Category Archives: Television

Bruce Wagner’s Wild Palms

(Spoilers, obviously)

A TV mini-series about a milquetoast lawyer who becomes engulfed in mystery: now twenty years old, it was set, at the time, in the near future of 2007, which is now our past. It is a show that has almost entirely vanished from the collective cultural memory1, and though this is not damning in itself, I do think the show is a failure – but it has one notable aspect, which is jaw dropping. This aspect, however, went seemingly undetected when it was written about upon its release. This key aspect proves that one can write about anything, even the most litigious of subjects, as long as one changes the setting a little, placing characters which can easily be linked to their real counterparts in a slightly different setting, a science-fiction dystopia rather than their native habitat. I leave this notable aspect to last, and write briefly on why I think this series does not work.

Though it perhaps could not have been made without the rubric of Oliver Stone (he serves as executive producer), this production is ultimately novelist Bruce Wagner’s, who executive produced, wrote every episode, and on whose comic strip, a series that ran on the back of Details magazine, the show was based. The comic, illustrated by the late, talented artist Julian Allen2, has an entirely different tone from the later series, and this, I think, is a major change for the worse. Wild Palms3, both comic and movie, are about a man who deals with increasingly absurd incidents. The series deals with these in the baroque tones of a soap opera or a religious story (it can be seen as both), everything in exclamation marks: I’m falling in love with another woman! I’ve been asked to kill my best friend! My son isn’t my son!

The comic’s attitude, on the other hand, is as cold as frost, the indifference of The Stranger, by Albert Camus: mother died today, and I wish I cared, but I don’t. I am handicapped by not having read the whole comic, but what I describe as its tone is ever present in every panel, the narrator Harry Wycoff giving precise, cold narration: “I had a nightmare recently where I was yelling at someone. I don’t know why that was so frightening.” “Beth and I made love that morning. It was the first time since a cyst on her ovary ruptured.”

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The first time he describes his son, Coty: “Coty is already five. It’s practically a miracle to get to five without being molested.”

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His friend since adolescence, Tommy: “Tommy sells thousand-dollar vintage eyeglasses on Melrose. We went to Beverly High together. He has more money than me.”

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He meets with an old friend, Paige Katz, who wears a shirt, “Life’s a bitch…than you kill someone.”: “Paige asked me if I wanted to go somewhere as an ‘observer.’ I thought it was some faddish, thirtysomething joke like a hazing.” Then, for reasons unknown to him, he sees his friend beaten. He experiences something visceral to this, yet his voice retains its frost-like calm, unmoved: “Then I saw the blood. And it made my stomach hurt. It was Tommy.”

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This voice, for me, comes across not as affect, that of a desensitized class, but something close to our own thoughts so often, as we see the extraordinary or the horrific, which we observe without any tremor of great feeling. We have become reconciled to the idea that these things take place in our world, and we can no longer even remember when we become reconciled. Whether for the need of appearances, the appearance of a moral compass – television at the time might tolerate wanton violence, but it could not conceive an ordinary man unmoved by such violence – or dramatic momentum, rather than existentialist drama, we are given instead overexcited melodrama, where everyone acts louder than real life.

This Wild Palms is an unreal, plot heavy work dealing with virtual reality technology. It opens with Harry Wycoff, patent attorney, having a nightmare: he comes across a rhino in his empty pool, then hears his son call out for him. His son, we later learn, has the very same dream, the dream a prescient one for both. This vision marks both as members of a spiritual elect: the rhino, we are told, is all that is left of that significant creature the unicorn4. In the dream, Harry runs toward his son’s door, marked by a cross, the door opens, and his son’s room is filled with ominous red light: his son will be seen as a saviour, a successor to a church, but he is also utterly demonic.

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An old girlfriend, Paige Katz, hires him to find her missing son, and Harry soon ends up working for Paige’s employer, Tony (Anton) Kreutzer, the media tycoon behind TV network Channel Three, founder of a new religion and developer of a technology that will transmit interactive holograms via television. Harry’s wife, Grace, thinks he’s having an affair and tries to commit suicide. Harry becomes aware of a resistance group, the Friends, acting in opposition to Kreutzer and his associates, the Fathers; the Friends include both his father-in-law and his close friend Tommy. His son, Coty, is recruited first to play a part on a channel three sitcom, and then to kill one of the Friends, a co-worker of Harry’s. Where the comic has Harry passively watching his friend Tommy get beaten, here, Paige Katz brings in Harry to chase down the man she believes has kidnapped her son, and when it is revealed to be Tommy, his capture ends with Tommy’s portentous line: “This…is the beginning.” Both acts feel like a blooding, an initiation ritual to be performed before inductment into Kreutzer’s organization.

The Friends and the Fathers race to acquire various elements of virtual reality technology, both sides suffering losses. Paige and Harry end up defecting from Kreutzer’s group and joining the Friends, while his son stays on. In a series of revelations, we learn that Harry’s son, Coty, is in fact not his son at all, but has been switched at birth with his real son, Peter; Harry and Coty are actually brothers, born to the same father, Kreutzer. Harry’s wife, in turn, is daughter to a merciless woman named Josie Ito, who is Kreutzer’s sister: Harry and his wife, Grace, are actually first cousins. Early on, Harry compliments one of his aides on a dress, the aide thanks him and replies that it’s from his wife’s store, and Harry replies, in turn, that things are getting just a little too incestuous. If he only knew. The series ends with almost all the major characters dead, with Grace killed by her own mother, the destruction of Kreutzer and his organization, Harry re-united with his biological son, and with Paige now Harry’s girlfriend.

Though it might be considered a political series, it provides neither specific insights, nor does it provide any eerie sense of familiarity with the world we live in. The oppressive Fathers chant the poems of Auden, the resistant Friends chant from Whitman; a screechy hippie woman celebrates the victory of the Friends – these aren’t images that suggest some difference of virtue between the groups, but that any political activity is a fool’s game, tainting everyone equally, and drawing its energy, whatever the cause, from blindly obedient riffraff. We are told there has been a nuclear accident in Florida, and a massive depression in the early twenty-first century, both instigated, for its own purpose, by the state itself – though we never intuit why the state might do so. It’s politics designed for a credulous militia member – the state is a killing machine, politics is a fool’s game, so the only response is to retreat from political life altogether into a cabin or a bunker. More crucially, these great events don’t feel as if they’ve touched the unfolding world of the series at all – and this is crucial if this world is to feel like it’s some self-contained life, as all great fictional worlds do. “I’m a survivor of the disaster of Boca Raton,” says a disheveled figure at one point, and my first thought is, how bad can things go with a timeshare?

It is this sense that this future world is clumped together of various discrete elements, rather than a living possibility, which is the show’s other crucial flaw. That this future world is in visual stasis, almost entirely the same city as it is now, is not a problem – 9/11 and the housing crisis may have had a huge impact on the United States, but they have not produced anything visually novel or unprecedented, just the same old, same old: suburbs that became ghost communities, or veterans living on the street. Kurt Anderson’s too little known, incredibly insightful essay, “You Say You Want a Devolution?” notes a startling phenomenon: that our visual landscape, in architecture, clothes, and advertising, has reached a stasis point in the past fifteen or twenty years. Where before we see a distinct and astonishing difference in the visual look of the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties, when we reach the nineties, the aughts, and our decade now, an equilibrium seems to have been reached, an unchanging look that does not change because it encompasses all things. This may well be because in an internet age there are no longer any subterranean cultures, and one cannot “discover” hiphop fashion, or brazilian music, as an intrepid few might have done – almost all obscurities are now accessible to all.

So, that the series contains little of a futuristic look is unimportant, but rather prescient. What is important is that such a future world should hold together, should be unlike our own, yet feel as if it is entirely its own world, with not a single inch directed by an outside force, but every part organic, a growth of its own. One should be able to intuit why every feature of the world is there, and not find any part to be out of place. The very opposite effect is most obvious in the show’s use of virtual reality and holograms, given a solid mocking by the AV club, “The future won’t look like this: 11 unintentionally ridiculous depictions of virtual reality”. We see a virtual reality in which cyberspace consists of people dressing up as eighteenth century nobles, and holographic versions of sitcoms and advertising. Both are ridiculous, conceived as something different or new, rather than in the terms by which a product gets to market: does anybody actually want this?

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Even if we have the possibility of talking or seeing someone via Skype, we prefer to communicate in text on facebook or twitter; never mind dressing up in fancy outfits for a simple meeting – the only thing that approaches this model of the internet is Second Life, and it’s a virtual ghost town. A three-dimensional holographic sitcom is untenable because a sitcom, with its rigid structure and laugh track is specifically unreal, the steady laughter (whether taped or from an audience) not simply telling the audience that something is funny but reinforcing the artifice of the program, a necessity for the jokes to work. Comedy programs that do not adhere to this format, Parks and Recreation and The Office among the best known, have an entirely different rhythm to their jokes, and must have an entirely different rhythm – without the laugh track we are in a different setting, a setting we take to be more real than that of the sitcom. Palms, in fact, does cross paths with the future of television, with a program whose power lay not in the fact of its vivid proximity to life, but its very artifice. This future appears in the brief character Mortie, because this man is played by Dan Castellaneta, who of course provides the voice of a character so well-known that he does not even need be named.

