Sunday, July 29, 2012
Inside Men 3
Chris and Marcus are both threatened by financial precarity, and this is what motivates them to turn to crime. As much as Marcus may dream of lavish ends to put his stolen millions to, his primary motivation is to avoid the kind of finaical failure that his life has, it's been implied, been a steady stream of. His goal is class mobility, the unfulfilled promise of capitalism. Marcus has a goal that's even more enshrined in our culture, providing for his impending family. The recession is never directly mentioned, but grey streets and empty businesses are a constant backdrop.
And it's not a coincidence that their target is a central institution of the global currency system, but one of those silent parts of the system that was responsible for the last crash. As violent and partial as it is, the robbery they plan is a kind of resistance against capitalism and the money system that supports it.
Of course, this still evinces a basic belief in the power of money. This is a version of Marx's commodity fetishism, at least as I understand it. Obviously paper money only has value because a state structure exists to give it value, otherwise it's just paper with a kind of ugly drawing on it. The same is true of gold or any other kind of commodity: it is only valuable insofar as it exists in an economic system that gives it value. The protagonists of Inside Men don't really understand this. Through their heist they remove the money in the counting house from the capitalist circulatory system, assuming that all of its value will transfer to them. But the problem immediately arises: they can't even retrieve it, as they're being monitored by the police in the wake of the robbery. Even if they could, they couldn't spend it (or at least not much of it) without alerting the authorities. If they follow John's plan, they'll have to go about their normal lives for a long while without making significant changes so as not to draw attention. In other words, the money loses its value, as they can't actually do anything with it.
This is itself a commentary on the economic system, whose arbitrariness -- massive cages of cash sitting in a warehouse while the streets are filled with empty storefronts -- Inside Men makes clear even to those without a grounding in economics. This exact mental slippage, the conflation of money with what it represents, can be seen in the recent financial crash. Not only were the people involved obsessed with massive sums of money that, after a point, couldn't have made any actual difference to their lives, but through financial devices like derivatives and bundling they repeated this process of abstraction several times order until eventually they were exchanging massive amounts of nothing. The supposed security of money -- even the cold, hard cash that our trio of saboteurs steal -- is in itself an illusion.
What about the other forms of security they seek? Racial priveledge, for those who have it, is an obvious kind of security, but it's also one that seems consistently under threat in Inside Men. The incident which perhaps sets everything in motion is John discovering that Dita, a young East European immigrant, has palmed a 20-pound note and firing her. The trio's criminal operation forces them to hire the oily Kalpesh and his crew of Indian immigrant thugs. While someone like John seems to symbolize that criminality can come in any guise, it still exists primarily as a threat from afar, carried in on foreign bodies. Our protagonists are descending not just into the world of crime, but a distinctly racialized world.
While there is a bit of subversion here, Inside Men still relies on typical ideas of the immigrant criminal. In this episode John hires Riaz, one of Kalpesh's men, in order to let him scope the place out. It's a scenario that goes out of its way to play into fears about immigrant workers. The Indians are never much more than thugs, and while it's okay to have some flat characters in a four-episode miniseries, the choices about who to develop and who not to are important. While John proves himself more than capable of violent depravity, it is explicitly a descent into a racialized depravity -- see Garland Grey's recent post about Breaking Bad for why this is problematic.
How, then, to deal with Chris? He's made every bit as sympathetic as the other two protagonists -- arguably more so, as he's the only one who really has a conscience. Maybe as a British native, even a black one, Chris is not the outside threat that Kalpesh and Riaz are. Or maybe his eventual decision in this episode to betray his co-conspirators to the police signifies that he is, in the end, still an outsider -- or, more precisely, one who is neither able to be entirely inside or outside. I can't offer one interpretation here that explains everything -- Chris is the fly in the ointment, producing an endless array of complications.
What about the security of masculinity, of settling into a definite gender role that matches up with your biological sex and which gives you a power that's been established over millennia? That's what John seeks in this episode. What he relishes is the sheer masculinity of crime -- and not just any masculinity, but a physical and primordial "real man" type. His attempts to start an affair with one of his co-workers pretty clearly stems from this rush, as does his playground-esque physical confrontation with Chris.
The contemporary world, Inside Men suggests, has little room for this ruggedness and its accompanying danger -- there isn't much of the fronteirsman less in the meek get-along middle manager that John starts out as. Through crime, however, he returns to a more simple world, one without the tolerant ambiguity of human resources, and one that allows for this uncomplicated masculine persona.
(I'm not sure how accurate a social prognosis this is. Masculinity is still glorified in our culture, especially its most violent and predatory manifestations. Arguably antihero-driven shows like Inside Men feed into this obsession and the constant cultural demand for a more masculine society, usually expressed in laments about feminization by sidewalk-droppings such as Adam Carolla. While these shows go to great extent to show the negative sides of their protagonists, their rejection of order in favour of action always seems to be supported by a troubling section of fans who will loudly support the masculine violence of John/Walter White/Don Draper/Vic Mackey/Tony Soprano/and so on and so forth.)
There have been a lot of comparisons between Inside Men and Breaking Bad (well, not a lot, as not a lot of people have seen the former. But among those who have, there are comparisons). And there's a definite connection, with the scene in this episode where Chris watches his mother choke to death instead of helping her seeming like a deliberate recreation of a similar scene from Breaking Bad's second-season finale. A larger part of this is just a continuation of the antihero figure that's become so prevalent in "quality" dramas.
But there's an important difference between Walter and John. Walter White certainly isn't doing everything for his family, as much as he will say that to anyone who will listen. But he's doing it for a purpose, an ideology -- the code of masculine ideology that he's always subscribed to, albeit usually less ferverently. Crime is a means to an end, just not the end he claims. But for John, crime quickly becomes the end itself -- it's the act of subverting the rules that he lives for. (This possibly helps justify the series' ending.) He doesn't need the money, nor does he have any grand plans to spend it. He just wants to become a criminal.
And this is, perhaps, what Inside Men finally suggests about security. The very objects which seem to make us secure, seemingly stable and eternal things ranging from the financial system to gender, in fact create their own kind of danger. Viewed from this angle, the eventual failure of the heist becomes clear. The elements of stability that John relies on, from the carefully designed plan to the racial and class priveledge that he assumes will eliminate him as a suspect, can in themselves throw things into chaos. It's a counter-intuitive message, but one that seems increasingly applicable to the times we live in.
Next week: "If you love someone, don't you set them free?" "No."