Not Too Clever to Get Caught: when deception doesn’t work out

Some of our TV heroes do morally questionable things. Dexter is a serial killer who satisfies his urges by killing people who escaped legal justic. Jackie Peyton of Nurse Jackie is secretly addicted to pain medication. Walter White of Breaking Bad manufactures crystal meth. These are all secrets that they need to keep from their nearest and dearest, yet much of the tension and drama comes from the fact that they ultimately fail to conceal their secrets. In this post, I delve into our favourite TV shows once again to reflect on the success and failure of keeping secrets.

At the beginning of each of these series, our protagonists are cautious, careful creatures. The first rule that Dexter’s father pressed on him was “don’t get caught”. To that end, Dexter is methodical and deliberate, making sure no hair is out of place and no one can trace anything back to him – at least, at first. Jackie is a skilled liar who manages to lead a double life to the extent that none of her colleagues – not least her lover Eddie – have no idea that she has a husband and two daughters. Even Walter, whose arrogance makes him a worse liar than he otherwise could be, is able to manufacture significant amounts of meth per week without his DEA brother-in-law ever suspecting a thing.

As the seasons pass, however, the secrets get out. A careless move here, a misstep there, and one or two people get to know the secret. They might promise to keep quiet about it, even to help, but these are just the first pebbles in an avalanche. In due course, carefully constructed falsehoods come tumbling down, and ultimately the façade is revealed. Arguably, the reason why this happens is dictated by the demands of the narrative, but I believe that there’s more to it than that. Jackie, Dexter and Walter all get exposed (to varying extents) all get exposed because ultimately, humans are terrible at keeping secrets.

Now, I admit that the above statement suffers from some observational bias. I don’t have a sample of really well kept secrets, because they are so well kept that they aren’t actually documented. If there is such a thing as a perfect crime, then part of its perfection lies in the fact that only one of us knows its exact form. That being said, I am going to stand by my assertion, and set out some arguments as to why this might be the case.

Humanity might like to think it has more evolved sensibilities now, but it really isn’t that long since we were a tribal people, living in close-knit communities where everyone knew everyone else’s business. That’s why feelings like embarrassment are still so powerful – for our ancestors, messing up was not only likely a lot more dangerous for all concerned, but everyone knew about it. On evolutionary terms, we’re more inclined towards sharing information for the good of the tribe, since that was the unit that supported us, surrounded us and kept us alive.

Obviously, we’ve become a lot more practised with deception since our hunter-gatherer days, but even so, perhaps it doesn’t come as naturally to us as we’d like. Being the only person who knows something is difficult, and even when that’s the best thing to do, we can’t always keep our mouths shut. We want to confide in others – perhaps to show off how clever or superior we are, because keeping something to ourselves feels like too much of a burden, because we want advice or guidance, or perhaps because keeping track of a consistent series of lies is just too tiring. Let’s revisit an example I used in my last blog post. When Walter’s brother-in-law Hank believes that he has caught the mysterious ‘Heisenberg’ who has been cooking meth, Walter should be delighted – now he can carry on his work without suspicion. But instead, he hates the idea of another man taking credit for his work, and, with the help of a few drinks, insists that the real Heisenberg is far cleverer than Hank’s suspect.

On the other hand, human nature can also be helpful for deceivers. Humans aren’t that great at picking up on things that they’re not looking out for, hence the famous gorilla in a basketball game test. If people aren’t expecting something, they’re more likely to miss the signs. No one expects a downtrodden, milquetoast chemistry teacher to be a badass meth cook who racks up kills like a teen playing an FPS. No one believes that a dedicated, self-sacrificing nurse like Jackie could be stealing and abusing medication on such a large scale. And what about that nice Dexter? He’s a bit geeky and awkward to be sure, but aren’t all tech guys? He doesn’t go around killing people – that would be absurd!

The trouble with this, of course, is that it means, in the first instance, people can get away with small things. And when people get away with small things, it gives them confidence to get away with progressively bigger things. Each leap becomes easier and easier, until finally things become so blatant that no one can imagine how they ever though they would get away with it.

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And it’s not just about pushing the limits of what you can do – equally dangerous is pushing the limits of how carefully you do it. As Dexter becomes less of an emotionless killer and more of a human being, his meticulous routines start to suffer a little. As he becomes more invested in the ‘normal’ life he originally created as a façade, he starts to become sloppier and less cautious, leading to crucial bits of evidence that make others suspicious. And again, this is a very human reaction. You might start out as carefully as possible in your deception, taking all kinds of precautions. But that kind of thing is tiring, and perhaps one day, you forget to do one of them. You panic and wait for the sky to fall in, but to your surprise, nothing happens. So, maybe that precaution wasn’t really necessary after all. Maybe you’ve just been making all this fuss for nothing, and everything’s fine. So you relax, and start taking fewer precautions, and before you know it, someone’s spotted something amiss and you’re in a whole lot of trouble.

For Jackie, desperation is largely the key to her undoing. She’s an addict, and one who will go to any lengths to get what she needs, whether it’s sleeping with the pharmacist, making up increasingly questionable lies, or just taking stupid risks. Setting up a secret credit card and PO box to pay for meds is nothing compared to what Jackie does in later seasons, such as stealing a doctor’s DEA number or using a fake ID to pin misdeeds on a dead woman. Surely, an outsider might ask, Jackie must realise that someone is going to notice this behaviour? Well, if she were approaching the problem coolly and rationally, she might realise that. Instead, she’s acting out of a desperate need for something, a certainty that she’s gotten away with things before, and, quite probably, a belief that she, like Walter, is simply smart enough to fool everyone around her. A few lies here, some manipulations there, and everything will be fine.

Yet none of our heroes are as clever as they think. People find out, and often, the first few to do so are actually not the ones who reveal the secret. When Dexter’s adoptive sister Deborah finds out about his true nature, she keeps it to herself, even though it’s an incredible strain on her mental wellbeing. Walter’s wife Skyler finds herself in a position where she reluctantly has to go along with Walter’s plans instead of reporting him to the police. The first people to find out about Jackie’s problem try to offer support instead of censure – in fact, ER administrator Akalitus goes so far as to discard Jackie’s urine sample so that she won’t fail a drug test. In the end, it’s not that these people reveal the secret themselves, it’s that they too offer the protagonists additional false confidence and security. If someone knows your secret, and they don’t act to stop you, then maybe other people knowing isn’t the Bad Thing you thought it was. Maybe it’s fine to be less careful with the secret.

Or maybe not. The people who find out your secrets first are the people closest to you, the people who love you the most. Maybe you are a drug addict, a killer or a drug lord, but you’re also someone they care deeply for. Even if your revelation alters the playing field and betrays their trust, chances are that they still don’t want to act in a way that will hurt you – at least, not straight away. But the false confidence they grant is deadly, because now it becmes that much more likely that your secret will be discovered by someone who doesn’t have quite such an emotional investment in protecting you. And that’s when it will all come crashing down around you.

So, whether it’s on TV or in real life, it seems that keeping personal secrets is almost certainly doomed to fail – be it for narrative convenience or just down to sheer human nature messing up our tangled web. Then again, those few who may be truly successful at keeping secrets have buried them so deeply that even this blog can’t shine a light on them.

In my next post, I will be moving into the realm of sci-fi to discuss Star Trek, the economics of the supposedly moneyless United Federation of Planets, and whether we can really write about things totally beyond our own experience.

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