And now, my second installment of Meta-Moralizing, the part where I don’t analyze the message, but rather how themes are constructed in Adventures in Odyssey.
This episode is based off Twelve Angry Men, which I will be spoiling heavily. Even though it’s well past the statute of limitations, it is also one of my favorite movies, I think everyone in the world deserves to watch it at least once without knowing what’s coming, so there, consider yourself warned. Eugene and Bernard have been given jury duty, on the same case. I don’t think I’ve reviewed an episode with Bernard yet, but he’s kind of a poor man’s Tom Reilly. Folksy, convenial, generally prone to giving out life advice that mostly isn’t crappy. The biggest difference is that he works as a custodian and general handyman, rather than farmer/politician, and he is a lot snarkier. He also has a fun love/hate dynamic with Eugene, who is his distant cousin.
The case concerns a high school senior who is accused of a house robbery. He actually confesses to breaking and entering, but says it was just part of an initiation into a gang, and he didn’t take anything of value. According to him, the gang went in afterwards, unbeknownst to him, and torched the safe. When the kid left the gang, they planted a bracelet in his locker to frame him. Part of the point of gangs is that they are hard to leave, after all.
He does have an alibi for after the break-in, but it’s fairly loose. According to the prosecution’s expert witness, the safe would only take about fifteen minutes to torch through, so the timeline still works in the prosecution’s favor. The kid’s case looks even worse because, during the investigation, he kept adjusting his story. When he thought he could convince the cops he had nothing to do with the robbery, he denied everything. When they had a more solid case, he essentially confessed to what they could prove, but came up with a story to get off the hook for the rest. An entirely unverifiable story. Most of the jury thinks this is an open and shut case.
Although everyone is interested taking a quick vote and dashing out, Eugene insists on following procedure. Bernard is elected foreman and they issue their votes by secret ballot. The secret part turns out to be pointless, however. Everyone votes guilty, except for Eugene, who gives himself away by writing a nigh incomprehensible mini-essay on reasonable doubt instead of “not guilty.” He insists on going over all the evidence again, to everyone’s dismay.
In both Blind Justice and Twelve Angry Men, the other jurors are impatient, but also genuinely convinced of the defendant’s guilt. The difference is the reason for the single dissenting vote. In the film, Juror 8 is disturbed by the implications of casting the twelfth guilty vote. The defendant is a boy accused of murdering his father, and in the setting, a guilty conviction guarantees a death sentence. The kid is barely old enough to be tried as an adult. Juror 8 doesn’t feel right giving someone that young a death sentence. That unease turns into reasonable doubt when he coincidentally finds a knife identical to the one used in the murder. The prosecution’s case rested in part on the knife’s design being rare, possibly even rare, but if Juror 8 could find a copy without even looking for it, what does that say about the prosecution? Worse, what does it say about the defense? Have they been neglecting other obvious holes in the prosecution’s case? Is a teenage boy about to be killed because his public defender is tired, apathetic or lazy?
Eugene, on the other hand, votes not guilty because… he’s not convinced? He honestly never gives a coherent reason. He buys the kid’s story as a plausible alternative because otherwise the episode would be over too quickly.
When I was young, I knew the moment Eugene began to protest that the kid was innocent. On my first re-listen as an adult, I at first thought this was because I was precociously genre savvy, but then I began to reconsider. Younger me didn’t know what this story was based on. Furthermore, you could write an equally interesting story where Eugene is in the wrong. He often tries to prove he’s more intelligent than everybody else, and has to learn a lesson about his own arrogance. How did I, as a little kid, know that wasn’t where the story was going?
Because, in this episode, Eugene was clearly the highest ranked character.
Adventures in Odyssey has a very simple moral hierarchy. It goes like this;
- Tom Reilly, Jack Allen, or any Christian parental figure
- Jason Whitaker
- Childless Christian adults with recurring roles
- Christian kids with recurring roles
- Non-recurring characters of unspecified religion
- Non-Christian parents and adults
- Non-Christian or non-recurring kids
Non-Christian, non-recurring kids are never right, and Whit is never wrong. Everyone else is always right if they are the highest ranked character in the episode, or agreeing with the highest ranked character, but they are always wrong if they disagree with the highest ranked character. And I’m not hyperbolizing about the frequency. I racked my brain to come up with exceptions, and if any of you can think of one, please leave a comment. I can’t think of any episodes that break this rule.
So, now that both stories have hit the “somebody votes not guilty to the other juror’s dismay” point, we move into “intensive re-examination of the available evidence” which will take the majority of the remaining time. Twelve Angry Men gets fairly complicated at this point. As they examine each piece of evidence together, there is always a point where an alternative explanation is possible. The boy has an alibi that he was at a movie theater. According to police records, the boy could not name the films or newsreels when at the stations, although he could on the stand. Was he coached by the defense? Or too confused and stressed at the station to think clearly? These are the kinds of questions the jurors ask. At no point are we convinced of his innocence, merely made to doubt his guilt. The movie frequently discusses the difference between the two, which is a distinction that too many people don’t think about. We like binaries. “Guilty” or “innocent.” The third category, “not proven guilty or innocent,” is troubling. Yet, in a sense, reality can never offer absolute proof, only probabilities. How probable does a case have to be before you take a side? To fail to ask this question is to fail to understand the very concept of justice.
As the evidence develops, so do the characters of the other eleven jurors. One is highly prejudiced against immigrants and the poor. One seems to be voting with his mood. He is more concerned with his bladder, his stomach and an upcoming baseball game than the case. He grumbles about the heat and votes guilty. Then air conditioner turns on and suddenly he votes not guilty. Another juror changes his mind every time a new argument is made. Still another, who prides himself on having a logical and cool mind, also projects that logic onto the actions and decisions of everyone else in the case. Which is ironic, because what is less empirical than the belief that humans behave logically?
