Aquarius, Episode 10: Spoiler Alerts

Episode 10 is a buffet of pop psychology: everyone–Hodiak, Manson, Emma–is confronted with their parents.

In Manson’s case, the mother that had abandoned him as a child returns to propose a business deal, and their problematic relationship is exposed, ending in Manson essentially selling her to the Straight Satans. Like many incidents in the show, this one has no equivalent in what we know about Manson and the Family in the Los Angeles years, and is, in all likelihood, a plot manipulation to demonize Manson and show his capability for callousness and gratuitous violence. I find myself seriously questioning the premise of portraying a real, living man, who (at least theoretically–and probably only theoretically) could be released on parole, in this manner, and I doubt they could do this had it not been for the symbolic association of the main character with evil. While we know of several heinous murders committed by Manson and the family, reality was cruel enough in itself, and the fictional embellishments, if anything, diminish credibility and make it difficult to follow the show. I wonder if, twenty years from now, Aquarius, which is a fictional drama, will be the authoritative go-to story on Manson and the Family; I also wonder how many of the Family members will still be doing time and coming up for parole.

This episode also sees an effort to darken Susan Atkins’ character (in her case, whatever libel argument she might’ve had would be posthumous, and maybe that explains the choice) and to problematize the relationships between the girls.

Hodiak’s father, in his turn, accuses Hodiak of having returned from WW2 “with no soul”. He helps Walt, who is still interested in exposing government actions near the Cambodia border; but the newspapers, who were so eager in Chapter 9 to expose Joe Moran’s ethnicity, are suddenly reluctant to publish.

Finally, in this episode we see Shafe’s undercover gig begin to bear fruit, and we also see him discover what his homophobia, and the police department’s reluctance to investigate the actor’s murder, had wrought; the chatty man who hit on Shafe during the investigation was found murdered, likely by the man with the previous victim’s ring on his fingers. This, and an incidence in which Bunchy’s brother Arthur was murdered, is a reminder that overenforcement and underenforcement went, then and now, hand in hand.

Aquarius, Episode 7: Spoiler Alerts

Ken Karn is becoming an important muckety-muck in Nixon’s reelection campaign, and as such, he has to put his house in order–including emancipating his wayward daughter, Emma, who is gradually feeling disenchanted with the violence and fear that come with being a member of the Manson family. This episode sees Manson in the process of procuring a music deal, as well as abusing several of his young female disciples.

But again, what’s more interesting is not the Manson angle at all. In the process of trying to locate a prostitute that Manson may have murdered, Hodiak reconnects with an old acquaintance of his–a former sex worker and currently a nurse. “You took part-time nursing school”, he says with astonishment. His new friend’s achievements and respectable profession, however, doesn’t mean she’s treated with dignity; when Karn’s wife comes knocking on the door, she quickly slips back into her uniform, saying, “I’ll give her a minute to leave and then head out through the service door.”

If the show is trying to say something about social approaches to prostitution–and I don’t think it is–the message I take away from this is that the amount of sexual hypocrisy and respectability games has not been reduced.

Aquarius, Episode 6: Spoiler Alerts

Mary Bronner, pregnant in San Francisco, seems to have wizened to Manson’s manipulations; she is pregnant with his child, but is hesitant to join the family in Southern California. Manson had beaten her, and she seems to resent the fact that “Charlie’s girls just get prettier”. Nonetheless, the family is in need of her money, partly to purchase guns, and so the girls come to San Francisco to retrieve her.

But, as usual, the interesting part of the series is not about the Manson family, but about the police department. Hodiak is investigating the murder of Hollywood actor Raymond Novo, staged as a crucifixion; a valuable ring is missing from the victim’s possessions. Soon, Novo’s homosexuality and his secret dalliances with men at the film studios come to light, and Hodiak needs to investigate at a gay bar.

