Sunday, April 17, 2016

Give 'em a Redemption Arc!

I'm a sucker for a good redemption arc. Heck, I'm a sucker for a redemption arc, period. There's something thrilling about a character turning from bad to good, from being a villain to being a hero (or at least on the side of the hero). It gets my story-loving soul stirred up in ways few other tropes can.

I've been thinking about what makes a redemption arc powerful (and what makes a good one). My friend Mirriam has posted recently about good and bad character deaths and what makes a good story and she's even shared her hopes for Hive to be redeemed on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Another friend shared the news that Benedict Cumberbatch is voicing the Grinch in a new animated movie and that turned into a conversation about how the live action film basically destroyed the Grinch's redemption arc by making him the victim of the materialistic Whos.

While there's nothing wrong with multiple redemption arcs in the same story, in that case, they just didn't work as well together as they should have.

So what makes a good redemption arc? I'm going to look at a couple of my favorites to figure that out. (Warning: spoilers abound for the various stories I look at read further at your own risk.)

The Grinch
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
A wonderful, awful idea.
I mentioned this briefly before but the story of the Grinch is a fantastic example of a redemption arc. The character begins the story as an out and out villain and behaves wickedly throughout the story -- until he encounters something that makes him stop dead in his tracks and turn around. The conversation about BC's new Grinch film I mentioned led me to set out the requirements of a redemption arc in this way: "A redemption arc doesn't require sympathy for the devil, but it does require a change of heart." For the Grinch, that's a pretty literal description, as his heart grows three sizes (from woefully undersized to welling over with compassion and empathy). In this case, the redemption arc ends with the character's full redemption and he gets a happily ever after. It's heartwarming, but not entirely typical of redemption arcs.

The Lord of the Rings
My brother. My captain. My king.
Boromir's redemption arc is a bit more nuanced. He's not an outright villain for most of the story, but he does walk a descending road from the moment he sees the Ring at the Council of Elrond. Its power tempts him and corrupts his very good desire to defend his country and bring it hope. His pride in his countrymen's defense of the free world becomes arrogant disavowal of Aragorn's right to the throne of Gondor. Boromir thinks the Council's decision to destroy the Ring is foolish, and that belief is used by the Ring to turn him against Frodo, whom he has sworn to guide and protect. But, when Boromir has gone as low as he can, he realizes what he's done is wrong and attempts to make restitution by saving Pippin and Merry from the Uruk-hai. To top it off, he acknowledges (with his dying breath, no less) Aragorn's claim to kingship and it is these dying actions that show Boromir has found redemption.

Edmund and Eustace
The Chronicles of Narnia
This is how everyone should look after a redemption arc.
These cousins are the centers of a pair of classic redemption arcs. Edmund betrays his siblings only to find redemption at the cost of another's life and forgiveness. Eustace is a brat who learns that all his conceptions of the world are wrong and begins to mend his behavior. One of the things I love about this pair of redemption arcs is the fact that Edmund's arc comes back during Eustace's and he even consoles Eustace by mentioning some of the details. Edmund also mentions his redemption via Aslan's sacrifice in The Horse and His Boy and Eustace's change in behavior is called out in The Silver Chair. These aren't just one-and-done redemption arcs. They have lasting effects in the world of Narnia, on the characters, and on those they know and love.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
This guy is obviously redemption arc material.
Ling's redemption arc is a bit of a slow burn. From the time he's first introduced, he's more of an annoyance (albeit an occasionally useful annoyance) than an antagonist. That is until he takes on the living embodiment of Greed and becomes one of the series' group of master villains as a result. But Greed was always the most ambitious and rebellious of the Homunculi, so when his desires and Ling's (yeah, the two sort of coexist in Ling's body like split personalities that can talk to each other) match up with each other but not those of the other Homunculi, Greed/Ling sets out to take down his siblings and their father. His arc comes to completion as so many redemption arcs do: a self-sacrificing death. Greed sacrifices himself to stop his father from destroying humanity (and quite possibly the universe) in his desire to become God, and Ling joins in the sacrifice, giving up his chance to become emperor. It's a beautiful moment for both of them (one of a long string of beautiful moments at the climax of the show).

