Lara Flynn Boyle figured prominently in the gossip-media hubbub of "Which Stars Are Too Thin?" a few months back. But in the past few weeks Boyle, who plays assistant district attorney Helen Gamble on ABC's "The Practice," has found the perfect use for her rail-thin frame. As Helen, Boyle has lately seemed to be a woman who has whittled herself down to nothing more than a burning hunger for retribution. Rising to tell a jury they will rue it forever if they set the accused free or brushing off some lawyer's plea for mercy, Boyle gives her voice a steely stridency as the cords in her neck tauten and her eyes glaze over in a fever of righteousness. It wouldn't be surprising if she fell to her knees and began speaking in tongues.
At moments like that, Boyle looks like a woman whose desire for vengeance is eating her alive. But she also looks as if she'll be the last one left standing in the courtroom, or any courtroom, in this world or the next. Boyle has given Helen the scary indestructibility of a demon wraith ready to rain down her curse on anyone who dares to doubt her.
It's a performance that borders on caricature, but the daring of it lies in the extremism Boyle risks. In the past few weeks Helen has prosecuted a man who shortened his terminally ill wife's life by a matter of hours when the woman was in unendurable pain; swooped in to arrest an elderly man after his wife, an Alzheimer's patient, suggested that the man killed her abusive first husband; and tricked a teenage girl (Paz de la Huerta, of "The Cider House Rules") into confessing to aborting her pregnancy after lying to the girl that nothing will happen to her if she only tells the truth.
Each of these cases evokes the pity and terror of what good people are driven to in extreme circumstances. But Helen can't see any shades of gray. With arrogant certainty, she insists that anyone who breaks the law is the same thing as a criminal. She ruins people's lives, people who pose no danger to society, in the name of the law. Aflame with the white-hot heat of righteousness, Helen has left such measly concerns as people behind her. Yet what makes Boyle's characterization resonate is the way it taps into the need to punish that's loose in the zeitgeist.
With a U.S. prison population that has doubled in the past decade (matching a number it took the previous nine decades to reach), at the same time that statistics tell us that violent crime is going down, we seem to be in the grip of the certainty that prison is the answer for everything from drugs to the problem of homelessness. Whether the laws themselves make sense is clearly less important to some people than the fact that they are the law.
If you want to see a real-life version of Helen Gamble, tune into any TV political wrestling match (like "Geraldo" or "Hardball"). You're likely to catch Barbara Olson, the former federal prosecutor who has found a career as a conservative talking head. A bit older and less shellacked than the media's favorite conservative bimbos -- the likes of Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter and Kellyanne Fitzpatrick -- Olson answers every challenge put to her with the condescending smile of someone forced to talk to people she considers her inferiors. On a recent "Politically Incorrect," one of a week of shows filmed inside prison, Olson brushed aside host Bill Maher's questions about why we don't criminalize alcohol abusers if we are so concerned about the destructiveness of drugs. Because alcohol isn't illegal, she answered, not betraying for a second that she was bothered by tautology or that she needed any other intellectual or moral justification than the law.
It's not really fair to compare a real person to a fictional character. Helen shows much more depth and mystery than Olson ever could. On the season finale of "The Practice," Helen confronted the consequences of her actions when she witnessed the grief of a mother (Marlee Matlin, in a lacerating performance) prosecuted for killing the man who raped and murdered her daughter. But the show has offered no explanation for Helen's need to assume the role of avenger. You don't need some buried trauma to explain a retributive passion that's the common coin of our culture.
If anything can explain Helen Gamble, it's Donna Heyward, the teenage character Boyle played on "Twin Peaks." In the opening episode of that show, Donna, sitting in her first class, learns that her friend Laura has been murdered. It's all suggested: an official knocking at the classroom door, a girl running screaming across the quad, Donna registering her friend's empty chair. In that second, Boyle clasps her hands to her chest and bursts into tears, a look of inutterable fear and surprise on her face. Helen is Donna 10 years later, having traded in her twin sets and pleated skirts for Ann Taylor business suits, determined that no one and nothing will ever make her so vulnerable again.