Bingeing in the bad place [August 16]
As NSW endures a gruelling winter lockdown, I’ve been remembering the long months confined to home alone in Victoria last year. In no mood for self-improvement activities (learn to yodel! bonsai for beginners!) I spent the evenings watching popular television series. But my escapist screen binge turned out to be an immersion in the same ethical dilemmas being thrown up by the new virus. And when Covid reached my family, those dilemmas became acutely personal.
Show after show posed questions we were struggling with in the real world: How do we choose between the needs of the individual and the community? What are the benefits of selflessness? Can security and redemption be earnt if we opt for love and self-sacrifice over selfishness and greed? Night after night the characters demonstrated why we struggle so badly with restrictions on our freedoms during a pandemic. (Spoiler alert)
I began with American comedy The Good Place in which the brattish Eleanor has a freak accident and finds herself in heaven. Trouble is, there’s been a mistake. She’s meant to be in The Bad Place. Eleanor is offered a chance to stay, but only if she gives up her anti-social habits. (She’s the type who would run you over with a shopping trolley to grab the last roll of toilet paper.) With help from her mate Chidi, an ethics professor, Eleanor gets a crash course in moral philosophy. Over and over, the characters in this fictional world must choose between helping themselves or helping others. And each time, helping others turns out to be the best choice for the greatest number of people. From the comfort of my couch, I was being reminded that the harsh lockdown rules we were following were aimed at saving lives – including, possibly, our own.
Next was Canadian comedy Schitt’s Creek. A formerly wealthy city family washes up in a small country town and is forced to rely on the goodwill of strangers to survive. Their money used to buy them unimaginable privilege and at first, they find the limits on their personal freedoms intolerable. Gradually they discover that most people around them are caring and generous, and those qualities are contagious. The central characters’ narcissism is slowly replaced by kindness, their selfishness by resilience.
Again, this moral lesson felt familiar. At that time the media was full of stories about friends, relations and strangers helping each other out during lockdowns. From food deliveries and dog walking to impromptu concerts on balconies, people were realising that giving is the gift that keeps on giving.
Sci-fi series War of the Worlds was much darker fare. In season one aliens destroy most of humanity, leaving just a handful of survivors wandering around trying to find family members and stay alive. Mutual distrust between strangers soon evolves into mutual dependence as they face the common enemy. But some characters must choose who to save and who to abandon to a grisly fate. Others sacrifice themselves in trying to protect their loved ones – and vulnerable strangers. I was reminded of those emergency doctors in over-crowded Covid wards who were sometimes having to select which patients would be given life-saving treatments and which would not. How do you place a value on a human life? Whose responsibility is it to protect the most vulnerable amongst us? Is altruism always the best option, or are there times when we should put ourselves first in a crisis?
Around this time Covid began spreading through aged care homes in Victoria. My mother had moved into one the previous year and was now locked down in her room. For her safety and for ours, we weren’t allowed to visit her. My siblings and I took turns singing to her over the fence as she watched from behind a locked window. Life mirrored art as the virus stalked the frail elderly and the aliens stalked the survivors in War of the Worlds.
As I sat at home worrying about our mother, I began watching Le Bureau. In this five-season series French spy Guillaume must choose between loyalty to a collective (his spying mates) or to an individual (the woman he loves). Betraying the collective could have fatal consequences, but so could the alternative. The same dilemma is vividly illustrated in The Good Place, when a runaway tram forces the characters to choose between mowing down one person, or five. In Le Bureau, Guillaume is forced to ask himself the hardest questions of all: how much suffering is he prepared to endure to prevent the suffering of the woman he loves? Would he risk his own life to save hers?
When Covid found its way into our mother’s aged care home last August and she contracted the virus, those ethical questions became all-consuming for our family. Should we insist on being allowed to visit her – jumping the fence if necessary – putting our own health and the health of others at risk? Should we allow her to be taken to hospital for treatment, instead of respecting her clearly stated preference for no medical intervention?
A year after my mother’s death I am still asking myself these questions. An ethics professor would probably approve of our choices, but that doesn’t make them any less painful. As the fictional characters on our TV screens remind us, sometimes even the most morally sound decisions can still lead to grief.
(This essay was first published on the Meanjin blog, August 2021)