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The issue of a makeshift world also troubles one of the more fascinating ideas of the program, with Japan, at the time of the series an economic powerhouse expected to equal or eclipse the United States in national influence, showing a heavy sway in the furniture and clothes throughout.

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The only problem is that, again, it doesn’t feel intuitively right – were Japan to have become the dominant force of the series, changes would no doubt be there, but in many ways unsettlingly invisible. Artwork would be the same mishmash of the world selected by style curators, but the characters would be far more knowledgeable about the intricacies of Japanese politics, and far more of them would be fluent in Japanese, just as today there are many western news outlets that provide in-depth coverage of Chinese political life, and there are a growing number of Chinese speakers in the world – these details signal the growing importance of China, not any dramatic changes in fashion or interior design. The dramatic shifts of the future are near invisible, and this works to the show’s advantage with a largely unchanged Los Angeles, and to the disadvantage when it tries to give us fantastic changes in visual communications systems and Japanese decor. The astonishing impact of the past fifteen years of technology can be seen not in what has appeared but disappeared – the bankruptcy of book and record shops, the extinction of newspapers, the end of watches, the absence of payphones – a visitor from the near past might be able to infer that there’s now a combination of microtechnology and an information network that has caused the disappearance of these things, but it would be a difficult, tenuous hypothesis.

The most memorable and unsettling images of this series – there are several, and there well should be several given that the series directors included Kathryn Bigelow, Phil Joanou, and Keith Gordon – have nothing to do with the visual elements of the future world, but could be placed in any contemporary drama, their allure derived from making the ordinary exotic. Whether because of my own preferences, or their own inherent power, I find the best of these come from Gordon’s work.

For example, two children watching TV, but shot from the TV’s perspective, so they stare, rapt, out at us:

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A waiter attends on two diners, Harry and his friend Tommy, but he is not a passive servant. He asks them if they are ready to order, impatiently – it is they who are guests at his place of business, and he is not dependent on them, but the other way around. This high-end restaurant has plenty of customers and has no need of their business, but were these men unable to gain entrance to this restaurant, it would reflect poorly on their status. The haughty demeanour of the waiter is an intentional pose to reinforce this relationship. We then cut to a scene with almost the exact same composition, but now the relationship is very much reversed, the Wykoffs’ domestic attending on their children, and she is very much dependent on them, rather than the other around.

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The resistance group The Friends use networks underneath swimming pools to meet surreptitiously and travel about the city. Here, as Beethoven’s Seventh swells in the background, Coty Wycoff, Harry’s son, stares intently at the pool, almost as if he sees through the concrete, through to the meeting taking place underneath – but this context is unnecessary for the image’s power. The only elements necessary are an intelligent boy staring with focused intensity at nothing at all, the empty water.

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As Harry tends to his wife, Grace, after her suicide attempt, the characters are shot at a distance that is almost never used in a TV show, their faces obscured behind a veil. It all fits with the sense of someone who has just tried to kill herself, who has reached the very edge of death before being brought back that she is in this small place of light in a vast dark room. As we might imagine Grace moving steadily closer and closer back to life, we move nearer to this lighted section. Her husband has become increasingly unknowable to her, so his face is a blur behind the veil, or falls into a shadow. I offer this explanation, but it is unnecessary; the scene is the most visually powerful in the entire show, and like all great images, requires no words to justify or explain it.

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The future world that feels like something organic, its every element in vitro, has been created most successfully in two movies, two obvious choices, by the same director: Blade Runner and Alien. In the first, the earth has been abandoned for better worlds, and the planet has the mood of a depressive turning inward and backward to past memories, as it falls into a decay it is entirely indifferent to. Deckard is obsessed with a past, a past that might be entirely false, but so is all of the Los Angeles he lives in, holding onto its memories as a noir landscape. Alien features a ship that isn’t a streamlined beauty, but a crude utilitarian piece of technology, like an oil derrick or a supertanker. The crew find the outpost of a civilization which, literally, dwarfs them, but whoever was here is already long dead; rather than a dream fulfilled of intergalactic contact, it is only an exhausted society breaching a tomb. Great technology has not brought the space crew happiness or enlightenment – the future is ugly, and it is cheap. The long dead civilization has itself been destroyed not for any moral transgression, or by a creature of greater intelligence, but a simple armor plated, acid blooded thing which is designed solely to host, reproduce, and kill. There have been attempts at explanations and extensions of this movie’s story, but they are unnecessary, and in fact diminish it. The spaceflight of this movie is not some lyrical dream, but just one more industrial expedition. Humanity, whatever its past dreams, is here concerned only with functionality, getting the work done as cheaply and effectively as possible; the alien of the title is a sick joke on all this, a creature that has no beauty or elegance, but one that, just like the ship, is a piece of ugly metalwork designed solely for efficiency – and far more efficient at survival than we are.

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Though both movies have a distinct and overwhelming mood, they are not designed to create such a mood, but rather, it arises out of the clutter of elements that are there – and I do not use clutter disparagingly, but something necessary for the effect. For our lives are not planned, even in the most planned societies, but a pile of details playing off each other, a jazz group of a million musicians, rather than a small orchestra conducted by a martinet. The overall tone of both these movies is fatigue, which another writer might label as fin-de-siècle; great technology has arrived and it doesn’t matter, anymore than the wonderful toys of our time have given us the excitement and happiness embodied by the spokespeople of an electronics show5. We take these toys for granted, and they hold no magic for us. We trudge through our work with these devices as Deckard navigates through the photos with the Esper machine (a device that, unlike the virtual reality machines of Palms we immediately see the practical use for), exhausted, needing a bottle of scotch to finish the work. Here, again, we acutely note the loss in the change in tone from the Palms comic to the Palms series – an ice-cold narration entirely apt for the supposed wonders and magic of a future, the apt tone of exhaustion that imbues Alien and Blade Runner, and our world now as well.

THE DIVINE COMEDY: HELLA JOKE, A BITCH

I have focussed on the flaws of this series, and now I move to its one astonishing feature, and it is a striking one. I state it bluntly without suspense: it is the most scathing depiction of scientology I’ve ever seen, making “South Park”‘s “Trapped in the Closet” episode look like a piker’s game. Where “Park” ridiculed the movement as a con game, this series appears to take key figures from the movement – L. Ron Hubbard, his wife, Mary Sue, and scientology’s current head, David Miscavige – and transplants them into this story, only slightly veiled by a fictional scrim, portraying all three as amoral homicidal sociopaths. What is astonishing is that this show was produced, not at a time of weakness for the church, but at the height of its powers, when it had just received tax-exempt status as a religion. Equally astonishing, given that the target is clear and the fired arrows are soaked in venom, is that it seems to have eluded the critics of the time: John J. O’Connor of the Times, in “The Sunshiny Menace of ‘Wild Palms'” gives a one sentence tip of the hat to the movement’s appearance, “any resemblance of the “Synthiotics” movement depicted in this series to L. Ron Hubbard’s “science” of Dianetics may not be entirely accidental”; Entertainment Weekly‘s Ken Tucker in his review gives another single sentence mention, “Kreutzer would seem to be Wagner’s wicked caricature of the late author and Church of Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard”; David Gates, reviewing the show in the late Newsweek, writes in “Invasion Of The Soul Snatchers” that Anton Kreutzer is “a neo-psychedelic demagogue resembling L. Ron Hubbard, Pat Robertson, Timothy Leary and Ross Perot”; that is the only mention of anyone associated with the movement, let alone the movement itself, in the review. This misinterprets the satire here as a glancing blow, when it’s a repeated punch to the kidneys.

This is the dialogue between Harry and his ex-girlfriend, Paige Katz, that introduces Tony Kreutzer, after a demonstration he gives on his pioneering hologram technology:

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HARRY
That’s the guy you work for? The guy who founded that freaky religion in the sixties?

PAIGE
Synthiotics. It’s helped a lot of people.

HARRY
New realism is very hip right now. I read about it in People.

PAIGE
Don’t be so cynical. You should read some of his books.

HARRY
Nah, I don’t dig bad science fiction.

