By Jonathan Alexander
SINCE 9/11, several SF television series, from the one-season Threshold (2005-6) to the more recent Continuum (2012-present) have grappled with the specter of terrorism. Many, like Threshold and Continuum, play out hyperbolic scenarios of terrorist infiltration and attack, variously alien or from the future, to speculate on governmental and individual responses to terror. At their worst, such series offer us terror as spectacle, with all the perverse thrills of mass destruction. At their best moments, they become gripping meditations on the ethics of our various responses to terror. What price security? What sacrifices of freedom, individually and collectively, are we willing to tolerate to feel secure? And, most provocatively, what critiques lie latent or ignored in terror attacks—critiques that, had we paid sufficient attention to them, might not have become manifest so destructively?
Currently available on Netflix, Jericho is one such series that deserves another look. Running for two seasons (September 20, 2006 through March 25, 2008), Jericho is a frequently powerful drama about a small town in Kansas trying to survive in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack on the US that nukes 23 major American cities, including nearby Denver. What’s perhaps most interesting about Jericho is how much narrative force comes from not knowing who the “enemy” is. Islamic terrorists? The Chinese? Homegrown traitors? Midway through the first season, the Chinese make a food drop, with notes saying “Do Not Fight”—but this seems a red herring. And we eventually learn it is.
But who are the terrorists? Jericho plays a teasing version of hide-and-seek here. A whole subplot revolves around the character Hawkins, an FBI agent in hiding who relocated with his estranged family to Jericho just days before the bombs detonate. His background and intentions are shrouded in mystery. Indeed, for much of Jericho we don’t know what’s happening, with Hawkins particularly or the situation more generally. More curiously, we are also asked to identify with, or at least sympathize with, the plight of Hawkins, whom we are led at times to believe might actually be one of the terrorists, now trying to protect his family in the aftermath chaos. The confusion of identification is a striking aspect of many of these terrorist-themed, post-apocalyptic shows. Whom, ultimately, can we trust? Such questioning certainly builds narrative interest, but it also gestures toward conspiracy theories and plays to a sense shared by many viewers that we never really have the full picture—on the show or in real life—when it comes to global politics. The most we learn in Jericho’s first season comes late in the plot development: apparently “cells” set off the bombs in a coordinated attack to “change the world.” But who controls these cells, and to what purpose?
Jericho started airing in 2006, shortly before the economic collapse and right at the height of the Iraq war, which increasingly seemed run by—and for the economic benefit of—corporations. The plot of the show interestingly follows suit. An entire background story slowly emerges about one of the main characters, Jake, a badboy played by Skeet Ulrich, who gets stuck in Jericho after the attacks and eventually turns from punk and prodigal son to hometown hero. We learn that he had been a mercenary with shady dealings in Afghanistan, including arms running and association with a Blackwater-style company named Ravenwood (in a nice play on words). This background steadily becomes important, particularly as the town has to deal with Ravenwood, which has gone rogue as a gang of mercenaries (in the absence of government employers) to collect and control increasingly scarce resources. Jake’s association with Ravenwood is a sore spot, one he seems to spend much airtime regretting and trying to make up for.
Seemingly in contrast to this comment on government and corporate complicity, much of the first season is taken up with a kind of romance of the small town, whose isolation is its primary saving grace as it’s largely out of the way of most mercenary and predatory interests. The townsfolk use their relative safety to try to keep American traditions alive, such as celebrating holidays and hosting communal picnics. But those traditions keep running into their own economic issues. There’s a whole subplot about the local supermarket and the management and distribution of increasingly scarce resources. Who, or what, should control such management and distribution? What’s “fair,” particularly at a time of scarcity? The fight for mayor–between the salt mine company-owning Gray, who wants to take a hardline on crime as well as who’s in and who’s out of the community, versus the recently ousted patriarch Johnston Green, who seems to want more “state” control over the distribution of resources but who also talks a lot about democracy–seem to reference different approaches to economic policy (not to mention immigration) in the mid-2000s. Gray’s insistence on giving away all the available food seems to map onto Bush’s tax cuts and refunds and the conservative desire to deregulate more broadly: spread the wealth so it can trickle down. Johnston’s more city-controlled policies of food distribution harken back to Clinton’s sometimes austere fiscal management while maintaining more liberal policies of state support and social welfare. In the penultimate episode of the first season, the townsfolk make deals with the supermarket folks and the mercenaries to protect the town and its resources, primarily farmlands. At times of resource uncertainty, odd compromises must be made. It’s hard not to read such a plot as referencing the “compromises” made in the early 2000s: we went to war to protect our interests, but whose interests, ultimately? And at what cost ethically?
The second season heats up considerably as Jericho becomes part of the new emerging regime, the Allied States of America. We quickly learn that the ASA has been set up by the orchestrators of the terrorist attack, who blamed (and then nuked) North Korea and Iran for the attacks. They’re re-writing history (literally, through new textbooks) to cast the former US as weak, lacking military force of will. We also see Ravenwood, now backed by the ASA, assume policing responsibility for Jericho. In a likely reference to Haliburton, Ravenwood is owned by Jennings and Rall, the company that serves as the bureaucratic arm of the ASA. Interestingly, it’s worth noting that this season started airing in 2008, toward the beginning of the financial crisis, and, curiously, in that season we steadily see more focus on corporations and government complicity at the expense of democratic process and protection of civil liberties. One of the farmers, for instance, is maneuvered into signing a really bad mortgage contract that essentially indentures him to Jennings & Rall. Indeed, we slowly learn that J&R are behind everything, having created a plan in 1993 for the government to prepare for a disastrous attack—a plan that becomes the basis for an attack. The company IS the government. The government IS the company.
In some strange twists in the last episodes, we discover that “John Smith,” who’s been giving Hawkins information, has apparently set off the original 23 bombs in protest of corporate abuses. He wants to detonate the remaining bomb in the ASA capital Cheyenne to destroy the new government, which is completely “corrupt” as a government set up by J&R to further its corporate interests. He seems, though, like a psychopath, and we are not sure as viewers how to read his extraordinarily brief appearance in the second season. It almost feels as though the series is backing away from strident anti-corporate critique to blame the whole apocalypse on one lone nut. The series ends with two major characters, Jake and Hawkins, making their way to the Republic of Texas, which will apparently join forces with the former USA (headquartered in Ohio) against the ASA corporatists. There is a comic that propels the story into a “third season,” but you’ll have to check that out on your own. As is on TV, the story seems to end with the possibility that J&R and the ASA will eventually be brought down.
Jericho ultimately seems to play up some good old-fashioned American patriotism in its final episodes, simplifying its earlier narratives of and comments on the politics of economics. Nonetheless, it’s still striking as a show that steadily blends, in just two seasons, concerns with corporate-investment in the Iraq War with more general fears that the government is fully a corporate state. It’s hardly perfect in its latent critiques, and what’s not in the show is also odd. Most notably, racial and religious conflicts are pretty much absent, although it’s clear that Jericho is a pretty white town, with the only visible black family (Hawkins’) one full of deceptions and secrets, and an Indian doctor who turns out to be a drunkard. A more complex and compelling examination of government complicity with corporate greed might have woven in how frequently such complicity relies on religious rhetoric and racial bigotry. But not in this small town. Still, Jericho satisfies for the questions it raises and the buttons it pushes about the interconnectedness of politics and economics. Absolutely worth another look.