on. Nonetheless, there are still a couple of limits.

Primary is that to the extent the characters are human beings, they should behave like them. Maybe a guy can fly or perhaps he can summon huge storms with his mind, but he probably still gets hungry, tired, or would be pissed off if he found his girlfriend in bed with another guy. Unless there’s an in-world reason to the contrary, characters should behave like real people.

That leads into the second restriction – any fantasy story should follow the rules that it sets up for itself. Let’s say you have a world that includes a pegasus (or pegasi) and we’re told early on that, despite the wings, they can’t actually fly (they’re mystical ostriches). A pegasus cannot, sometime later, save the day by flying to the rescue. Not because it’s a known fact that a pegasus can fly, but because we’ve learned that in this world they can’t. Once your own rules go out the window the story isn’t grounded in anything.

That’s the problem Game of Thrones got into this past week. We’ve spent years getting used to the scope of its world, the sheer size of it. Characters stationed in different sections of the map were truly separated. It felt like a big place. Until the writers needed it not to be and pulled a dragon ex machina out of the hat (followed closely by a Benjen ex machina – ugh). Look, I get it – rapid transmission of information in a pre-modern fantasy world is a pain in the ass. Why do you think I had mind walkers (telepaths) in The Water Road? But if that’s the world you’re playing in, you’re stuck with it.

Saying “this is fantasy” gets you out of a lot of boxes as a writer, but it isn’t carte blanche to do whatever you want. Even in a world of dragons, frozen armies of the dead, and faceless men, stuff still has to make a basic kind of sense.

None of which is to say I’m not hella pleased with where things ended up after this episode. After all . . .


Weekly Read: Lovecraft Country

Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country is less a novel than it is a collection of linked short stories built around a brilliant conceit. That is, the main characters in the stories are all from an extended African-American family (family and friends) living in Chicago in the 1950s. That is to say, the stories are shot through with everyday racism that will make your toes curl. But they’re also shot through with magic, nasty creatures, and mysterious rites. Who better to deal with such supernatural horrors than people who have to deal with horrific treatment on a daily basis just based on the color of their skin?

I should say, at this point, that I’m not particularly familiar with Lovecraft’s work (I’ve got a book of his on in my ever expanding “to read” pile, though). I have a vague sense of what it’s about, but it’s only a surface understanding. That’s to say that I’ve read some criticism from people about Lovecraft Country that isn’t, well, sufficiently Lovecraftian. That wasn’t a concern for me going in and it certainly isn’t a concern now that I’ve read the book.

In this “Big Idea” piece over at John Scalzi’s blog, Ruff explains that Lovecraft Country started as a TV pitch (and, indeed, it’s been picked up by HBO with Jordan Peele and JJ Abrams involved) and knowing that now I can see it. Each story serves like an episode, telling a tale that stands alone but pushes forward an overall plot that comes to fruition in the season finale (aka, the final story). It’s a bit frustrating initially because the first story (the title track, if you will) winds up really quickly, especially when you’re expecting it to be just the beginning of a much longer story.

So that first story does what a good pilot does – introduces the main characters and explores some of the world they’re walking around in. The closest thing to a “main” character the book has is Atticus Turner, a veteran returning to Chicago to a collection of family and friends that will, one by one, be drawn into this weird world. Atticus is the link between the African-American characters and the main white character, Caleb Braithwhite. Braithwhite is the latest in a long line of secret-society sorcerers who are trying to control the world. He and Atticus are distant relations – Braithwaite’s ancestor owned one of Atticus’s ancestors, whom he also raped. That makes Atticus a critical part of Braithwaite’s scheme to control the society and its secrets.

That being said, this isn’t Braithwaite’s story. He lurks above the main characters, pulling strings and trying to use them to his advantage. In that way, the book makes a powerful point about the lives African-Americans lead in a racist society. As bright, clever, and determined as they are, they’re really not in control of their own destinies. That they’re able to turn those tables, somewhat, makes the point land even harder.

