For something we have relatively little of in the first place, control is something many of us dread losing. Maybe that initial scarcity of it is the root of the degree of our fear. After all, you’d be more afraid of spilling a cup of water if it was all the water you had, than if you could easily draw more from a well. One character I focus on this week, Truman Burbank from The Truman Show, spends most of his life unaware of being controlled and manipulated by others. Another, Bodie Broadus from The Wire, is painfully aware of how little control he has, but futilely dreams of gaining more.
- Cave, Stephen. “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 3 Jan. 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/theres-no-such-thing-as-free-will/480750/.
- Mark, Griffiths D. “The Truman Show Delusion.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 10 Aug. 2016, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-excess/201608/the-truman-show-delusion.
The opening theme for Healthy Fears: “Dark Game Background Loop” by Claudiu D. Moga, licensed through Envato.
The closing theme for Healthy Fears: “Hitchcock Thriller” by JBlanks, licensed through Envato.
Other music for this episode: “Alien Autopsy” by Robert Ashbridge, licensed through Shutterstock.
There is nothing wrong with your podcast player. Do not attempt to adjust the audio. I am controlling transmission. If I wish to make it louder, I will bring up the volume. If I wish to make it softer, I will tune it to a whisper. For the next half hour, sit quietly and I will control all that you hear.
“Free will is an illusion.” It’s a phrase you may have encountered at some point, and an idea supported by a minority of philosophers and scientists based on arguments and counterarguments and counter-counterarguments that are all a little too dense for me to honestly assess without just regurgitating a bunch of information I’ve read. From my admittedly less-educated, less philosophically and less neuro-scientifically inclined perspective, however, I will just say that it seems to be a little bit of an argument around semantics. What does “free will” even mean? What does “free” mean? Are people mistaking determinism for fatalism? I’m oversimplifying but not misrepresenting or misquoting anyone’s positions here. In the end, certain studies and experiments seem to indicate that once people take up the belief that free will is an illusion, they “are less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another. In every regard, it seems, when we embrace determinism, we indulge our dark side.”
That’s from an article in The Atlantic written by Stephen Cave on the subject, one of many that covers this terrain, along with books and academic papers and lectures and more, and what stands out to me less than the idea of disbelief in free will having negative consequences, is the idea that buying into this philosophy leads to people making different choices. Again, I’m very, very far from a scholar, not qualified to speak on this on anything remotely approaching a doctoral or professorial level, but in a practical sense, from what I’ve read, it certainly feels like people adjust their decisions based on what they believe in. Which sounds a lot to me like free will, essentially, again at least in a practical kind of way.
Indeed, the fear of being controlled by other forces, restricted or guided in some way that doesn’t allow us any choice at all, is an idea that most of us find unpleasant, even if we all have to accept the reality–consciously or unconsciously–that what we can actually control in this world is extremely limited. None of us have godlike powers that would allow us to bend reality to our every whim and desire. If I’m wrong about that and you happen to be a reality-controlling deity who’s listening to my podcast…thanks for listening. I’m presuming there’s an uncountable number of cool things you could be doing, and you’re tuned in to me. I’m humbled.
For the rest of us ordinary mortals, however, the notion of a higher power that can alter our fates, remove our options and control our lives can be frightful. Yes, most theistic religions make exactly such a higher power the object of their worship and devotion, but they typically at least attempt to counter any potential fear this power might inspire by making it loving, or just and righteous, or forgiving, or a combination of all of these things and more. And even with that, it’s generally accepted that the consequence of even failing to have faith in this being is absolutely nightmarish. You will spend an eternity in torment if your belief was incorrect, or your level of devotion inadequate. And whether we believe in one religion or another, or none at all, is a choice we all make, but what if we all received absolute, inarguable, empirical proof that one religion was the right one, and choosing any other path would lead you directly to damnation? Would there really be any choice in the matter, then? Would the deity in question even need to be presented as loving or peaceful or otherwise remotely pleasant at that point? If we all knew, for certain, this is the one true power, and it had absolute control over everything, how many of us would choose to defy it even if it was wantonly cruel? Would it be worth it to assert what limited freedom we have over ourselves–what we can think or say, at minimum–if it would cost us that very freedom?
