‘Nice guys finish last’. In popular parlance, few phrases prove more difficult to refute than this one. How many of us work in large organisations and companies where the most grasping, mediocre and power hungry co-workers appear to get ahead, whilst the honest among us languish in our cubicles? Hence the expression and the confusion when one suggests that the most virtuous do, in fact, prevail in the long run.
We can look no further than the popular TV show 24 to see the fall of a corrupt soul in the character of Sherry Palmer, played with aplomb by Penny Johnson Jerald. For those unfamiliar with the show, Palmer appeared in the first three seasons, first as wife of presidential hopeful David Palmer. In the first season, Sherry was David’s campaign manager who, from the first time we see her on screen, appears to have some other motive than the successful election of her husband. As the season wore on, her true colours manifested themselves in her casual flouting of the integrity that David possessed. She manipulated reporters, covered up scandals and even attempted to get a staffer to sleep with her husband. At the end of the season, David cast her out of his life and threw her off the campaign.
In season 2, David Palmer is President and faces a nuclear threat to the United States. Sherry reappears and offers to help him find out who may be trying to undermine his presidency. As in season 1, Sherry still has the same motives, but once again appears to want only the best for her ex-husband. Even though Johnson Jerald is relegated to half the episodes in the season, one feels her presence throughout. As it turns out, her conniving and conspiring form the central plot element in the season. Her narrow escape in the final episode of the season proves breathtaking. One has to watch it to believe it. In other words, how in the hell did Sherry make it out alive again?
In season 3, President David Palmer is facing a major biological threat to America, all the while campaigning for re-election. When a scandal erupts surrounding a major campaign contributor and his brother Wayne - who is also his campaign manager - David calls upon Sherry to help him sort out the mess. In so doing, Sherry sinks the lowest she possibly can to ‘solve’ David’s problems, thereby corrupting his presidency and sealing her fate once and for all.
I consider Sherry Palmer a prime example in contemporary popular art of both a political and philosophical villain. Let’s first examine the former. Sherry’s primary concern is the acquisition of power - power at any cost and regardless of whom she tramples in the process. Does she seek power in order to help her husband best serve the American people? No. As she makes clear from the outset in season 1, she wants power over others, as evidenced by the energy she expends seeking to destroy others. Sherry Palmer is, in fact, the perfect fictional example of the modern politician in America today. She neither seeks to safeguard the individual rights of Americans nor even knows what rights are.
Sherry Palmer shows her philosophical colours throughout the three seasons in which she appears. Whereas David sticks to his principles, Sherry considers David’s ideas naïve. Everything is grey and complicated to Sherry. Everything is matter of opinion and, in her unprincipled mind, this means the sky’s the limit as far as her personal corrupt ambitions go.
Now, 24 is an action thriller and as such spends little time on deep philosophical issues. Were it to do so it would lose the excitement of watching Jack Bauer defeat terrorist enemies. Nevertheless it does present ideas succinctly and within the context of the plot structure. Sherry Palmer, in all her grey pragmatism and political expediency, is a villain and therefore the show expresses its view of those ideas implicitly. That is enough for me.
To return to the initial premise of this article, dramas like 24 show that power hungry villains do get their comeuppance and the virtuous do prevail. In daily life we may see our co-workers get away with petty indiscretions and power plays, but over time, eventually, these same corrupt souls do lose. We may not see them fall as dramatically as we do in pulse pounding action thrillers, but they do burn out, one way or another. A million little Sherry Palmers ultimately take two proverbial bullets to the chest.