Last week’s episode of Blue Bloods, entitled “Unbearable Loss,” features an unexpected reference to the Classical world, in the form of a quotation from Agamemnon, the first tragedy in the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus. A police drama series might be an unusual place to find such a reference, but then again, Classical mythology remains so dominant in our culture that we shouldn’t be surprised to see it turn up in all corners of our entertainment.
Blue Bloods stands out among police dramas for its willingness to confront significant issues involving the police beyond just “catching the bad guys,” which is the main focus in many other shows. The morality and ethics of policing, the influence of politics and the media, racial tensions and accusations of excessive force, the importance of proper legal procedure, and even the role of religion and faith–all these areas and more have been dealt with by Blue Bloods at one point or another. If any TV series about cops had the depth to reference ancient Greek literature in a intelligent and meaningful way, it would have to be this one.
In this episode, one of NYPD commissioner Frank Reagan’s political adversaries, Reverend Darnell Potter, a black community activist known for his fierce criticism of the NYPD’s treatment of African-Americans, goes through an “Unbearable Loss” when his son is killed.
At first, the reverend seems willing to work with the commissioner and his son Danny, the main detective on the case, to catch the killer, but is quickly angered by the police’s handling of the case. Not thinking clearly due to his grief and suspicious of the police in general, he tells members of the black community not to cooperate with investigators. Eventually, the reverend recognizes that his son’s killer cannot be apprehended without the police, and he asks the community to aid them. Danny catches the gang responsible, and in a moment of reconciliation, the reverend invites Frank to attend his son’s funeral.
One major aspect of Blue Bloods is its emphasis on family relationships. The entire Reagan family is connected to law enforcement or the justice system in some way (Frank’s father was once commissioner, two of his sons are cops, and his daughter is a prosecutor), and each episode features a dinner scene, in which family members reflect on the events of the episode.
During the family dinner scene of this episode, Frank reveals that he has been asked to speak at the funeral and shares the quote that he plans to use–a quote from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (lines 179-183):
“And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
The main purpose of this reference, on the surface, is to convey through the evocative language of Aeschylus the intensity of the suffering and grief that accompanies a loss. Frank had intended to share this quote at the funeral of his eldest son Joe, who died in the line of duty, but couldn’t find the will to do so at the time. Now, by making use of this quote, Frank demonstrates his understanding and sympathy for the reverend’s loss through an expression of the pain and suffering he himself has gone through.
Beyond that, this quote also aligns with the Reagan family’s Catholic faith, in suggesting that the most difficult part of dealing with loss is having the wisdom and strength to accept God’s divine will, no matter how terrible it might seem. (Keep in mind that this is a translation of Aeschylus’ Greek that puts a Christian spin on it; the ancient Greeks with their many gods would have thought in a very different way.)
On the level of character and plot alone, this use of Aeschylus is already quite rich, but there’s another reason these lines resonates so well with this episode: they were famously quoted by Robert Kennedy in his speech on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. On April 4, 1968, at what was supposed to be an ordinary campaign event in Indianapolis, Kennedy informed a shocked audience that King had just been killed. Drawing upon the words of Aeschylus, Kennedy called for unity, compassion, and love against the forces of hatred, revenge, and violence:
My favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
Although there would be riots in many cities across the country that night, Indianapolis remained calm, in part because of Kennedy’s speech.
Interestingly, Kennedy’s quotation is actually a slight misquotation of Edith Hamilton’s 1930 translation of Aeschylus; this means that he did not have the “correct” verses in front of him, yet was still able to smoothly work them into his speech. In some way, this makes him even more impressive: to be able to remember these lines on the spot, he clearly had to have studied them quite closely. I don’t know any modern politicians who can recite lines of Greek tragedy from memory.
The Oresteia is a story about a shift in the nature of justice, from retributive violence to reconciliation and dialogue. Ten years before the events of the first play, Agamemnon, the titular war lord sacrifices his own daughter, Iphigenia, to secure favorable winds for his expedition to sail to Troy. Agamemnon returns home victorious, only for his wife to slay him out of revenge.
