When most people hear the word Oz, they think of Munchkins, yellow brick
roads, and precious little Judy Garland having a really trippy dream (oh,
tell me that Baum wasn't into psychedelics). It's a fond childhood memory,
or a really sick grown-up obsession, maybe. For me, though, the word means
something different. The pictures in my head are of murderers, riots,
and, in a sense, redemption.
See, Mom, I told you the doctors were taking care of me!
My only enjoyable exposure to The Wizard of Oz was synching
the DVD up to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (if you've never
done it, clear a Saturday night; no reality-altering substances necessary).
Back in 2000, though, a friend of mine introduced me to the ongoing HBO
series called Oz, and although having only basic cable prevents
me from watching the show on any regular basis, I'm hooked. So much so
that I plunked down the $50 for the first season DVD box-set, and then
proceeded to watch the eight hour-long episodes in two marathon four-hour
sessions. I guess you'll understand if my perceptions are a bit warped
at the moment.
For those of you not familiar with it, the show takes place in a maximum
security federal prison — Oswald penitentiary, and thus the show's
name. It focuses on the inmates of an experiment in prison theory, nicknamed
Emerald City because it is the shiny new area of the prison. Rather than
spending all their time behind bars, the prisoners (whose charges range
from armed robbery to arson to cannibalism) are housed in glass pods,
watched twenty four hours a day by guards, with the upside of having more
'freedom' within the prison area. It's an actual concept in existence
in some prisons today, and the theoretical results are, if nothing else,
excellent teledrama. If you have the stomach for it — not just the
violence and full frontal nudity, but the graphic reality underneath it
all — it comes with my highest recommendation.
While burning my eyes out in the first session, frying my gray matter
on the sofa at three in the morning, it occurred to me that Oz
is the southbound lane to the northward comic book highway. Both deal
with the concepts of crime and justice, but one is focused on heroes and
their morals, while the other deals with convicted felons and the repercussions
of their acts. Both feature good guys and bad guys; it's just an issue
of where the gray area between the two lies.
That was one thing that immediately struck me — the perceptual shift
that you have to allow, depending on context. There are no innocent people
in Oz, no wrongly imprisoned victims of a flawed justice system; ninety
nine percent of the characters (even the guards) have done wrong, to the
point that none would be considered a protagonist in a normal story. But
when everyone in the picture is ugly, the shades of physicality begin
to become apparent, until some of the people start to look pretty, at
least in the crowd they're with.
Something else: as exaggerated as Oz may be (and I'm certain
that no prison is nearly as entertaining), it is so much more grounded
in reality than comics. Not just because comics feature guys in spandex
that can fry eggs with their eyes, and women so top-heavy their ankles
should snap with each step, but because comics are (still) largely binary,
representing a black and white world in vivid, vibrant color. In comics,
there are bad guys and good guys, and very few that walk the line. There
are motivations behind the villains, but they are largely two-dimensional,
and rarely subject to change. There are moral decisions, but rarely with
In Oz, though, the gray area between extremes pushes the
two-legged stool back under the table. The good guys aren't always so
good, the bad guys aren't always so bad, and the viewer's sympathies get
pulled and pushed back and forth over the course of a season. The causes
of crime aren't so easy to pin down — in fact, sometimes, it's just
a mistake. These mistakes, like everything else in life, have effects
— if a butterfly flaps it's wings in Kansas, you can bet there's
probably a storm headed towards Oz.
In the fourth episode, the death penalty is reinstated at Oz, and the
writers do a great job of looking at both sides of the issue. There is
the matter of presenting the classic debating points — effects on
recidivism and prevention, taxpayer expense, and the common argument of
prison philosophy, revenge versus punishment — but there are also
two stories, told side by side, that show capital punishment in both very
positive and questionable (at least) lights. One convict is a hopeless
case, incapable, it seems, of salvation; the other is a changed man who
accepts his fate with a greater good in mind.
I don't want to sound like I am for or against capital punishment; I
can swing either way, depending on the context of the situation. If the
recipient is guilty — not just beyond a shadow of doubt, but doubtlessly
— and beyond redemption, then let them walk the last mile. But in
any other case, I think it's an overly harsh solution, giving nothing
back to the victims or society except for a peace of mind that is not
necessarily worth the trade. That, and there's always the 'Oops!' factor
— in which, thanks to whatever extenuating circumstance you want
to imagine, the wrong guy pays the ultimate price, and the guy who pulls
the switch becomes a State-sanctioned murderer. As the story goes, two
wrongs don't make a right (although three lefts do).
I think that capital punishment should be examined more carefully in
comics. There's a general rule in comics: good guys don't kill. Obviously,
there are some exceptions, like Wolverine and some of the newer 'anti-hero'
books like The Authority. There might even be a good reason
for this (that being that no one stays dead for long in comics, and letting
heroes kill would just create more problems for the writers who have to
explain all the resurrections). The heroes can beat the villains to a
bloody pulp (and where do the bad guys get health insurance, anyway?),
but no killing — it would bring them down to the level of the enemy,
it would make a mockery of the American justice system (as though it doesn't
do a fine job by itself).
But what about the villains that kill and kill and kill again? Every
time they are caught, they disappear, only to break out and commit a few
more murders before the cycle starts over. The heroes never give up hope,
that this time the prison is strong enough, or that the villain will see
the light and stop killing. Valiant as the thought is, at what point do
they become responsible by their inaction? Not to turn the knife around
— by no means do I want to suggest that anyone other than the murderer
is responsible for his or her actions — but when is enough enough?
Don't they read their own stories — can't Batman see that the Joker
is crazy as a loon, beyond hope, destined to escape and kill and escape
I have a hard time imagining the thought of killing someone, even in
rage. For that matter, even in self-defense; I can't say for certain that
I would rather live knowing that I took a life over dying with a clean
conscience. It becomes a little easier if there's motivation involved,
though — if I know for a fact that killing person X will save a life
(or, in the case of comic heroes, tens or hundreds or thousands of lives),
I would do it without a second thought. If I were Spider-Man, choosing
between the fortieth jail term for the Green Goblin or taking him out
once and for all, while he threatens the life of the widow of his latest
victim, the writers would have to start thinking of a new archenemy for
Comics are an escape for me, and they always have been. There are some,
like The Crow, Maus, and Lady Death
(just kidding!) that have served a deeper purpose than entertainment,
but for the most part, that's what comic books are. I've always been a
daydreamer, prone to putting myself to sleep at night in the hero's boots,
flying and mastering martial arts and saving the world from a cosmic menace.
That might even explain the genesis of my fascination with the criminal
mind, the Criminal Psychology dual degree in college, the endless parade
of books and documentaries on prisons and serial killers. If that's the
case, then it says it all about my initial interest in Oz
as well. But it's not bringing them in that's the old show-biz trick;
it's keeping 'em in their seats, and Oz does that through
a canny mix of characterization, chemistry, and provocative plotlines.
To me, Oz is like a microcosmic version of the world we
live in. If that doesn't make you want to invite me to your next dinner
party, then I give up.