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Justice and the Gentleman Thief

I have never quite been able to get a handle on recommending movies or tv shows to my mother, so when I started watching the French mystery show Lupin on Netflix and thought she might enjoy it, I second guessed myself. It started off with a vibe that reminded me of gentleman thieves like Simon Templar of the Leslie Charteris’ Saint series, which makes sense since the main character has fashioned himself after the character Arsène Lupin from French author Maurice Leblanc’s novels of the early 1900s. A few weeks later, my mother actually recommended it to me. There are only five episodes in season one and it leaves off on a cliff-hanger, which I won’t spoil, but she and my dad had only watched the first few episodes. She said that she was very much enjoying how cleverly Lupin always came out on top, which made me realize what had been bothering me about where it ended and why I’d held off on suggesting it to her. It was a realization that took me from PBS murder mysteries to defunding the police, and sci-fi as social activism to Bridgerton.    

I watched a ton of murder mysteries with my family growing up, but I rarely thought about how unpleasant they are because the fictional deaths are so often treated as pieces of a puzzle. I enjoyed trying to solve it along with the detective, and even though murder mysteries would actually be awful for the people who got killed or lost loved ones, those characters usually seemed like paper cut-outs, incidental to the intellectual plot and narrative of the detective. They weren’t given enough depth for my empathy to be more than superficial, but I honestly didn’t want to see murder realistically portrayed or experience real grief over the murders of fictional characters. I wanted to see the detective solve the crime and the criminal get caught. Or, in the case of the gentleman thief, get away with it.  

Now that I’m older, I have a better grasp of the complexity of what constitutes justice. Having cops arrest someone at the end doesn’t work as a resolution if your experience of police is that they’re likely to treat you as a suspect based on your identity or appearance. Sending someone into the prison-industrial complex isn’t a humane or effective approach to rehabilitation, and court sentencing is profoundly inequitable. Police are frequently brought in when mental health professionals are needed, and I definitely think many of the murderers in mystery shows would have benefitted from mental health assistance. Fictionally, though, I think people still long for justice to be served in a way that is certain and not complex, and to walk away feeling like everyone got what they deserved, both good and bad.

Part of why I was enjoying Lupin so much is that they managed to take an older style of show where the main character continues to succeed at outsmarting everyone and pursuing justice in the face of improbable odds and blend it with a more complex analysis of how facets of identity like race, class, and gender factor in. In the initial heist sequence, Lupin both plays the part of an extremely wealthy collector and sneaks under the radar as a janitor, using people’s prejudices about race and the insignificance of service staff as cover for his ingenious plans. He’s working to avenge his father’s death, and it seems like he might actually be able to use his immense cleverness to get justice in a scenario where it’s clear that the law will not deliver it, and in fact may have been complicit in it to begin with. As the episodes progress, though, his losses start to mount up and I worry that the joy of watching him prevail will get lost in ethical complexity and the demoralizing real-world experience of trying to stand up to abuse of power.     

I started out my career working in a politically oriented feminist bookstore where sci-fi and fantasy writing were not seen as serious writing or given much shelf-space, and I worked to expand the section based on the argument that they are genres that frequently explore themes of colonialism, racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homo/transphobia, et al., and provide a unique opportunity to model alternate solutions. Taking ideas out of any known context makes it possible to reach people and get them to think without engaging their real-world biases and rigidity or getting their backs up before the ideas can take root. Ironically I found myself arguing for it as serious political art, but for myself I mostly want it not to be. I love fantasy for its ability to lift my spirits and give me hope in a world that so frequently doesn’t.

That’s a big part of what I found so enjoyable about Bridgerton, and I can only assume from its popularity that I’m not alone. In the world of Bridgerton, set in a revisionist version of early 19th century England, King George III has married a black woman and the nobility now, quite naturally, includes people of colour. This did not happen but it absolutely should have. I don’t need it to be explained or brought closer to “real history” (and there’s always the question of whose history or representation of history is real anyway), I just want to escape to and enjoy a different world where I don’t have to deal with the ethical dilemmas and tedious tasks that populate daily life. Children understand this and play that way all the time. They create a different set of reality rules because they want to experience that reality and then they immerse themselves in it through imagination. They don’t feel obligated to explain or justify how it lines up with science, or history, or even logic. And that’s one of the true joys of fantasy – you set up the world and rules of the world, and then as long as you stay consistent with those you can do anything, no matter how strange and illogical it may be in relation to our current understanding of how things work.

What it boils down to is that I want to see likable characters come out on top. I want to see awful characters be outwitted and get what they deserve, especially after so much real-time watching people with money, power, and privilege do terrible things with no appropriate consequences. I want my fictional world to be better than the real world and shine a light down a path to making the real world a better place. I don’t want what we can imagine and create to be tied to what already is or has been, any more than I want our future to be tied to those things. I believe that seeing things makes them believable, and that the act of making a different way of treating each other fictionally possible makes it more possible for people to imagine making it real. And on a very specific note, I hope that in season two, Lupin wins.

~~~

If you feel like reading more of alex MacFadyen’s thoughts on genteel murder, check out my previous musings on Murder and Intuition: Overlooking the Corpses in the Shrubbery.

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