This being, essentially, a short story collection, it rises and falls from tale to tale. All of them have some kind of interesting creepy thing going on – a haunted house, a “devil doll,” a comatose woman providing a “change” for one of the characters – but they don’t all work as well. The cream of the crop for me is “Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe.”

Hippolyta is one of a pair of sisters close to Atticus’s family and someone who, had she not been a black woman in 1950s American, would have become an astronomer. As it is, Hippolyta retains her fascination with the stars and occasionally shows up at observatories just to help out. That leads her to one particular observatory in Wisconsin that’s tied into the history of the secret society. As a result, she discovers a portal to another world and, briefly, takes us there. What she finds on the other side is another sad commentary on how people of privilege treat those who have none. It’s both a serviceable monster story and an interesting commentary.

It will be interesting to see how Lovecraft Country translates to the small screen. On the one hand, it’s built for it, given its episodic nature. On the other hand, since each story has a different main character it might be hard to keep such a dispersed focus (a “star” playing Atticus would, presumably, not want to spend as much time on the sidelines as he does). It will also be interesting to see if some issues of appropriation come up as the book gets a wider audience. Ruff certainly appears to be a white guy telling an inherently African-American story. He did it well from my perspective – but I’m another white guy. Particularly the fate of Hippolyta’s sister might raise some eyebrows.

Regardless, this was an enjoyable trip into Lovecraft Country. I’ll gladly go again.


The Simple Power of “What If?”

Every work of fiction, or damned near every one, can been seen as an answer to a “what if?” question. What if a family has to uproot their entire existence because of climate change? What if most of a small town’s children are killed in a tragic accident? What if a young attorney’s cushy law firm is a front for the mob? On and on it goes.

The power of “what if?” is given particularly free reign in speculative fiction, since the question doesn’t have to conform itself to the real world. Stepping outside reality to ask the question can still lead to powerful insights into the real world, however.

Last week while putting laundry away I stumbled into a Twilight Zone marathon on TV. The episode I landed on, “I Am the Night – Color Me Black”, that takes a preposterously simple “what if?” question and uses it to drill down about the human condition. The opening narration lays it out:

Sheriff Charlie Koch on the morning of an execution. As a matter of fact, it’s seven-thirty in the morning. Logic and natural laws dictate that at this hour there should be daylight. It is a simple rule of physical science that the sun should rise at a certain moment and supersede the darkness. But at this given moment, Sheriff Charlie Koch, a deputy named Pierce, a condemned man named Jagger, and a small, inconsequential village will shortly find out that there are causes and effects that have no precedent. Such is usually the case—in the Twilight Zone.

In typical Twilight Zone fashion the supernatural event isn’t really the important part of the story. It’s how it throws everyone in the episode out of equilibrium and allows the filters of euphemism and manners to slip enough to see peoples’ true selves. Thus, not only do we have the deputy who’s certain (against the evidence) that Jagger is guilty, but we get the realization that Jagger is pretty much a douche, anyway. He may have been wronged, but that doesn’t make him right.

So the darkness lingers, until after the execution when we learn that it’s appearing all over the world, at locations like the Berlin Wall, Budapest, and a street in Dallas (keep in mind, the episode first aired four months after the Kennedy assassination). So, in less than half an hour, a simple question – “what if one morning the sun didn’t rise?” – leads us to, on the micro and macro scale, sober observations on human nature.

That’s the simple power of “what if?” when it comes to storytelling. It’s the prime mover, the thing that gets the ball rolling. It can upend the real world and give us a way to reflect on it all at the same time.


What Vinyl Can Learn From The Americans

Almost every piece of fiction is, in fact, about creating an alternate reality. No matter the verisimilitude of a story, not matter how “real” the characters feel, the simple truth is they aren’t. They’re creations of a writer who controls their every movement and word. Our world is not their world for the basic reason that they don’t exist in our world.

