Harry Potter advocates the death penalty

Bellatrix Lestrange

Helena Bonham Carter does "Psycho Bitch" so well

Some criminals are so bad that the only punishment for them is death. At least, this is the view seemingly endorsed by the Harry Potter universe – which is otherwise pretty liberal in its worldview.

Bellatrix Lestrange is locked up in Azkaban, the most fearsome of all wizard prisons, for her role in torturing Neville Longbottom’s parents Frank and Alice (presumably she committed a bunch of other crimes during Voldemort’s first reign of terror, too). Several years later, turncoat Dementors break Bellatrix out of Azkaban; when she escapes, she’s still loyal to Voldemort, and still determined to bring down the wizard/Muggle status quo.

So basically, her time in prison hasn’t rehabilited her even a bit. It hasn’t deterred her from committing future crimes. Nor has it ultimately deprived her of anything: she comes out of Azkaban and instantly resumes her magical power and position at Voldemort’s right hand. Bellatrix demonstrates the failure of incarceration as a means of punishment. The only way for society to deal with criminals of this nature, then, is to execute them, and Molly Weasley comes Bellatrix’s executioner during the Battle of Hogwarts.

And, of course, there’s Voldemort himself. Through the series Harry knows that at some point he’ll have to defeat Voldemort – and it’s made clear, first implicitly and later explicitly, that “defeat” actually means “kill”. It’s not like Voldemort can be locked up in a tower for the rest of his life, Grindelwald-style (though Deathly Hallows hints that Grindelwald eventually felt remorse for his crimes, suggesting rehabilitation does work in some circumstances). The only punishment suitable for the Dark Lord is death, and while Harry technically doesn’t kill Voldemort, Voldemort does end up dead.


Sideshow Bob started off as a good guy (kind of)

Along with other recurring characters like Mr Burns, Fat Tony, and Jimbo, Kearney and Dolph, Sideshow Bob is one of The Simpsons‘ long-standing villains. If asked to define Robert Underdunk Terwilliger’s primary motivation in a sentence, most Simpsons fans would probably say “to kill Bart Simpson”.

But till I recently re-watched the season one episode ‘Krusty Gets Busted’ I’d forgotten that Bob wasn’t always motivated by mere homodical rage. And nor did Bob only frame Krusty the Klown in that instalment because he was sick of being the butt of Krusty’s jokes (though he admits this was an important factor:

“Yes, I admit it, I hated him,” Bob confesses as Chief Wiggum leads him away in cuffs. “His hackney shennanigans robbed me of my dignity for years. I played the buffoon, while he squandered a fortune on his vulgar appitites. That’s why I framed Krusty.”)

But interestingly, Bob also sought to get rid of Krusty because he was sick of the clown dumbing-down his young audience, who Bob exposed to the likes of high-culture beacons including Gore Vidal and Susan Sontag. Screams Bob:

“Treat kids as equals! They’re people too! They’re smarter than you think! They were smart enough to catch me!”

Early seasons of The Simpsons focused on the idea that Our Favourite Family is so dysfunctional they corrupt everyone who crosses their path, and Bob’s speedy reduction from “homicidal cultural advocate” to “homocidal sociopath” fits pretty well with this theme. As far as I can remember, Bob’s goal to cultivate the minds of children never resurfaces as a factor in his later schemes, making it a curious, forgotten remnant of his initial characterisation.


Book review: White Cat, Holly Black

Young adult meets fantasy meets noir in the captivating novel White Cat from Holly Black, the first entry in her new trilogy The Curse Workers. (Book two, Red Glove, is out in a couple of months. Hurrah!)

Our hero is Cassel Sharpe, though hero isn’t quite the right word: he’s a murderer, who accidentally killed his first love Lila several years ago. Now in his late teens, he’s still so traumatised, so wracked with guilt, that he’s sleepwalking – the very first scene has him waking up on the roof of his school, precariously close to the edge. (Fantastic opening, by the way.)

Cassel has a messed-up family: they’re curse workers, with powers to manipulate people’s emotions, hurt people, erase their memories, influence their luck. That sort of magic is illegal, driving curse-workers underground – making them gangsters, mobsters and con artists. Cassel is the only non-criminal in his family… if you overlook that whole “he killed someone” thing.

The complication: Lila, that someone he killed, was the daughter of a powerful curse-worker boss, forcing his family to cover up the crime.

After Cassel’s disturbing dreams about a white cat get him booted out of school, he starts to suspect his brothers are involved in another massive con – one he’s unknowingly tied up in too.

The noirish details are perfect: Cassel is an alluring antihero (without being a bad boy, that most overdone of YA creatures), clever and introspective without being whiny, and Black slowly draws her oh-so-intriguing story out of the shadows.

But the problem with White Cat is that it feels a lot like the first entry in a trilogy. That’s not to say the story isn’t satisfying, because it is, immensely so, but it feels very… linear. There isn’t a lot going on away from the main plot, and the twists in the story are pretty predictable (though to Black’s credit she reveals them about halfway through and builds on them for the climax; if she’d saved them for the end it would’ve felt pretty limp). I finished the book with a sense of… dissatisfaction, like I only ate half a plate of a mouth-watering meal.

That said, the set-up is so rich that if Red Glove can keep up the atmosphere and suspense of its predecessor, it’s pretty much a surefire winner.