Looking for Mercy in Netflix’s Lucifer
“In detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have.”
Lord Peter Wimsey, Strong Poison
Lucifer, on its face—a show about the actual devil running a nightclub in Los Angeles—seems poorly poised to offer moral commentary. Yet providing a running moral commentary is exactly what it does. A police procedural, the show features Lucifer teaming up with the LAPD and specifically Detective Chloe Decker to solve crimes. Along the way, as with any detective show, the show offers up a systemic morality, grounded (surprisingly so, for a show that grants the existence of the supernatural) in humanistic legal codes.
What draws Lucifer to the LAPD is his own character, his penchant for punishment. Though bored of actually living in Hell, Lucifer maintains the role he held there, to punish evildoers. (The show works more from a Greek myth, gods-and-demons take on the Christian story than anything approximating traditional orthodoxy.) Solving crimes alongside the LAPD provides a perfect outlet for his desire to punish people. He gets to make sure evildoers, usually murderers in keeping with the grand tradition of cop procedurals, receive their just rewards, while he himself remains free of the prison of Hell.As believers, while we acknowledge the reality and transcendence of divine law, we also recognize its shortcomings—it cannot make us righteous—and its supersession by mercy.
Lucifer’s punishing people is often deeply satisfying to him. The show makes sure that his worst punishments—for instance, breaking one character’s back—are reserved for the worst of the worst, like human traffickers and those who kill in cold blood. As a viewer, watching Lucifer step in and bring the bad guys to justice feels good, as though our collective, human thirst to see an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth is satisfied.
Yet the show carefully distinguishes the punishment Lucifer metes out from the punishment received in the LA legal system, and it identifies the second with justice and righteousness. Lucifer’s actions may feel like justice, the show insists, but it is the action of the police department that actually is justice. This distinction is made plain in a quarrel that Lucifer has with Decker, an episode after he breaks a character’s back. Decker takes Lucifer to task for his obvious desire to take violent revenge on people, and Lucifer retorts:
“It’s who I am, I punish people.”
“So do I,” Decker says, “but like I said, there is a right way and there is a wrong way.”
“And what makes you the authority on right and wrong?”
“Because I’m a cop, and it’s the law.”
Law, the kind of law observed by police departments on TV, is where both righteousness and justice are finally located, not in the supernatural punishments that Lucifer delivers. Lucifer himself makes this observation. After his confrontation with Decker, Lucifer brings a murderer into the precinct to be arrested, saying that he wants him to “properly face the punishment he deserves.” Characterizing the legal system as “proper punishment,” Lucifer at once connects it to his own hunger for punishment and makes a distinction, implying the superiority of the legal code as justice. Justice, and with it moral goodness, are ultimately not in Lucifer’s hands but in the hands of the law.
Punishment is at best morally neutral. While, in the show, it occasionally prevents evil, it cannot actually rectify evil, and it leaves a stain on the characters involved, including Lucifer himself, who experiences tangible physical and emotional consequences as a result of breaking one character’s back and attempting to enact vengeance on another character. Indeed, these consequences prompt Lucifer to see that in punishing murderers personally, he has “gone a bit too far.” By (re)constraining himself within the confines of the law, identifying the law with justice and police work with doing justice as Decker does, he hopes to do what is right and be restored from his consequences.
Despite Decker’s claim that being a cop makes her an authority on right and wrong, the show does not actually identify cops with justice. The law is the source of justice, but cops are inconsistent enforcers of it. Decker, for her part, is the hero of the story and rarely if ever outside of legal bounds. A miracle baby and the daughter of a cop killed in the line of duty, she is perhaps the closest the show gets to a moral center, along with the characters’ therapist, Linda.
Outside of Decker, however, other cops are shown to do what is wrong on a fairly routine basis. One character is a crooked cop, who continually struggles with his own desire to circumvent the law in order to punish criminals more effectively. We understand his motivations and sympathize with them—he is bringing a murderer to justice!—but while the penalties for circumventing the law are delayed, there are still penalties for him, both personal and professional.