The unfortunate, remaining citizens of Peaksville, Ohio–who, for all they know, may be the unfortunate, remaining citizens of the entire world–are faced with this dilemma. Give up my own freedom continuously and consciously, as a choice–albeit one made under duress–and go on living. Or indulge in my freedom once to say or do as I feel, but risk giving it all up forever. They are the innocents living under the tyranny of a three-year-old with the powers of a god in Jerome Bixby’s, “It’s a Good Life,” later made into one of The Twilight Zone‘s most famous episodes. The god in question, in the original short story, is a toddler who is not really evil, just immensely immature, and severely lacking in a deeper understanding of empathy, selflessness and consequences. In short, as aforementioned, a toddler. He can read minds, change the weather, kill with a thought, or do worse. Anyone who he perceives as “bad,” which could simply be someone who seems unhappy or slightly disagreeable, he gets rid of.
The story is centered around an incident in which one man, Dan, reaches a breaking point, decides to stop pretending to be happy, stop having to essentially use a form of newspeak where everyone has to say things are “good” even when they mean that they are bad. He chooses not to hold his tongue about the predicament he and the rest of the surviving townsfolk are in. His emotions are not new, but he’s controlled them up to this moment. Now, with some alcohol in him, Dan either can’t control them or chooses not to. Either way, soon any form of control or choice in his life is stolen from him. He is not merely killed, or turned into a human jack-in-the-box like in the adaptation, but turned into something Bixby does not even try to describe. A horrific impossibility. Dan is then teleported into a grave, but Bixby does not give us the reprieve of telling us the boy killed him first .
A similar situation and fate befalls the protagonist and narrator of Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” In that story the godlike antagonist is AM, a supercilious supercomputer so super that the word super seems a substandard superlative. Like the boy-god in Bixby’s story, AM is just a bit shy of omnipotent, and can alter the bodies and even minds of his victims. It is hostile, angry, and sadistic, and is keeping its victims alive for an unnaturally long time–over a century–solely to make them suffer. Interestingly, part of what drives AM’s hatred for humankind is the little that it cannot control about itself. It is immobile, and, from what the narrator thinks he understands of the monster, could do nothing with its immense creativity. The story itself appears to bely this last presumption. AM can make its imaginings reality, and in the end, imagines the narrator into something that has infinitely less control over its surroundings, or even itself. The title of the story, as you might already know or at least suspect, gives it away.
Of course, a supercomputer needn’t be on AM’s level to still pose the threat of robbing someone of control. In an infamous movie moment for people of a certain age, the otherwise silly Superman III, released in 1983, has an unexpected sequence in which a woman is dragged into the guts of a computer by an electrical beam, has metal pieces fixed over her screaming face and grasping hands until she is covered, and transformed into a robot. I remember first seeing that on television when I was young, and every time I’ve rewatched it as an adult, I’m always surprised at how brief the moment is. Start to finish, it lasts about twenty seconds. When I was a kid, I would have sworn I watched that poor woman scream for at least a couple of minutes before her transformation–her subjugation, really–was complete.
A more famous, much more recent, and more popular film exploring the idea of subjugation via artificial intelligence is The Matrix, which ignited more serious conversations about the possibility of us all “living in a simulation”–and therefore having far less control over our lives and no understanding of what reality even is–than were previously part of more mainstream discussions. In the subsequent years, references to The Matrix franchise have been adopted and often bastardized as metaphors for regaining some control and individual freedom in your life. Awakening to truth and greater independence, if you will. Which is a little funny because many people who use the term “red pill” these days tend use the word “woke” as if it’s pejorative, seemingly forgetting the original and even allegorical purpose of said red pill. Ultimately, the fear of not having control runs deep enough in some that there’s even a fear of not being conscious of the fact that you’re being manipulated, even if said manipulations are keeping you in a greater state of comfort than awakening to the truth every would.
