Warning: What follows is 2 days worth of me rambling on about television shows – spoilers abound. Read with care and no little confusion.
Before I went off on my complete lets-do-nothing-with-myself-fest, this was a post I wanted to write. I decided to hold it back a little longer, but essentially it’s about something that’s been bothering me.
Now, TV is for the most part, fictional. I know this – but it doesn’t change the fact that I, like many others, get invested in the characters on screen. I have cheered, screamed, cried and even mourned these avatars – colleagues at work have seen me come in with a slightly raw face and wondered what was wrong – I try to avoid explaining details, because at the end of the day it’s hard to explain you spent the previous night crying into a pillow because a character in a Japanese cartoon died.
However, a show I’ve been very much enjoying the past few weeks has started to make me uncomfortable, just due to the actions of characters. And it basically comes down to redemption and forgiveness in television, and how the rules on screen are so far apart from reality.
I’m sure just about every show has at least one ‘bad boy’ character. Someone you either love to hate or love to ‘love’ in the hopes that you can change them. But I’m thinking more of villain characters who have genuinely done horrifying things, and seem to go through life without regrets or any kind of penance – yet have been accepted by their former enemies regardless.
My first conscious memory of this kind of character comes from anime inevitably. Specifically Vegeta from Dragonball Z. He was the main villain in one of the first arcs, and by the time he landed on earth, the show had made it pretty clear he was bad news – he essentially wiped out civilisations on other planets so they could be sold to the highest bidder, and for fun, would blow up planets just for the heck of it. Next arc along, it turns out he’s been working for the man who wiped out his people – but throughout the show, he makes it clear that he has no regret for his previous actions, and as far as he’s concerned, everyone on the planet is beneath him.
Of course, this is hardly a great example. Dragonball Z wasn’t exactly a realistic show – when you have a plot device that allows you to bring back the dead at the drop of a hat, mass killing isn’t necessarily the hideously evil thing it would be in any other show.
One of the few times it’s (sort of) done right, is Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A villain from an early series who was supposed to be killed off, but proved to be so popular they extended his role. Eventually, they decided to bring him back as a full time cast member…meaning they had to come up with a reason for Spike to A) be in town, B) not be killed and C) fight alongside the woman he really wants to kill. Thus came the ‘chip’ story – where the government place a chip in his head which means he cannot hurt human beings, and is being hunted by the organisation who put it there, needing the hero’s protection. By next season, this threat has mostly died, so in goes the ‘falls in love with Buffy’ plot.
Bad boys being redeemed through love is hardly a new thing. Beauty and the Beast is one of the classics, and I admit, when I got into Buffy this is more or less where I fell in. So I’m a big fan of ‘Spuffy’ – and spent most of the show desperate for them to get together. I made the mistake of watching it again last year – especially season 6, and suddenly realised just how horrifyingly wrong this relationship actually is. It’s violent and abusive and self destructive on both sides…yet I still consider it my favourite official couple – read into that what you will…
The problem with Spike was that he’d spent 100+ years being a soulless monster, and doing things that soulless monsters generally do. And was proud of his choices – he pretty much admits the only reasons he’s not still doing them early on in the crush stages is that Buffy wouldn’t like it, and he physically can’t anymore because of the chip. However, the plus in Buffy’s side is that the show doesn’t sweep what he is under the carpet. The characters rely on him for his strength and use, but they don’t trust him. They know what he is and what he’s capable of, and very few are willing to overlook that.
(Of course – on the other side of the coin you’ve got Anya, a several thousand year old vengeance demon who tortured men throughout her career who seems to get away without any ill will for it because she’s A) powerless and B) sleeping with Xander, but I digress).
Spike’s real redemption comes from the final season, where in a desperate attempt to get Buffy to love him, he re-obtains his soul. This is the big thing – because it forces him to look at the things he’s done, and for the first time he’s actually capable of feeling regret for them. And does so – much like the previous soulful vampire before him Angel, Spike goes insane with the guilt and is borderline ready to die if Buffy wills it. As such, when a time comes where the son of one of Spike’s former victims comes looking for revenge…even the son himself admits the Spike in front of him isn’t the monster that took his mother. If you’re going to do evil into redemption, it wasn’t a badly done arc.
