Beyond the Western: Malcolm Gladwell on the Four Categories of Law and Order Art

Published: Aug 9, 2022

The following is an excerpt from JRE #1383 - Malcolm Gladwell.

Joe: … they seek comfort in this movie where, you know, it’s going to work out in the end. It’s going to. It’s not like in the end a fucking meteor is going to land on the building and kill everybody. And the screen is going to splatter with blood. Because, you know, their bodies explode. You’re not going to see that in this movie, everything is going to work out great.

Malcolm: It’s just like, I have that feeling about Law & Order. In fact, I have no idea why anyone would ever watch that show. One of my secret goals in life is at some point, I would like to be appointed executive producer of Law & Order and I want to do ones that completely subvert the franchise. Everyone knows exactly how every one of those shows is always going to turn out. And I want to get to minute 47. And just go on some savage U-turn that just appalls and outrages. And then I’ll be done. I’m quitting … I would just gently push Dick Wolf aside and say, let me have this one and we’re going to like, completely, you know, the villain will actually be one of the prosecutors. That’s what we’ll do or something right along those lines.

Joe: … and every episode ends like know, oh, No Country for Old Men style. When it’s over you’re like what the fuck? But there’s something, there’s a drug in those where they’re comforting, that people know that the bad guy is going to get caught.

Malcolm: … this is a random thought, but I don’t know any men who watch them and I’m coming to the belief that they’re actually for women. They’re a very comforting kind of reassuring fantasy about how the world works … this is an incredibly complicated theory that I developed once about these kinds of things.

So, we all know what a Western is. A Western is a world in which there is no law and order. And a man shows up and imposes, personally, law and order on the territory, the community, right?

So, there’s also an Eastern. What is an Eastern? An Eastern is, by contrast, a story where they’re like, well let me get this straight, there’s four types. The Eastern is where there is law and order, so there are institutions of justice, but they’ve been subverted by people from within … Serpico is an Eastern. It’s a crooked cop, who is, it’s the bad apple, who has, you know, screwed up. Tons and tons of Hollywood movies are Easterns.

The Northern is the case where law and order exists, and law and order is morally righteous. The system works. The show, Law & Order, is a Northern. It’s a functioning apparatus of justice, which reliably and accurately produces the correct result in confronting criminality, every single day when it’s on TV.

The Southern is where … all John Grisham novels are Southerns. They are where the entire apparatus is corrupt, and where the reformer is not an insider, but an outsider. So, in every John Grisham novel they all proceed from the same premise, which is: the system is rotten to the core and only this white knight who comes in from the outside can save us.

In the Western, there’s no system.

In the Northern, there’s a system and it’s fantastic.

In the Eastern, the system is reformed from within.

In the Southern, the system has to be reformed from the outside.

That’s my complicated theory … so I feel like you can place all art about law and order, about the criminal world, criminal justice, into one of these four categories.

So, the Brits love the Northern. So, what are, you know, all of the famous British Detective stories … Sherlock Holmes is a Northern. There’s no corruption in the police department. They may be bumbling, and Charles got to help them out. But there’s never a case where there’s a rotten cop who’s selling out every …

Joe: Is there a modern version of the Western? Because Westerns all seemed to take place between the time of like 1500/1600 and 1880 …

Malcolm: So, there is. Do you read the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child?

Joe: No, but I watched one of the movies.

Malcolm: Yeah, those are Westerns. The whole thing about a Western is, can you find the police? Can you find the police officer? You know, I challenge you to find a police officer in a Lee Child novel. They’re nowhere to be found. Reacher is a hero, a retired army investigator. He’s not even in the Army anymore and he’s just roaming around the country, solving crimes, on his own. He’ll confront some massive criminal conspiracy and he never calls the cops, right? That’s the whole premise. That’s so Western. You can’t call the cops in the classic Western because there’s no cops to be found. Right, you’re in Montana, or on the border, etc. Reacher is a 21st century Western. So, he doesn’t call the cops because he doesn’t feel like it. Like, they never appear, and he just murders everyone out on his own and then he gets on the train and goes to the next place. They’re amazing. I love them so much …