Alternate histories, of course, take this premise and run with it. What if the Allies lost World War II? What if the American Revolution never happened? Stories that ask such questions are all about messing with history. The only limits on the changes you make are whether they make some sense in relation to the big change.

Things are a little trickier when you’re telling a story set in the past that doesn’t have quite the same ambition. If you’re not really changing the past, how much of “history” as we know it can you play with? And how? Two current TV shows deal with this issue, one much more successfully.

Vinyl, on HBO, has a hell of a pedigree. The show, about the head of a struggling record company in the early-to-mid 1970s, boasts Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Terrence Winter (of The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire fame) among its creative forces. The company is on the brink, the main character is a coked-up killer, and, well, there are other complications. It’s gotten a fairly cool reception from critics, but has already been renewed for a second season. I’m not sure I’ll be on board for it.


Although I have several issues with the show, the one that really drives me nuts (and prompted this post) involves how the fictional record label interacts with real world stars. Already this season we’ve seen our heroes interact with Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, and Elvis. While there’s a chance to play that for fun, or verisimilitude boosting background, the show doesn’t go that route. Instead, we’re shown multiple instances of the fictional record label trying to do business with these luminaries that we know won’t because we’re still in the “real” world. Whatever conversations you might dream up for Alice Cooper to say in your version of 1973, you’re not going so far as to have him sign with a fictional record label. It drains these incidents of any tension or drama, regardless of how well they’re executed.

Compare that approach with the one taken by FX’s The Americans. It’s got considerably higher fictional stakes – telling the story of a pair of Soviet spies posing as a suburban American family during height of the Cold War 1980s. They should bump into historical biggies every week, yet they don’t. In fact, the only major historical fact in play in the series is the one that hangs over the whole thing like a specter – we know that these folks play for the losing team.


Yet, the drama of the series still works because our “heroes” aren’t interacting with bigger specific historical events that have happened around them. They never try to assassinate Reagan, for example (although I suppose you could conspiracy theory that one into real history), or engage in some epic act of sabotage that didn’t happen in the real world. As a result, we’re more caught up in the tension of their existence because we’re unsure how their small part of the larger story is going to play out.

Vinyl lacks that. Whatever the fate of American Century Records will turn out to be it has fuck all to do with hitching its star to David Bowie or Elvis. It’s a much better show when it’s playing with its fictional artists, people in whom viewers can invest some real emotion.

It’s fun to play around with history. But I think you have to have a solid idea of why you’re doing it and how your fictional characters are going to fit into that history. Are they swept along with the tide we all know or are they changing it into something entirely different? It’s a fine line and easy to wind up on the wrong side of it.

Not Getting It Right Versus Getting It Wrong

A little while back someone in one of the online writers’ forums I haunt asked about what, within our particular area of real life expertise, makes us throw up our hands when we see it in fiction. This was particularly in a sci-fi and fantasy context, so my own area of expertise – criminal law – doesn’t really come into play. But reading the discussion and thinking about the question made me realize there is a fine line in fiction between not getting something right and actually getting it wrong.

Exhibit A, since it’s right in my wheelhouse – Law & Order. I’m talking the mothership here, the one that effectively split its time between the courtroom and the police investigation. To put it bluntly, Law & Order very rarely actually got things right, but it didn’t very often actually get things wrong. The former is forgivable, understandable, and even to be encouraged in the interest of drama. The latter just makes me want to punch the TV.

An episode that was on the other day while I was knocking around the house provides great examples of each. “Charm City” is the first part of the first crossover between Law & Order and my favorite cop show of all time, Homicide: Life On the Street. A gas bomb attack in New York has ties to a similar attack years earlier in Baltimore, bringing Baltimore detectives to town to crack the case.