The Stonewall riots have not happened yet, but other important riots for gay rights have already occurred in San Francisco and in Los Angeles. The radical Gay Liberation movement and its legal struggles are yet to be born, but the community is no stranger to activism. Fresh in the mind of bar owners and patrons are the massive police raids of gay bars in the 1950s, so well captured in Katie Gilmartin’s Lambda-winning noir novel Blackmail, My Love. So much so, in fact, that the bar owner recognizes undercover Hodiak as a cop who got all patrons arrested fifteen years earlier.

Hodiak tries to enlist Shafe to help with covert investigations, but apparently Shafe’s openmindedness about feminism and interracial marriage stops at homosexuality, and he expresses views common at the time, referring to the men at the bar as “deviant” and “sick” and recoiling with disgust from one of the bar patrons. Hodiak surprises with an anachronism: “What do you care what they do with each other?” In other news, the Captain is back, but much as Charmain Tully hopes for an opportunity to do real police work, she is summarily pushed back into her file-cabinet folder, dismissed and humiliated.

In the end, the investigation is shut down under pressure from the film studios, and the bar is closed; more frighteningly, the patron who befriended Shafe goes home with a man wearing Novo’s ring. A reminder to the viewers that in the gay community at the time, just as in the black community from Episode 4, overenforcement and underenforcement go hand in hand in marginalizing and destroying disenfranchised groups.

Aquarius, Episode 5: Spoiler Alerts

As Brian Shafe establishes rapport with Manson and his crew and battles racism at home, Sam Hodiak and Charmain Tully are investigating a domestic violence incident by a football pro against his girlfriend.

While I don’t doubt that domestic violence was at least as common in the sixties as it is now, the choice to set the incident in the football world is surely a nod to contemporary events. Charmain interviews the girlfriend, who reports violence from an anonymous man. Charmain realizes that the information does not add up, nor does it explain why some of the bruises don’t look fresh. An escalation in the violence puts the girlfriend in a coma and the perpetrator free to sign autographs and joke with his adoring fans. Charmain hopes to catch him in the act and goes undercover: “I want it to mean something.” But Hodiak, ever the cynic, advises her to focus on battles she can win. This is one battle I’m not sure we’ve won yet.

As is Brian and Kristin Shafe’s battle against their racist landlord and neighbors. It turns out that the racist campaign against them  supports their landlord’s financial interests; he hopes the white neighbors will flee the neighborhood so he can exploit black newcomers. But, at least this time, his ploy is uncovered, and Hodiak becomes a closer friend of the Shafe family as a result.

After five episodes I can already say that, whenever a Manson appearance darkens my screen, I’m less and less clear on what the series creators make of him. This episode sees him enthusiastic about the procurement of new guns and, ever the two-bit pimp, ordering his girls to thank his providers with sexual favors. One of them seems reluctant, which Shafe (undercover) picks on; two reluctant Family members like that were part of the downfall of the real Manson family. But toward the end, Manson, healing from his wounds, shares a bit of personal history–his mother’s abandonment–with Katie. “I learned there and then”, he says, “that it’s better to be the thing people are afraid of than to be afraid.” This seems to be a message of hard-wired positivism, which is something I hear a lot when discussing my book project with friends. And yet, people with childhoods at least as horrific as Manson’s don’t end up committing terrifying crimes. The series seems to be trying to avoid classifying Manson as ‘bad’ or ‘mad’. Which would probably work much better if it were dealing with a fictional villain, akin to David Simon’s Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell, and Marlo Stanfield, and not with a historical figure whose name invariably evokes ultimate evil in the minds of the viewers.

Aquarius, Episode 4: Spoiler Alerts

Episode 4 of Aquarius is an exposition of hypocrisies–in domestic law enforcement, in foreign policy, and in personal life.