After a ceremony in which Harry is inducted into the church,

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we see the outside of the building, “The Church of Synthiotics”:

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Synthiotics is, I believe, a variation on dianetics, the Hubbard philosophy which preceded scientology. Hubbard developed scientology around a similar set of ideas after he lost control of dianetics in a rights dispute with former business associate Don Purcell. One of the only critical histories of the movement and its founder available at the time of this series, Bare Faced Messiah by Russell Miller, describes what took place:

At the beginning of April 1952, Hubbard packed his belongings into the back of his yellow Pontiac convertible and headed out of Wichita on the Kansas Turnpike with his teenage bride of four weeks beside him on the front seat. Their destination, one thousand miles to the west, was Phoenix, Arizona, where loyal aides had already put up a sign outside a small office at 1405 North Central Street, announcing it as the headquarters of the Hubbard Association of Scientologists.

Phoenix was so named because it was built on the ruins of an ancient Indian settlement on the Salt River, which had risen like the legendary phoenix. Hubbard, who had had more than enough of Wichita, could not think of a more appropriate location for the rise of his astounding new science from the still-smoking ruins of Dianetics.

Hubbard would introduce Scientology as a logical extension of Dianetics, but it was a development of undeniable expedience, since it ensured he would be able to stay in business even if the courts eventually awarded control of Dianetics and its valuable copyrights to ‘that little flatulence’, the hated Don Purcell. The difference between Dianetics and Scientology was that Dianetics addressed the body, whereas Scientology addressed the soul. With his accustomed bombast, Hubbard claimed that he had ‘come across incontrovertible, scientifically-validated evidence of the existence of the human soul’.

So, a church of synthiotics might be seen as the same as a church of dianetics, or, a church of scientology.

Just as scientology has been very successful at recruiting celebrities to enhance their image and evangelize on their behalf, the synthiotics church of Palms has two notables on hand to help them out.

There is the singer Chap Starfall:

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As well as the actress Tabba Schwartzkopf, who belongs to the high echelons of the church:

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Throughout the series, black vans full of organization thugs show up to chase down or take away dissidents. This may be an expansion of at least one incident that took place along these lines, described in Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology. It involved two top members of the church, Gale Irwin and Pat Broeker, who were pushed out when the current head, David Miscavige, took over:

Now genuinely afraid of [David] Miscavige, [Gale] Irwin slipped off the base at Gilman Hot Springs to call Pat Broeker, using his special callback system. Waiting at a gas-station pay phone for Broeker to return her call, Irwin suddenly saw Miscavige roll up with a number of his aides in a black van. As she’d later recall, he got out, walked to the back of the van, took out a tire iron, and as she watched, proceeded to smash the pay phone so it wouldn’t work. Then he grabbed a terrified Irwin, ordered her into the van, and accused her of mutiny.

A key product developed by Memocom, a branch of the synthiotics church, is Mimezine, a drug which makes holograms appear as vivid as real life. The name of this drug seems to echo one that Hubbard attempted to market, Dianazene, on the basis that it was an antidote to radiation sickness. A lengthy excerpt from Miller:

By April it seemed that Hubbard had given up his heroic, single-handed attempt to rid the world of nuclear weapons by ‘as-ising’ [a scientology term meaning to make disappear] the atomic bomb, for in that month he hired the Royal Empire Society Hall in London in order to preside over the ‘London Congress on Nuclear Radiation and Health’. The various lectures delivered at this extraordinary event were later condensed into an even more extraordinary book titled All About Radiation and written by ‘a nuclear physicist’ and ‘a medical doctor’.

The doctor was anonymous, but the ‘nuclear physicist’ was none other than L. Ron Hubbard offering the benefit of his advice with customary scant recourse to the laws of science. He asserted, for example, that a sixteen-foot wall could not stop a gamma ray whereas a human body could, an assertion later described by an eminent radiologist as ‘showing complete and utter ignorance of physics, nuclear science and medicine’. In line with his philosophy that most illnesses were caused by the mind, Hubbard avowed, ‘The danger in the world today in my opinion is not the atomic radiation which may or may not be floating through the atmosphere but the hysteria occasioned by that question.’ Radiation, he added, was ‘more of a mental than a physical problem’.

Fortunately, however, no one needed to worry about radiation, since Hubbard had devised a vitamin compound called ‘Dianazene’ (after his first child by Mary Sue [Hubbard’s last wife]?) which provided protection: ‘Dianazene runs out radiation – or what appears to be radiation. It also proofs a person against radiation to some degree. It also turns on and runs out incipient cancer. I have seen it run out skin cancer. A man who didn’t have much liability to skin cancer (only had a few moles) took Dianazene. His whole jaw turned into a raw mass of cancer. He kept on taking Dianazene and it disappeared after a while. I was looking at a case of cancer that might have happened.’

The doctor, writing under the pseudonym Medicus, confirmed in his section of the book that ‘some very recent work by L. Ron Hubbard and the Hubbard Scientology Organization has indicated that a simple combination of vitamins in unusual doses can be of value. Alleviation of the remote effects and increased tolerance of radiation have been the apparent results . . .’

The Food and Drugs Administration in the United States was inclined, after studying a copy of All About Radiation, to disagree. FDA agents swooped on the Distribution Center Inc, a Scientology company in Washington, seized 21,000 Dianazene tablets and destroyed them, alleging that they were falsely labelled as a preventative treatment for ‘radiation sickness’.

Hubbard was an energetic, engaging man, as seen in this brief description, again from Miller:

Ron [Hubbard], ebullient as always, was not in any way intimidated by the egregious company and surroundings [a rambling mansion filled with bohemians, intellectuals, and exotic ne’er-do-wells]; on the contrary, he felt instantly at home. Most evenings he could be found dominating the conversation at the big table in the kitchen, where the roomers tended to gather, telling outrageous stories about his adventures. One night he unbuttoned his shirt to display the scars left by arrows hurled at him when he encountered a band of hostile aborigines in the South American jungle.

This vitality and charisma is captured well in the show’s best performance, Robert Loggia as Kreutzer6. Some sense of this can be found in the speech Kreutzer gives when introducing his hologram technology:

KREUTZER
You know, I was in Tokyo just last week. And in Japan, they call me Fuji, because I am white on top. (laughter) To paraphrase Aristophanes, I have all the traits of a popular politico. Bad breeding…vulgar manners…and one hell of a tan.

A samurai suddenly appears, pulls out his sword, and attacks the senator, but when the sword slices through Kreutzer, it passes through him as if he were a ghost. The samurai retreats, the disappears in a flash.

KREUTZER
I’m not here, children. I’m a synthetic hologram. Talking to you, real time. From the penthouse of this hotel. One day, very soon, this is what it’s going to look like in the living room. You will co-star in weekly sitcoms. You will fight the samurai battles, and experience the heartbreak of first love. All between commercials, and if you own a TV, any old TV…and an adapter from Mimecom that you can get for under a $1000 dollars, then you have bought a ticket. I have seen the future…and it is channel three.

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The practices and principles of synthiotics are never discussed, except in one brief exchange between Harry and Paige, after Kreutzer’s presentation:

HARRY
What the hell was that all about?

PAIGE
He’s bigger than life, huh?

HARRY
Scary, like a roman emperor with the fingers. (makes gesture)

PAIGE
All he’s saying is that there’s more than one reality. That doesn’t make synthiotics any different than, say…buddhism.

Here we find a fit with one of Hubbard’s favorite ideas, truth is what is true for you. Miller describes a moment in a lecture of Hubbard’s at the Academy of Scientology:

Perhaps the most revealing thing Hubbard said about himself during the lecture was a comment on one of Commander Thompson’s [“Snake” Thompson, a supposed associate of Freud and mentor of Hubbard, who may not have ever existed] favourite little aphorisms. It appeared that the Commander used to tell Ron, ‘If it’s not true for you, it’s not true.’ It aligned with his own personal philosophy, Hubbard explained, ‘because if there is anyone in the world calculated to believe what he wants to believe it is I’. Never did L. Ron Hubbard speak a truer word.

In the series, Kreutzer’s past is always murky, but before we find out that Kreutzer is Harry’s father, we hear of a past association between the man Harry still thinks of as his father and Kreutzer, revealed by his father-in-law, Eli Levitt:

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ELI
There was a famous chemist back in the sixties, who was playing around with the fugu, puffer fish, ever hear of it? A delicacy in Japan? Dose of a single fish could kill, lesser amount gets you high. Mimecom grabbed it, tweaked it, came up with something of their own. They called it mimezine. Allows you to interact with holograms, is it real or is it mimecom? Impossible to tell.

ELI
That famous chemist I was telling you about, the one who pioneered it all…his name was Dex Wycoff, your daddy.

HARRY
You knew my father?

ELI
No, but the senator did. They were partners.

Harry tells Kreutzer of this meeting, and the senator adds a few details:

HARRY
I saw Eli Levitt last week. He said you knew my father.

KREUTZER
Indeed I did. He was the real thing. The Chicky [Eli’s son, and a brilliant inventor in his own right] of his day. Old Dex was legendary for two things. The purity of his LSD, and the fact that he was never seen in public without a tie. Your father wanted to use computers to free the brain from the body, and this was the seventies, there wasn’t even video. Critics dismissed him as an acid casualty, which he was.