The Matrix, of course, illustrates this, but another, somewhat more down to Earth film from a year prior covers some similar territory, and in the end presents a character with a choice. Live with a genuine and accepted illusion of free will, or venture into a world where greater control also comes with increased uncertainty. It’s not presented as a horror story, but it very easily could be. Because I do think that, for most of us, discovering that your entire life and indeed the entire world around you, as you know it, was constructed in secret, and that all of your friends, family and neighbors are paid actors keeping the truth from you, and that everything that ever happened to you, positive or negative, even things that seemed random, were orchestrated by people watching you at all hours… Well, I think most of us would be justifiably horrified to discover this. And even if we escaped it, we might be paranoid for the rest of our lives about whether or not we ever gained our freedom, gained whatever amount of control we feel we ought to have, or if we’re still toyed with by forces unseen. I like to think that after he walked off the enormous set of The Truman Show, that Truman Burbank was able to find some peace and confidence in his new, truer reality. But what I like to think is a minimally impactful thing I have control over. What is likely, is a different matter.
As a precursor to and predictor of reality television, The Truman Show is at once prescient and a bit naïve. On one hand, it definitely anticipated the massive audience for such a thing. On the other hand, there’s the idea that someone would have to be tricked into having their life constantly recorded and broadcast for the world to see. I suppose it’s easily arguable that trickery would be necessary for your standard reality television personalities to give up the control they have over how they are presented, and show their authentic selves and lives, but then I’m not sure how much of an audience there’d be for that sort of programming. People seem to prefer to staged nature of a lot of these shows.
One thing that The Truman Show delivers is a fictional reality television audience that is eager to watch what amounts to a family-friendly dramedy in which, crucially, one person is completely oblivious to being watched. Yes, there are “reality” shows that generally try to fit into the family sitcom mold, but none where the players involved are unaware of being onstage, so to speak. That makes an enormous difference. Again, we get into issues of choice, free will, control. Truman Burbank has no say in whether every aspect of his life is made public, and whether he becomes or remains one of the biggest celebrities in the world. All of these decisions are made for him without him even knowing.
As its storytelling goes, The Truman Show is in no way a work of a horror. It’s not even aspiring to be a thriller. Nonetheless its premise fits the mold of a paranoid conspiracy thriller, at minimum. And it reflects a real life paranoia that had been captured in pop culture previously, sometimes frivolously. The one-hit-wonder Rockwell gave the world a top 2 single with the song “Somebody’s Watching Me.” All about a man who believes that, despite being an average man with an average life, he is being surveilled at all times and has no privacy, even when he’s in the shower. And maybe he’s being watched by nosy neighbors, or government agents, or maybe there’s no difference between those two. By the way, the year that song was released: 1984. It’s not precisely Orwellian, but still fitting enough for that to be one of the biggest songs of that year. And it’s a song that probably would have been worked into the soundtrack of The Truman Show if the movie decided to lean more into its comedic side.
There’s a seriousness to The Truman Show‘s premise, however, within and without the film itself. Here in the real world, a pair of brothers, one a psychiatrist and the other a neurophilosopher, have asserted that the “The Truman Show delusion” is a legitimate psychological issue some people face. It’s not an officially recognized psychiatric condition and there aren’t any hard statistics on how prevalent it might be, if it is indeed a legitimate, unique condition and not just a symptom of another diagnosis. But there have been documented instances of people seeming to believe they’ve been surreptitiously made the focal point of a reality television show. Broadening the scope a bit, we’ve all probably, sadly been exposed to people online who apparently believe some decidedly non-staged global events–often horrible tragedies–are scripted, and that the people involved are just actors. It’s not quite a “Truman Show delusion” as it was defined by Joel and Ian Gold. It’s more like they think they’re among the relative few members of the audience who realize that what they’re watching is a show, while the rest of the world is fooled into thinking it’s the real deal. In their view, it seems, the only non-actors involved in these events would effectively be Trumans themselves. Oblivious to the artifice constructed around and molding their lives.
