Friday, September 21, 2012

Drawing Richard Harrow

Jack Huston as Richard Harrow (photo via DeviceFX:    

When viewers of Boardwalk Empire are introduced to Richard Harrow, the first thing we notice about him is that he looks lonely and sad. He’s sitting alone, in front of a window in a veterans’ hospital, and when he turns toward us, we see that half his face has been burned off (and permanently, irreparably damaged).

Ah, here’s my person on this show, I thought.

Many popular current TV dramas (Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy, and yes, Boardwalk Empire) feel Middlemarch-y (these four, especially, could be released in a special edition box set called “AMC, FX, and HBO proudly present....Daddy Issues”--it’d have to be a large box). These shows recreate a historical context and conflict, onto which they project personal stories and power struggles.

Boardwalk Empire
is the Middlemarchiest of the bunch, with overlapping narratives about law, crime, love, and family. Until I find my person in these shows (Tyrion Lannister and Arya Stark, I'm looking at you), I’m not fully emotionally invested. Favorite characters provide an anchor in these heavy, often-bloody, multi-volume shows.

Enter Richard Harrow (superbly played by Jack Huston).

Though we initially see his damaged face, throughout the rest of the episodes, we usually see Richard in his tin mask. It’s a Phantom of the Opera-style mask (painted and sculpted, in almost perfect detail, to match the other side of his face). A half mannequin mask, unblinking.

I watched episodes for him, for others’ reactions to him. Usually, horror, which would give way to tolerance and pity. From children, fear.

It’s hard to look at the broken one. The one who returns from war distorted, whose pain flows from not being known or understood. The elephant man. The phantom.
photo via

Why is it that we, as artists, are often most drawn to these outcasts? Even in the world of Boardwalk Empire, an artist befriends Richard. Angela, the wife of Richard’s partner in crime, is a painter. In one scene, she sketches him while tells her about his beloved twin sister, who now feels like a stranger to him after the war. He takes his mask off while she draws.

I keep waiting for someone to tell Richard Harrow that he is ok, even though his face is not the same as it used to be. When people are kind to him in the show, they apologize for judging his appearance, and praise him for his sacrifice. What I want someone to say to him is, “A horrible thing happened to you, but you are not ruined. You will never heal, but you can still grow.” (As I type this, I realize that this line, almost verbatim, is at the heart of that movie about making movies, Super 8.)

In an interview with Drunken Boat, the poet Kay Ryan once said, “What we have to take care of, really protect, is something very unshaped, that we hardly even know. A lot of the job that one has to do as a writer is to protect the thing that doesn’t match the world.” Here, she was referencing the creative impulse within ourselves, recommending that we shelter and shield our urge to create.

I can’t help but also read Ryan’s words as a call for artists to protect and practice empathy. As artists (or just as humans?), we have all felt outcast, broken, disfigured. I feel that part of our responsibility, as artists, is to care for those who are in pain. This is not always (or even mostly) literal. It’s easy to forget this, but anytime we are driven to make something, we are creating for someone else. Regardless of what we are making, we are putting new words and ideas into the world, where they can be found by someone who needs them.

A common trait I’ve noticed in artists is the longing for connection, and the desire to hold onto that connection. It’s not that art is therapy for the artist (though it can be therapeutic to create). We’re acknowledging what hurts and what feels good. We aren’t making masks. We’re making hospitals. We’re making windows.


  1. The timing of this surprising essay for me could not have been better. Just yesterday evening, I made the costly mistake of researching the people involved in my favorite TV show So You Think You Can Dance and came upon Jack Huston's name in romantic association with host Cat Deeley. Turns out Mr. Huston is not only the grandson of legendary film director John Huston, not-so-affectionately nicknamed "The Monster" in Hollywood circles (he was a devotee of Marquis de Sade and once said his favorite aspect of directing was "the sadism"), but he is also a direct descendent of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the "king of the world," another sort of monster, responsible for such horrors as the Federal Reserve, World War I (where Harrow was injured) and the Holocaust. Talk about Daddy issues! And once again I was confronted, having run into this sort of unholy alliance every time I look behind the masks and grease paint of our entertainment icons (see Why No Movies on Actor's Lives as an example). Why does it have to be this way, these kind of damaged and controllable people as the heros for our culture to fantasize around? Why, as artists, must we calibrate, sanctify and commodify the work of the devil to be lifted from our personal sphere? Losing one's love for the power of art seems so synonomous with turning professional that we writers have to live in the past to try to speak for the future, and the closer we get to seeing the future, the further back we have to go. I suppose and suspect it's a common feeling among artists, who intuit better than most how neatly the roads are marked and sealed off. And yes, the artists are also the most complicit, because the most damaged, that's where the gift comes from , that's why we bother "to protect the thing that doesn't match the world."

    I apologize for this epic rant - it just happens - hopefully you won't kick me off your site as others have done. I struggle with my own tendency to speak the unprocessed truth, not always realizing that this is a weakness created by stress (internal and external). There's a subtle balance required, that comes from the strength to fully embrace both the hospitals and the windows in your marvelous phrase (Aka taking a look at your own shit).

    I deeply second your call for compassion. You practice it like a saint, Hannah, and it has had more of an effect on others than you could know, because, after all, love doesn't need a whole lot of help to do its work.

    Thanks I feel better.

  2. I share your need for a character to care about, or even identify with. For lack of that, Mad Men is the only one of these shows I watch, and even there it's slim picking. Maybe Peggy or Big Red. Maybe Don Draper in his rare sensitive moments. The rest . . . sorry. But the story lines and sense of period piece keep me watching.

  3. Bill,

    You have a bunch of interesting thoughts here! No, I won't kick you off :). I love SYTYCD, and didn't know about Cat Deeley and Huston--power couple!

    I do have to say that I would not agree with you that Rothschild is responsible for the Holocaust (though I'm not familiar with him). Let's not speak of that here.

    We all have tragedy and atrocity in our heritage. As you say, the call for compassion is where we can focus. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. John/Banjo, Mad Men is so very good (and painful, isn't it??). Characters are so horrible to one another sometimes...

    I was really hooked on Lane's storyline last season....

    That show doesn't feel as Middlemarchy as Boardwalk Empire....maybe it's because while politics (lowercase-p) are important in Mad Men, capital-P Politics are important in Boardwalk (and the perspective is much more slippery).

  5. Re: Politics, let me mention also Boss (Kelsey G. as Chicago mayor) and, more internationally, Homeland. In Boss the "slippery perspective" is again a grim choice among the least of many evils. To me, Homeland is the richest and slipperiest of the shows. But if we say there are four main characters, the lead vet-might-be-spy-guy, his KNOCKOUT wife (sorry, was that unprofessional? was that less than clinical scholarship?), Claire Danes, and Mandy Potemkin, each has a legitimate claim for our sympathy and our criticism. Ditto that for nations, cultures, governments. If I ever take time to think it through, I'll probably say it's the best, richest, most complex-but-honest, gripping TV viewing experience I've ever had.

    Oh my, that's too much to simply donate to you, Hannah. Sorry, I'm gonna put that at my place too. Thanks for the prompt.

  6. You should DEFINITELY write something about your feelings on the show!


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