HARRY
What happened?

KREUTZER
Blew his face off with a shotgun. Because of the recoil, the coroner determined that the first shot was not fatal. Ten minutes later, Dex finished the job. And I have always wondered what went through his mind in those last ten minutes.

The association between Kreutzer and this man maps with the connection between Hubbard and a brilliant scientist named Jack Parsons – not a chemist, but an engineer – who was also heavily involved with the occult. Miller gives a detailed description of this fascinating character:

John Whiteside Parsons, known to his friend as Jack, was an urbane, darkly handsome man, not unlike Errol Flynn in looks, and the scion of a well-connected Los Angeles family. Then thirty-one years old, he was a brilliant scientist and chemist and one of America’s foremost explosives experts. He had spent much of the war at the California Institute of Technology working with a team developing jet engines and experimental rocket fuels and was, perhaps, the last man anyone would have suspected of worshipping the Devil.

For Jack Parsons led an extraordinary double life: respected scientist by day, dedicated occultist by night. He believed, passionately, in the power of black magic, the existence of Satan, demons and evil spirits, and the efficacy of spells to deal with his enemies.

While still a student at the University of Southern California, he had become interested in the writings of Aleister Crowley, the English sorcerer and Satanist known as ‘The Beast 666’, whose dabblings in black magic had also earned him the title ‘The Wickedest Man In The World’. Crowley’s The Book of the Law expounded a doctrine enshrined in a single sentence – ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law’ – and Parsons was intrigued by the heady concept of a creed that encouraged indulgence in forbidden pleasures.

Jack Parsons was in a serious relationship with a Sara Northrup, who played an active role in his occult ceremonies – until she met Hubbard, fell in love, and married him.

Miller, on the intersection of Hubbard, Parsons, and Sara “Betty” Northrup:

One afternoon in August 1945, Lou Goldstone, a well-known science-fiction illustrator and a frequent visitor to South Orange Grove Avenue [Parsons’ house, where he rented out rooms to a large group of eccentrics], turned up with L. Ron Hubbard, who was then on leave from the Navy. Jack Parsons liked Ron immediately, perhaps recognized in him a kindred spirit, and invited him to move in for the duration of his leave.

He considered that Ron had great magical potential and took the risk of breaking his solemn oath of secrecy to acquaint Ron with some of the OTO [Ordo Templi Orientis, an organization set up by the satanist Alistair Crowley that focused on sexual magic] rituals. Betty, too, was much enamoured with the voluble naval officer, so much so that she soon began sleeping with him. True to his creed, Parsons tried to pretend he was not concerned by this development, but others in the house thought they detected tension between the two men.

Alva Rogers [one of the many residents of Parsons’ house], too, sensed that Parsons was suffering. ‘Jack had never boggled at any of Betty’s previous amorous adventurings, but this time it seemed somehow different…although the three of them continued to maintain a surface show of unchanged amicability, it was obvious that Jack was feeling the pangs of a hitherto unfelt passion, jealousy. As events progressed, Jack found it increasingly difficult to keep his mind on anything but the torrid affair going on between Ron and Betty and the atmosphere around the house became supercharged with tension.’

Nevertheless, Parsons clearly remained convinced that Ron possessed exceptional powers. After Ron had left to report back to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, Parsons wrote to his ‘Most Beloved Father’ to acquaint him with events: ‘About three months ago I met Captain L. Ron Hubbard, a writer and explorer of whom I had known for some time…He is a gentleman; he has red hair, green eyes, is honest and intelligent, and we have become great friends. He moved in with me about two months ago, and although Betty and I are still friendly, she has transferred her sexual affection to Ron.

The anecdote of the painful suicide of Dex Wycoff appears to be a comingling of two events: the death of Parsons in a massive explosion when he dropped some nitro-glycerine, an event which was often suspected to be a suicide, and the suicide of Parsons’ mother on hearing of her son’s death, her suicide a prolonged moment as the sleeping pills took a half hour for their lethal effect, while a friend, too crippled to stop or save her, looked on helplessly as she died. Again, Miller:

On the afternoon of Friday 20 June 1952, Parsons was working alone in the garage of the coachhouse, which he had converted into a laboratory. At eight minutes past five there was an enormous explosion. The heavy stable doors were blasted from their hinges, the walls blew out and a huge hole was torn in the floor timbers. When the dust had cleared, a partially dismembered body could be seen still bleeding in the rubble.

Further horror was to follow. Police traced Parsons’s mother, Mrs Ruth Virginia Parsons, to the home of a crippled woman friend in West Glenarm Street. Informed of the accident and her son’s death, Mrs Parsons returned to the room where her friend was sitting in an armchair. She sat down in another chair out of reach, unscrewed a bottle of sleeping tablets and, watched by her helpless and appalled friend, rapidly swallowed the entire contents. Unable to move from her chair, the terrified cripple watched her friend slowly die.

The inquest found that the explosion had been caused by Parsons accidentally dropping a phial of nitro-glycerine. But because of his known interest in the occult, there were inevitably rumours of suicide or even murder; none of his friends could believe that a man so experienced in handling explosives would have dropped nitro-glycerine accidentally.

Whatever the truth, no black magician could have wished for a blacker departure from the world.

Kreutzer’s revelation in one of the last scenes that Harry is his son touches on a similar romantic triangle, and hints that Dex didn’t commit suicide, but was killed by the senator.

HARRY
How well did you know my mother?

KREUTZER
We enjoyed each other’s company, Berniece and I. Dex wasn’t too thrilled. We had a child together. Did you know that? Dex thought it was his. Named the boy Harry. He found out, Dex did. He tried to kill me. I had to defend myself.

Harry’s plotline, a son rebelling a father, a son joining this formidable figure late in life, might be taken, I believe, from the story of Hubbard’s own first son, L. Ron Hubbard Jr. – though referred to by everyone by his nickname, Nibs. Just like Harry, he lives apart from his father and joins the church late in life. From Miller:

While Hubbard was writing and lecturing in Phoenix in the summer of 1952, a somewhat unexpected event occurred – his son, L. Ron Hubbard Junior, turned up in town apparently intent on becoming a Scientologist. Nibs was then eighteen years old, a plump young man with a shining, cherubic countenance topped by wispy curls of pale orange hair. He had been living with his grandparents in Bremerton for the previous two years, but had been unable to settle down in high school and had decided to join his father in Phoenix.

Nibs enrolled at a correspondence school in an attempt to complete his high school education and his father gave him a job at the Hubbard Association of Scientologists, at the same time arranging for him to be audited intensively. As the son and namesake of the founder, Nibs was treated with some deference by other Scientologists and made rapid progress in the organization – he was soon designated as ‘professor’ of the ‘Advanced Clinical Course’, one of a number of courses on offer to ambitious Scientologists in Phoenix. He also acquired a number of initials after his name to support his professorial status.

Just like Harry, he ends up an adversary of the father and his church, the highest ranking defector at the time:

While he was still in Melbourne, Hubbard received an urgent telephone call from Washington with bad news. Nibs, he was told, had ‘blown’. To Scientologists, ‘blowing the org’ (leaving the church) was one of the worst crimes in the book: it was almost unbelievable that the highly-placed son and namesake of the founder would take such a step.

After ‘blowing the org’ in 1959, fortune had not smiled on Nibs. He had drifted from job to job, finding it ever more difficult to support his wife and six children, and as the realization dawned that he would never be allowed back into Scientology, he became an even more prominent critic of his father and his father’s ‘church’. When the church was locked in litigation with the Internal Revenue Service, Nibs testified on behalf of the IRS.

In July, Nibs gave an interview to the Santa Rosa News-Herald in which he portrayed his father as a wife-beater who had experimented in black magic and fed him and his sister bubble gum spiked with phenobarbitol. ‘He had one of those insane things, especially during the ’30s, of trying to invoke the devil for power and practices. My mother told me about him trying out all kinds of various incantations, drugs and hypnosis…He used to beat her up quite often. He had a violent, volcano-type temper, and he smacked her around quite a bit. I remember in 1946 or 1947 when he was beating up my mother one night, I had a .22 rifle and I sat on the stairway with him in my sights and I almost blew his head off.’

[Nibs] surfaced again in the June 1983 issue of Penthouse magazine, making even more sensational allegations – that Hubbard had been involved in black magic since the age of sixteen, believed himself to be Satan, wanted to become the most powerful being in the universe, smuggled gold and drugs, was a sadist and a KGB agent. He had bought Saint Hill Manor, Nibs claimed, with money obtained from the Russians. ‘Black magic is the inner core of Scientology,’ Nibs stressed, ‘and it is probably the only part of Scientology that really works. Also, you’ve got to realize that my father did not worship Satan. He thought he was Satan.’

