Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Lion and the Lamb

Does an isolated episode of NBC's mediocre new procedural, Chase, really merit its own post?  That is not the sort of question that I can be bothered with around here at this blog.  But be warned, there will be spoilers for episode 3, "The Comeback Kid," and what follows won't have much meaning if you haven't already watched it.

I am not a regular viewer of Chase, having in fact only seen the third episode.  I tuned in that night because I saw previews indicating that Robert Knepper would be guest-starring.  As Theodore "T-Bag" Bagwell on Prison Break and Samuel Sullivan on Heroes, Knepper has previously played two of my favorite TV characters in recent years.  Both those shows have ended, however, and Knepper does not yet have a new regular gig.  So I turned on Chase to get my fix in the meantime, even though I understood that he would only be playing the villain of the week.  There was also perhaps some question of whether I was really expecting to see Robert Knepper, or if, rather, it was T-Bag/Samuel Sullivan that I wanted to see.  Either way, I was not disappointed, and this latest performance, although a one-shot, forms a nice arc along with his previous two most famous roles.

To recap (or in case you simply refuse to watch Chase), Knepper stars in the episode as Jack Druggan, fugitive of the week, who after living peacefully for years under a stolen identity, one day seems to snap shortly after turning fifty.  He seeks out and guns down the punks who mugged him and his longtime domestic partner, and this bloody vengeance apparently rekindles his glory days, back when he was a lion among lambs, robbing banks at will and enjoying Harvard-educated hookers.  Giving up his stable life of the past seventeen years, he does nothing to cover his tracks, even seeming to deliberately attract the attention of the Chase crew of U.S. Marshals.

At first, Druggan rather seems the opposite of T-Bag/Samuel.  Whereas his previous characters were monsters trying to be men, Druggan seems to have grown tired of playing house and wants to be once more a lion.  Even with the law hot on his heels, far from seeming desperate, he sees the gangster lifestyle as the most glamorous and adventurous existence there could be.  When he sees his photo printed in the newspaper, he offers a better, more recent picture, as if to taunt his pursuers, for he is proud of what he is and uninterested in hiding it.  The self-involved U.S. Marshals, peripheral players on their own show in this episode, try to get inside his head, and they determine that he is the bold, showy sort of criminal, who cannot help himself going for one more big heist, which indeed is his plan.

Maybe the Marshals are right.  Even by the episode's end, there is never any dialogue from Druggan or any other character to explicitly identify him as anything but a monster addicted to bank-robbing.  But there's a lot that doesn't add up with that interpretation.  The Marshals theorize that he went into hiding originally because things just got too hot and he didn't have money left to blow while on the run.  But in my mind, one does not spend seventeen years carrying on a relationship, working a humdrum job, and getting involved as a counselor at the halfway house for recently released prisoners, all simply as a cover while planning out the next big score.

Again, the Marshals connect the dots, seeing his position at the halfway house as the perfect avenue for him to groom and recruit his next crew, which indeed he does.  But his recruitment pitch surprises even one of his prospects, who seems to have been on the road to reform, thanks specifically to the good advice that Druggan always gave him as a counselor.  Druggan's lover also attests that, for those years they were together, he was a good man.  And when he turns, he doesn't turn on her, but invites her to join him.  She rejects his life on the run, of course, and he accepts her answer amicably, saying only that he had to try.

So, for seventeen years, Druggan had a steady job, the love of a fine woman that he loved back, and the admiration of his community for doing God's work.  For seventeen years, he had exactly the life that T-Bag and Samuel seemed to always want but could never make work because they could never escape themselves and their pasts, as men brought up into worlds with few honest options.  Perhaps Druggan was the same--a man who could not escape who he was.  It's hard to say for certain how hard he tried; his turn would have occurred before the action of the episode, most likely when the muggers attacked his lady, enraging him into a realization of his essential nature that he had been repressing.  But, again, seventeen years is a long time to be living a lie, unless that lie was what you wanted more than anything else.  In other words, perhaps he wanted to be a lamb all along, and the lion was the face that he showed again only once he was already defeated.  Defeated by a truth about himself that he did not think he could escape.

For all his proud talk of being a lion, he's not especially vicious by TV murderer standards.  He only kills people that, in his mind, robbed or tried to rob him.  He leaves several witnesses unharmed.  Even when one of his subordinates abandons him, Druggan simply accepts it and lets the man walk away.  He releases his picture to the papers supposedly because he is cocky and wants to be recognized, but perhaps, as much as he wants the world to see who he is, he also needs to be told who he really is by having the paper report back to him his crimes.  And his big score at the end seems uncharacteristically poorly planned, with no other possible outcome but a hopeless firefight.

On the surface, Druggan seemed much more self-assured than either T-Bag or Samuel, but perhaps he was actually a more resigned and knowingly self-destructive version of the same man.  T-Bag and Samuel were men who wreaked havoc on a world they felt left them no other options.  Druggan, who actually spent a long time living the life they could only dream of, ultimately discovered that his dream did not match his nature, and eventually he could be neither man nor wholly monster, and there were no options, period.  Although they were villains, I always found myself rooting for T-Bag and Samuel, hoping that things could somehow go their way.  But perhaps Druggan shows what T-Bag and Samuel would have become, even had they gotten the lives they thought they wanted.

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