The eventual trial provides an example of the first situation – not getting it right, but in the understandable service of the narrative. Curtis testifies at trial and, among other things, tells the jury that a partial thumbprint was found at the crime scene and it matched the defendant. In no way would a detective testify about this in a real trial. That evidence would come in via an expert witness, probably from the state or city’s crime lab. But we’ve never seen a crime lab expert in this episode, so it’s a waste of narrative resources to introduce an entirely new character to pass on this single (uncontested) fact. Curtis is a main character, by contrast, so give it to him to carry. It’s not right, but it’s not all that wrong, either.

By contrast, earlier on is the kind of thing that Law & Order routinely does that makes me howl. The two New York detectives question the suspect, who gives up nothing. Their boss lets the Baltimore guys take a run at him. Homicide viewers knew that Pembleton’s great skill was extracting confessions in “the box,” and, he does, but only after the suspect says he “can’t talk about it.” Pembleton responds, “you mean you’re unable to talk about it, or you just don’t want to talk about it?”

The confession winds up getting suppressed because, in the Law & Order universe, “I can’t talk about it” is an invocation of the right to remain silent and the right to counsel. There’s even a good back and forth about how it doesn’t matter that such things will “fly” down in Baltimore. In truth, such things “fly” everywhere that Supreme Court precedent controls. Invocation of counsel, or the right to remain silent, has to be explicit before it keeps the cops from barreling on with their inquiries.

The ruling was, simply, TV-land bullshit, an attempt to throw an obstacle in the path of our heroes. This was getting it wrong, seriously wrong, more than just not getting it right. And, in the end, it didn’t really make a difference (the guy was convicted anyway, without much drama). The overly-defense friendly law is a staple on Law & Order, but it’s usually at least closer to getting it right than this.

In the end, does it really matter? No, because the vast majority of people watching Law & Order aren’t lawyers, much less criminal defense lawyers who might zero in on that kind of thing. For most viewers it’s just an obstacle for our heroes to overcome. That, after all, is why we’re watching. Which is why it’s important for “experts” to back off a little bit and give fiction some room to breathe. Everybody sing along:


Weekly Watch: Making a Murderer

2015 was a good year for long-form documentaries about criminal justice, from the smashing success of the Serial podcast to HBO’s crime solving (?) The Jinx. But the cream of the crop has to be the Netflix series Making a Murderer. That’s partly because it’s infinitely bingeable, where the others weren’t, but that’s also because it’s got a hell of a story to tell

The story, writ broadly (it’s over 10 hours long, after all) is this – In 1985 Steven Avery is convicted of attempted rape in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. He maintained his innocence and, 18 years later, DNA proved him right (while identifying the real culprit to boot). Released from prison, Avery became a shining star in the exoneration world, a poster boy for needed reforms of the criminal justice system. Then, just when changes were about to be made, he was charged and convicted of an even more heinous crime – murder. As in 1985, Avery maintains his innocence, but so far, hasn’t been able to prove it.

But wait, there’s more. There’s a back story involving Avery’s relationship with the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office. It was responsible for putting him away in 1985, ignoring evidence pointing to the real perpetrator in the process. It ignored signs in the mid 1990s that suggested Avery was innocent. And, most important, the office and several of its officers were being deposed as part of a lawsuit about Avery’s conviction at the time the murder victim, Teresa Halbach, went missing.

Thus, rather than telling a story about how a man who was wrongly imprisoned for two decades might have been turned into a killer, the film makers (with a generous assist from Avery’s lawyers) instead tell a tale of a man who wrongfully convicted twice. The first time, via more negligence than malice, but the second time by a deliberate frame up.

There’s also the story of Brendan Dassey, Avery’s slow-witted teenage cousin, who was also convicted of participating in Halbach’s murder. The entire case against Dassey consisted of a “confession” given by Dassey that’s almost a paradigmatic example of how skilled interrogators can get the answers they want, regardless of how truthful they really are. The overriding sense at the end of things is that Brendan, at the very least, had nothing to do with the murder.

