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Barry's season 3 finale falls into the same police tropes the rest of the show works to avoid
By Kaitlin Fontana
One of the abiding strengths of HBO's Barry—a dark comedy series about a hitman who, after tracking a mark to an acting class, decides he wants to be an actor himself—is that it has never taken policing all that seriously. From the jump, its cop characters have fallen somewhere on a spectrum of goofy dummies to hapless ne-er-do-wells, with very few exceptions. That is, until its season 3 finale, which has stuck with me, thanks both to its dramatic final moments and its use of cop intervention as closure.
Barry first aired in 2018, a time that feels immeasurably long ago, given everything. Barry's arrival was a breath of fresh air in the comedy-crime space in both tone and substance—not necessarily because it undermined cops, but because it undermined everyone. The only difference between Barry (Bill Hader) and everyone else is that his circumstance is not born out of ambition, but out of hope: While the others around him strive for power (either in the TV/film industry or crime, for the most part), Barry just wants to give acting a shot. He thinks he could be good at it. This turn makes for an interesting dramatic irony that carries us for a long while: Barry wants to act, but is pretty bad at it; he wants to stop killing, but he's extremely good at it.
For the 2022 74th annual Emmy Awards, pop justice is featuring critiquing this year's award-winning copaganda—and highlighting abolitionist storylines lurking in our favorite shows.
Which brings us to the police. Casting-wise, they're all comedy character actors you've seen before, and they all have a sort of bumbling, "oopsy" vibe. They believe Barry when he lies to them, even though his nervous energy would give most people pause. They let him go.
But most saliently: Cops, by and large, don't have much to do with this crime story at first. Here, Barry has more in common with the pulp of Elmore Leonard novels, or even classic noir like The Big Sleep: Cops don't figure, mostly, because everyone's guilty here, and we handle our own.
Still, there is someone who catches up to Barry, and that someone is Detective Janice Moss, a competent, well-liked police detective (and, notably, a Black woman) who soon enough sniffs out what Barry's up to; he ultimately kills her. The show ups the ante on Janice by making her the romantic quarry of Mr. Cousineau (Henry Winkler), Barry's acting teacher, his hero/father figure, and later, his object of obsession. This certainly elevates the emotional stakes, particularly for Cousineau, but it does something else, too. It makes Janice more than a cop in our eyes. She's a woman, who just found the love of her life before being brutally snuffed out.
Which brings us to season 3, in which Barry decides he has to make amends for what he did to Janice… and all of his other victims. One of the threads is Barry's desire to pay for what he did outside of the law, which is exciting (and, arguably, a nod toward restorative justice). He becomes a man on a solo mission of redemption, like in a western or (again) a pulpy crime novel. As Barry's mission turns internal, the show's signature wry, dark humor gives way to the black void at Barry's center. By the time we reach the season finale, that open maw is deep and vast.
The episode ends in a beautifully composed and devastating sequence in which Barry approaches Mr. Cousineau from behind, gun raised. You know this is big, because Mr. Cousineau is the only person Barry loves. Protecting him in a supremely fucked up way has been Barry's MO for the season. The moment is tense: Will Barry kill his mentor, his father figure, to save his own ass?
But then: Boom. A SWAT team descends, closing in on Barry. Mr. Cousineau lured Barry here to be arrested. He is. And that is the end of the season. It's a good ending, in terms of resolving dramatic tension. But I couldn't let the cop piece go. In a show that deliberately undermines its police characters, using cops as closure felt… off. There was a sense that this was "all over now" for Barry, a job well done by all. And although I will tune in next season to see how Barry's case plays out, I'm a little sad that a nuanced and intelligent show that kneecapped cop power throughout still managed to turn to the "take him away, boys" trope at the end.
All season, Barry's been seeking a deep and redemptive justice outside the law. At times, he got close to getting what he sought, no bumbling badges in sight, and that felt meaningful, deep. Restorative. It was almost inert, by comparison, to end things this way.
I'll return in season 4, and in the meantime I hope there's someone in the writers' room with an abolitionist mindset. Because I know how the cop closure ending goes. We all do. We've seen it. What else is possible?