Some of these claims could be substantiated by others – that Hubbard had beaten this boy’s mother and he had been involved in occult rituals conducted by Parsons – while others, such as the length of his involvement in the occult, and his connections with the russians most likely had no basis.

Miller:

It was wild stuff, perhaps a little too wild. Just like his father, Nibs lacked subtlety. Had he been more restrained, the interview might have made an impact. Instead, it simply strained the reader’s credulity to such an extent that it was hard to decide who was the most deranged – L. Ron Hubbard Senior or L. Ron Hubbard Junior.

The show ends with Kreutzer attempting to evade death and become a virtual hologram, something of a god, who will rule the thoughts and dreams of the world. Again, Hubbard’s own end is mysterious as well: he lived as a recluse at the end of his life, his last public appearance taking place six years before his death, a death without a public funeral, only a cremation conducted quickly in the midst of the night, the identity of the dead never mentioned to those performing the cremation, and only discovered by the chapel owner after she read the death certificate. The cause of death was listed as a cerebral hemmorage [sic]. No autopsy was ever performed.

The telephone was already ringing when Irene Reis, co-owner of the Reis Chapel in San Luis Obispo, arrived for work on the morning of Saturday 25 January. A voice at the other end of the line identified himself as Earle Cooley, an attorney, and asked if they did cremations. Mrs Reis replied that they did, although the crematory was usually closed at weekends. Special arrangements could be made if necessary. Cooley then asked if a body could be collected from the Whispering Winds Ranch on the O’Donovan Road in Creston. Irene’s husband, Gene, drove the hearse out to Creston, not imagining it was anything but a routine job.

Cooley accompanied the body back to San Luis Obispo. At the Reis Chapel, a tasteful white adobe building with a red pantile roof on Nipomo Street, he asked Mrs Reis if arrangements could be made for an ‘immediate cremation’. He presented a death certificate signed by a Gene Denk of Los Angeles certifying the cause of death as cerebral haemorrhage and a certificate of religious belief forbidding an autopsy. It was not until Mrs Reis looked at the documents that she realized the body lying in her chapel was that of L. Ron Hubbard.

Mrs Reis knew enough about Hubbard to insist on informing the San Luis Obispo Country sheriffcoroner. Deputy coroner Don Hines arrived at the Reis Chapel within a few minutes. No one had had any idea that Hubbard was in the vicinity and Hines wanted to make sure that everything was done by the book – it was not every day that a ‘notorious recluse’ turned up in San Luis Obispo. Hines said that no cremation could take place until an independent pathologist had examined the body. He also ordered the body to be photographed and fingerprinted to ensure positive identifications. (Later the fingerprints were revealed to match those on file at the FBI and the Department of Justice.) It was three-thirty in the afternoon before Hines was satisfied and agreed to release the body for cremation. On the following day, the ashes of L. Ron Hubbard were scattered on the Pacific from a small boat.

This is not announced as a death by the church of scientology. Just as Kreutzer abandons his decaying body to become a virtual ghost, this is but a leave-taking of a physical state.

The news of the death of the founder of Scientology was broken to 1800 of his followers hastily gathered in the Hollywood Palladium on the afternoon of Monday, 27 January. David Miscavige made the announcement that Ron had moved on to his next level of research, a level beyond the imagination and in a state exterior to the body: ‘Thus, at 2000 hours, Friday 24 January 1986, L. Ron Hubbard discarded the body he had used in this lifetime for seventy-four years, ten months and eleven days. The body he had used to facilitate his existence in this universe had ceased to be useful and in fact had become an impediment to the work he now must do outside its confines. The being we knew as L. Ron Hubbard still exists. Although you may feel grief, understand that he did not, and does not now. He has simply moved on to his next step.’

Probably the most malevolent character in Palms is Josie Ito: she has the eyes of one her enemies torn out, drowns another, and chokes her own daughter to death with her bare hands7. One character says of her, “the friends have a nickname for Josie…Hannya…female demon”.

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She is portrayed throughout as a close confidante of Kreutzer, but whose relation we can only guess at, until it is revealed that they are sister and brother. This is a slight shuffling of details of her real-life counter-part, a determined, ruthless woman who was L. Ron Hubbard’s last wife, Mary Sue.

From an interview about The Master conducted by Brent Bambury, with a former high-ranking scientologist, Kate Bornstein, on this figure:

BAMBURY
The leader’s wife in this film, portrayed by Amy Adams, is a forceful character, and maybe even the real power behind the movement…

AMY ADAMS as PEGGY DODD
We do what we have to do to grow. The only way to defend ourselves is to attack. If we don’t do that, we will lose every battle we are engaged in. We will never dominate our environment the way we should unless we attack.

BAMBURY
Did you know Mary Sue Hubbard, who was L. Ron Hubbard’s wife, and the number two figure in the church for many years?

BORNSTEIN
I knew Mary Sue Hubbard well. And it was a brilliant performance. Amy Adams captured her, completely. And yes, Mary Sue was posted as L. Ron Hubbard’s guardian. That was the post, the guardian. It was her job to protect scientology from bad people. I was scared of Mary Sue. Everyone was.

Miller gives this description of the relationship between the two Hubbards:

Hubbard would never allow anyone to criticize Mary Sue and although he rarely showed much affection for her in public, it seemed, after two failed marriages and innumerable affairs, that he had at last formed a stable relationship, improbable as it had first appeared. They were indeed an unlikely couple – a flamboyant, fast-talking extrovert entrepreneur in his forties and a quiet, intense young woman twenty years his junior from a small town in Texas. But anyone who underestimated Mary Sue made a big mistake. Although she was not yet twenty-four years old, she exercized [sic] considerable power within the Scientology movement and people around Hubbard quickly learned to be wary of her. Fiercely loyal to her husband, brusque and autocratic, she could be a dangerous enemy.

Here is former member Cyril Vosper, from Miller’s Messiah on the implementation of the social control system of “ethics”; I bold his opinion on Mary Sue’s influence of this behavior code:

‘Conditions’ were an essential part of the new ‘ethics technology’ devised by Hubbard in the midsixties, effectively as a form of social control. It was his first, tentative step towards the creation of a society within Scientology which would ultimately resemble the totalitarian state envisaged by George Orwell in his novel 1984 . Anyone thought to be disloyal, or slacking, or breaking the rules of Scientology, was reported to an ‘ethics officer’ and assigned a ‘condition’ according to the gravity of the offence. Various penalties were attached to each condition. In a ‘condition of liability’ for example, the offender was required to wear a dirty grey rag tied around his or her left arm. The worst that could happen was to be declared an ‘SP’ (suppressive person), which was tantamount to excommunication from the church. SPs were defined by Hubbard as ‘fair game’ to be pursued, sued and harassed at every possible opportunity.

‘What happened with the development of ethics,’ said Cyril Vosper, who worked on the staff at Saint Hill, ‘was that zeal expanded at the expense of tolerance and sanity. My feeling was that Mary Sue devised a lot of the really degrading aspects of ethics. I always had great warmth and admiration for Ron [Hubbard] – he was a remarkable individual, a constant source of new information and ideas – but I thought Mary Sue was an exceedingly nasty person. She was a bitch.

An incident on one of scientology’s ships, from Miller, I bold Mary Sue’s part:

Arthur’s [a son of Hubbard’s] special responsibility on board ship was to look after his father’s motor-cycles, in particular a huge Harley Davidson that had been given to Hubbard by the Toronto org. One afternoon, the Commodore told Doreen [a scientology member] to make sure Arthur had cleaned the Harley Davidson properly by wiping a tissue over the mudguards and petrol tank and bringing it back to show him. She returned with a black smudge on the tissue. Hubbard was incensed. ‘You go and assign Arthur liability,’ he roared at Doreen, ‘he’s not doing his duty.’

Doreen was relieved that Arthur didn’t seem to be too worried by his father’s reaction, or by the need to tie a grey rag round his arm, but it was not the end of the matter. Mary Sue, who was fiercely protective of her children, felt it was Doreen’s fault that Arthur had been assigned liability. Later that afternoon, she grabbed her by the arm and starting shaking her. ‘You little fiend,’ she hissed, sinking her nails into the girl’s arm, ‘you’re destroying my family.’

Another:

A few months later, Diana [a daughter of Hubbard’s] upset her father in some way. Hubbard reeled off a long reprimand to the messenger on duty, adding at the end of it: ‘OK, go and spit in Diana’s face.’ The messenger was a little dark-eyed girl called Jill Goodman, thirteen years old. She ran along the deck to Diana’s office, burst in, spat in her face with unerring accuracy and began shouting her message as Diana let out a scream of fury. Mary Sue, who was in an adjoining office, burst in as her daughter was wiping the spittle from her face. She grabbed Jill round the throat as if she was going to strangle her and also began screeching. Jill started crying and when Mary Sue let her go, she immediately rushed off to tell the Commodore. Another acrimonious husband and wife row followed, which ended with Mary Sue throwing her shoes at the luckless messenger Hubbard despatched to chastise her further.

