Cheers to Moral Relativism

19 Oct

A sinister man in black sets fire to an abandoned doll factory, leaving behind as evidence a charred cell phone and a chess piece—a white queen.  And while the title “White to Play,” is itself a play on this chess reference, not much else is so clear in the second episode of ABC’s new series FlashForward.

In episode 3, Agent Janis Hawk raises her glass (sarcastically) to Benford’s bizarre standards of morality in dealing with an ex-Nazi informant, but episode 1.02 is probably a better place to start looking at legal/philosophical issues:

First of all, who’s playing white, and who’s playing black?  Chess is a game of strategy that hinges on a set of precise rules and pre-determined moves, and while there’s definitely something to the idea of determinism as it applies to supposed “visions” of the future, the post-vision/pre-April 29th world ofFlashForward is definitely a messy one.  And in terms of moral ambiguity, FBI agent Mark Benford is probably neither black nor white: just gray.

Mark has a big problem: in his vision, he’s working late in his office on an investigation involving these very visions.  He’s also drinking.  That’s definitely an issue for a man enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous, with a wife who would leave him if he fell off the wagon again, and who herself had a vision of being with another man, in their home.  Messy?  Yes.  And it puts Benford in a difficult spot in regard to his own actions—

“At work I’m making moves,” he tells his wife Olivia (another chess reference there), “Betting the future’s gonna happen.  But here at home, with you, I’m praying it doesn’t.”

Olivia’s vision is clearly eating him up inside, no less because his own flash forward (which he hasn’t, by the way, told her about), if it comes true, could be a contributing factor to the events of hers, if they come true.

The constant caveats here are necessary—after all, nobody knows what the visions really were: pre-determined events? a possible future? a warning?  There really is no way of knowing until April 29, 2010 rolls around.  Olivia, for her part, considers her vision a warning—but Mark responds to her protestations that she’d never be unfaithful to him with a blunt: “The future’s happening.”

That leaves poor Mrs. Benford in the bizarre situation of being assumed to have no control over her own actions in the future, and yet still being held accountable for them.  “That’s not fair,” she insists, “You can’t punish me for something I haven’t done!”

And while this sort of logic might be just “unfair” in a domestic dispute, it could be downright illegal when used in a federal investigation—something that hasn’t yet occurred to Benford, his partner Demetri, or their superiors.

Can you investigate someone for a crime they haven’t committed—and might never commit?  (Benford: “We don’t know what ‘never’ means anymore.”)

In his vision, Benford saw a corkboard in his office filled with pictures, index cards, names, and other as-yet unidentifiable information.  One picture was of a charred doll among debris.  When on a stakeout for a suspect related to another piece of psychic evidence (the name “D. Gibbon”), Benford and Demetri spot an abandoned doll factory; besides the fact that an abandoned doll factor would probably be a rather creepy setting in general, the two agents have no reason to investigate—except, of course, Benford’s vision.  The debate over the legality of breaking and entering goes exactly like this:

Benford: “Do you think this [the vision] qualifies for probable cause?”

Keegan (local sheriff): “The county judge will.  He’s my father-in-law.”

Talk about circumstantial evidence.

The only person who truly raises the specter of illegality is Anastasia Markham, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.  But when she questions the validity of the investigation, she backs down after Benford comments: “If there’s another agency or office that had a vision of this investigation and has more information than we do, let me know.”

What amazes me, but doesn’t seem to shock many of the characters yet, is that there is no information.  The only “information” (such as it is) is Benford’s vision, and even that may come into existence onlybecause he’s seen it.  Throughout the episode, there’s a lingering question as to why exactly Benford’s vision keeps coming true.

He operates on the assumption that the future either will or will not happen (which is true), but he doesn’t question why.  Perhaps the very act of assuming it will happen and acting on those assumptionsmakes the future occur as he saw it.  Take the picture of the doll:

If Benford hadn’t seen the photograph in his vision, he wouldn’t expect to come into contact with a picture of a singed plastic toy, and so he wouldn’t have asked the crime scene photographer if he could look at the pictures, and wouldn’t end up with the picture on his corkboard.

By actively pursuing the “clues” in his vision, is Benford manufacturing evidence?

In the words of the sinister man in black (who, we learn, is also investigating causes of the blackouts)—“He who forsees calamity suffers them twice over.”

Is the white queen left behind by FlashForward’s computer-hacking Bobby Fisher his chess piece?  Is he the more ethical of the two investigators?  Or, if it’s “white to play,” are Benford and co. the good guys?  Because if they are—and that seems to be what the title implies—then it also means that black has already made the first move, and as any chess player knows, that ignores a basic chess convention.  It only goes to show—all rules are off.

This article was previously published (with some changes) on The Best Shows You’re Not Watching (dot com).  By me.  See the What’s On TV? tab for more television reviews and commentary.


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