The Cleaner

Like its protagonist, A&E’s The Cleaner has a mission. It aspires to teach its audience about the ghastly experience of the addict and the torture of kicking the habit, even as it provides an entertaining and inspiring hour of television. This is no small task, but it succeeds. And this is not an insignificant achievement, particularly in light of its deliberate avoidance of the tactics of competing “reality television” programming that deals with similar issues.

The program’s official website describes the show as follows:

Inspired by the true story of real life “extreme interventionist” Warren Boyd, who also co-executive produces the series, “The Cleaner” stars Benjamin Bratt as William Banks, a recovering addict who must balance his unwavering dedication to helping others get clean with an increasingly rocky personal life and the ghosts of his addictions. … With every success and failure, William wrestles with his commitment to his work and his love for his wife Melissa (Amy Price-Francis) and their children through an unusual relationship with God.

The opening frames of each episode declares that William Banks’ crusade does not make him a “cop”; neither does it make him a “superhero.” Instead, we’re told, “He’s just a man with a Calling.” This commitment, as we learn during the pilot episode, is a consequence of the depths to which he had sunk when he found himself “slamming dope” even as his wife was giving birth to their second child. While not a religious man, he made a pact with God: get him and his family through that day – and the addiction – and he would become his “avenging angel.”

In a sense, this “calling” is the fervor of the convert: an attempt at expiation or atonement, seeking to make things right. Ironically, it also threatens to destroy the very family he hoped to save in the first place.

It is precisely this tension between his role as “avenging angel” and his standing as husband and father that provides much of the drama of The Cleaner, leaving us to wonder which of these two domains is the appropriate measure of the man. Or any man, for that matter. Is it the heroic measures he employs in his public life in service to others or is it the length to which he is willing to go in order to understand and care for the ones he loves?

Family in Crisis

The fact that he spent most of the first season on the couch and now finds himself living on his own is a measure of this dilemma, a dilemma not much different than what we have imposed on the “modern woman” – the working mother – and with which she struggles alone. (Ironic, isn’t it, that the problem of the “working father” has never acquired the same sense of urgency or caused as much personal anguish?) But this is precisely the problem that confronts William Banks: he has been unable to find a balance between family and work. As a result, he now finds himself living – and sleeping – alone.

During one of their arguments, his wife accuses him of substituting one “fix” for another, unfurling the kind of indictment that would make any (former) addict cringe: that he is completely unaware of a new addiction that has come to consume him, blind to that which has become an obsession. Of course, he protests. She doesn’t understand the importance – or imperative – of his work. Not really. And this is the stalemate in which they find themselves. The dance of anger and resentment that has wrapped them in its deathly embrace, and from which it becomes increasingly impossible to wrench a quiet moment of peace.

That they love each other is obvious. That they are devoted to their children is clear, as well. There is no unforgiveable transgression or egregious failure on anyone’s part. Nevertheless, the difficulties and tensions refuse to disappear, despite everyone’s best efforts. His wife has seen – and endured – too much, and is no longer quick to forgive the short temper, the forgetfulness, the unceasing attention to the imperatives of other people’s needs over those of his family. A similarly embattled terrain encircles William Banks’ relationship with his teen-aged son. Only the daughter remains devoted to him. But her faith seems to be wavering as well, since the mounting evidence suggests that the Daddy she has deified is only human.

The Face of Addiction

While the program provides a primer on the myriad substances used to induce highs (or lows), how they are distributed and acquired, the means by which they are ingested, the signs and life-strangling effects of their use, as well as the death pangs of withdrawal, The Cleaner also provides a nuanced and loving portrait of the contexts within which those addictions emerge.

These  portrayals focus on the constellations within which addiction is born and within which it eventually spirals out of control, rendered tenderly precisely because they emerge from an empathic understanding of the dilemmas – and tyrannies – that surround the addict: the mother who find herself swallowed by obligations to others, chewed up by the demands and obligations that leave her spent; the aspiring actress confronted by unyielding assaults on her dignity, obliged to submit to repeated humiliations in pursuit of the recognition she so desperate desires; athletes convinced that their bodies and lives can and should be sacrificed in service of career and fame; husbands confronted by the realization that they do not wield the power to make everything alright; teens who have (barely) survived the traumas of childhood or who are required to compensate for a parent’s inability to love them as they deserve; the family secrets that everyone pretends do not exist, except for the one who, for whatever reason, is left to bear the pain of the past – and its memory – on his or her own.

Such constellations illuminate this other side of addiction which has less to do with the physical effects of the substances crammed into the body than what is injected into the web human life. Strung out, with only a thread holding together a coherent sense of oneself and the world. Ever on edge, while the inarticulate thunder of resentment lies in wait. Fists and other missiles unfurled in the face of a frustration that knows not what else to do. Blackouts and the loss of sense, as other imperatives take hold of the body and mind. Thievery in support of a habit that has grown out of control. Selling anything and everything at one’s disposal, including whatever uses can be made of one’s body.