It is Mary Sue, following L. Ron Hubbard’s orders, who heads up the infamous Operation Snow White, an attempt by the church to eliminate any government account that might harm the church’s reputation by having scientologists take positions in government agencies, steal documents from various agencies, and destroy them.

Miller gives a good description of this project:

Now sixty-two, Hubbard was also beginning to ponder his place in posterity. The Church of Scientology had been swift to make use of the recently enacted Freedom of Information Act, which had revealed that government agencies held a daunting amount of material about Scientology and its founder in their files, much of it less than flattering. Hubbard, who had never been fettered by convention or strict observance of the law, conceived a simple, but startlingly audacious, plan to improve his own image and that of his church for the benefit of future generations of Scientologists. All that needed to be done, he decided, was to infiltrate the agencies concerned, steal the relevant files and either destroy or launder any damaging information they contained. To a man who had founded both a church and a private navy this was a perfectly feasible scheme. The operation was given the code name Snow White – two words that would figure ever more prominently over the next few months in the communications between the Guardian’s Office in Los Angeles and the Commodore’s hiding place in Queens, New York.

Operation Snow White, the impudent plan to launder public records that he had dreamed up three years earlier, was progressing rapidly and with a degree of success that few would have believed possible. By the beginning of 1975, the Guardian’s Office had infiltrated agents into the Internal Revenue Service, the US Coast Guard and the Drug Enforcement Agency. By May, Gerald Wolfe, a Scientologist working at the IRS in Washington as a clerk-typist, had stolen more than thirty thousand pages of documents relating to the Church of Scientology and the Hubbards. He was known to the Guardian’s Office by the code-name, ‘Silver’.

Within the hierarchy of the Church of Scientology, ultimate responsibility for the activities of Operation Snow White rested with Mary Sue Hubbard, the controller, but it was inconceivable that she was acting on her own initiative or not discussing progress with her husband. And although the amateur agents had discovered it was ridiculously easy to infiltrate, bug and burgle US government offices, the risks were considerable, both to the agents themselves and their church superiors. Hubbard was not too worried about who would take the rap if Operation Snow White was exposed, as long as it was not him.

Things eventually go wrong, with a number of these infiltrators arrested, and one of them, Michael Meisner, revealing the details of the operation, leading to an FBI raid on church offices, as well as the indictment and conviction of top church figures, including Mary Sue.

At six o’clock on the morning of 8 July 1977, 134 FBI agents armed with search warrants and sledgehammers, simultaneously broke into the offices of the Church of Scientology in Washington and Los Angeles and carted away 48,149 documents. They would reveal an astonishing espionage system which spanned the United States and penetrated some of the highest offices in the land.

On 15 August 1978, a federal grand jury in Washington indicted nine Scientologists on twenty-eight counts of conspiring to steam government documents, theft of government documents, burglarizing government offices, intercepting government communications, harbouring a fugitive, making false declarations before a grand jury and conspiring to obstruct justice. Heading the list of those indicted was Mary Sue Hubbard. She faced a maximum penalty, if convicted, of 175 years in prison and a fine of $40,000. On 29 August, all nine defendants were arraigned in the federal courthouse at the foot of Capitol Hill and pleaded not guilty.

Mary Sue never betrayed her husband, but then she had never intended to. The trial was scheduled for 24 September in Washington, but the government prosecutors and defence attorneys were still bargaining at that date and a stay was granted. On 8 October, in an unusual legal manoeuvre, an agreement was reached that the nine defendants would plead guilty to one count each if the government presented a written statement of its case, thereby avoiding a lengthy trial.

On 26 October, US District Judge Charles R. Richey accordingly found the nine Scientologists guilty on one count each of the indictment. Mary Sue and two others were fined the maximum of $10,000 and jailed for five years. The remaining defendants received similar fines and prison sentences of between one and four years.

Mary Sue would end up exiled from control of the church by its current head, a young upstart dynamo named David Miscavige, who is portrayed in Palms with equal vitriol as the Hubbards. Like Harry, he is Kreutzer’s son, but where Harry is an apostate, this boy is the true heir to the church. Palms does not give the current church leader the status of a man, but makes him into a petulant, sociopathic child. In his most disturbing scene, we see him in the moments before he kills a co-worker of Harry’s8:

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COTY
I just wanted to talk to you. You know, I made up all the stuff about Peter [another boy, working with the resistance group The Friends, who’s Harry’s real son] being here. This is a hard time for us. Exciting, but hard. I’m sure you know about, mom being in the hospital [Grace’s suicide attempt]. There’s lots of pressure on dad, too. “Windows”, [“Church Windows”, a program produced by the church of synthiotics] the new job. Everyone thinks he’s doing a great job, though. Just extra hard when the Friends tell him a bunch of stuff that isn’t true. You know what’s funny to think about? You love food so much! (COTY reaches for bag, and takes out a set of surgical tools.) But you’re never going to eat again. Not an egg, or a strawberry. Even a little baby pea. They’re gonna come in soon, talk to you about Peter. It won’t be so bad. They showed me how, but I’m a little nervous. I’m gonna do some cutting now, okay?

The Sea Org, the top tier of Scientology is well-known for dressing in naval uniforms, and this entity started out staffing the various ships of Hubbard’s which traveled the oceans. In the last two episodes, for no given reason, Coty and others suddenly start showing up in naval outfits, with Coty’s father witnessing a ceremony where his son is inducted into a position of high rank on one of Kreutzer’s yachts, The Floating World.

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We see Coty prominently filming the wedding of Kreutzer to Paige Katz; Miscavige started out in the scientology organization as a cameraman.

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From Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology:

[David] Miscavige was one of the many young disciples who formed a protective shield around Hubbard at his desert hideaway, “W.” Assigned first as a “traffic Messenger,” managing the flow of communications to and from Hubbard, he showed an interest in cinematography and ultimately became a member of the camera crew, working with the Commodore on his technical films.

Retiman’s book describes many of the details of the Miscavige character that show up in Coty; making this man’s fictional counterpart a child is a reference to his precociousness and intemperateness, but something else: his short stature.

[Daivd] Miscavige was born in Philadelphia in 1960 and grew up in a modest suburban home in Willingboro, New Jersey. His parents, Ronald Sr. and Loretta, a professional trumpet player and a nurse, were Catholics who raised their four children-Ronnie Jr., the oldest, followed by the twins David and Denise, and the younger sister, Laurie-to believe in Jesus and attend Mass at least somewhat regularly. Despite his Catholic faith, Ronald Sr. was drawn to Scientology, which he’d heard about from a business contact, and began to read some of Hubbard’s books, hoping it might help his younger son. A pint-sized, headstrong little boy, David was sickly, suffering from severe asthma and allergies.

Hubbard, who encouraged parents to look at their children as men and women whose bodies simply hadn’t attained full growth-“big thetans in little bodies,” as some parents said-had never established rules about when a child could or couldn’t be audited, go to work, or audit others. A precocious overachiever, David Miscavige learned to audit when he was twelve. By thirteen, he was counseling people two or three times his age and, some recalled, giving security checks to senior Scientology executives.

Now the self-appointed head of the All Clear Unit, Miscavige was twenty-one years old and, a highly aggressive and frequently belligerent young man, had come into his own. Though he could be supportive of those upon whose approval he depended, Miscavige was mistrustful of many others, with an “almost pathological” certainty, according to one former colleague, that he, of all the Messengers, was right. To some he seemed like a reflection of L. Ron Hubbard on his very worst days, cursing and barking orders at other Sea Org members, including some staffers much older than he, or screaming at those who disagreed with him. He chewed tobacco and in meetings would frequently make a show of spitting the juice into a cup. Brennan was appalled. “As I saw him, DM was like a highly impressionable spoiled child.”

After Hubbard’s death, Miscavige would be ruthlessly efficient at consolidating his power, exiling the rival force of Mary Sue Hubbard from the church.

In May 1981, [David] Miscavige visited Mary Sue in her Los Angeles office and told her that, as a convicted criminal, she could no longer be officially connected to the Church of Scientology. It would be “for the good of the church,” as well as for the good of her husband, if she resigned, he said. Furious, Mary Sue refused and, in one often-told account, became so enraged that she threw an ashtray at Miscavige’s head. But the twenty-one-year-old was intractable.

Numerous Scientology officials, particularly those loyal to David Miscavige, applauded his initiative. It was felt that Mary Sue Hubbard had blackened the name of the church; now it was only right that she be ostracized.

This conflict is reproduced in Palms with Coty worried that he will somehow be taken from power; the public revelation that Josie killed her own daughter, making her a liability for the church; and Coty giving one of Josie’s victims the opportunity to kill her.

