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The Mistakes Which Kill

What if you were, in effect, responsible for the deaths of two innocent people at the hands of a murderer? If your action, or choice not to act, could have shielded people from violence? As moral dilemmas go, this one's pretty high up in the order.

This scenario surfaced in the brilliant TV series "Luther"--a dark drama where the title character spends his existence hunting for London's worst villains. (If you haven't seen it, this BBC psych-thriller showcases the top-notch talent that is Idris Elba.) The third season begins with DCI Luther's understudy, DS Ripley, being hauled into a sort of dirty-cop witch hunt against Luther. The audience is always rooting for the title character--for his brooding charisma and tireless intelligence, and out of sympathy for losing his estranged wife and good buddy (in one violent caper gone wrong). The internal investigation, however, is the kind of thing that's bound to happen when a hero is surrounded by the deaths and disappearances of bad guys. Ripley's involvement was inevitable, cajoled by another former understudy, and the emotional feelings of betrayal cloud his judgement. It boils over in the office, amidst a tense hunt for a serial killer, when Ripley snaps and strikes his boss. Problem: Luther was calling someone on the phone with an urgent warning. Problem: The woman he was calling--who hadn't yet picked up--was the likely next target of the man they've been hunting.

Distracted by the out-of-nowhere assault from his mate, Luther temporarily forgets what he was doing. The station devolves into a shouting match, and department 'Gov' Shenk (unaware of the latest development) orders both men outside to cool off. Call of warning not delivered, target-to-be and hubby soon murdered, opportunity to catch killer slips past.

As setups for redemption stories go, this one is smashingly good (the Brits would say). Put yourself (or your hero/heroine) in Ripley's shoes and it's easy to imagine the fallout from this moment: Lots of binge drinking or substance abuse. Of course, these episodes of self-destruction never erase the memory of such a monumental error in judgement. How could they? Adults don't suffer amnesia as the result of one enormous foul-up. (Imagine what the world would look like if we did.)

I haven't yet watched subsequent episodes to learn how this dilemma plays out. One presumption is that it's going to involve great theater. This very-British series shines with quick, sharp dialogue and by bringing subtextual conflict to light on the turn of a heel. (Elba's range of emotions and expressions is really fun to watch.) For writers who take their craft seriously, this material is golden.

We've seen similar mistakes before, albeit in different flavors or circumstances. The thought which occurred to me at sunrise is that Ripley's very-human moment of stupidity is akin to the hero's goof in the central story "In the Field" from Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried." There, in Viet Nam, it is the hero's innocent turning on a flashlight. He did it without thinking, to show his friend Kiowa a picture of back home. This brief mistake alerts the Viet Cong to the U.S. troops' location, mortar rounds rain down, and Kiowa is killed.

Being someone who is naturally clumsy and who has had his moments of foot-in-mouth, I fail to imagine the magnitude of guilt and regret I'd feel in the hero's place. A simple three-second mistake ends the life of your closest friend in a war on foreign soil. However unfortunate, it's undeniably true that life throws us headlong into many situations determined, for better or worse, in the span of a single second. A car going 68 mph, highway speed, covers 100 feet in that interval. If Ripley had not been so twisted by fears of impropriety and betrayal, he would not have struck Luther in the face. A call would've been completed, a warning heeded. Chances are, if one of London's top cops phones and warns you to flee the house immediately, you'd be out the door.

Instead, what follows is sure to be a cesspool of what-ifs and if-onlys. Humanity at its rawest, most vulnerable state.

That's amazing material for any writer to think about.


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