|Redeemable? Or not.|
Enough, already, with the moral ambiguity. I love a good antihero as much as the next gal, but storytelling, particularly on television, has carried this trope much too far.
Laurie asked in her last post whether we can accept infidelity in our heroes and heroines once they meet in our romances. Is it still a romance when one or the other of the pair we’re writing to a happy-ever-after ending is unable to avoid the temptation of sex with another? (I’d answer no, but I’m old school.)
A broader question arises when the lead character in a drama engages not only in extra-relational sex that may be hurtful to his regular partner, but also murder, mayhem, theft, extortion, lying, cheating, torture, kidnapping, drug-running, gun-running, prostitution, black magic, soul-selling, espionage for a foreign power or ripping the throats out of people to get at their blood. Granted, all this bad behavior can be fascinating, but are we supposed to like these people?
Lest you think I’m basing my argument on one or two shows, here is a short list of the shows I watch that lead me to comment this week: DRACULA, THE VIKINGS, THE AMERICANS, THE BLACKLIST, AMERICAN HORROR STORY (third season), SONS OF ANARCHY, BATES MOTEL, HELL ON WHEELS (though it remains to be seen which way its hero might ultimately go). Even HAWAII FIVE-O, whose Steve McGarrett is generally brave and true, has its moments. Steve is the worst partner ever, never letting Danny drive his own car or offer a real opinion. And don’t get me started about his relationship with his girlfriend.
It’s tempting to blame all this moral shift on cable television and the wild success of shows like HBO’s THE SOPRANOS and AMC’s BREAKING BAD. Watching those episodes every week was like watching a train wreck—horrible, terrifying, and strangely addictive. You couldn’t look away, even though you knew it was going to be bad, very bad. Tony Soprano was not a nice guy. He was not a good man, underneath it all. And in the end, there was no redemption for him.
Therein lies the real problem. You could say I am the one to blame since I choose to watch these shows, and, clearly, the “hero” of DRACULA or BATES MOTEL is not going to be a good guy. But I might be forgiven for thinking the premise of the vampire show—the original blood fiend is in London to wreak revenge on an ancient vamp-hunting cult for the death of his beloved wife and his own creation—and its cool, steampunk vibe might offer a different take on Vlad the Impaler. Not so. He started out complex, but he’s devolved into a raving bloodsucker with few redeeming qualities. And, of course, we all know how Norman Bates turned out.
What has happened to the concept of redemption? It seems the writers and creators of television drama have forgotten that we watch people struggle with decisions of good and evil hoping they’ll choose the right path. We watch the main characters of series like SONS OF ANARCHY not just because Charlie Hunnam is hot, but because we hope he’ll find a way to steer his family and his motorcycle gang out of its violent past into a more sustainable future. Instead, we see him slip ever deeper into despair and moral indefensibility. Whatever we liked about him becomes less and less apparent as redemption slips from his grasp. It’s as if series creator Kurt Sutter doesn’t believe in redemption. Or he doesn’t care about it.
The same is true of the gruesome AMERICAN HORROR STORY. In the first two seasons, series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Fulchuk provided some kind of path to redemption for characters played by the great Jessica Lange. In the third season, AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN, Lange’s character, the “Supreme” witch of a New Orleans school for young witches, dies and goes to a custom-made Hell without any hope of redeeming a lifetime of evil.
I suppose we should take heart that some of these characters get what they deserve. But I have only so much interest in a series built around a complete villain. If a character is truly irredeemable, she loses much of her complexity and fascination. That villain may be useful as a foil for a hero, but as an antihero, he leaves much to be desired. Even worse, if we continue to choose these purely evil characters as the focal points of our storytelling, what does that say about our values? If we do not care to redeem them, what does that say about our society?