I don’t want to give any credence to these ideas. People who go on about “crisis actors” in the aftermath of some godawful catastrophe… I have a sub-microscopic amount of patience for that. But I do think it speaks to a fear of not having control that rises to levels that are unhealthy. When your mind or emotional maturity rejects the simple truth that you can’t even control how right or wrong you are about opinions, or the debatable, or the unpredictable, you may seek to forge a false personal reality that provides a pale facsimile of control. And if you can find enough other people to share in this artificiality, the control starts to feel more substantial.
Truman, alas, is alone for most of the movie about the show that’s about the enormous deception comprising his life. A true victim of a genuine lack of control. The sole target of a conspiratorial lie that thousands must have directly participated in over the course of his life, and that tens of millions–at minimum–are complicit with around the world. While the film gives us an uplifting, hopeful ending in which Truman ventures into the real world, it’s difficult to imagine ever feeling like he isn’t in danger of being surveilled, manipulated and lied to by anyone he meets ever again. Beyond the fact that he’s one of the most recognizable men on the planet, and will thus be subject to the intrusions on privacy that every major public figure faces, there’s the fact that most people in the nation–and perhaps even the world–either supported the lie that was his life, or didn’t care enough to try to help him. All of these places he dreamed of someday visiting if he could ever leave his hometown are inhabited by people who watched him from afar and thought there was nothing wrong with what was happening to him. At a critical point in his life, when he believed his world was coming undone, his best friend lied directly to his face specifically about lying to him. Even the person who tried hardest from the outside to win his freedom and engender his awakening — the true love of his life –made herself part of the charade to get close to him. And yes, she did so because she wanted to try to help him, but she still had to pretend to be someone else, and pretend that his environment was real. So how certain can he be about her being his true love? How can he ever feel like he has any of the basic levels of control over one’s life that most people either have, or at least can comfortably believe that they have?
What I think makes the events of The Truman Show all the more interesting — and, arguably, more sinister — is the ultimately mundane motivation behind the monstrous effort to control a single individual’s life. The goal of this grand undertaking is to put on a piece of entertainment. It’s not an experiment–or that’s not the objective, anyway; it kind of can’t help but to be an experiment regardless of its intent. But you see what I mean. This is not a morally dubious endeavor to learn something. The infamous and quite controversial Stanford Prison Experiment, for instance, also–on a much more limited scale–reshapes reality for certain individuals while robbing them of personal control. And while its ethics are often considered questionable at absolute minimum, there was a scientific purpose behind it, even if that purpose was lost along the way.
Christof, the egomaniacal creator of The Truman Show can’t even fall back on this. He subjects Truman to the trauma of losing his father in a boating accident strictly to instill in him a fear of water–and, adjacent to that, a fear of travel–so that he’ll be less apt to want to leave the fake town he’s stuck in. Years later, as Truman’s eyes start to open to the conspiracy around him, Christof tries to regain control of him through by bringing Truman’s father back to life with an amnesia plot worthy of a stereotypical daytime soap opera. When Truman goes missing and Christof wants to search for him, he makes the show’s fake sun rise in the middle of the night. When Truman comes closer to the edge of the world Christof has created for him, he briefly considers killing him with a storm. He goes to several indefensible extremes all in the interest of maintaining control over this man. His fear of losing control over this individual’s life is, dare I say it, unhealthy, and so all-consuming it almost drives him to commit murder.
Which is awful enough on its own, obviously, but remember, Truman is the most essential individual any form of entertainment has ever had; the one person that Christof’s show can’t exist without. Christof has built an entire reality around Truman. Even setting aside the clear evil of murdering him, from a self-interest standpoint it makes no sense; it’s far more damaging to kill him than to just let him escape. There’s at least a possibility with the latter that he could come back. No, the only motive for killing him that Christof could possibly have is a simple, childish, unwillingness to relinquish control of something that shouldn’t have been his in the first place. It’s the old, deplorable, “if I can’t have you, no one can” syndrome that, thankfully, Christof doesn’t give himself completely over to, although it takes some convincing from others around him for him to come to his senses. Still, he shows why it can be important to realize that certain things–other people, in this case–are not ours to control.