Jack Thompson
Marvel's Agent Carter
Me too, Jack. Me too.
I did not like Jack Thompson the first time I watched season 1 of Agent Carter. At all. Not even when Mirriam defended him at every chance when the rest of us said he was an awful person. But I'm open to new interpretations of characters, so I gave season 1 another viewing before season 2 premiered. By the end of the eighth episode, I was convinced that at the very least Jack Thompson was not a terrible person. He did have the potential to be a very good character and ally to Carter and the rest. Then in season 2, he spent the first half of the season or so going back to that jerk of a person he'd been on my first viewing of season 1. He lied, he allied himself with obviously nefarious men, and he not only didn't protect Carter and Sousa but he went behind their backs to give their enemies leverage against them. And then he revealed himself as the A-1 actor and player, having put up a front the entire season in an attempt to keep Carter safe and bring down the people who are trying to hurt her and the country Jack loves. It is an amazing transformation of his characterization. (And if that last shot of the season isn't fixed in the yet-to-be-announced third season, I will not be happy.) I wouldn't exactly say Jack has a change of heart, but he does at least change his treatment of others, at least a little. The fact that I was made to like a character I'd previously loathed makes me want to count this one.

Regina Mills
Once Upon a Time
Evil isn't always forever.
Regina's is another classic villain-to-hero redemption arc. She starts out the show as the Evil Queen of Snow White fame, intent on destroying everyone's happy endings because she lost her own. But as the seasons pass, she grows less consumed with revenge and more consumed with love and keeping her adopted son Henry safe and well. She changes her goals and becomes focused on being the best person she can, on being someone who is more than evil deeds. It's a lovely arc and one of the few the showrunners haven't destroyed along their way to seasons five and six.

Once Upon a Time
It's magic, dearie.
And speaking of ruined redemption arcs, Rumplestiltskin has been one of the most compelling characters on this show from the beginning. As a complex villain whose main motivation is reunion with his long-lost son, Rumple's story has been full of darkness and glimmers of light. He's had two fantastic redemption arcs in the last five seasons: one when he sacrificed himself to stop his father from destroying Storybrooke and those Rumple loves (including his son) and the other when he becomes a hero, devoid of the darkness that's consumed him for centuries, all in order to save his true love and the rest of the town. Unfortunately, both of those redemption arcs have been summarily dismantled by the writers within episodes of their fulfillment. It's one of my biggest frustrations with the show, because they seem to either not care or not know how to write Rumple as a hero for any length of time. I'd love to list Rumple as an example of a good redemption arc (and up to the moments that they ruin it, he is) but it's just not possible right now. (I can always hope they'll redeem him by the end, but I'm less inclined to trust the writers on this front now.)

Prince Zuko
Avatar: The Last Airbender

Simply put, Zuko's redemption arc is a thing of beauty. His initial moments on screen establish him as a villain, the person who will be causing massive amounts of trouble and danger for our protagonist Aang and his friends. Yet before the first season is done, Zuko has been made into a complex figure who believes in honor and, though still a danger to Aang, isn't as dangerous as other characters like Zhao and Zuko's father, Fire Lord Ozai. Season 2 sees Zuko become an even conflicted character. Further exiled from his homeland and trying to make his way in the world, Zuko eventually is faced with the choice between two things: fighting his sister and joining Aang, or striking down Aang in a moment of weakness and being reconciled to his father the Fire Lord. Zuko chooses the latter in a heartbreaking moment that sets up his entire journey as a character for the final season. That last season sees Zuko reject the things he's always wanted -- his father's praise, being reinstated as prince of the Fire Nation, belonging -- for what he knows is right -- joining Aang, the Avatar and protector of the world. Zuko is already compelling as an antagonist. He wants things most people want, and he strives to live honorably even in difficult situations. But it isn't until we see him give up those things he's most desired and live in a lower, more humble and humiliating state than he's ever known -- all for the sake of his convictions -- that he truly become a character we can love and defend.

P.S. One character most people might expect to see here is Severus Snape. In my opinion, Snape's story is NOT a redemption arc, though he comes close. He's never truly apologetic for the things he's done and though he does sacrifice himself to protect Harry in the end, it's not because he's changed over the seven years of the books. It's precisely because his motivation HASN'T changed that he does so. However, I'll listen to arguments to the contrary if you've got one.

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