I’m not sure they can make the case that Avery was framed. But what the Making a Murderer does is to highlight a lot of troubling issues in the criminal justice system. They’re not things that are new to those of us who work there every day, but they’ll shock some lay people. At least I hope they do.

The first thing that pops up is investigative and prosecutorial tunnel vision. That is, once cops know they have the “right guy,” they focus entirely on convicting him, regardless of evidence that might point to another suspect. Case closed, stat achieved! That’s most obvious in those in the system who, even after DNA cleared Avery, refused to concede they’d gotten the wrong man. This is fairly common in exoneration cases. People are so wedded to the position that they were right that they can’t accept they were wrong. Confirmation bias can be a real monkey on one’s back.

Next there’s the way that the prosecutorial apparatus protects itself from accusations of wrongdoing. To its credit, the Wisconsin AG’s office did an investigation of Avery’s 1985 case after his exoneration. The investigators who were deposed in Avery’s civil case said some pretty damaging things, mostly about the kind of tunnel vision I mentioned above. The final report, however, was a whitewash, which is par for the course. Misbehaving prosecutors are rarely punished, or even called out by name when courts find they’ve misbehaved.

Brendan’s story combines two current tropes of criminal defense, a coerced confession and horrific defense lawyering. We see some of Brendan’s taped interview with police, but we also hear lots of phone calls with his mother while he was in jail. The upshot of all this is that he had no idea what he was doing, was trying to please the officers, and almost certainly didn’t have the role in the murder he ascribed to himself (if he had any at all). Again, this isn’t unusual – while all cases of DNA exoneration have a false confession rate somewhere around 20 percent, for juveniles that goes up to over 40 percent. Let that sink in for a moment – in almost half of juvenile exoneration cases, the juvenile confessed to a crime he didn’t commit.

What’s worse in Brendan’s case is that one of the his false confessions was obtained by his defense team! His second appointed lawyer declared his client guilty before he even met him and apparently was trying to make him the best guilty pleader and cooperator he could. That backfired, spectacularly, giving the prosecution extra ammunition to use against him at trial. You’ve heard of lawyers who are asleep during their client’s case? Maybe, sometimes, that’s the lesser of two evils.

Of course, to hear the prosecution tell it, there is no such thing as a “false” confession. During the closing argument in Brendan’s case the prosecutor told the jury that “innocent people don’t confess to crimes they didn’t commit.” As the numbers laid out above show, that’s clearly false. While a lay person might be forgiven for thinking that, a lawyer in the 21st century shouldn’t. If the prosecutor wasn’t outright lying, he was so out of touch with current research on false confessions that he should have his license pulled.

Avery’s trial had a whopper from the prosecutor in closing argument, too, in the form of the declaration that “the presumption of innocence applies to the innocent.” That’s wrong on a couple of levels. Theoretically, of course, everyone – innocent, guilty, and in between – is entitled to a presumption of innocence. It’s the prosecution’s job to rebut that. If it can’t, the defendant goes free – regardless of whether, factually, he’s guilty or not.

But he’s also wrong practically, for a very different reason. That’s because, practically (in my experience), there is no presumption of innocence. It’s a myth people buy into to make themselves feel better about how the world works, like Santa Claus or God. In truth, lots of people think if you’re charged with something, you must be guilty of something. Judges can instruct jurors otherwise, but it’s a hard bias to crack.

Speaking of bias, I certainly have one that I bring to Making a Murderer. Being a criminal defense lawyer for 16-plus years will do that. And make no mistake, the filmmakers have a viewpoint and are making an argument. This is not an even, balanced, tell all sides documentary. It’s a polemic, meant to stir passions. Whether it succeeds in convincing that Avery is the unluckiest man on the planet, being wrongfully convicted for two separate crimes, is unclear. But if it riles people up enough to pay attention to the issues the case raises, that’s good enough for me.