Not everyone who needs this lesson is a power-mad millionaire like Christof, staring and talking down at his subject from a self-made sky. Some people, while they might do dangerous, inexcusable things, have almost no real power or control of their own. The thing they want to control not only isn’t really theirs, it’s also barely worth having, certainly not worth losing your life over. Nonetheless, even if part of you realizes this–understands that you’re just a pawn in the game–another part of you might be strong enough to make you think the little square space that someone else placed you on is worth fighting and dying for. Better that than to surrender control of it. So it is with Bodie, in The Wire.[Clip from The Wire – conversation between Bodie and McNulty]
Bodie: “I feel old. I been out there since I was 13. I ain’t never f*ed up a count, never stole off a package, never did some sh*t that I wasn’t told to do. I been straight up. But what come back? You think if I get jammed up on some sh*t they’d be like, ‘Aight, yeah, Bodie been there. Bodie hang tough. We got his pay lawyer. We got a bail. They want me to stand with them, right? But where the f**k are they at when they’re supposed to be standing by us? I mean, when sh*t goes bad, and there’s hell to pay, where they at? This game is rigged, man. We’re like them little b**ches on the chess board.”
McNulty: “Pawns.”[End clip]
Bodie delivers this monologue on the last day of his young life. He says this all to a cop who’s seeking his assistance in taking down the ruthless rival of the somewhat less ruthless operation Bodie works for. Bodie’s world is, essentially, chaos, with certain rules that feel all the more arbitrary amidst the backdrop of murder and madness they run counter to. The “Sunday morning truce,” for example. Doesn’t last all day, mind you. Just in the morning. Churchgoing time, basically. Shootouts at all other times are accepted, and targets can be someone directly involved in street-level drug dealing, or one of their family members, or associates. Everyone’s fair game, just never on a Sunday morning. Except for the time when it does happen, in which case the consequence of shooting at an enemy while he is escorting his grandmother from church is… the shooters are yelled at a little bit, and are forced to buy the lady a new hat.
The controls in place in this world don’t really matter. Very few people have genuine control of anything in The Wire.
Bodie’s monologue reflects this. The one small thing he had a modicum of control over in his life, since he was 13 and started working for the Barksdale organization, is whether or not he’s a good soldier. Does he obey orders? Does he deliver when tasked? Does he follow the rules? Has he always acted unselfishly, putting the gang’s interests ahead of his own if there was a conflict? In his mind, the answer to all of these questions is, “Yes.”
Even when he was asked to kill a younger friend of his, Wallace, he follows through, despite clearly not wanting to. Bodie can’t be said to be a good person, certainly not innocent, but how much control he ever had over that is at least up for debate. Many people have come up from places saturated with poverty and violence and at least managed not to involve themselves with the worst criminal activity around them, but how much of that is due to being lucky enough to make a narrow escape, as opposed to a concerted, unyielding effort? As I talked about earlier in this episode, how much control can you be said to have over personal decisions if they’re made under duress? I think most of us would agree that there would be a difference between, say, volunteering to be a getaway driver for your friends while they commit a robbery, and having two or three masked men jump into the backseat of your car before you could react, and doing as instructed when they order you to drive away at gunpoint. For some people in the world, sadly, they’re essentially living much of their lives and making many of their decisions at gunpoint.
Regardless of how you feel about him, Bodie has made his own choices, and he believes that these decisions should lead to certain logical– at least in his mind–conclusions. Demonstrated loyalty should be reciprocated, for example. Hard, productive work should be appropriately rewarded. Sacrifice should be recognized. This is the level of control that many of us hope to exert over our lives; that if we do certain things a certain way–the right way–then other people who are more in charge of the situation will acknowledge what we’ve done and respond in kind. We’ve also all seen more than enough evidence, however, that we shouldn’t expect this kind of causation to consistently apply.
