Friday, May 04, 2007
Farewell to Oz
Last night, Gary and I finished watching the final season of Oz, HBO's no-holds-barred prison series. Although Gary's far more immune to media violence than I am, I liked the series better than he did. I agree with him that Oz's body count makes Vietnam look like Club Med, and some of the plot twists were more than a little contrived. But at the same time, the show did a wonderful job of depicting all of its characters as complicated, three-dimensional people. I especially admired the treatment of Vern Schillinger, the Aryan leader whom we loathe one moment and pity the next. Schillinger's capable of truly operatic acts of villainy, but we grieve with him when his sons die, and in the final season, when his hero Mayor Loewen insults and dismisses him, the wounded-child look on his face is heart-breaking.
All of Oz's characters, even the most seemingly despicable, struggle with hard questions. Witness Claire Howell, the sadistic C.O. who uses her power to coerce inmates into having sex with her. She's one of the most loathesome people in Oz right up until the last episode, when she discovers that she's pregnant and delivers a rueful, moving monologue to Father Mukada. She doesn't believe in abortion, and since she's pretty certain her baby will be mixed-race ("golden-brown and marinated in salsa," as she says with typical bluntness), she doesn't want to raise the child in her redneck neighborhood. But on a C.O.'s salary, especially as an about-to-be-single mother, she can't afford to move.
What I liked most about the series, though -- what kept me watching through the endless shankings, betrayals, and ever-more-convoluted iterations of the Beecher-Schillinger-Keller triangle -- was its treatment of faith. The show takes faith and spirituality seriously. Father Mukada, the prison chaplain and Catholic priest, is neither a caricature nor a cardboard cutout. He does a very difficult job as well as he can, often struggling alongside the prisoners with doubt and despair. Sister Peter Marie, Catholic nun and prison psychologist, is similarly complex.
Take the episode "Capital 1" in the first season. Mukada and Sister Pete both follow the teachings of the Catholic Church in opposing the death penalty, and they're torn about how to respond when it's reinstituted. Father Mukada decides that he has to stay in the prison to provide pastoral care to prisoners on death row. Sister Pete takes a very different approach, quitting her job -- albeit briefly -- to join the anti-death-penalty picketers outside the prison. Neither character arrives easily or automatically at a course of action. They aren't saints; they're frail, fallible humans.
We also see the prisoners, especially Muslim leader Said and his followers, struggling with the meaning and consequences of religious faith. Almost every character on Oz, even those who aren't formally religious, runs head-on into conflicts involving redemption, salvation, and forgiveness. On Oz, these aren't just pretty words. They're very literally matters of life and death. This is a show where questions about the soul have the driving urgency of countdowns to thermo-nuclear explosion in superhero movies. That makes sense, of course, since the action takes place in confined spaces. In Oz, theology replaces car chases.
One of my favorite theological moments on the show occurs, again, during "Capital 1." One of the first season's subplots involves Mukada's attempts to help a prisoner named Miguel Alvarez. Alvarez' girlfriend is about to give birth in another prison, and Alvarez is initially indifferent to his imminent fatherhood. Mukada believes that if he can get Alvarez to take an interest in the baby, he may be able to help break the cycle that has put generations of Alvarez men behind bars. With help from Alvarez' grandfather, also an inmate, Mukada succeeds in motivating Alvarez to take responsibility for the child, and even (in one of the less plausible plot points of the show) arranges for Alvarez to be present at the birth.
Having seen his son born, Alvarez is transformed. He adores the child. For the first time in his life, he feels true love for another person.
And then the baby dies.
Raw and grieving, Alvarez demands of the devastated Mukada, "Father, where was God when my son died?"
Mukada answers quietly, "The same place He was when His own son died."
That's a profoundly Christian, profoundly pastoral response, and it blew me away. For several months, I chattered about that moment to the people I knew who were involved in prison ministry. Hey, listen to this! A cable TV show dealt with a really heavy theological issue and got it right! Most of the people I talked to smiled politely; I could tell that at least some of them, including clergy from outside my parish, thought I was an over-enthusiastic fangirl, raving about an exploitative piece of popular culture that couldn't possibly say anything legitimate about real-world issues.
And then I discovered the historical source of Mukada's response to Alvarez. It's what Martin Luther told his wife after their infant son died.
You can't get much more legitimately theological than that.
Goodbye, Oz. Rest in peace.