Life Lessons and Death Sentences

An episode from season 1, bearing the title of Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit, registers an early encounter with existentialist themes and gives some indication of the philosophical orientation of later episodes. Bruce Willis is Tony Amato, an international arms merchant trying to sell a shipment of stolen stinger missiles to undercover vice detective Ricardo Tubbs. This draws the attention of the FBI, as Crockett and Tubbs discover when the bureau threatens to take over their operation. Once the detectives convince the Feds that they have already placed listening devices throughout Amato's house and installed taps on his phones, the two law enforcement agencies agree to join forces in a common cause.

Vice intercepts a call from Tony's wife, Rita, as she sets up a meeting with a hit man to arrange to have Tony killed. She feels trapped in an abusive and demoralizing marriage and needs to find a way out. Her plight is dramatically illustrated when Tony, enraged, pushes her fully clothed into their swimming pool because he thinks she's inappropriately dressed for a party that calls for formal wear. He is mistaken, of course, but nothing stands in the way of his getting what he wants. Rita's repeated pleas for a divorce are met by Tony's declaration: " That will never happen!" Her attempt to hire a lawyer has already led to an assault on the lawyer's wife, and Tony threatens to do the same to their child. "And he would do it," Rita affirms to Crockett who, posing as the hit man, keeps the appointment. After identifying himself as a police officer, Crockett asks for Rita's cooperation in buying some time as he and Tubbs work with the FBI to set up a sting operation that, Crockett promises Rita, will put Tony away for good and Rita out of harm's way. Nothing must appear out of the ordinary, he tells her, while he and the Feds set things up.

Although the sting is a success and Tony is arrested, the pervasive apprehension running through "No Exit" culminates in a memorable closing scene on the steps of the Dade County Courthouse where officials from yet another federal agency intervene with a court order mandating Tony's release. At that moment, Castillo, Crockett, and Tubbs learn that Amato is on the end of a conduit that supplies certain factions with arms and that he operates with the consent of the federal government. "I got the juice," Tony boasts just as Rita arrives to witness Tony's release. "You're letting him go?" she asks, incredulously, as we cut to three reaction shots: first, Tony's startled expression as Rita points a gun at him at point-blank range; then Rita, desperate and determined to go through with the shooting; and finally Crockett as he lunges at Rita, his look of anguish caught in freeze-frame as his cry of "No!" and the sound of the gunshot reverberate on the soundtrack and close out the episode.

What is so clearly in evidence here is Sartre's grim view that human relationships are essentially conflict-laden struggles for control. This is not just a highly contingent and variable feature of many affairs, relationships, and marriages, according to Sartre. Rather, it stems from the very structure of that consciousness in terms of which we inevitably relate to others. The oppositional forces of what Sartre terms being-in-itself and being-for-itself give rise to an inherent conflict in human relationships. Given that conscious, self-aware beings, or etres-pour-soi (beings-for-themselves), are bound to see others as etres-en-soi (beings-in-themselves), to be manipulated and controlled, or to become beings-in-themselves for control by the other, the only possibilities in human relationships are sadism, masochism, or indifference. "From these structures there is no exit," writes the philosopher Arthur C. Danto, echoing Sartre's most famous phrase—"hell is other people"—"and the dividing line between hell and ordinary daily life is not there to be drawn; other people are hell in and out of any specific inferno."11

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