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The Dark Knight, The Wire, and the poisonous effect of corruption

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What Harvey Dent and Tommy Carcetti prove about being a ‘good guy’ in a corrupt system

Harvey Dent looks up, standing in front of the bat signal Warner Bros. Entertainment

On the occasion of The Dark Knight’s 10th anniversary, Polygon is spending the week investigating the comic-book blockbuster’s legacy. Why so serious? Because Christopher Nolan’s Bat-sequel gave us lots to talk about. This is the retrospective you deserve and the one you need right now.

One of the most popular themes in modern pop culture is the idea that if you want to do good in this world, you have to do some bad. Modern systems are corrupt and shouldn’t be trusted, which means you have to be willing to corrupt yourself to get anything done. The swamp, ultimately, will drain you.

The Dark Knight’s Harvey Dent is one of the most enduring examples of this trope, even though he also serves to criticize it. “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a villain,” Dent says during a scene that’s so on the nose you wonder why it can’t smell itself.

Dent is presented to us as an honest politician, someone who sees Batman as a necessary evil who can be cast aside the moment he and D.A. staff are able to straighten up the city through the proper, above-ground channels. He’s handsome, idealistic and willing to do what it takes to make the city safer — which means backing a vigilante who dresses up in black rubber to beat the shit out of criminals. Dent is trying to do the right thing, even if it means a little bit of lying and manipulation to get the job done.

Harvey Dent shares a lot of pop culture DNA with The Wire’s Tommy Carcetti, another character who mixes idealism and ambition into a toxic stew that leaves both men with the mistaken belief that they are the only people who can fix the issues caused by those who came before them. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but David Simon’s acclaimed crime series had just ended its five-season run as The Dark Knight made its way into theaters in the summer of 2008.

Carcetti, a rising Baltimore politician, doesn’t have much power during the early episodes in which he appears, and thus can promise just about anything to get more. Mayor Royce, Carcetti’s initial target, knows the system in which he has to work, and thus has to deal with the day-to-day reality of the office during his campaign. It’s a cynical move, but it doesn’t seem completely dishonest; Carcetti naively believes that fixing these issues mostly involves willpower and a fresh perspective. How hard can it be?

Carcetti fooled himself into thinking that being an effective politician would be as easy as making the right choice in every situation, when politics actually means being presented with two bad options and then having to live with the repercussions of your decision.

The system eats Carcetti alive. He’s convinced that he’s the savior the city needs, so anything he has to do to gain the political power necessary to make the “right” decisions is justified. He spends so much political capital gaining power that he’s never able to spend any actually helping the city. He fails up through the ranks, while the show presents his political career as a cautionary tale about mediocre men who feel, deep in their gut, that they’re the ones who can save everyone.

Baltimore humbled Carcetti, just as Gotham humbled Harvey Dent.

Despite all of Dent’s rhetoric and vision to be a force for good, his decision to lie about being Batman set off a sequence of events — implausible as they may be — that led to his own immolation and the death of Rachel Dawes. While Batman may have hoped that Dent would have been able to control Gotham City and lead it into the light, Dent’s subsequent fall meant that Batman had to abandon the goal of making things better and lean heavily into damage control. Dent had to continue to be a symbol of good, which means that Batman had to take the fall and disappear.

And it’s that question of ego that leads to both bad outcomes. Both men thought they could lie a bit, that they could dip their toe into corruption or support unjust systems like Batman in the short term in order to get the power necessary for their actions to line up with their words. Both men were destroyed by this belief, and they both send a message that the line about heroes and villains is much more black and white than everyone assumes.

You can’t fall from grace on your own terms, and unless the path to power is as righteous as your goals with that power, you’ve already lost.