At the forefront of the episode are two murders: the one Sam Hodiak is investigating, an intra-racial crime within the black community, and the one no one is investigating, the murder of a black teenager named Michael Younger in the hands of a white cop (“chokehold” is said to be referred to as “cop hold”.) When Hodiak comes to investigate the former, the message from the Black Panthers, on behalf of the neighborhood, is that they will not collaborate, nor will they hand him the suspect, until the other murder is solved and the culprit, a police officer well known to them, brought to justice. Among the Black Panthers is the man Hodiak falsely arrested in Episode 1, who tells him:

Bunchy: You pushed out the contradictions and gave birth to me as a black panther. It’s the dialectic.
Sam: I don’t understand what you’re saying, and moreover, you don’t understand a word you’re saying.
Bunchy: The dialectic. A conflict of opposites. As the man said, you may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.
Sam: I think it’s way too early in the morning to quote Trotsky. Oh, look, it reads!

By “it”, does Sam refer to Bunchy or to himself? Bunchy accuses him of being “a racist cop in the most racist police force in the nation.” Perhaps moved only by the will to secure cooperation on his own investigation, or perhaps realizing a bit of the broader structural problem, Hodiak investigates Younger’s murder. He and Shafe crack it and prepare to go to internal investigations. But Cutler, promoted to lieutenant now, stops them. “You think that, after Watts,” asks Cutler, “this department going to admit a white cop killed a black teenager?” Shafe’s incredulity about the department’s decision to bury the murder, and his awakening to the bitter news about the status quo, will undoubtedly echo in many sympathetic post-Ferguson viewers’ thoughts, made more bitter because of the passage of time.

What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?
I learned that policemen are my friends;
I learned that justice never ends;
I learned that murderers die for their crimes,
even though we make a mistake sometimes;
that’s what I learned in school today,
that’s what I learned in school.

But Hodiak has his own awakening to go through, too. His son, Walt, has gone AWOL. Having served in covert ops in Cambodia, he has realized that the plan is “saturated bombing, killing children, arming crazies, destroying that civilization.” Hodiak is not blind to the atrocities of war or to the president’s deceit about the Cambodia front, but his moral compass is elsewhere: “if you want to win a war, you got to fight ugly sometimes.” But Walt is undeterred and plans to leak what he knows to the press.

What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?
I learned that Washington never told a lie;
I learned that soldiers seldom die;
I learned that everybody’s free,
that’s what the teacher said to me;
that’s what I learned in school today,
that’s what I learned in school.

I learned our government must be strong; 
It’s always right and never wrong;
Our leaders are the finest men,
And we elect them again and again;
that’s what I learned in school today,
that’s what I learned in school.

Finally, the Manson girls’ care and concern for each other (if only as fellow disciples) is contrasted, again, to the hypocritical sham marriages of, well, pretty much everyone else, such as the Hodiak and Karn families.

Aquarius, Episode 3: Spoiler Alerts

Two major themes emerge in Episode 3 of Aquarius: the two main characters as embodiments of the two criminal justice models and the fragmented and complicated image of Manson painted by the show.

The first half of the episode, and some scenes in the second half, see Hodiak helping Shafe solve the murder of Art Gladner, for which Shafe’s informant was falsely arrested. The investigation takes Hodiak into the noir-like environment of a strip club (“burlesque theater”, the owner corrects him). There, he uncovers a drug connection, which leads him to the culprit. It turns out that Hodiak himself contributed to the chain of events that led to the murder: by writing “snitch” on Gladner’s forehead, he marked him for execution; and, by breaking the new suspect’s arm, he advertised to the other players in the drug business that the suspect was under police control and surveillance. Hodiak does not seem to harbor any guilt or discomfort about his complicity, and his confrontation with Shafe floats this to the surface:

Shafe: He was a person.
Hodiak: Who sold drugs.
Shafe: You’re unbelievable. Whatever you want, you do it.”
Hodiak: It’s true. I can be a tad brusque”.

This dialogue, again building on the buddy-cops trope, highlights for 21-century viewers the transformative moment in American policing. Two important developments clash in the years immediately preceding this scene: the emergence of Mapp, Miranda, and Gideon, part of the Warren Court’s criminal procedure constitutional revolution, and the arrival of Richard Nixon to the Presidential seat, and with it efforts at bolstering and funding local police stations to counter the revolution.