Possessed and dispossessed by what – in another age and time – went by a name that has all but been expunged from our vocabulary, but which conveys the agony so easily missed (and misapprehended) by the sanitized language of addiction: Daemons.

The Authority of Experience

It is by virtue of having survived this pit of despair that William Banks draws his confidence; it is what fuels his mission to “save” others. It is also what accounts for the “extreme” measures he and his team favor, in contrast to the rules of civility characteristic of more conventional forms of intervention. For William Banks, confronting the shadow of death requires unbending resolve and a willingness to use any and all means necessary, to defeat the enemy that cripples the soul and desiccates the spirit.

And yet, despite the reputation that brings clients his way, he is continually met with doubt and disbelief. Friends and loved ones stuck in the trap of blind faith – and the perverse whorl of co-dependence – are never easily convinced that matters are as dire as William Banks claims they are. Invariably, they cling to a certainty that the addiction can be slain in the name of love, that it will submit to the power of their resolve. It’s as if William Banks and his clients belong to two separate worlds, shouting across a gaping divide, unable to develop a shared understanding of the problem of addiction, much less what is required to defeat it.

It’s only when the addict trembles between life and death that their confidence begins to crumble, and they’re ready to admit another truth, another way of making sense of the awful fate that is beckoings them.


Each member of his crew understands this. For they are familiar with the tortured depths of hell, as well.

Strangely (or perhaps not?), they also find themselves solitary figures in this battle against addiction. As if a commitment to leading the clean life means traveling the path alone, without family or loved ones.

In addition to their work on behalf of clients, each is hounded by the temptations of old addictions – and the illusory promise of escape – that invariably arise when confronted by the tribulations of living, when frustrations and disappointments pile up upon the other, unceasing and seemingly to no end. Stripped of the “innocuous” bottle of beer or glass of wine that awaits others at the end of an exhausting day, or the free-flowing lubricants of the “happy” hours that pepper the North American landscape, those seeking to lead lives free of addiction are forced to find other ways of contending with that which saps the spirit and that haunts the soul. They must find other means of exorcising the demon that speaks only their name.

As Season One comes to an end, we find William Banks freshly evicted from his home and faced with precisely this turmoil. His “talks” with God are what he reaches for during those moments of frustration and doubt, one of the few tools at his disposal as he struggles to put an end to the senselessness and achieve the kind of alignment – and peace – to which we all aspire.

Split Affinities

Why would anyone want to watch this show?

In addition to the focus on addition – and the possibility of liberation from its torment – it provides a slate of characters that provides the microcosm within which the protagonist’s life unfolds. As with any other television program, they provide sites of identification (“That’s so true! She’s just like me!”) as well as the lure of the mysterious (“I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about him … “).

William Banks’ associates are his “chosen family,” those who share in his mission to save the afflicted, precisely because they count themselves among the lucky, the precious few that have escaped death’s embrace. His connection with his wife and children, on the other hand, is less straight-forward, precisely because it is not mediated by the shared experience of having battled addiction’s torment. In this sense his family is irreducibly “foreign” to him, yet they connect him to an existence beyond the world of addicts. His relation to them is both an affirmative choice and one that demands he learn to step out of himself.

And where do his clients fit in this picture?

They’re nothing but different versions of himself. The question is: how do they fit in the constellation of the more permanent – elective – figures in his life? In other words, his family, his loves, his blood?

Only time will tell.

Intimations of the Future

But it need not be left to chance since, for William Banks, the pieces are already in place. Even if he has yet to realize it.

If his clients are merely versions of himself, his quest to save the world – one person at a time – is also a valiant effort on his own behalf, to reclaim what was previously lost, diminished, and disavowed. To the extent that he remains unaware of this, his “mission” will remain an imperative external to him and his family, always competing for his time and attention, demanding a demonstration of his continued commitment to the cause. Eternally on the edge of exhaustion and the brink of madness.

If, on the other hand, he is willing to treat his clients as Other, rather than replicas of himself, he stands a chance of learning something from them. If, he is willing to grant them a degree of mystery that exceeds what he already knows about the terrors of addiction, he puts himself in the position of enriching his understanding of himself and others.

During the course of the first season, we saw glimpses of this. Not always recognized by William Banks but evident in what he was able to bring to his encounters with his family. This happens, not when he’s trying to fix something or solve a child’s problem, as fathers are “supposed” to do; not even when he tries to be honest, disclosing a truth about himself in an effort to communicate with his wife, as husbands are “supposed” to do.

Rather, they sneak up in the midst of quiet conversations, independent of the obligatory roles of concerned father or caring husband. He finds unfamiliar words emerge, words that speak to something he’s witnessed or heard from elsewhere. Words that have settled into his heart or mind and found a home there, evidence of moments in which self and other have touched in unexpected ways. And to everyone’s surprise, including William Banks himself, these new sentiments speak in a different tongue, the sentiments of a man different from the one he thought he was.


~ by mistified on 28 June 2009.

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