What would you do if you knew with absolute certainty that the completion of a particular task would bring about the fulfillment of your greatest wish? Would you be willing to commit disagreeable (even immoral) acts to achieve your dreams? How far would you go to get what you want?
The series’ premise is startlingly simple: the Man (Xander Berkeley) sits in a booth at Cadillac Jack’s Driver-In and waits. People—convinced that he can “get things” for those who want them badly enough—visit his booth, and he makes a bargain with each of them: if they complete the task he assigns, they will get what they so desperately desire.
But his bargains are harsh and unsettling: James, a successful businessman seeking to avert his son’s death from leukemia, is ordered to kill a young girl. Sister Carmel, a faithful nun for fifteen years who yearns to “hear God again,” is told that the only way to guarantee the return of her faith is to become pregnant. Mrs. Tyler, a feeble retiree struggling to cope with her husband’s Alzheimer’s, is tasked with detonating a bomb in a busy coffee shop, while Jenny, a pretty, shallow young woman, must rob a bank in order to achieve the physical beauty for which she longs.
How far will they go to get what they want?
Berkley, an under-appreciated veteran of the stage and screen is mesmerizing as the eerily anonymous Man whose bargaining powers drive the story forward. As The Booth begins, the Man clearly resembles a modern-day Mephistopheles, smiling silkily while turning his clients’ greatest weaknesses against them, fomenting sinfulness and suffering at every turn. When Mrs. Tyler asks “Do you make everyone who comes to you hurt someone?” the Man responds “Only some,” with a dismissive, half-disappointed shrug more threatening than the words themselves.
Gradually, however, the Man’s omnipotence is revealed as nothing more than a peculiar sort of omniscience—knowledge only of very specific actions and their consequences. He is not the one who brings about the transformative events, but their harbinger. “How did you do that?” a man asks in amazement when his bargain comes to fruition. “I didn’t,” the Man says. “You did.” “You have to know” says another, but he demurs: “I don’t know.” Sister Carmel, battling her spiritual sterility, pleads: “If you can really let me hear Him, just let me hear Him.”
“No,” he says firmly. “You have to do it; what we agreed upon.”
“Don’t make me,” she begs.
“I’m not,” he replies.
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.
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.