Under the Banner of Heaven: A limited series with an even more limited perspective on race, policing
By Rebecca Bodenheimer
FX's limited series "Under the Banner of Heaven," for which star Andrew Garfield was nominated for a 2022 Emmy Award, is textbook copaganda. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black took many liberties in adapting the 2003 Jon Krakauer book, namely the decision to center the perspectives of two cops investigating the grisly 1984 murder of a young mother and her infant daughter in an insular Mormon community outside Salt Lake City. The two detectives, who don't exist in the Krakauer book, couldn't be more diametrically opposed: Jeb Pyre (Garfield) is a devout Mormon and member of the community, while his partner Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham) is a seasoned Native American cop from Las Vegas.
Taba is constantly made aware of his outsider status—he's the only non-Mormon and non-white character in the entire show until the final episode. Several characters remark on his dark skin, calling him a "Lamanite," a term found in the Book of Mormon referring to the "heathen" ancestors of American Indians.
As a gay man who grew up Mormon and eventually left the church because of its homophobia, Black clearly aims to highlight the racism and toxic patriarchal culture within both the mainstream Latter Day Saints church and its fundamentalist sects. Pyre and Taba eventually learn that the murders revolve around the radicalization of several brothers within a prominent Mormon family, the Laffertys, who become convinced they are prophets whose mission is to restore the original tenets of Mormonism, such as polygamy and "blood atonement" (religiously sanctioned murder), as practiced by the founders of the church, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.
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The series' copaganda comes in two different flavors: honey (Pyre) and vinegar (Taba), terms the characters use to describe their different tactics for interrogating suspects. The first scene of the series shows Pyre as a loving dad playing with his daughters. He's called to the gruesome crime scene, where he and the other officers are visibly shaken by what they see; Pyre sheds his first tears when he sees the dead infant—though they will hardly be his last. Pyre's penchant for crying establishes him as sensitive and willing to show vulnerability. He's also devoted to his aging mother, who has dementia, and even bathes her in one scene. It's hard to imagine a more moral, upstanding character, the antithesis of toxic masculinity.
Taba is dispassionate, worldly, and not afraid to tell it like it is, especially in response to the many microaggressions he's subjected to. In the first episode we see him teasing Pyre, who's such a prude that he feels guilty about eating the french fries Taba offers him. Pyre is so consumed with his impenetrable religious devotion that the audience can't really relate to him. It's Taba who functions as the audience surrogate and moral authority for the show: his reactions throw into relief the misogyny and racism of the LDS church.
Given the centuries of genocide, oppression, and erasure Native Americans have faced in this country, it's not surprising that Black chose Taba as the show's moral arbiter. But what does it mean when that character is also a cop, one who's part of an institution created to uphold white supremacy and patriarchy? The abuses and biases built into the system of American policing are invisible in Under the Banner of Heaven—precisely because Pyre and Taba are pitted against anti-government Mormon zealots who seek to legalize polygamy and sex with minors, and believe in incredibly regressive gender norms. Of course the cops look like the good guys next to the monstrous Lafferty brothers, who killed their sister-in-law Brenda (and their baby niece) because she stepped out of her place and wanted more for herself and the other wives than daily subjugation to men's demands.
As the series progresses, Pyre has a crisis of faith and starts questioning his long-held beliefs. He ignores the church leaders who ask him to not mention the links to fundamentalist Mormonism in a press conference—and for this, he gets the cold shoulder from fellow Mormons, including eventually his own wife. The final episode doubles down on Taba's moral authority, as he pushes Pyre to continue following the evidence, even if it means exposing the church's lies. This guidance allows them to capture the murderers before they shed more blood.
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Although Taba and Pyre are fictional characters invented for the series, the real-life detectives did solve the murders relatively quickly, capturing the Lafferty brothers within ten days; certain details of the arrest, however, were fictionalized. The chief of police who oversaw the murder investigation said in a recent interview (with a Mormon non-profit organization) that Krakauer's book was far more accurate than the FX series. He seems to primarily object to the depiction of a Mormon cop (Pyre) losing his faith, which he claims didn't happen to any of his officers, and to the idea that church leaders attempted to influence the investigation. Black hasn't addressed why he centered his story around the perspectives of these two cops, but some have suggested Pyre's crisis of faith is a stand-in for Black's own disillusionment with Mormonism.
Under the Banner of Heaven presents two versions of highly moral cops—one who's naive but good-hearted, and another who guides his partner to a less rosy but more true view of the Mormon Church and its history. Taba never questions the racist history of policing or mentions any marginalization he has surely certainly experienced as a non-white cop. All of the racism and microaggressions he experiences are at the hands of civilians. That's a choice Black made, and it's part of what makes this series feel like a throwback to decades past, before shows like The Wire, The Shield, and this year's critically acclaimed We Own This City (which was snubbed by the Emmys) exposed the corruption and brutality of American policing.