JOSIE
Ahoy, captain! Well, don’t you look grand.

COTY
Deidre [Coty’s sister] been cooped up too long. It isn’t healthy.

JOSIE
Has she complained? I haven’t heard a word.

COTY
Grandma, what’s gonna happen after “Church Windows”? [the sitcom on which he’s been selected to star] You know when people get tired of watching?

JOSIE
They’ll never get tired.

COTY
Don’t lie to me. In a year, I could be history.

JOSIE
What’s gotten into you?

COTY
Are there other shows being developed?

JOSIE
Well, of course there are.

COTY
For me?

JOSIE
Yes! Don’t be silly!

COTY
Well, what are they?

JOSIE (flustered)
I don’t know darling, that’s the programmer’s domain.

COTY
I want the details. Now.

JOSIE
You’re acting like a child.

COTY grabs tanning mirror, then slaps JOSIE with mirror.

COTY
Don’t you ever say that to me. Don’t underestimate me. When you killed your daughter, your pulse never rose above normal. We’re alike in that way. But my crimes will be grander. I assure you. One day, I’ll put out the sun, and make bare every womb there ever was.

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COTY
There is a way to pay back the woman who did this to you. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Tully?

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The series ends with Coty screeching as the church headquarters falls about him in flames. In 1993, such an ending might have seemed a little premature. Now, finally: maybe not.

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FOOTNOTES

1 To give an idea of how much this series has fallen out of consciousness, even when a reference is made to the show, it goes unnoticed. For instance, when researching this, I came across the summary of a “How I Met You Mother” episode titled “Everything Must Go”. This is also the name of the first episode of Wild Palms, and it is a recurrent and important phrase in the show. This episode of “Mother” involves a plot detail of someone buying a painting with a frame by Anton Kreutzer, the same name of the senator of Palms, who is involved in framing, manipulating, media. One would think the possibility might be raised here that this is a small, elegant in-joke, but the compiler of the summary makes no mention of it – instead, mis-hearing the name as Anton Kreitzer (I am not a Mother aficionado, have not seen a single episode, but a transcript of this episode is definite that it is Kreutzer), and writing of a reference to an old Cheers episode.

2 Samples of his other work can be found at his web site. The frames of the comic used here I took from a sample of the first Palms strip, found at the William Gibson Message Board, in the thread focused on “Gibsonian” material.

3 The show’s title is shared with that of a well-known and reputable Faulkner novel (I have not read it – I sometimes fall into his work with ease, and sometimes I find his endless sentences brutal as triathalons). Wagner hints at his appreciation of the novel’s title in a brief moment in his Force Majeure, a book so scathing and cruel in its portrayal of Hollywood and Los Angeles life, where everyone is a thief, an opportunist, a plagiarist – all the gold rings are bronze, all the bronze is tarnished, all the rings are stolen off the fingers of the dead – that in a better world, it would disillusion a far wider audience. It was this book that Oliver Stone originally wanted to make into a TV series and, unsurprisingly, the television industrial complex demurred, prefering something a little less corrosive.

The moment is this, when Perry Bravo, a former convict who briefly becomes a cause célèbre, discovers the Faulkner on the shelves of the Force protagonist, Bud Wiggins:

He fingered The Wild Palms and said it was a title so beautiful he was going to use it himself.

4 I touch on it only briefly in the main text, to avoid getting bogged down, but the symbolism of the rhino is specific, explicit, and recurrent throughout the series. It is an important symbol, important to both factions, the Fathers and the Friends, but not an ambiguous one – both view it the same way, as an image of totemic significance. Both factions, however, see the rhino as marking themselves, and not the other as the saved. Harry has the dream of the rhino, but so does his son; this is significant to members of both factions, and marks both as figures of crucial importance to each. Each, however, views itself as something like the true church.

Kreutzer states what the rhino means to the series, in bold type, in the first episode, “Everything Must Go”:

KREUTZER
Harry do you know what the rhino is? It’s all that’s left of the unicorn. A magnificent atavism. The remnant of ecstatic myth, rough, nearly blind, utterly exquisite. I bet you think I’m a twee old bastard, don’t you?

Kreutzer’s other son, Coty, also has the dream of the rhino and this is of importance to Josie. Coty cannot reveal his dream, because this might reveal to others his great importance as an heir to the church:

COTY
I had the dream again last night…with the rhinoceros.

JOSIE
Tell anyone? (COTY nods no) Not even your dad? (COTY nods no again)

JOSIE
You’re not afraid, are you, darling monkey? If you’re afraid of the rhino, then the dream goes away. Then you’ll be like everybody else. And that’s the most terrible thing in the world.

Harry has a second dream, where he goes down to the kitchen for some milk, then sees a rhino. He runs back up to his bedroom, to wake his wife, but instead he finds Page Katz in his bed, marked with a Wild Palms tattoo. He turns her over, but she’s suddenly transformed into Kreutzer, who makes rhino noises. The dream is an omen: Harry will have an affair with Paige, he will join the Wild Palms group, and he will discover that Kreutzer is closer to him than he could possibly imagine – he is Paige’s lover, the father of his son, Coty, and his own father as well. Since the rhino marks one as someone of spiritual significance, he makes the noise of a rhino since he’s the leader of his church.

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

When Harry first meets the Friends, he hears that the Friend leadership have all had the dream of the rhino as well.

TULLY
Still having the visions, Harry?

GAVIN
The rhino’s key, Harry. We all saw the rhino.

STITCH
Not everyone sees the rhino.

When members of the Friends are killed, their bodies are marked with a rhino – a mocking note: if they are members of an elect, why weren’t they saved from death? Coty leaves his toy rhino on Gavin after he kills him, and a rhino is left with the body of the Friend doctor who extracts the Go chip from Harry’s hand.

Wild Palms

When Eileen, Gavin’s wife, visits Grace, to tell her of the circumstances of the death of her husband, Gavin:

Wild Palms

Wild Palms

EILEEN
Oh, hey I almost forgot. I brought you something. Here. (hands over toy rhinoceros)

GRACE
Where’d you find this?

EILEEN
Gavin had it in his pocket when they found him. I thought it belonged to one of the kids, and then I remembered the night we had dinner here, and Coty showed us his collection of sweet rhinoceri.

Tommy gives Harry a knife with a hilt made from rhino tusk. He’ll use it to perform his first heroic act, forcing a technician to broadcast his wife’s murder by her mother, the heroic act making clear that he is member of the elect.

Wild Palms

The series began with Kreutzer explaining that the rhino is the last earthly vestige of the unicorn, and as the series ends, Kreutzer speaks in his death scene of the unicorn again, as he gives his reason for transforming himself into a hologram. There is no place for the mystic, the mythic, in the world of crude substance, and so it must leave for another plane entirely.

Wild Palms

KREUTZER
Do you know what the unicorn does when it is surrounded by hunters? It sommersaults into the nearest abyss, breaking the fall with its horn!

5 It’s easy to find an example of this, I find one at “Baudrillard and Babes at the Consumer Electronics Show”, by Lydia DePillis:

A few feet away, a tall, slim guy named Jason Silva-a self-described “epiphany addict” and “techno-philosopher” – paced a stage freestyling on the amazingness of evolution and the Internet. Then he turned on a video of himself doing it even faster against a galactic backdrop, tossing out quotes from famous futurists as he built towards a climax. “Radical openness is huge!” Silva rhapsodized. “It’s a universe of possibility, it’s gray infused by color, it’s the invisible revealed, it’s the mundane blown away by awe! We need to cultivate radical openness as a way of participating in and celebrating evolution!”

6 There are many excellent actors in the cast, which includes Angie Dickinson, Ben Savage, David Warner, Brad Dourif, Dana Delaney, Ernie Hudson, Charles Hallahan, Rondi Reed, François Chau, and Kim Cattrall. The stand-out, for me, apart from Loggia, is Nick Mancuso who does a great job despite the crippling hindrance of not being able to show emotion through his eyes – they are veiled for much of the program by the dark glasses that provide him with artificial sight. Bebe Neuwirth, as always, is given neither enough screen-time or enough to do. Robert Morse gives off a strange, beautiful menace when he sings “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” that verges on greatness – he seems able to do so much, was asked to do too little, and now, he is no longer of this earth. James Belushi, who was beleaguered with slight notices for his work, is physically, the right choice, for he is Kreutzer’s son, and should carry the same traits of bulk and belligerence, of his father, but overshadowed by a passiveness, a disinterest, that he ultimately must overcome in order to attain the role of hero. What makes the work of Belushi and the others more difficult is that the writing is designed for momentum and exposition, so it feels as if the characters are seized by the plot, rather than animating it through their own initiative.

That Loggia gives the best performance here is not simply by virtue of his qualities as an actor, which are formidable, but that there is a complexity to this character that is lacking in the others. I have emphasised the strong similarities to the character of Hubbard, but there are two speeches that Kreutzer makes which distinguish him from this real-life figure, and make him more complicated, more sympathetic than a simple villain – however contemptible his actions might be.

