LIFE LESSONS No. 2: Nothing can make injustice just but mercy.

The Heroes
Losing Streak
Vendetta

Where I live a leafy residential street abruptly gives way to outreach centers, homeless shelters, recycling depots, and crowds of poor and often drug-addicted and mentally ill people. I’m comfortable here, due in no small part to the vivid scenes in “Starsky and Hutch” which showed me how the jumble of street life, with its colorful and sometimes wearisome diversity, is not something to be ignored, dismissed, disliked or avoided, but rather embraced, and treated with compassion and understanding. It may sound trite or simplistic but this series taught me as a young person that all people deserve respect, especially the most vulnerable members of our society. This is not as easy or clear-cut as it sounds. Starsky and Hutch aren’t cardboard Samaritans and they aren’t above brutal violence. They can be bullies, they can make mistakes. There are certain episodes trapped in the sexist assumptions of its day. But consistently throughout the series are moments of nothing less than transcendent morality, even in the smallest moments. I recall those heart-stopping moments, every one. Hutch giving the raving prophet a dollar in the pilot episode. Starsky proposing to his dying girlfriend even though her acceptance – or rejection – will bring him nothing but pain. The mutual decision to quit the force in acknowledgement of their own mistakes following the death of a “nobody”, their informant.

Starsky and Hutch themselves are consistently portrayed as being outsiders, even quasi-hippies, a far more potent political identity when the series was conceived in 1974-ish, which makes me wonder if younger viewers and fans miss the powerful implication of this statement. They are seen as ill-mannered, lowbrow, anti-authoritarian. They dress like bums, they drink beer, they go to disreputable places. This absence of social gloss is nothing less than symbolic of their genuine honor and goodness, a fact emphasized by the cultured villains in their luxury homes. Here, courtesy and social norms have nothing to do with morality, just as wealth and status have nothing to do with actual worth. Vic Rankin in “Losing Streak” is maybe the most pathetic character Starsky and Hutch attempt to help (Ted McDermott in “The Action” being a very close second; coincidentally, or maybe not, both these men have fallen victim not to drugs – the scourge, so some would have us believe, of the human race – but to gambling). Weak, dissolute, agent of his own misfortunes, he rejects their help and makes a series of life-threatening blunders. And yet it’s not just professional obligation that drives Starsky and Hutch to help him – in fact, as if to underline this, there’s little sign of the police station or Dobey or any other institutional scaffolding at all. Rather, they’re compelled to help, persist in helping, because of a moral imperative. Not only is he salvageable because he is a human being, he is also a husband, perhaps most importantly he is an artist, whose talents must be protected at all costs.

You think it can’t get lower than Vic? It does, his old friend Belinda, once a successful singer and now a down-and-out heroin addict and prostitute, proves it. Even though she betrays Vic for a measly hundred bucks, she is still seen as someone worthy of compassion and help. Which Hutch does, and in a frankly astonishing way: he gives money knowing it will be used for drugs. Relief must be had in this world for those who suffering, and it’s not always what the vast majority of people want it to be. This is also illustrated when Hutch inhabits the identity of the man he despises in order to give succor to deranged Tommy in the final moments “Vendetta”. These moments of mercy may be troubling, they may even be ethically ambiguous, and they were certainly beyond the pale during the original run of the series. But that’s when the series excels. It shows us how complicated life is.

A vastly more typical black-and-white view of society is exemplified in Chris Phelps, the reporter who tags along with Starsky and Hutch in “The Heroes”. She initially comes off as a fire-breathing liberal, shocked by what she perceives as the seamy truth of police brutality and staunchly on the side of the powerless individual. This satire of well-meaning goody-goodies who fall apart when the going gets tough is hilarious to watch and accurate too. Her world view is simplistic, conservative; basically, it is her certainty that brings her down. In philosophical terms this is a battle between absolute and relative morality, and absolutism comes away the loser here. Chris Phelps ends up demanding – begging, really – that Starsky and Hutch kill a suspect when it isn’t necessary or right to do so. I remember watching this as an impressionable young person and filing it in the back of my mind. I remember thinking: there is always a choice.

“Vendetta” is the most troubling and perhaps most ambitious example of transcendent morality. Here, we meet the manipulative Artie Solkin, who thinks of himself as a kind of omnipotent Peter Pan with his colony of lost boys. Reprehensible? Yes. Criminal? Definitely. Truly evil? Not necessarily. Despite his terrible crimes – and also inextricably linked to them – he is capable of protective, dare I say loving attachments to his “boys”. His protégée Tommy is similarly shaded in grey – a mass murderer, he is also the victim of severe and untreated mental illness. In fact, other than the truly wealthy, courteous and socially powerful mafia-types like James Gunther and Ben Forest whose sole motive is money, nearly every villain in the Starsky and Hutch canon from street thugs like Artie to deranged killers like Commander Jim to the various drug addicts, sex trade workers and ten-buck informants, there is always room for a quality (sometimes a small quality) of mercy.

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4 Responses to “LIFE LESSONS No. 2: Nothing can make injustice just but mercy.”

  1. Kerry C. Says:

    Merl,

    I looked back and read the request I asked of you some months ago and then I read your latest (wonderful) posts.From my point of view, you have more than begun to fulfil that request. Thank you for going on with your exploration of this show and its characters. Your literary gifts are a vehicle for many of us I am sure. These beautifully crafted posts convey what so many of us (S and H addicts) feel but because we might lack the eloquence, scope and beauty of your words cannot express.

    Thanks again, I seriously never get tired reading your incredible analyses.

    KerryC.

    • merltheearl Says:

      Kerry, it was your comment that caused me to attempt a more personal expression (despite serious misgivings!). Thank you for pushing me. And more than that, thank you for these very kind words. I fear the posts are becoming somewhat repetitive, but I’ll push on and finish Life Lessons at the very least.

  2. Dona Says:

    I agree with you about the fact that mercy is a leitmotif of the whole series, and there are so many scenes about this. Mercy not reserved for high class criminals, but for the helpless, the victims of their own mistakes, the outcasts of the society, those who could be easily put apart and abandoned to the benefit of our clean conscience.
    It’s amazing, touching, to see how plainly Starsky and Hutch always offer help to these victims, regardless what they have done, just for open hearted mercy. Little gestures to relief the pain, to get close and comfort the afflicted, to fill a loneliness for a while. And there is a sort of unwittingness in what they do, as if they were moved truly by the heart, often no matter the consequences.
    In the episode you mention, The Heroes, the contrast between their mercy and the reporter’s rational and chill attitude is even sharpened by the fact that the young woman, drug dealer and addicted herself, is killed. She’d have been probably saved if you’d arrested her, that’s the reporter’s comment, which hurts Hutch in all its truth. Probably… who knows for sure…
    And also, Hutch’s reaction in realizing that Tommy is just a tragic victim of madness and loneliness is the perfect mirror of how painful even mercy can be.
    Thanks!

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