Netflix's Arcane is an Emmy-winning video game adaptation offering a lesson in how to do away with copaganda
By Naa Djama Attoh-Okine
When Riot Games first announced that a League of Legends TV series was in the works, my expectations were low. Historically, video game adaptations exist on a scale of mediocre to abysmal. Saying that I was pleasantly surprised by the final product would be a gross understatement. Arcane: League of Legends is phenomenal. The stunning visuals, produced by Fortiche, allowed the characters to convey a wide range of emotions through their intricate facial expressions. From energetic rock anthems to harrowing ballads, the original soundtrack enhances every scene. Extraordinary voice acting, with standout performances from Hailee Steinfeld, Ella Purnell, and Mia Sinclair Jenness, round out one of the greatest video game adaptations of all time. And part of the reason it's so remarkable is because it also adapted its regard of policing.
At its core, Arcane follows two parallel storylines: the exploits of Jayce and Viktor, a pair of brilliant scientists who discover a way to harness magic through technology, and the adventures of Vi and Powder, two orphaned sisters who are separated through tragic circumstances. It is set in the cities of Piltover and Zaun. While the wealthy Piltovans live in a futuristic center of trade and craftsmanship, the Zaunites reside in a toxic, steampunk wasteland. Acting as a prequel series to the original game, the main cast is mostly comprised of Champions, or playable characters. While the game characters were two-dimensional caricatures of popular fantasy archetypes, the television writers altered and recontextualized their storylines to create a compelling group of unique personalities. One of the best examples of this improvement can be seen through Vi's philosophy on policing.
In the original game, Vi is a high-ranking Enforcer – Piltover's version of a police officer. Some of her most memorable voice lines include: "Come on! Resist arrest, already!" and "Punch first, ask questions while punching." Wielding a pair of magically-enhanced gauntlets, she is characterized as a badass cowboy cop and a white bastion of police brutality. Her impulsivity, love for violence, and abuse of her authority are meant to convey an image of strength and power.
League was released in 2009. This coincided with the golden age of police procedurals. A time in which Law and Order: SVU and NCIS were attracting tens of millions of viewers per week. Where characters like Elliot Stabler and Danny Regan were celebrated for beating suspects into confessing and threatening arrestees with the death penalty. Vi's original characterization reflects this constant exposure to pro-cop propaganda.
In the opening scene of Arcane, she and her younger sister are meandering through a fiery battlefield of bodies and bloodshed. Upon spotting the corpses of her parents, who'd been brutally murdered by Enforcers during an unsuccessful rebellion, Vi breaks down in despair. A few years later, her younger sister accidentally kills their adoptive family in a horribly misguided attempt to save them from a vengeful crime lord. In the midst of the chaos, Vi is kidnapped and thrown into a maximum security prison. She is forced into a daily ritual of brawls, beatings, and inescapable isolation.
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It changes her. She uses her muscular frame, intimidating tattoos, and aggressive disposition to hide a lifetime of trauma. Upon her release, she routinely expresses her disdain for the abusive police force that caused her so much pain, without ever explicitly connecting her treatment in prison to her abuse of authority as an Enforcer. In episode 8, she breaks into a high-ranking council member's laboratory. Upon announcing her presence, he threatens to have her thrown in jail. She swiftly dresses him down: "So you just wave an arm, have someone dragged off. Don't bother to find out what it does to someone being stuffed in a stone box for weeks or months or even years." Her response stuns him into silence.
Arcane was released in November 2021—nearly two years after George Floyd's assassination by the police shook the globe to its core. The media was actively reckoning with its complicity in promoting police brutality and systemic racism. Unlike its computer game predecessor, Arcane avoids falling into the copaganda trap. Through reframing a cop's backstory into a scathing critique on the broken state of the carceral system, the writers showcased their talent and their commitment to ethical storytelling. If you're looking for a thoughtful portrayal of abolitionist values, look no further than Arcane.
Rather than ignore this societal shift, the Arcane writers fully embraced it. Choosing to reframe a cop's backstory to critique the broken state of the carceral system is a testament to their talent and commitment to ethical storytelling.