If you will, the two officers are personal embodiments of Herbert Packer’s Two Models of the Criminal Process. Hodiak embodies Nixon’s commitment to the crime control model, where the police and prosecution are imbued with immense power and discretion and anything goes as long as crimes are solved and criminals brought to trial quickly and efficiently. By contrast, Shafe embodies the Warren Court’s commitment to the due process model, both in terms of adherence to constitutional requirements like the Miranda warnings and in the commitment to equality, illustrated also by his personal life (in this episode, an unknown neighbor paints the words “nigger lover” on his garage, intimidating his wife and child.) For Shafe, the worst thing that can happen is a procedural mistake leading to a wrongful arrest. For Hodiak, it’s delay in solving a crime.

These political perspectives are generational, too. Hodiak is a WW2 veteran, with a clear idea of right and wrong, leading him–three years before Daniel Ellsberg would leak the Pentagon papers–to assume that the war in Vietnam is justified and that his son, gone AWOL, is a war criminal. Shafe seems to be a Vietnam or Korea veteran, capable of seeing more shades of gray.

These aspects of the show, at this point, strike me as more interesting and convincing than the Manson family scenes. It seems that the show has a difficult point pinpointing Manson’s image: is he a religious leader? a common pimp? how much of his eventual terrifying violence is already in evidence through his malevolence? We see Manson enchanting girls with two-bit New Age speeches that might have been more effective in the Sixties; we also see him controlling and domineering them, treating them as property. But we also see him performing great violence, often with his signature knife. At the same time, some of the lines given to Manson have him effectively expose the destructive hypocrisy of the 1960s; his words to Ken, who comes to him at the bottom of his spiral of shame and self-hatred, are apt. After a particularly heartbreaking and distressing search for furtive sex in a park bathroom (a good reminder of how far we’ve come), Ken accuses Manson of making him a homosexual:

Ken: You did this to me.
Charlie: I freed you.
Ken: You broke me.
Charlie: You were already broken, Ken. I just pulled you out of your shell.

Manson’s perspective, of course, is far more in tune with our modern perspectives on homosexuality. One has to conclude that even a broken clock shows the right time twice a day.

Aquarius, Episode 2: Spoiler Alerts

The second episode of Aquarius features quite a bit of gender critique, ranging from internalized, closeted homophobia, through sexual hypocrisy and workplace discrimination, to domestic violence.

In is search for his daughter, Ken finds his former client and lover, Charlie, who subjects him to his spiritual and sexual ministrations once again. One almost feels sorry for Ken; his internalized homophobia and self-hatred make him an ideal victim for Manson’s exploitation. Meanwhile, affairs abound: Ken’s wife and Hodiak, a former couple, succumb to their passions, while Hodiak’s wife sleeps with Cut, his former partner. Not a single marriage in the series is portrayed as happy and fulfilling. The show makes it almost refreshing to listen to Sadie (Atkins), Katie (Krenwinkel) and Emma discuss the need to end jealousy; it would be idyllic, if not for the fact that Manson employs the control tactics of a common pimp and essentially sells out the girls to his sound engineer and to others. In this episode we see him, for the first time, battering the girls themselves into submission.

To infiltrate a cult in which sex is a common currency, the undercover police officer, Charmain, has to sacrifice, more than Shafe, who works with her, is comfortable allowing her; but as second wave feminism is only just beginning, and Charmain is in a hierarchical organization, she is willing to go undercover among predatory and dangerous bikers, and sometimes has to respond quite sharply to male officers who miss no opportunity to humiliate and objectify her.

This episode has piqued my curiosity about undercover police practices in the 1960s, and the extent to which these were employed to infiltrate cults. These are, after all, the early days of the Nixon administration, and police professionalism and proactive policing would be encouraged. Perhaps there are many unsung heroes and villains still among us, who saw people their own age as the enemy and can tell many tales of duplicity and domestic espionage.

Aquarius, Episode 1: Spoiler Alerts

“Charlie has a vision; one day he’s gonna be more famous than the Beatles, and we’re gonna help him get there.”

