When I look back on my own life, I think I knew by the age of ten that one should not strangle old ladies in their beds.
Now in its fifth season, Amazon’s Bosch offers a rich view of what it is like to seek justice in corrupt times. Brought to life by Michael Connelly in a series of novels started in 1992, the series follows Los Angeles Police Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, played by a superb Titus Welliver.
Bosch is a driven man on a mission to catch killers. While there is no crime or criminal that Harry has to face which would have been unknown to Philip Marlowe, surely the most famous detective ever to face the glamorous wickedness of Los Angeles, things have changed since Raymond Chandler wrote. L.A. is now the second largest city in America and one of the most important, so wealthy that it’s a major piece in our globalized economy, and obviously plays an outsized role in entertainment around the world.
Chandler suggested that Marlowe was a knight in The Big Sleep—accordingly, Marlowe favors the political game par excellence—chess, but he plays it alone. Bosch prefers a more existential form of solitude. He stares at the city at night from his cliff-hanger home in the Hollywood Hills, a few miles from Hollywood Station, his professional home since getting himself kicked off the department’s elite Robbery-Homicide Division by Internal Affairs some time before the show opens. That house, a luxury bought with money from consulting on a TV show about a serial killer case he’d worked, is a sign of the things success makes possible in L.A. The secret longings of his heart only find expression in jazz, which combines excellence with an all-American origin. Like his beloved Art Pepper, Bosch came from nothing and achieved some prominence in California. Once upon a time, in mid-century America, jazz was popular—just like the manly virtues Bosch has to offer were.
Bosch embodies an older America he did not inherit, being a bastard and a whore’s orphan. His lowly beginnings contrast with his superior virtues, which mock Marlowe’s. Bosch is a veteran, like Marlowe, so they are morally comparable. But Bosch is part of the new America of the volunteer army, having served in the Special Forces. As such, he brings distinctly martial virtues to his job, and not the old citizen-soldierly patriotism of World War II, when the sons of the rich and poor served together. In Bosch’s L.A., the rich have only one thing in common with the poor—mortality. It takes a man of extremes like Bosch to face this new un-American situation and all he can offer the city is a little justice.
Bosch does have a daughter, Maddie, whom he loves and occasionally finds the time to care for. His failure as a husband wouldn’t damn him to be a bad father if L.A. didn’t make so many demands on him. However, he would need a wife who actually wanted to raise kids. Here, the show breaks with Progressive ideology. Maddie’s mother Eleanor is a professional gambler and former FBI profiler: She loves risk and danger, which is all-American manliness! She wants back in the FBI as soon as her daughter turns 18. Of course, the FBI deals with dangerous business, and her risk-taking eventually gets her killed in the fourth season.
Eleanor is but one example of how restless women find trouble on Bosch. Not only does the show suggest women cannot have it all—most of the women it depicts have little besides their careers and their husbands’ money from the divorce. With a couple exceptions, they lack the men’s political and martial virtues. This view of women is an inheritance from the tragic character of Chandler’s detective stories. So Bosch’s dead mother, whom he wants to avenge, represents a collapsed family. Justice requires he become the kind of man who would have saved his mother—but this comes at the unexpected, undeserved price of his wife’s death, which makes his daughter, like himself, an orphan.
Divorce is both typical and symbolic in the story. Take Bosch’s boss, Irvin Irving—played by the redoubtable Lance Reddick, who played a similarly classy, manly, and canny police officer in The Wire. He loses his wife early in the series when his son, also a cop, gets murdered by the corrupt cops he was investigating. In season 3, Bosch’s very intelligent partner, Jerry Edgar (portrayed by the talented Jamie Hector, a fellow Wire alumnus) gets shot on the job, and his wife reacts by divorcing him when it becomes clear he intends to return to work. She acquires considerable comfort by abandoning the suffering and trust required for love. Individualism triumphs. However, each character also recognizes his own tragedy in the wound he suffers because of love. The men carry on as Stoic servants in the capital of liberalism, their scars the primary reminder of what they protect and serve.
Family, with the division between men and women, public life and private life, is the deep, concealed problem in the story. We cannot talk about it in liberal-Progressive terms of radical individualism—we can only see what it actually means to people to lose what they love. Likewise, justice is almost impossible to talk about, but inescapable as problem. One looks at Bosch’s life and times and sees the typical corruption of a big city concealed behind the pieties of Progress. For all the sacrifices police make in private life, there is no dignity to be found in public life. One-party rule in California assures that corruption cannot be exposed, so wicked men must usually be obeyed or avoided, with few opportunities to destroy the arrogant and spare the weak, which is the political duty men like Bosch assume.
This is why Bosch revolves around Hollywood Station—a division of little importance, where the work of enforcing the law has little honor, much less glory. The only politics are office politics (in the LAPD’s language, “high jingo”) which are in turn beholden to the corruption of the city. This humiliation is the constant price noble men like Bosch, Irving, and Edgar must pay, in their different ways, in order to do their jobs. Since it is not possible to simply equate justice with following the law, these men take divergent paths that sometimes put them at odds with one another. After they sacrifice their private lives, they cannot even count on friendship, even political friendship—the association of allies in a cause. They have different skills, different ambitions, and too few reasons to trust one another.
Harry and his colleagues stand alone, and the only friends in this story are the guilty—whether cops, former servicemen, or criminals, they alone have enough privacy and enough in common by way of experience and purpose to act together. Of course, injustice exacts a price as well, and season after season, these conspiracies themselves fail under the pressure of Bosch’s investigations. But success doesn’t lead where it should. The job has to be its own reward and justice is finally reduced to what we know or fear to be true: Punishment.
Bosch displays the radicalization of individualism—loneliness as the natural state of man, orphanhood as the symbol of the future. Organization of an impersonal character dominates instead: Los Angeles politics tends to corrupts everything and everyone, including the police. Arrogance abounds in the circles of the powerful, and only Bosch reminds them, they, too, are replaceable.
Violent crime is rare in modern America, but it hurts the poor most and exposes our class separation, mocking claims to equal protection of the laws. Institutional failure to secure a common good leads to rampant individualism. People seem to drift involuntarily, colliding or passing each other by according to chance.
The madman called the Koreatown Killer is the show’s longest-running example of this unnerving possibility: Random evil, killing with impunity, avoiding any logic of tit for tat, action and consequence, crime and punishment. The killer is not caught but eventually disposed of in a car accident. Chance is indifferent to nobility in Bosch and we’re never far from nihilism, for in a world where stoicism is all that remains, courageous choosing is usually overrun by chance.
The corrupt believes the statement of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic: Justice is the advantage of the stronger. This is what freedom looks like now in sunny California and only a Stoic like Bosch can make a difference. His manliness and a sense of duty combine with the absence of faith to make him serve those who need him without hoping for a just order. It’s always a rearguard action, delaying the inevitable triumph of chaos.