Now, the show in question that has me all twisted around? Once Upon A Time. A LOT of spoilers in this so if you were ever planning to watch stop reading now.
If you’ve never seen it, the premise is hard to explain in a few words, but basically, there’s a town in Maine that is inhabited by fairy tale characters under a curse. They don’t remember their previous lives, and the Evil Queen is in control, having transported them all here and guaranteeing that nobody gets their ‘happy ever after’. The only hope of breaking this curse is Emma Swan, the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, sent to this world in advance to protect her from the curse so she can break it.
It’s a very interesting show, and usually has two plotlines – one in Storybrooke, Maine and the other in The Enchanted Forest telling the ‘true’ version of whatever fairytale character is starring that week (find the EF stories are usually far more entertaining that the real world ones). However it does have a multitude of problems, and the big one is definitely around forgiveness and redemption – with these two.
Regina Mills – aka the Evil Queen, and Mr. Gold – aka Rumpelstiltskin. In season 1 they were the obvious villains – but by season 2 they’ve been somewhat altered due to the nature of the plot. By the end of season 1 (and solidified in season 2), the curse, and indeed nearly every single bad thing that has ever happened to any character in the Enchanted Forest over the last 300 years is directly, or indirectly caused by Rumpelstiltskin. Why? Because he needed someone to cast the curse so he could get to this world to find his son, transported here through a means he couldn’t replicate. And in order to do this, he pretty much groomed Regina into a revenge driven monster against Snow White, and then made sure Snow and Charming got their happily ever after so she’d have no choice but to use it.
Admittedly, he has understandable reasons for wanting to come to this world – to find his son. But to do it he has destroyed his land, ruined millions of lives (and not all of his victims were for his plan – some apparently were just for fun), emotionally shattered and built up a woman who in turn caused almost as much pain and suffering, all so he could find his son and fix a mistake caused through his own cowardice. Ends do not justify the means here.
Regina on the other hand, has done hideous things to people, but as the series goes on, you realise the amount of free will she actually had in the situation is little to none. One of the show’s tag lines is ‘you’ve made your choice’, but Rumpelstiltskin can see the future, and as such knew exactly how to manipulate her to the point where it’s hard to say if she ever really had a choice in casting the curse (or indeed anything) at all.
So by season 2, the curse is (sort of) broken. Rumpelstiltskin has what he wants, and Regina is left with nothing, again. She however, decides to start trying to redeem herself…then immediately gets forced into another situation where she has almost no say in the matter through a completely different mastermind. Rumpel on the other hand, suffers some pretty awful setbacks, and admitted that he wants to be a better man for a certain other character, but has done some pretty awful things even after saying this just to save his own skin. Yet appears to be trusted by the main characters despite this.
Here’s the thing. Regina was actually trying to change. She was finally freed from Rumpel’s grand plan and started to accept that her ways weren’t going to get her what she wanted. She needed to become a better person, but was forced into a corner and not given much option, not to mention little to no support. Yet Rumpelstiltskin is perfectly happy with what he’s done, has even manipulated people into doing his dirty work for him after the curse, and yet is trusted far more than Regina ever was. The only reason I can think of for this is that most of the characters in the show still aren’t aware of just how much of their past events were orchestrated by Rumpel.
It’s frustrating, because I find Rumpelstiltskin to be one of the most fun and interesting characters in the show. But as it goes on I’m realising how much more he gets away with compared to Regina, and it’s not only unfair, its borderline cruel. Her life seems to be a self fulfilling prophecy, and I genuinely hope the storywriters manage to find a way to show how little choice she had to the main cast. Especially since Emma Swan’s job is to bring back ALL of the happy endings, something Regina doesn’t appear to get.
Anyway, this was a long and winded post, and here’s the conclusion. I dislike plots where you take a character who has done irredeemable things, and then make them a hero without price. Film and TV are fictional yes, but it seems wrong when compared to the world we live in. There are people who I think genuinely can’t be redeemed – and in entertainment the unbelievably irredeemable appear to be the prime cast. Not just random murderers or bank robbers, but characters who have spent their lives ruining other people, only to be brought in and trusted, as if their past doesn’t matter. There should be limits on ones background for forgiveness.
In realistic context, it would be similar to forgiving a war criminal for his crimes without a trial. You wouldn’t tolerate it in the real world, so why should it be so easily accepted in the fictional one?