The first episode of Aquarius feels a bit like a Sixties Smorgasbord. Everything is there: revolution, Vietnam, Nation of Islam, homophobia and closeted homosexuality… and also, Manson, his nascent cult, and some ideas on old and new policing.

Our exposition to Manson in this double episode introduces him already as a diabolical character. His charm toward girls, grandiosity, mystical talk, and hidden violence and “pull” with the Los Angeles upper crust, as well as his love of music, are all already there. Of course, the viewers already know the aftermath, and so, many features that would otherwise appear innocent–your typical musical aspirant hustler–take on a much darker meaning. On at least two occasions, Manson is already engaging in terrifying violence, against a shopkeeper and against his former lawyer and lover, Ken Karn. Karn attempts to regain his daughter, Emma, who lives with the Family, but ends up being pulled himself back into the clutches of Manson and his cult, in a storyline reminiscent of RuthAnn “Ouisch” Morehouse and her father, Deane. We are also introduced to Sadie (Susan Atkins) and Katie (Patricia Krenwinkel) and to a biker/bodyguard, as well as to Manson’s extensive criminal record. As the police officer in charge of the investigation, Hodiak, discusses his criminal history with Manson’s parole officer, we get a glimpse of what criminal justice was like before the sex offender panic: no time served for pimping, and seven years served on four grams of marijuana in a state park.

Using the classic tropes identified in Richard Spark’s TV Cops, we are introduced to this series’ version of the bond-between-two-different-police-officers: old-skool Hodiak and new-generation Shafe. The former, always in a suit, was a cop very long before the birth of Miranda (two years before the show is set); the idea of suspect rights is more natural to the latter, always in hippy clothes and, as a narc underground, “gone native” to an extent. Collaborating on a homicide, Hodiak arrests an unrelated, innocent man–a member of the Nation of Islam whom he knows from a previous case–radicalizing him in the process. Using this false arrest to obtain a confession that avoids compliance with Miranda, Hodiak creates a ruse that holds off and confounds the real suspect’s attorney (a maneuver later considered constitutionally kosher in Moran v. Burbine). Promising the suspect, a terminally-ill man, no jail time, Hodiak prevents him from meeting his attorney, arresting him after he obtains a confession. Only then he gives the suspect his warnings, which he reads out of a card.

The ruse itself does not upset Shafe; shortly before, they both collaborate on a similar Miranda ruse, and seem to already engage in the evasive waiver maneuvers that Richard Leo identifies in Police Interrogation and American Justice. What upsets Shafe is Hodiak’s false, strategic arrest of the innocent Black man, whom he believes would not have been arrested if he were white. The next scene exposes just how transgressive and “not subtle” Shafe’s personal life is (a mere year after the decision in Loving v. Virginia):

The scenes in minority neighborhoods, as well as the protest scenes, are particularly poignant to watch in the post-Ferguson era; I have a hard time figuring out if the language is anachronistic or if today’s movements simply regurgitate the identity politics and lexicon of the 1960s. It is clear, however, that the introduction of civil rights as a barrier to aggressive policing is relatively new and foreign, but that evasive interrogation tactics are already practiced and accepted; that the Nixonian law-and-order campaign resonates with police practices; and that the perception among African Americans is already that of the (white) police as an occupying force.

Stay tuned for a review of Aquarius: Episode 2, in the next post on the series.

Aquarius – New NBC Series, Loosely Based on Manson Family

NBC has released a new series, Aquarius, featuring David Duchovny as an LAPD officer in the late ’60s. The series also features a central storyline loosely based on Charles Manson and the “family.” But the Panthers and the explosive years of political rising and race consciousness also figure quite prominently. The series feels, so far, like a ’60s smorgasbord, but it is not devoid of interest.

I’m currently working on my second book, tentatively titled Yesterday’s Monsters, which examines parole hearings through the lens of the Manson family members’ parole hearing transcripts, and am therefore interested in the depiction of the period in this show. My reviews of Aquarius episodes will be posted on the CCC blog, with links to full episode viewing and spoiler alerts.

Enjoy your summer. Or not.