The first, is a speech made right after he makes his hologram presentation where a samurai attacks him, and he meets Harry for the first time. He launches into the following speech, without prompting:

Wild Palms

KREUTZER
My father owned a little clothing store, downtown L.A. Did you know that, Harry? He started out a tailor. Oh yes, the jews were the only tailors. My father was murdered by the Friends. They broke into the shop, they stole his things. They defecated in his shop, and they beat this old man, this maker of…suits. They didn’t kill him. That came…months later. He stayed alive, long enough to have a fire sale. A fire sale. In an inferno. Can you imagine it, Harry? And I’ll never forget the sight of him: death, already in his eyes, slumped on a chair. Beneath a great, colorful banner: Everything must go.

A second insightful moment happens in the second to last episode of the series, “Hungry Ghosts”, during a conversation with Harry, the only other time Kreutzer speaks of his parents. There are many references to movies, music, and novels in this series, and this garden meeting between a father and son (though the son doesn’t know it yet), calls to mind the garden meeting of another father and son, Vito and Michael, in The Godfather:

Wild Palms

KREUTZER
Everybody’s hungry. Everybody’s a hungry ghost.

HARRY
What’d ya mean?

KREUTZER
It’s a buddhist thing. Like our hell. Hungry ghosts are souls. Doomed to wander the earth, tormented by an insatiable desire.

HARRY
Should I have that developed? Sounds like a channel three sitcom.

KREUTZER
(laughs) Play the ponies, Harry?

HARRY
Once in a while. I like the exactas.

KREUTZER
Santa Anita. Lovely track. They used it during the second world war. Called it an assembly center.

HARRY
For the camps?

KREUTZER
They moved them out from there. Heart Mountain. Manzanar. The people have forgotten all about that. Pearl Harbor changed everything. Oh, mama.

HARRY
Your mother was Japanese?

KREUTZER
Just a drop. But enough to satisfy executive order 9066. They sent her to Manzanar.

HARRY
I’m sorry.

KREUTZER
And he never took us to see her, once. Crazy drunk. All the time. “Mama was in the desert”, he said, “helping government agents bury children who were bad. So we’d better stay away.” She died a few weeks before the camps were liberated.

HARRY
And your father?

KREUTZER
Cirrhosis, thank god. I still think of him, wandering the earth, speaking in tongues. The original hungry ghost.

This is a man who is the son of persecuted americans, though they are not simple victims – his father neglected his mother at her time of greatest need, and Kreutzer, rightly or wrongly, damns him for this. Here we see a hint that Kreutzer does not wish power simply for power itself, but stemming from an early sense of vulnerability, of wanting the protection of great power. His mother was persecuted by the state, and his solution is not to reform the state to make it more just, but to simply take it over, and have it serve his ends. As said before, that these complexities exist does not make his actions any less contemptible; L. Ron Hubbard was a complex man as well, and that he felt want, that he suffered, does not prevent one from judging his deeds. For the curious, Hubbard’s father was an officer in the navy, often absent from the home, and his profession may have caused his son to equal this distant idol by inventing various seafaring heroics he was supposedly involved in, as well as the idea of the Sea Org. His mother worked as a clerk. His father was not jewish and did not die of cirrhosis. His mother was not part Japanese.

A final note: In this series that is peculiarly averse to difficult issues of race and ethnicity – though it was made a year after the L.A. riots, no reference is made to those things which provoked that historical moment, and not a single character ever breaks into spanish – Kreutzer’s heritage provides one small insight. As so many of the characters end up being related to him, by the close of the series it becomes clear that a great chunk of the cast that we’ve been watching is both part Jewish, and part Japanese; the mongrel nation that has been feared for so long has already arrived. A suitable epigraph of this point is the line said by a Japanese american character of the series, Hiro, before he commits suicide to avoid falling into enemy hands: “I come from a long line of tough bastards; my grandfather raided Dachau.”

7 There is an unexpected gender asymmetry in the quality of the villains; a defining trait of many soap operas is a great villainess, and even though I don’t watch soap operas, the names of the great ones are well known to all – Melrose Place‘s Amanda Woodward (Heather Locklear), Dynasty‘s Alexis Carrington (Joan Collins), All My Children‘s Erica Kane (Susan Lucci), etc. – they are women who act however they wish to achieve their own ends. One can understand the appeal of these characters in a world where so often women are shamed into restricted forms of behavior through social codes; these women have no shame, so they’ll act according to their own code to get what they want. Josie Ito should belong to this tradition, but she doesn’t. Because she has been conceived (in part, I think, because of the real-life figure she is based on) as acting solely in the service of her brother’s agenda, she lacks the appeal of being her own woman, acting for her own ends. Since neither her devotion to her brother, nor her faith are fully explored, she is simply, vividly, violently cruel – and the great female villains of this genre are more than simple sadists. Their appeal does not lie with their callousness, but because they are some of the few women characters to act according to their id, as so many men do, without restraint.

There is a separate and strange problem with the other major female character, Josie’s daughter, Grace. Her existence on the show is an unending nightmare, a series of the worst possibilities that can burden a woman: her husband starts cheating on her – despite the fact that she’s much better looking than her mate, she’s unable to keep him; her child turns out not to be her child; she commits herself to love him anyway, then she finds out that he’s a sociopathic murderer; her mother hates her; finally, her mother kills her. It is a life without salvation or relief, and what the intent here is, I’m uncertain. Perhaps an acerbic depiction of how nasty the lives of women on contemporary TV can be, in contrast to their TV husbands – Harry ends the series a hero with the girlfriend he cheated on Grace with. That there can be no possibility for anything like happiness for a good woman such as this in a soap opera, and that her best choice is to leave it, might be hinted at in an event that takes place after Grace’s death. An old lover, Hiro, who is much better looking than her husband, commits suicide, and pledges to join Grace in the afterlife; a woman like Grace can have a happiness and the companionship of a kind, good-looking man, but she needs to exit television life to have it.

8 Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear goes in detail into David Miscavige’s own strange and violent behavior that might have inspired this character. The Ron and Loretta in this section are David Miscavige’s parents:

The following year, in June, Ron and Loretta had to return to the United States for a couple of weeks. They needed someone to take care of David while they and the other children were gone. There was another American studying at Saint Hill, Ervin Scott, whose wife was also afflicted with asthma. His memory is that he agreed to let the boy stay with him. He recalls that in the first encounter David’s parents, along with his twin sister, met with him before they left. Scott immediately liked the family. The father was “wonderful and bright,” the mother was “very beautiful, with high affinity,” and the daughter was “the cutest thing.” David, however, sat at the end of the couch, unsmiling, with his arms crossed. The family wanted to make sure that Scott knew what to do in case of an intense asthma attack. “They said, ‘We have to warn you about Dave,’ ” Scott recalled. “ ‘David has episodes, very unusual episodes.’ ” The parents explained that Dave became extremely angry when he was suffering an asthma seizure. “Then they said, starting with the husband, ‘When these episodes occur, do not touch him!’ The mother reiterated, ‘Yes, please don’t touch him!’ I said, ‘What happens?’ They said, ‘David gets very, very violent, and he beats the hell out of you if you touch him.’ And the sister says, ‘Oh my God, he does beat you, really hard!’ ” Again and again, the family members emphasized that David had beaten them during an attack.

An anecdote about Miscavige’s brutal treatment of another church member during an auditing session:

In August, Scott was sitting out in the yard across from the castle and the auditing rooms on the Saint Hill grounds. He was talking to a friend of his, a Norwegian nurse. Suddenly they heard a young woman wailing. Scott remembers looking up and seeing David, his face red and the veins visible in his forehead. He had a preclear folder under his arm. Behind him was the crying girl, who was holding her side in apparent pain. According to Scott the nurse exclaimed, “He beat up his PC!”

Karen de la Carriere was also a young intern at Saint Hill, and she was directed to join the others in the internship room. “They told us that David Miscavige had struck his PC,” she recalled. “He had been removed from his internship, and we were not to rumor-monger or gossip about it. We were supposed to just bury it.”

The Brennan who relates this anecdote of violence is Larry Brennan, who was at the time on the church’s watchdog committee:

Gold Base was the only place deemed secure enough for Brennan to send his dispatches. Brennan says that in late 1982 he witnessed Miscavige abusing three Scientology executives who had made some small error. The three offenders were lined up before their leader. According to Brennan, he punched the first one in the mouth. The next he slapped hard in the face. He choked the third executive so hard that Brennan thought the man would black out. No explanation was offered.

(A few aesthetic changes have been made since publication, and some material has been added. No part of the essence of the analysis made, however, has been altered in any way. Footnote 8 was added on November 28th, 2013.)

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