Through a Lens Darkly
The Booth at the End and Our Faustian Selves
Time and again, he reminds those who have come to him for help that he doesn't know what is going to happen or how their wished will be fulfilled. He knows only that they will indeed be granted—if his conditions are met. There's one final caveat, though: they must return to Cadillac Jack's and describe their actions to him in detail.
For the Man is not Mephistopheles, but Argos: an observer, not an architect. He is fascinated by the power of his visitors' desires and by the lengths to which they will go to get what they want, and it is that fascination which drives him and his unsettling bargains.
Yet not all his bargains are ugly ones. Melody, a young teenager whose only wish is for her father to receive the funds needed to save his restaurant, is ordered to find a shut-in and persuade him to leave his home. And what of Doris the waitress, the only one in the diner who wants nothing from the Man and his bargains? As the loose threads of the Man's many clients are woven together, the hope for a peaceful resolution to their many negotiations grows stronger.
But will the Man allow such happiness; perhaps even facilitate it? Or is there another, harsher bargain yet to be driven?
Speculating on the themes of an incomplete series is a risky business, and the show's propensity for revealing its twist and turns in short, seemingly unconnected vignettes leaves the door well ajar for a radical shift in the Man's motivations. Yet the show's most powerful message is not dependant on him at all, but on the dangers of allowing ourselves to drive Faustian bargains, replacing God's clear call to holiness with our own selfish desires. The question we must daily ask ourselves is not "How far will you go to get what you want?" but "How willing are you to give up what you want for the sake of where you are going?"
Few of us will ever confront the sorts of bargains presented to The Booth's protagonists. And fewer still (I trust) would struggle with whether or not killing, maiming, or robbing others could ever be justified by our own selfish wishes. While some of us will surely be called to struggle through the suffering and death of loved ones, how many of us would seriously consider killing someone else's innocent child if we knew that our own children would survive as a result of our actions? Or would be willing to blow up a coffee shop full of strangers for the sake of our ailing spouse?
"Two wrongs don't make a right' is the sensible response to the choices confronting James, Mrs. Tyler, and their fellow sufferers, but the viewer is not let off the hook with that casual truism, because ultimately The Booth is a singe to the conscience: How often are we willing to compromise on smaller matters, setting aside what we know to be right and just for the sake of our own desires? Surely, we would not kill another to further our own ends, but how many of us are willing to ridicule and belittle others in the feverish building up of our own importance? Few of us stand ready to rob a bank for the sake of our own beauty, yet the number of those prepared to wage a costly and outlandish battle against the natural decline of their physical form is frighteningly large. Are those two groups really so far apart? How far will we go to get what we want?
While the immediate danger of such actions is far less obvious than those undertaken by the Man's clients, the long-term consequences can be just as dire. Let us not be fooled by the scale and gravity of the selfishness on display in The Booth at the End. Just as St. Thérèse found sanctity in the Little Way of Holiness, so too can we find the seeds of our destruction in the small and seemingly mundane selfishness of everyday life.
Faust's deal with the Devil was flamboyant, brash, and grandiose; his bargain written in bold strokes. But may not our souls be handed out over the length of a much longer, more mundane contract? Self-interest and egoism are deadly habits that grow stronger when served. And while Mephistopheles certainly enjoys the dramatic fall of Faust and his ilk, he is more than willing to wait around for the rest of us.
Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. He blogs at Crisis Magazine, where he also contributes feature articles on a variety of topics.