Oh, Villainy

by Gary Phillips

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey'd monster, which doth mock
the meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss,
who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger:
But O, what damnèd minutes tells he o'er
who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!


O Misery!

A hero needs a villain. A good villain. We can’t know the hero’s measure unless it’s against a formidable opponent who can test them to their fullest. And as Shakespeare reminds us in the foregoing passage from his play Othello, a good villain is dimensional and contradictory. A good villain is juicy. In the scene from Act 3, on the surface it would seem General Othello’s trusty ensign is warning him not to be carried away by jealously as he suspects his new wife Desdemona is carrying on an affair. As it happens this is a lie Iago has created and stoked in Othello because the plotting subordinate is jealous he was passed over for a promotion by his leader, and is meting out his revenge. Ultimately what Iago wants is not only position, but the power that goes with that position—what he perceives as what he deserves.

Othello and Iago
Lawrence Fishburne as Othello, Kenneth Branagh as Iago

This past year there’s been two quite satisfying villains on TV—three actually, but Boyd Crowder, the quiet-talking, nazi-tattooed hillbilly gangster in Justified, the show I’m about to jump into, will be discussed in a later piece. For also in Justified is Mags Bennett, played by Margo Martindale. To set the context, Godmother Bennett runs the petty rackets in Harlan County, Kentucky, specializing in the weed business. She has three grown sons; Doyle is the local crooked sheriff, Dickie is the eldest, and then there’s Coover. Dickie and Coover work the weed business with Coover being a bit slow, but just as deadly as his two brothers. But no one’s as deadly as mama.

An incident arises out of Coover’s carelessness, cranking up Raylan Givens’ suspicions—Justified’s flawed U.S. Marshall hero—about their involvement in the demise of small-time weed grower Walt McCready. To teach him a lesson, ma has his arm held down and uses a hammer to smash his fingers. All the while Coover blubbers he loves his mother. No damn saint, you still feel sorry for the mentally challenged knucklehead—at least for a few minutes. But the most chilling scene was the initial episode of the second season, wherein Mags Bennett is introduced behind the counter of her general store.

Written by series creator Graham Yost (the series is from derived book material written by crime fiction adept Elmore Leonard, also one the show’s producers with one of his sons), toward the end of that episode, Mrs. Bennett and Dickie are sitting and sipping mom’s moonshine with McCready. The godmother has poisoned him, the glass he drank from coated with some residue of a natural growing substance, she says in an understanding voice. “You get to know the mystery,” she assures him as he grimaces in his death throe. McCready’s infraction was calling a tip line about the child predator out for his 14-year-old daughter Loretta. Thus he’d brought the law into the Bennett Holler, where they take care of matters internally. To counterbalance this heinous behavior by Bennett, the writers give her a genuine maternal concern for Loretta and her upbringing.

While the rural setting has given us the compelling Mags Bennett, in the urban sprawl portrayed in The Chicago Code we have Alderman Ronin Gibbons, realized by Delroy Lindo. He’s an old school pol in the Chicago manner of knowing when to use the fist in the velvet glove and when to horse trade—though all his actions are calculated. As my pops used to say about his Teamster union chief Jimmy Hoffa, “He lined his pocket but yours too.”

Gibbons is in bed with the Irish mob through various front companies, particularly on several high end construction projects inside and out of his ward. In a telling battle of wills with mobster Hugh Killian, who tries to put Gibbons in his place, the alderman, a product of the Cabrini-Green housing projects, shows him he isn’t to be trifled with by no means. He has child pornography planted in Killian’s house and has him busted for this—of course then telling him it will all go away as long as he’d learned his lesson.

The  Chicago Code
Delroy Lindo as Ronin Gibbons, Billy Lush as Liam Hennessey

“You wonder why the same guys get elected over and over again? It's because someone got the Fitzgerald family the zoning variance they needed. It's because someone got the Williams boy's drag-racing citation knocked down to a simple speeding ticket. Someone did that for them. And that someone was me. They say Chicago is the city that works. What some people never understand is, it works in a lotta different ways,” Gibbons relates in a voiceover in the show, giving the viewer a glimpse into his mindset.

A nice touch is Gibbons sits over the police budget and his one-time protégé, Teresa Colvin (played pretty dang well by Jennifer Beals), the newly minted Superintendent of Police, has to come to him on bended knee from time to time to get overtime pay authorized, monies for new radios and what have you. At the same time, she’s also out to bust him and has an undercover cop, Liam Hennessey, getting in deeper with the bent pol. In the episode that aired this past Monday, Gibbons is blocked on getting a guy he wants in a position in the police department. Colvin tries to make it look like it was the mayor’s doing, but the alderman ain’t buying it. He says to his right hand man that she’s acting like one of them won’t be around in six months. That maybe as his mob buddies have been on him, given there’s been a secret grand jury they know that's been meeting, he better do something about Colvin for good.

Yet to me the beauty of their dance is that Gibbons is not an Iago only out for his own self-aggrandizement or an anti-law Mags Bennett. He does believe in the police and keeping neighborhoods safe, the old ladies being able to go to the corner market without getting their heads caved in or kids able to go to school without getting caught in a gang crossfire. A part of him is about law and order yet at the same time he’s a law breaker thrilled to be the lord of his fiefdom, and will do the necessary shit to keep it that way.

In real life the hero versus villain is a trope we readily identify with too. That’s why, disappointed by our Prez’s term but not disillusioned, I pray that Michele Bachmann (the Joker to his Batman) or Donald Trump (the Lex Luthor to Obama’s Superman) runs for the gig in 2010. Better, Bachmann gets the nod and Trump runs as an independent.

It wouldn’t be the horror, but would be as Dante envisioned his Divine Comedy.

Fox announced yesterday (May 11) that The Chicago Code will not return next season.
The writer and this site's editor regret its demise.

Gary Phillips' latest is Treacherous: Grifters, Ruffians and Killers, a collection of his short stories.


Great piece.

2011-05-12 by John Shannon

Phillips is ridiculously insightful, a gift rivaled only by his skill at
expressing what he thinks. I mean, what else is new….

2011-05-13 by Steven Ivory

Kudos to GP on an article that points out a number of great topical ironies: that there’s some pretty damn fine TV out there, and more’s the pity that “Chicago Code” isn’t going to make it; that subtle and subversive villains always have the best lines; that the current crop of GOP hopefuls have more in common with cartoons and comic strips than they do with three-dimensional humanity; and that we should be glad that the real villains we’re facing in that arena (the ones who can fight taxing the super-rich while insisting on cuts for the poor, the disabled and the elderly…with a straight face, no less) aren’t capable of being as subtle and cunning as the ones on TV.

2011-05-13 by Dan Duling

Insightful and erudite thoughts by Gary Phillips.  Gary, your intelligence and energy are an inspiration.  What?  No more Chicago Code?!?  It’s the only show I watch, aside from Hawaii 50 and that’s just so we can identify the local spots.

2011-05-14 by Debby Atkinson

Excellent Piece, Mr. Phillips! The sad part is, just as I was getting into “Chicago Code…Damn!

2011-05-17 by Wayne L. WIlson

Excellent piece Gary!  The connection is made! You hit it perfectly.  Thanks very much.

2011-05-18 by Millie Heur

Comments closed.


Features | Blog