Part-time florist and devoted mother-of-one Rebecca Winstone has a shopping list, and it goes like this:
I need a basic toolkit. A small-calibre pistol with a silencer. Car battery. A pail of water. A coil of rubber hose, small diameter.It’s a shopping list for torture, made of common household items (okay, apart from the pistol) that – like in one of those practical guides on how to stretch the budget in a time of austerity – the resourceful housewife could use to break another human being.
But of course Rebecca Winstone isn’t a mere housewife, nor is she just a florist: she’s ex-CIA, and somebody took her son. This is the premise of the television series Missing, which screened for ten episodes on the American network ABC during the northern spring of this year. The first nine-tenths of the series are innocuous enough, and feature Winstone chasing her son’s captors and being shot at in some of Europe’s most picturesque locations. The tenth episode is where the meat is. The burnt, torn and slashed meat.
We had seen a parent go down this road at least once before, in the film Taken starring Liam Neeson, of which Missing is highly derivative. Taken too had a torture scene, a carefully constructed affair that had to be got to and worked through, and thereafter cast a shadow on Neeson’s character and on our ability to recompose the image of the loving father in time for the happy ending. Whereas for all its moral hedging and its leaving the bloody business off-screen, Missing is actually more unpleasant; its torture scene, for being spoken as opposed to shown, more brutal and calculating. Then there is the other, more illustrious television precedent. If 24 supported the view that torture is acceptable in order to prevent large-scale murders, Winstone’s actions in Missing supplant reason of state with reason of family. They make extreme caring the condition for inflicting extreme pain.
There is your victim, a CIA agent by the name of Violet Heath who has switched to the other side and refuses to give up the location of Winstone’s son. Time is of the essence, for in a few hours the boy will surely be killed. Winstone gives her the rundown.
Here's how it's gonna go. First I'll break your fingers one by one, knuckle by knuckle. I've always heard that the thumb hurts the worst but I wonder when all ten are busted up how can you tell one from the other? Then I'm going to take out your teeth but not with pliers, with a hammer, and you have thirty-two, so that's gonna take a while. Then I'll shatter your kneecaps, and because I will do anything to see his smile again, if by then you're still not talking we'll move to electricity: your feet in water, using a car battery.What makes this speech particularly nasty is that it really is a scolding. Violet looks about the age of Winstone’s son, and is as bratty and deceitful as he is compliant and caring. Although they don’t know each other, Winstone seems above all disappointed in her. The ‘goth girl’ line reveals this undercurrent: firstly, you don’t know what pain is – no young person can know – and secondly, who raised you to be so bad, so unlike a child of mine? I could have been a good mother to you, if only you had let me. But it’s too late now.
The shocks won't kill you, but when your flesh starts to burn you'll get religion. You'll be begging god to let you die, but the only god in here is me. You'll be passing out from the pain, especially when I cut you, and make no mistake about it Violet, this is not your teenage angst Goth girl cutting – I'm going to cut you to the bone. I'll time the shocks to keep you alive. That's really the worst part, wanting to die but being kept alive just enough to suffer. And the sad truth is that in the end you're going to tell me where my son is.
I may be wrong but I think it’s a new thing, the mother who tortures. When it comes to mothers whose children are abducted, the more standard response is the one exemplified by the passage of Tony Jordan’s novel Taken (no relation to the film) excerpted on the book jacket:
It’s like this: if cutting off my hands will make this man go away, and return my son to my bleeding arms, I’d do it. no hesitation. That’s the kind of bargain I’m willing to make.This is the trope that is dutifully deployed in the first nine episodes of Missing, where it is established to everyone’s thorough satisfaction that Rebecca Winstone will walk through a shower of bullets for a chance to see her son again. But then when given the chance she is equally willing to accept the pain of others. She’ll cut off the hands of perfect strangers if that’s what it takes. And these to be sure aren’t innocent strangers, but neither does Winstone’s character simply cross over into the traditional fatherly roles played by Neeson in Taken or by Mel Gibson in Ransom. For these fathers, a rescue mission is always already a quest for revenge: the bad people must be made to suffer, and it’s the father’s job to ensure that they do. The violently bereaved widower turned vigilante played Charles Bronson in the 70s and 80s was the apotheosis of this. He’d shoot you in the face even if you had nothing to do with the death of his family.
Not Winstone, who is fundamentally good. She joined the CIA to make the world a better place. She abhors torture at the service of the state, and has the ham-fisted flashbacks to prove it. Her job is to care, and this fierce, elemental caring legitimises all of her choices, be they tactical, strategic or moral. ‘I am a mother!’ repeats Winstone ad nauseam throughout the series, and then again one last time as she stands over the wounded body of the arch-villain before shooting him, execution-style. ‘I am a mother!’ Therefore, even though you are no longer a threat to my son, my family or my country, I am going to kill you now, extra-judicially, as an expression of my love.
The torture, too, was part of the caring, and justified itself by existing within the sacred sphere of the family. It was, as Winstone explained to her victim, the price that she had to pay in order to see her son’s smile again and thus hers alone – Winstone’s – was the pain that mattered: the moral pain of having to go to such extraordinary lengths to preserve the integrity of her family unit.
Even before we make the obvious connection between this dynamic and the patriarchal application of state power, whereby illegal interrogations and killings are framed as protective, caring measures, we must observe that in the Missing scenario the kind of violence ordinarily exerted by the state is effectively repackaged and privatised, a move that is best accomplished via the mediation of the figure of the mother: she who, unlike the divorced father played by Neeson, can then go back to nurturing, seamlessly slot back into the role that defines half of society and everyone’s morals. The mother must torture because motherhood itself is an ethical imperative and has to be preserved at all cost.
I don’t offer this very forgettable television series as a cultural symptom, or the index of an ideology, except insofar as its screening on a commercial network is a further sign of the utter normalization of torture as spectacle in American popular culture – a spectacle that is by now as trite as it is gratuitous, and that barely needs the dramatic stakes to be raised in order to be performed. This much is unsurprising, uncontroversial. I am more interested in the picture of motherhood that was pieced together in order to construct and market the show: how simple it is, how shallow and at the same time intense, hyper-saturated. The fascist mother of Missing stands as the diametric opposite of the absent mother: in fact her presence – even while she is physically separated from her child – is all that there is.