All this makes us think about the fallibility of the human mind. Justice as a perfect ideal must always be filtered through the imperfect human mind. How can we ever claim to know, with certainty, what is true? What is fair? How can we take a stranger’s life into our hands… yet when justice for a person’s death is at stake, how can we not?
One by one, the jurors change their votes, for good reasons and bad. We don’t know if any of this is moving us closer to the truth, but it feels more just.
In place of all this subtlety, Eugene stares at the evidence until another juror, who owns a hardware store, realizes that the prosecution’s expert misidentified the safe. It’s actually a sturdier model that would take a couple hours to torch through. Now the kid’s alibi is actually, you know, an alibi. If the safe took fifteen minutes to open, there’s no reason to believe his story. If it took two to three hours, there’s no reason not to. In place of ambiguity, we have a light switch issue.
Everyone on the jury agrees to change their vote to “not guilty,” on account of how the kid is obviously not guilty. There’s one holdout, however, who rants about how obviously bad and guilty this kid is. In the middle of his rant, he accidentally reveals that he used to know this kid, and hated his guts. In order to get on the jury, he lied about it.
Bernard reveals this to the bailiff, the case is ruled a mistrial and everybody goes home. The defense is given the hardware guy’s notes, and they will use it in the upcoming retrial, which gives the kid a good chance. Bernard and Eugene go get pot roast, and that’s the end of the story.
Twelve Angry Men also has a final holdout with a personal grudge, but once again, the situation is more complicated. Juror 3 has a bad relationship with his son, and he’s been projecting that onto this case. We get the sense that he’s spent his entire life believing that his son was just an irredeemably bad seed, because the alternative would be to believe he did something wrong as a parent. He is afraid of this idea, and will resist it at all costs. Even the cost of another kid’s life.
When Juror 3 finally realizes what he is doing and votes not guilty, it’s a beautiful, cathartic scene. It also does not convince us that the defendant is innocent. It only makes us see the importance of judging the value of his life as someone who is still, in many ways, a vulnerable kid. We don’t know what will happen to him. We don’t know if Juror 3 will reconnect with his son. We only know that human nature is not simple and the human intellect is not infallible. After a tragedy, we cannot always know what happened or what we should do about it. We can only approach our decisions with as much thoughtfulness as we can muster, balancing fairness against mercy.
Now, at this point, you might want to criticize me for saying more about Twelve Angry Men than Blind Justice. Well… yeah. That’s completely accurate. But I dare anybody to watch these two back to back and have more to say about Blind Justice. It’s not that Blind Justice is bad, or wrong. It’s just unmemorable. I mean that literally. I’ve actually listened to this episode more times than I’ve watched Twelve Angry Men, yet the scenes and jokes of Twelve Angry Men play in my mind like a newsreel, while the events of Blind Justice blur together. In fact the only scene from Blind Justice that immediately comes to mind is one where a female juror orders cashew chicken despite being allergic to cashews. It wasn’t a good scene or a bad one, just kind of head-scratching, enough to be remembered.
Before I asked myself how I knew Eugene was right, I wasn’t going to review this episode. I was going to toss it in with the others that were too boring to say anything interesting about. Then I realized the unwritten hierarchy of moral authority. Once I realized it, I knew I had to talk about it, because it is part of why I was such an uncritical viewer of this series.
I was an analytical kid. Once, when accused of being an overthinker, I started to seriously debate whether there was such a thing as thinking too much. I think I was eleven at the time. Yet, as I review these episodes, there is so much that is staggeringly under-thought. Not even wrong, just lazy, sloppy, and needlessly mediocre.
That’s the other reason why I have gone into so much detail, in comparing it to Twelve Angry Men. Unambiguous authority figures don’t make for clear moral thinking. They discourage moral self-examination. Twelve Angry Men encourages you to side with Juror 8, but it doesn’t dictate that stance. Juror 8 could be wrong. My partner actually is positive that the boy was the murderer; at one point the jurors re-enact the crime to check the timetable, and they forget to mime wiping fingerprints off the handle. After their re-enactment, they come to distrust a piece of eyewitness testimony, but my partner thinks the crucial seconds they left out were enough to invalidate their already sketchy experiment. We debate back and forth. But in that very debate, we are internalizing the point. True justice requires care and deliberation.
In contrast, I don’t think I internalized any lessons from Blind Justice. Because I trusted Eugene to be right, I thought no more on the issue.
If there is any theme to the Reviews as an Atheist/Agnostic/Godless Heathen series as a whole, it’s that evangelical Christians aren’t always wrong, but the modern movement has gotten bad at catching themselves when they are wrong. They take a hierarchical, authoritarian approach to their ideas, and trust their preferred leaders without taking a serious look at the evidence their leaders are basing their judgment on. In this world of climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers and corrupt administrations, that tendency has taken on dangerous consequences.
Best Moment: I don’t know, I can’t think of a scene except the cashew scene. Like, I know what happened, because I took notes, but I can’t remember the scenes and the dialog.
Worst Moment: Like, she said, “does anybody want my cashew chicken, I’m allergic,” and then somebody said, “then why did you order it?” and she said, “because the cashews give it a nice flavor,” and the guy sputtered “but, but you’re allergic to cashews, so why… nevermind.” Is that a good joke? A bad joke? A so bad it’s good joke? I literally cannot decide.
Story Rating: Meh. C-
Moral Rating: Again I say to thee, meh. C-