Wednesday, April 30, 2014

On Thrones and S.H.I.E.L.D.S.: When Does a Character Become Irredeemable?

by Sara N.

A couple of characters have been behaving badly on television recently — so badly, in fact, that it's got me wondering how (or even if) they can ever be redeemed.

Before I get into the details, I need to caution you, cats and kittens: SPOILERS for Game of Thrones through Season 4, Episode 4, ("Oathkeeper"), Marvel's Agents of SHIELD through Season 1, Episode 20 ("Nothing Personal"), and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

First, let's take Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones. He started off pretty rotten, siring three children with his twin sister and tossing wee Bran Stark out a tower window in the pilot. Both the book and the show make this enthusiastic murderer and sister-lover easy to hate at first. And then both the book and show begin to tease out the shades of gray  — and downright white — in him. We start to learn more about his motivations, which are more understandable than we might originally have thought.

By the start of this season, Jaime was basically a decent guy. He's been brought low through the loss of his hand, he's stood by his generally loathed younger brother, and he took great pains to save Brienne, who had been his captor. Heck, the show even softened his character arc so much that, unlike in the book, when he rescued Brienne from the bear pit, even the bear survived. (The death of that poor bear in the book has always weighed heavily on me.) Like all right-thinking book readers, I've been shipping Jaime and Brienne for a long time. The show wasted no time in getting viewers on the same page. Jaime's been breaking free of his skin-crawling relationship with his sister and learning to appreciate a brave, selfless and valiant woman whose beauty is more than skin deep. Who wouldn't root for that guy to continue evolving into a better man?

And then came episode 3, "Breaker of Chains," in which Jaime rapes his sister on the floor of the sept next to their son's body. Cersei cries and objects, shouting that it isn't right. Jaime takes her anyway.

Please allow me to visually demonstrate what this action did to all of his character development over the past three seasons:

So you're telling me, show, that the man who's been humbled and changed by his hardships returns to King's Landing and forces himself on the woman he loves, the woman who's essentially his wife in all but name? This is the opposite of the heroic knight who's been emerging over the last three seasons. This basically knocks Jaime's redemption arc back to where it began. How can showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss fix this enormous misstep?

Answer: They don't think there's anything to fix, apparently. The following episode showed that everything is hunky dory. In Jaime and Cersei's scene together, there was no hesitation or betrayal on her part and no remorse on his. What's more, he's shown sincerely offering to help the jailed Tyrion and doing schmoopy things for Brienne such as giving her his newly forged Valyrian steel sword and commissioning a new suit of armor for her. Oh, how I wanted to be touched by those gestures, but I couldn't get over his previous act of shocking violence, coming on the heels of his slow transformation from out-and-out villain to a man learning how to be a better person.

The show's departure from the books in this regard is incredibly frustrating, and more so if this act is never going to be mentioned again. Can his character be redeemed at this point? Maybe, but the show has to acknowledge that he did something wrong first.

Next, let's turn to Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. First, a note: Hey, this show has gotten pretty good! It was on an upswing going into the April episodes, and then the fallout from Captain America: The Winter Soldier kicked it into high gear when it revealed that Agent Grant Ward has been loyal to HYDRA all along.

Please allow me to visually demonstrate my two immediate reactions:

Oh, this was going to be interesting, I thought. Because prior to this, Ward's problem was that he wasn't very interesting, just a blandly handsome loner badass. As soon as his sleeper agent status was revealed, the sensible audience member starts to wonder when he'll see the error of his ways and join Agent Coulson and the rest of the loyal S.H.I.E.L.D. members in fighting to stop HYDRA. I mean, that's what has to happen, right? The young, handsome leading man has spent this entire season in the company of the stalwart, true-hearted Coulson and his devoted agents, righting wrongs and stopping the bad guys. That has to change a guy. This is obviously the most predictable path for the show to take, and it's what I've been expecting to see.

But if that's the way the show is planning to go, they've got an uphill battle, because dang, Ward is just a-killin' people left and right. Can you redeem someone who shoots good guy foot soldiers in cold blood and ruthlessly murders hapless S.H.I.E.L.D. employee Patton Oswalt? Sure, Ward doesn't seem thrilled about his allegiance to HYDRA; he seems more devoted to Bill Paxton's John Garrett than to any cause or faction. But for the most part, he's a murder machine.

Other murder machines have been redeemed on past shows, of course. Angel on Buffy the Vampire Slayer could blame his actions on his lack of a soul. Ditto Spike. Ward? We haven't seen an equally compelling reason for his mustache-twirling evil. We understand that Garrett commands his loyalty, but is that enough to justify the swath of destruction he's already cut through S.H.I.E.L.D.?

Ward will be tough to redeem, if that's the storyline they embrace. How delightful, though, if the show chooses not to take that predictable route and instead keeps him bad. Don't have him sacrifice himself as a final redemptive act. Don't have him suddenly turn on HYDRA. And in the name of all that's holy, don't make his love for Skye transform him into a hero. Keep him bad! Make him the villain next season, or kill him off — possibly by allowing Agent May have her revenge on her traitorous former lover. How exciting after a tepid first half of the season to see a show buck clichés and make the young male lead a deep-down unredeemable baddie.

What do you think, readers? Redeemable? Not redeemable? Let me know!
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