The cycle of vengeance continues as Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, kills his mother in retribution. Only the creation of a new justice system, based on open dialogue, proper legal procedure, and the rule of law, is able to end the cycle and move the community forward toward reconciliation.
By quoting from the Oresteia, Robert Kennedy was calling for his audience and for people across the country to respond to King’s death not by continuing a cycle of retribution and violence, but by striving toward justice and reconciliation through dialogue and understanding. The particular translation Kennedy was using refers to the Christian God and, like in the Blue Bloods dinner scene, the wisdom to accept His will in the face of loss, but it takes on additional meaning here: that we must accept that the path forward has to be one of love and forgiveness (i.e. the “grace of God”), no matter how terrible (“awful”) the loss of King may seem.
So, by referencing the same quote used by Robert Kennedy on that day in 1968, Blue Bloods is also calling for reconciliation and dialogue against the continuation of old grudges–in this case, between not only Frank and his adversary on a personal level, as the commissioner sympathizes with the reverend’s loss, but between the police officers and the African-Americans they represent.
Frank’s quotation of the Oresteia on its own already brings up ideas of reconciliation in general. Once we add to it the context of Robert Kennedy’s speech–the death of King, an exhortation for love and compassion in mending racial divides–it becomes clear that Blue Bloods is specifically calling for reconciliation and justice in overcoming racial tensions. And this is no surprise, given the role that such tensions played in this episode.
Finally, Robert Kennedy made use of this quote not just to call for reconciliation, but also, like Frank, to express the pain he himself had experienced in losing a loved one:
For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.
The quotation from Aeschylus occurs shortly afterwards. Kennedy is talking about the assassination of his brother, President Kennedy, of course, and is using the experience of that personal loss to sympathize with those who loved and respected Martin Luther King. In the same way, commissioner Frank Reagan uses the loss of his son to sympathize with the reverend as he goes through the loss of his son.
And, just as Kennedy recognizes commonalities in the deaths of King and his brother–both were killed by white people, he points out–Frank and the reverend realize the irony of their respective losses: the reverend’s son was killed by a black gang member who once participated in the reverend’s troubled youth program, and Frank’s son by a crooked cop.
Before we finish up, I want to mention again that the Christian interpretations of this quote that resonated so well with Robert Kennedy, the Reagan family of Blue Bloods, and a traditional American audience come about because of the way Edith Hamilton decided to translate these lines. Here is a more accurate translation of the original Greek (with some nearby verses for context):
Zeus guided mortals to have wisdom
and laid it down with authority
that from suffering comes learning.
And, in our sleep, at least, pain of unforgettable suffering
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
and wisdom comes to us against our will:
Perhaps the favor of the gods sitting on their
sacred throne comes about through force.
(Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, 176-183)
These verses are spoken by the Chorus of Elders, who wonder what lessons might come about from the terrible violence that occurs as Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter. One idea made use of by Robert Kennedy and Frank Reagan–that wisdom results from the suffering of our losses–remains intact. But, the Christian ideas of ultimate faith in the divine will of God or the power of His love and mercy do not appear. The ancient Greek gods, like Zeus, use force and suffering to deliver wisdom to us: a similar concept, but the grace and compassion of the Christian God are absent. Ultimately, though, wisdom does come about from these events, in the Oresteia‘s creation of a new justice system based on dialogue and reconciliation.
At the end of his speech, Robert Kennedy added:
And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.
Tragically, two months after he called for peace, compassion, and understanding, Robert Kennedy himself would be struck down by an assassin’s bullet.
Sources and Further Reading
- Blue Bloods season 7, episode 10, “Unbearable Loss” available online at http://www.cbs.com/shows/blue_bloods/ and probably on Netflix at some point
- NPR article summarizing events on April 4, 1968, and Robert Kennedy’s speech, with audio of speech: http://www.npr.org/2008/04/04/89365887/robert-kennedy-delivering-news-of-kings-death
- NYTimes article on Robert Kennedy’s unique affinity for the ancient Greeks: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/26/opinion/26brooks.html
- New Yorker article on parallels between the Kennedy family saga and Classical mythology: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/j-f-k-tragedy-myth
- Text of the speech: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Speech_on_the_Assassination_of_Martin_Luther_King,_Jr.