Sometimes there are just some weird occurrences. Last night I watched the newest episode of Rescue Me. I have always enjoyed the show mainly because despite the shit that happens it never seems to take itself too seriously. Until this latest episode anyways.
We get it: Tommy’s son is dead, some close friends are dead (fellow firefighters killed in the World Trade Center), his father is dead, his mother is dead (although long before the show started) and even his brother is dead. Throughout the show Tommy has struggled with his grief and alcoholism and not taken itself too seriously.. But the last episode was a self-important dive into his despair ending with an episode akin to cutting.
Then, just a few minutes ago I was reading a chapter of Michael Chabon’s Maps & Legends while Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails came over the iTunes shuffle. At nearly the same moment I read the following line. “Lies…tell the truth; but the truth they tell may not be that, or not only that, which the liar intends.” (84)
Moments like these make me pause. Because Rescue Me is a show I automatically assume it is a lie and hence subject to Chabon’s inquiry. What is the lie of the episode and what does it expose and what is intended by it?
The lie is the same lie of the Nine Inch Nails song: I hurt myself today/to see if I could still feel.
I have talked before about my doubts of the accuracy of this statement. Humans are never completely numb. Even if it means an altered psychic state we are still aware of misery no matter how much we would like to think we have become accustomed to it. Numbness is the lie. Even being aware of one’s own numbness carries a pain with it. On Rescue Me Tommy grabs a blow torch and burns a hole in his leg. It is not because he fears he is numb but rather because he wants to inflict the pain. All of the people who died were taken from him. Tommy is reasserting control over his pain.
NIN and Johnny Cash are singing not about numbness but instead about control over the pain of being alive and human.
What then is intended by this lie? It is possible that it is not a lie and just a misunderstanding, after all it might be likely that a television producer has never felt so conflicted that she thought about cutting herself. There is, however, a remnant of the masculine image in the numbness myth. The man so closed off that he can rise above the world. The man so strong that he cannot be wounded emotionally. All of that however is merely a reaction to our actual sensitivity to emotional wounds. It is a denial and also a repression. A prescription and also a prophylactic.
Here we come back to Rescue Me. It is not that Tommy is so wounded that he is an empty vessel (as his dead father tells the other ghosts haunting Tommy) but rather that Tommy wishes he were numb so he would not be hurt so much. His response is then an accurate reversal, to stop being hurt and instead hurt.
Rescue Me last night seemed to lose some of its luster becoming an ordinary show. It no longer struck out on its own but instead pandered to my desires and the desires that I as a demographic am supposed to hold: a man watching a show about firefighters. Normally Rescue Me is good about challenging those very desires that made me watch in the first place. This is precisely what Baudrillard warns us about media, how it is
a circular arrangement through which one stages the desire of the audience, the anti theater of communication, which, as one knows, is never anything but the recycling in the negative of the traditional institution. (80)
Baudrillard, Jean. (1981). Simulacra and simulation.
Chabon, Michael. (2008). Maps and legends.