No Redemption in "Decoding Watson"

Theral Timpson

It’s been the question of the week.  What to do with Jim Watson’s legacy?  On the one hand, he's been a brilliant scientist who made no small contribution to biology.  On the other, he's an outright racist.  And as we found out from a new PBS production this week, Watson is remaining a racist to the end.     Should PBS have even spent their resources on such a show, given a platform to the man?  Will this now bolster the new wave of racists who are using science for their projects of racial purity?  And can a scientist who was apparently so brilliant and open really be so closed off and pig-headed, or as one cancer biologist on the program asks, can these two sides exist mutually compatible in the same mind?

“He stands for critical, radical thought.  And how he could go back to an old-rooted notion that has nothing to do with critical thinking . . . I really don’t know," says CSHL cancer researcher, Lloyd Trotman.

A highly edited episode of television is no substitute for taking a walk with a man, or having a conversation in person to get to know him.  But this new PBS "American Masters" production, Decoding Watson, (couldn’t the makers have been more creative with the title and not stolen Craig Venter’s?) is as close as most of us who do not know Watson personally will ever come to him.  And most likely the last view of him at the end of his life. So what can it tell us?

Let’s deal with the juxtaposition question first.   History is stacked with the brilliant minds who do terrible things.  Watson himself brings up Jefferson in the film.  A few others that quickly come to mind are Wagner, Picasso and Polanski.  Most recently we have the example of Bill Cosby.  There is nothing built in to the human wiring that atomatically connects brilliance with nobleness of spirit.

On Twitter, the comparison of Watson to Shakespeare’s King Lear has been made.  I just saw the new production of Lear on Amazon Prime, and the comparison, I believe, misses the mark by a mile, but it can be instructive.  Whereas Lear did fall from the highest pinnacle to the lowest--the obvious moment of connection between our two tragic heroes is there at Lear’s “my kingdom for a horse” and Watson’s selling off his Nobel for cash.  But the similarity ends there.

Once Lear sees that he is out on the streets, he goes through what we now call the five states of grief--denial, anger, (lots of anger), bargaining, depression, and acceptance.    After crying out every tear along with the heavens in a mighty storm, he allows himself to go into a kind of madness.  But is it madness?  Or is it a liberation from his identity as a king?  Lear is happy for the first time in the play.  He dances and sings and finds a friend to care for in Mad Tom, a beggar, another feigning madness to escape his own identity.  Lear has found a way out of his former character flaws of arrogance and willful ignorance that he was unable to shake earlier in the play and which cost him his entire kingdom, men, and the coat off his back.  Though he is a beggar in the street, he is now happy and free and full of acceptance.  And he is willing to learn.

Lear must still face his sins.  He must still meet up again with his daughters.  Those who betrayed him, and Cordelia who loved him.  He must come out of his freeing madness and take on his old identity again.  Can he do it without taking on his old arrogance and anger?  Has he learned?  Has he been redeemed?


It is Shakespeare, after all.

In the PBS play about Watson, we see no redemption.  Save for a few moments we hear about Jim and his son Rufus (it would have been great to hear more), we are stuck the entire time in arrogance and denial.

Real life can have redemptive endings.  Remember the David Frost interviews with Richard Nixon?  Frost prepared carefully to corner Nixon, and Nixon prepared carefully to do everything right to corner Frost back.  Their people negotiated over everything.  The money, the place, the times, the lighting, the handkerchiefs.  But in the end, there was something in Nixon which needed Frost (and, of course, Frost needed Nixon), something in Nixon begging Frost to ask him that question, that question which would allow Nixon to apologize, in his way, to the American people.  Nixon wanted, needed redemption.

PBS’s Decoding Watson is really a Frost/Nixon interview (granted on a smaller scale). The climax is where, for the only time in the film, we hear the director, Mark Mannucci, ask a question, thee question.  And we hear thee answer, the disappointing answer.  It is a play, a tv show, an interview to offer redemption.  But there was nothing in Watson that wanted it.

Rather Watson compares himself to Galileo, who was imprisoned for his unpopular scientific ideas.   For Watson, being stripped of his title and made a pariah was not enough to trigger a deconstruction like that of Lear.  He has chosen the route of the martyr rather than shed his arrogance and learn.

This is unfortunate, for Jim Watson, scientist extraordinaire, co-discoverer of the double-helix, will continue to give scientific cover to generations of racists.

It is the inherent risk in making this kind of end-of-life offer-for-redemption film.  And it is no doubt why the makers of the film fill the first half with lots of safe, warm and fuzzy history which we already know and which has been done over and over.

I’ve always thought that Frost sensed from Nixon that Nixon wanted to talk.  If the makers of this PBS show knew that Watson was unrepentant, why did they take the chance on a failed redemptive film?    

If they think there is a debate to be had over whether race is cultural or biological, that is a different kind of film.


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