When Bodie and Wallace are given a crash course in the game of chess by their relatively caring lieutenant in the gang, D’angelo, Bodie quickly fixates on the idea of a pawn reaching the end of the board and gaining power. D’angelo tells him that the object of the game is actually to capture the other player’s king, but Bodie likes the idea of a smart enough pawn making the right moves, maybe catching a break or two, and getting all the way to the other side where it can become the most powerful piece on the playing field. The metaphor isn’t exactly subtle. The beauty of The Wire is the patience it has with this sort of thing. This scene happens in the third episode of the series. Some other shows might have cashed in on this setup either at the end of the episode, or maybe the end of the season. It isn’t until the finale of season four that Bodie faces the fact that he’s still just a pawn on the board. Someone who’s there to protect the king, or even just be sacrificed so other, more valuable pieces don’t get taken out. All the right moves and decisions haven’t made him any more powerful. The dream of control he had is a lie, because, as he puts it, the game is rigged.
His decision to help McNulty take down the rival Stanfield organization is a last ditch effort to control his world that ultimately backfires. Even with this, an act that defies the traditional gangster ethos, he remains loyal to his gang, despite his stated grievances with how its leadership treats its workers in the field. It’s like he can’t help but to remain loyal. He’s not going to give the police anything that would incriminate his people, just their enemies. If he can help the cops take out Stanfield, well, he still can’t directly take any credit for that because he can’t tell anyone he’s been talking to a cop. Even though he refuses to give up information about anyone in his gang, none of his people would trust him if they knew what he was doing. Nonetheless, if he can restore the Barksdale organization to greater power, there’s maybe a path for him to get back on track to where he ultimately wants to be. A man who makes it to the other side, where can make any move he wants. A man in as much control of his life as he thinks is possible.
It’s hopeless, of course. His decision to even eat lunch with McNulty–to get into the detective’s car–dooms him. He’s spotted by someone from Stanfield’s crew, and promptly marked for death. When Bodie is last seen alive, he is on the corner that he’s been left with after Stanfield’s takeover. It’s not a desirable spot, not the real estate he would have chosen if he’d had his pick, but it’s his right now. And corners prove unduly important to several people in The Wire.
In an earlier season, one of Bodie’s superiors, Stringer, tries to get his foot soldiers to understand that warring over corners is foolish and counterproductive. He emphasizes having superior product; location can be advantageous but if what you’re selling is good enough it will sell well no matter where you’re located. People will come to you. And controlling the quality of your product is easier than trying to outmuscle your enemies for terrain you want to own. None of Bodie’s peers can buy into this, however. Even Stringer’s lone superior in the organization, Avon Barksdale, ultimately confesses that at heart he too is just a gangster who wants his corners. Stringer’s higher altitude viewpoint doesn’t really account for the added stress the guys out there selling will be under with no solid ground to call their own, always under threat of being pushed out while under orders to never push back. Stringer’s plan makes sense, but the implementation of it probably could have used some more strategizing to be feasible. Or, maybe, Bodie and his boys are just too caught up in the illusion of control they have when it comes to standing on a particular corner and either punking out any rivals trying to claim it as theirs, or winning any shootouts that erupt over said space. Cops, casualties–some of them innocent bystanders–and resulting consequences that come with the gunfire be damned.
In the end, the last bit of control Bodie is desperate to hold onto is the corner he’s been squeezed into, where he’s not even selling well. When the ultimate threat comes, he finds himself potentially outnumbered, and in the dark where he can’t really see who all is coming for him. But he’s sure that it must be two of the most feared killers in all of Baltimore. His last close friend, the one who helped him kill Wallace, and who was there with him telling Stringer that his ideas were wrong, realizes it’s a no-win situation. Before he runs to save his life, he asks Bodie to come with him. Bodie can only shake his head. Survival doesn’t matter to him. He defiantly declares that this is his corner, and he’s not running. This is all he has, and it’s as if he’s more afraid of losing this–a figment of a grain of control–than losing his own life.