The other week, as the debate about the depiction of torture in "Zero Dark Thirty" raged on, I chatted with Alex Gibney about his upcoming HBO doc "Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God" and the piece he wrote in Salon about his issues with Kathryn Bigelow's film, which he felt misrepresented how useful so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" were in finding of Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, on TV, Huck (Guillermo Diaz), one of the main characters in Shonda Rhimes' ABC drama "Scandal," was accused of attempting to assassinate the President, taken to a windowless room somewhere and tortured in an attempt to get a confession. Inside the holding pen, as the beaten Huck's feet were kicked out by men helping him figure out what it feels like to drown, outside the window U.S. Attorney David Rosen (Joshua Malina) looked on uncomfortably as an unnamed government agent played by Billy Mayo assured him that while the suspect hadn't answered any questions yet, he would, because "Eventually they always do." It led to this exchange between Rosen and the man:
MALINA: It looks like he can't take much more of the waterboa- the interrogating. And I'm wondering maybe if we want to do a little less interrogating and maybe start thinking about his civil rights. I'm a U.S. Attorney, gentlemen. I represent the United States of America. The United States of America is in this room with you. So you need to watch how you treat the prisoner on American soil.
MAYO: I represent the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security, the Patriot Act and all the men and women who ever fought and died for your right to stand in this room with your glasses and your briefcase and spout your crap. We're not on American soil. This is not America — this is the Pentagon, and that is an enemy combatant. Son, I represent the United States, you understand? The United States of America's in the room with you. You are a guest here. Shut your mouth.
The irony of the situation is that Huck, who serves as the show's particular take on a lovable weirdo, is a former CIA black ops type who used to torture and kill people for the government. He learned to enjoy it and now is in recovery, attending AA meetings and talking about his fondness for "drinking whiskey," which is only slightly more of a euphemism than "enhanced interrogation." In the first season of "Scandal," heroine Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), the show's main wearer of the white hat (or more often the white pantsuit), broke Huck's "sobriety" by asking him to get info on a missing client by any means necessary from the old CIA pal of his who abducted and probably killed the girl. Huck busted out the power drill and scalpel and, a few bloody hours later, got the location of the body. Apparently, even the good guys need to break the rules and some skin sometimes, though they feel lousy about it afterward.
"Scandal," of course, is heightened, soapy and more than a little crazy — it's a TV show in which the main character's love interest is the President (Tony Goldwyn), who is, incidentally, married and about to have a baby, and this year it's suggested that Olivia and other D.C. higher-ups colluded to guy elected via voter fraud. As a movie, "Zero Dark Thirty" is considerably more complex, grounded and ambitious in its aims. But while the discussion over whether or not the inclusion of torture in the latter constitute some kind of approval — Bigelow, delving into the topic in the LA Times today, wrote that "Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement" — recent fictional depictions of torture imply that we still find it easy to accept it happens, and not even in the faraway legal gray areas of places like Guantanamo.
In this past season of "Homeland," when Brody (Damian Lewis) was brought in for interrogation in some other windowless location, Quinn (Rupert Friend) played the part of bad cop and proceeded to stab his prisoner in the hand with a knife, a move that looked like it was provoked by rage but was actually carefully calculated to help break Brody down — a deliberate act, not an emotional one.
It was a moment that recalled executive producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa's show, "24," which for eight seasons queasily suggested that torture was a gruesome but necessary and effective means to an end when the stakes were high and timing was tight. "We're utilising certain devices for drama," star Kiefer Sutherland said when defending the show to the Guardian back in 2009. "And it's good drama. And I love this drama! As an actor I have had an absolute blast doing it. You sit in a room and put a gun to a guy's knee and say, 'Tell me!' Oh, you feel so amazing after that!"
Times have changed, even in the two and a half years since "24" ended — in "Homeland," Carrie (Claire Danes) looked shocked by what Quinn did, though she had no issues in other areas illegally surveilling Brody at the start of the series. Torture isn't included in "Scandal" for entertainment value the way it was when Jack Bauer did it. And the discussions of the torture sequences in "Zero Dark Thirty" hinge on the film's suggested journalistic depiction of real events, a burden neither "Scandal" nor "Homeland" or "24" has to face. But if fiction, particularly the type piped into our homes on the small screen, is any kind of reflection of the American subconscious, then it suggests that we believe it still happens, that it happens close to home and that it's done in the name of patriotism — as uneasy and troubling as that is.