The Chicago Code and Catholicism

(This is Neil)

It might seem quite odd to write a post – especially because I write so infrequently – about a single scene from a cancelled television show. “The Chicago Code,” although I was sorry to see it go, was not a particularly great show. But it did have a very strong sense of place – the characters mentioned O’Leary’s cow and the 1995 heat wave, joked with one another about the rivalry between Cubs and Sox fans, and the very last episode was called “Mike Royko’s Revenge – to the point where, as one blogger suggested, Chicago itself seemed at times to be the “lead of the show.” The best character on the show, a corrupt and powerful alderman pursued by several police officers, could seem like “the perfect example of Chicago’s Darwinian evolution … a figure that Chicago itself may actually allow to exist in order to function.”

Given the role of the city of Chicago on the show, it was inevitable that Catholicism would appear. And, thus, we get to our scene, which occurs at the end of the second episode, “The Hog Butcher” (another Chicago allusion, here to the famous Carl Sandburg poem). It isn’t a particularly original scene, although that might be the point. It is a familiar, even predictable, scene that we can imagine happens from time to time in Chicago, or cities like it, to people named Jarek Wysocki, or with names very similar to his.

The question is whether this scene will be intelligible in, say, twenty years.

The scene, as I see it, has roughly nine essential elements:

1. The character, here the police detective Jarek Wysocki, must be in real crisis. Here, it has become clear that the corrupt alderman, Ronin Gibbons, will be harder to catch than previously thought – and catching him, besides being difficult, might involve moral compromises. Also, Wysocki is sleeping with his ex-wife while engaged to a 29-year old. Since, in the context of the show, he is a “good” character, this is unsustainable. And, most of all, perhaps behind it all, Wysocki is still dealing with the murder of his brother, an undercover cop – a crime that is still unsolved.

2. The character ends up in a recognizably Catholic church. The scene would not work in most Protestant churches. This is not simply because Wysocki is ethnically Polish. During the scene, Wysocki lights a candle, and, at one point, the camera focuses on stained glass. This seems to echo a belief in “ex opere operato” – that God is dependably present in certain places, through certain rituals, in certain gestures, however broken we, or the “world,” or even the institutional church, have become. And that’s why the character is there.

3. The character does not attend a liturgy or other “official” ritual. The character is a believer – he is present, but something, perhaps the crisis, has separated him from “official” religion. When, later, Jarek Wysocki is asked why he doesn’t come to church, he says that he doesn’t want to be a “hypocrite.”

4. The character is approached by a religious figure. Here, Jarek is approached by a nun, Sister Paul. I’m not sure if the religious figure couldn’t have been a priest – perhaps the writers used a nun because the show is about corruption and priests (alas) seem too linked with scandal, perhaps they figured that the conversation between a priest, inevitably an authority figure, and Jarek would be too agonistic.

5. The religious figure is not otherworldly or dogmatic. Jarek is able to ask Sister Paul if she’s still smoking, and she responds by asking him if he’s still drinking. Jarek notes that she always responded to a question with a question, which she says is the Socratic method – here, obviously, in contrast with issuing abstract declarations or speaking in sentimental clichés. She does ask him about his church attendance, but, first, self-deprecatingly, says that it’s her “duty.” She will ask Jarek to pray with her, but only after allowing him to describe the situation. This nun is realistic and able to enter into Jarek’s crisis, if not resolve it.

6. The religious figure gives good advice that the character can’t immediately take. Sister Paul tells Jarek that he is too “rigid” – “If I can’t be perfect, why bother being good?” It is this “rigidity,” born out of a primeval duty to avenge his murdered brother, that presumably makes Jarek a good cop, driven and incorruptible. But it is also self-destructive, since his dedication to the job comes at the expense of his unsettled personal life, and even his physical health – a later episode shows him consuming a ridiculous number of energy drinks to keep going and keep going.

7. The character and the religious figure share a common language. Obviously, Jarek can come to the place where a Sister Paul can be found. When Sister Paul asks Jarek to pray with her, they both automatically kneel and know how to cross themselves. Jarek begins to pray in a recognizably Catholic way, “Holy Father, please bless and protect the soul of my brother Vincent Wysocki. And continue to comfort and bless his family …”

8. The character can’t immediately accept the comforts of faith. Saying words expressing trust that God will “bless” and “protect” his dead brother and his damaged family comes as disorientation to Jarek. As Karl Jacobson says about contemporary appropriations of the 23rd psalm in popular culture, this disorientation can lead to skepticism, and “skepticism (and even outright disbelief) can express itself in anger or end up in despair if the sense of disorientation is acute enough.”

Jarek suddenly adds to his prayer in an intentionally discordant way before getting up and leaving Sister Paul:

“And grant me the wisdom and the perseverance and the ability to find my brother’s killer, and Lord, when I find him, make my aim true that I may take his life … Amen.”

9. The character sets up a tense dialectic between trust and despair. When Jarek leaves the church, we can imagine that he will somehow still come to trust that a good God guides and will redeem the world, and he, Jarek, can only be tasked with behaving ethically. “Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19).  This was the first part of his prayer.

Or we can imagine that Jarek cannot trust this God – the God who, after all, allowed his brother to be murdered and Jarek to be plunged into crisis, and Jarek must take matters into his own hands and murder the killer of his brother, destroying himself too in this grim and unforgiving “duty.” This was the second part of his prayer.

Obviously, being a network television show, the dialectic can only be so tense.

Here’s the question: Will this scene work in ten or twenty or thirty years? Or does it depend on a sort of Catholicism that is gone, or, at least, fast disappearing? (Of course, you can also argue that I’ve completed misinterpreted the scene …)

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to The Chicago Code and Catholicism

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Neil!
    My wife and I are hoping that like other series the networks prematurely bailed upon, that FX or somesuch will pick up on this one, ala “Southland.”
    We can’t visit Chicago enough in reality. That it’s whole gestalt was honestly and gritily portrayed was a weekly highlight for us on the DVR. The young man who did “Wysocki” is destined for stardom.
    And what killer roles for Jennifer Beals and Delroy Lindo! Gotta live, this show.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Charles,

    Thanks for writing. Yes, it will be too bad if, as is likely, the show dies. Given how little time it had on Fox, I wish that it had been more ambitious – that it hadn’t spent time on case-of-the-week stuff (Bill Ayers, Chinatown, etc.) and some of the usual police tropes (jurisdiction fights) and had devoted more time to the sociology of Chicago corruption. I also wish that some of the characters had been more fleshed out.

    Oh well..

    Thank again.


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