Unmasking Judas

Since the time I wrote this post in 2014, Big Big Train staged a set of fairly rare live gigs which, thankfully, were recorded. They’ve been sharing the results on YouTube, the second of which was “Judas Unrepentant.” Sounds like a good enough excuse for me to repost this. Watch, listen, read, and enjoy!

It took a while for Big Big Train’s The Underfall Yard, released in 2009, to grow on me.  It’s successor, English Electric Volume One still hasn’t*, for whatever reason, with the exception of one track.  It’s a song about something that always strikes me as fascinating – art forgery.

“Judas Unrepentant” is about a guy who forges art, but does it in a very clever way.  Rather that churn out reproductions of known classics, he has a different scheme:

Establishing provenance
Acquiring old frames with Christie’s numbers
Then Pains a picture in the same style
Specializing in minor works by major artists

It’s quite brilliant, actually.  Reminds me of a story I heard Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick tell about their early days – where every other bar band played the radio hits by Zeppelin or The Who, they’d learn the B-sides nobody paid much attention to, so it sounded like original material (although they never passed it off that way).

I always wondered if the song was completely fictional or inspired by a real forger.  Last night, I think got the answer, thanks to a 60 Minutes piece on Wolfgang Beltracchi.  As the setup explains:

Wolfgang Beltracchi is a name you may never have heard before.  Very few people have. But his paintings have brought him millions and millions of dollars in a career that spanned nearly 40 years. They have made their way into museums, galleries, and private collections all over the world.  What makes him a story for us is that all his paintings are fakes. And what makes him an unusual forger is that he didn’t copy the paintings of great artists, but created new works which he imagined the artist might have painted or which might have gotten lost. Connoisseurs and dealers acknowledge that Beltracchi is the most successful art forger of our time — perhaps of all time. Brilliant not only as a painter, but as a conman of epic proportions.

Now, the song is not Beltracchi’s story.  For one thing, the song indicates that its hero wanted to get caught:

His time bombs are in place
And anachronisms
Clues pointing to the truth
If ever they are X-rayed

It’s clear from the story that Beltracchi didn’t want to get caught, which he did.  He was sentenced to six years in prison and his wife/codefendant to four.  As for how he got caught?

But then in 2010, he got busted by this tube of white paint.

The Dutch manufacturer didn’t include on the tube that it contained traces of a pigment called titanium white. That form of titanium white wasn’t available when [Max] Ernst would have painted these works and Beltracchi’s high ride was over.

Which is interesting, because in the song, our hero:

Wrote legends in lead white
to trick the experts
And hoodwink the trained eye

Coincidence?  Could be.  But Beltrachhi’s story must have been in the news in Europe sometimes before “Judas Unrepentant” was written, so it makes sense that one served as inspiration for the other.

One thing I will say for the song is that is provides something the 60 Minutes piece doesn’t, which is answering why go through all trouble?  Beltracchi is a staggeringly talented guy.  Presumably he could have been a successful artist under his own name, so why all the fraud?  “Judas Unrepentant” has an answer:

He’s painting revenge
Embittered by lack of success

* * *

Expressing contempt
For greedy dealers
Getting rich
At the artist’s expense

Revenge as the long con.  I like it, although it all comes to a tragic end, sadly.

I think what makes art forgets so interesting is that they tend to poke a finger in the eye of the art world, challenging its aesthetic bona fides and pointing out how, so often, people only care about the name attached to a work, not the work itself.  To that end, I applaud this collector:

This $7 million dollar fake Max Ernst is being shipped back to New York.  Its owner decided to keep it even after it had been exposed as a fake. He said it’s one of the best Max Ernsts he’s ever seen.

Because, in the end, the important thing shouldn’t be whether the signature on the bottom makes your friends jealous, but whether the art moves you and makes you think about it.

* The similarly named English Electric by OMD, however, grabbed me right away, for what it’s worth.

This post originally appeared at my old blog on February 24, 2014.