Even Maze—who is a literal demon and not bound by the law in the same way as the cops or even Lucifer, as Decker’s partner—largely works within its confines. As a bounty hunter, her main work is to bring criminals within reach of the police (she often shows up in the station with them), rather than punishing them herself. Only rarely does the show explore the complexities of the police as a force for good, as it does in an episode in which two cops violently arrest an innocent Black teenager. Acknowledging their actions are wrong and that a complaint is likely to have no effect within the department, however, the show paints the cops as “cowboy hotheads,” a descriptor which positions them outside the norm for law enforcement officers. Their actions are condemned; the law is not. Despite the characters’ occasional violations of the law, then, or their innate tendency to deviate from it, the law—and as a symbol of it, the police department and associated legal system—maintains righteousness and justice in the world.
This association of the law with justice and righteousness is surprising in a show so full of the supernatural as Lucifer is (there are as many, if not more, supernatural characters as human ones). To couple justice with the legal code locates morality in human behavior and ideas, rather than in any preexisting or immutable divine. Indeed, most angelic characters, with a few exceptions such as Amenadiel, are boring. Largely uninterested in the questions the show raises about how we make ourselves better and do good in the world, they are mostly around to interfere with Lucifer (and Amenadiel’s) business and provide additional conflict in the story. Though the angelic characters often do right, whether that be honorably admitting their defeat in battle or providing encouragement to the human characters, none of them is a source or guide on moral goodness. Any source of moral action comes from the show’s human characters, or its fallen angelic ones, locating goodness on Earth, rather than in Heaven.
But by the same token, because the show gives little attention to the way the law is constructed and enacted by human beings in very flawed ways, as with the cops arresting a Black teen, it misses the opportunity to explore the ways that laws do not and cannot delineate good from bad and may often do evil in the world. This assumption in the value of law and disinterest in its moral complexity stands in contrast with what the genre is capable of, as other novels (the Lord Peter Wimsey series is a good one) provide opportunity for the detective to wrestle with the question of whether the law—or for that matter, the police as its enforcers—actually do good in the world.
Ultimately, this is Lucifer’s fall. Fun as the show is (and it is often quite fun!) its insistence on the moral virtue of the law is problematic. As believers, while we acknowledge the reality and transcendence of divine law, we also recognize its shortcomings—it cannot make us righteous—and its supersession by mercy. More problematically, in the show, there is no distinction between “God’s law” and “human law;” God’s law doesn’t really exist, outside of Lucifer’s hunger to punishment (and indeed, to the degree that Lucifer’s punishing people stands in as divine law, it is divine law, not human law, which falls short of doing good in the world). Because of this, the insistence that the law is the source of good in the world closes off the possibility of self-examination, the opportunity to rethink our laws and our obedience to them to see whether the laws do good in the world. The cops’ laws, if not the cops themselves, are always doing good in the world, which is contrary to how the world actually works; there is no opportunity to reflect on our own laws, whether civic (laws criminalizing homelessness, for instance) or our community laws (laws about women’s dress in the church, or about the appropriate behaviors for women in the church).
Equally seriously, the coupling of righteousness with law and the centrality of justice, as enacted through the legal system, closes off any real consideration of mercy. It is possible for good to be done, or at least justice to be served, within the police departments of the show (and of the cop genre more generally); but mercy is never a consideration. This is perhaps the most serious hit for believers, who are called by God to something more than justice: “And what does the Lord require of you, but do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Indeed, in Micah, mercy and humility follow after justice, suggesting they are, if not more important, at least crucial context. True justice only coexists alongside mercy, and alongside a humility that places our own efforts at mercy and justice alike into context, recognizing their inherent limitations.
In the end, these flaws do not altogether damn Lucifer. The show remains light (at least by the standards of police procedurals) and entertaining. There are provocative moments too, particularly when Lucifer himself wrestles with his own identity: who he is and how he can live in the world in such a way as to make both it and himself better. That these moments are among the best in the show is ironic, then, as the moral system of Lucifer makes it difficult for viewers to ask similar questions of themselves. Conflating the legal system and the cops who enforce it with righteousness, Lucifer glosses over ongoing public exigences that we face, among them a growing attention to the problem of police brutality. The show misses a chance to ask instead harder, more fruitful questions about what mercy could look like in the context of the varied public challenges our society faces. Opposing punishment with justice, Lucifer bedevils viewers into seeing the way to do good in the world as linked to a legal code, rather than to the more complicated and powerful way of mercy: identifying ourselves with law-breakers, recognizing the harms embedded in our own laws, and seeking to craft new paths of grace and love.