[First and foremost, apologies for the dearth of blogs. I will sum up the matter with this: health problems, surgery, zombies, recovery, more zombies, and then Camp NaNoWriMo where I tried to find my writing mojo hiding in the woods. Luckily, I found it hunkered down behind the boat shed (cowering from the zombie attacks) and handcuffed it firmly to my side. *dusts hands* And now, on with the journey, thanks for sticking around.]
What makes good guys good and bad guys bad? It used to be pretty easy to tell. John Wayne – always a good guy. Lee Marvin – usually a bad guy. In the movies, good guys were good looking, in a wholesome, bring home to mama kind of way. Bad guys were either ugly or smarmy, without much wiggle room in between. White hats, earnest expressions, good manners, the use of the word ‘ma’am’ – these were all obvious traits of the good guys. They acted from a place of law, of right and wrong, a moral subtext, a cultural, if not universal, sense of integrity. They knew the lines they wouldn’t cross, they could tell the victims from the perps, and they understood the actions they must not take because, if they did, they would become the very things they fought.
While things might not have been exactly black and white, the shades of grey were very well defined.
Our favorite white knights must always have a tiny touch of darkness about them. After all, purity is boring, right? Too perfect, too invulnerable, too goody-two-shoes is not appealing. (One reason I never liked Superman was that he was just a little too perfect, you know?) We nodded wistfully at past mistakes, shook our heads sadly at naïve, bad decisions. And if he (or she) fell for the wrong girl (or boy) and found himself (sigh, I’d use ‘them’ but I am a grammarian at heart) we could identify with the terribly romantic internal conflict. But, even so, the one thing the good guy has to be, now try to follow along here, it gets kind of technical, is GOOD.
In order to have good guys, we must have a sense of what is good and what is bad. We must be willing to define the parameters of goodness and badness. If we don’t, we’re stuck with rooting for whoever wins, whoever has the biggest guns, whoever is hottest, or whoever has the saddest or most poignant backstory. In today’s society, we’re afraid to use these labels except for the most graphic examples. Pedophiles – bad. Puppies – good. Once we move an inch towards the center from either absolute end, we tend to glance sideways at each other and mumble a lot.
That presents us with a problem. If we don’t know what is good and what is bad, how do we decide which character is the hero?
Sometimes, the writer or the director makes it obvious who we are to root for. He’s clearly the star, so we know we are to root for him. She is oppressed or misunderstood, so we must obviously root for her. This kid has attitude. This woman is pulling herself up by her bootstraps. The underdog. The little guy v. the Big Rich Corporation. Today, we root for humans against zombies, doctors against lawyers, lawyers against other lawyers, and everyone against the military. (Unless we’re fighting Nazis or evil aliens. EVIL aliens. If the aliens have a smidgen of pathos, the US military is still likely to be portrayed as the villain.) But what defines them as heroes?
If they’re wearing capes, or have pointed ears, or are played by either Robert Downey, Jr or Will Smith, we can be pretty safe. Otherwise, we are forced to rely on their actions and their words to judge them. Funny, that sounds a lot like real life.
So, when the ‘heroes’ start being indistinguishable from the ‘villains,’ either by their dialogue or their actions, we’ve got a problem. We’re conflicted. We’re unsure. “There are no absolutes,” people tell me. “Good and evil depend on the situation.”
Malarkey. When the good guys act like bad guys, they are no longer good guys.
I started watching Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD this fall, super-excited that Coulson Lives! If you are afraid of spoilers, please skip this paragraph and continue below. We all know by now that Phil did not rehab in Tahiti, but that his best friend, Nick Fury, tortured him for days so that his mind would convince his body to live. This is not the action of a good guy. I don’t care about ‘greater good,’ or ‘I love it when a plan comes together,’ or ‘Hydra infiltration.’ If you torture someone who trusts you, you are not acting like a good guy. Or a friend.
That’s just one example.
My husband and I started watching the CW’s Supernatural in Year #1. There were brothers. There were monsters. There were demons. There was classic rock and muscle cars and angst. There was humor. A confused angel. It was not great, but it was utterly fantastic. In recent years, the story has been hopelessly muddled with serial killer angels, heart-of-gold demons, and more trips to heaven and hell than any viewers should be subjected to. Vampires can be good. Monsters can be good. Or, no, Dean has to go back and kill the monster Sam believed was good because “all monsters are bad.” But he was best friends with a vampire for half a season. And Crowley, the King of Hell is not as bad as Megatron, the Scribe of Heaven. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? At the end of each new episode, when our ‘heroes’ are standing over the latest corpse, the feeling is eye-rollingly, gut-churningly, and, most importantly to the show’s producers, channel-changingly unsatisfying in the extreme.
And I think I’ve spotted the very moment when they got themselves into trouble.
In Season 5, in a humorous episode called Changing Channels starring one of our favorite sort-of-monsters, The Trickster, Sam puts it into words:
“Dean, the world’s ending. We don’t have the luxury of a moral stance.”
It’s funny. Is that how we really feel? In war, do we not care about how our warriors behave? Can they slaughter anyone who gets in their way without any thought to morality and get away with it? Do we shrug our shoulders and say, ‘Torture? Oh, that’s okay. Use any means necessary to win.’ No problem. The American people don’t care if some civilians lose their lives, as long as we win.
Instead of Sam’s dialogue, I’d say, without a moral stance it doesn’t matter if the world ends. And that’s how I like my good guys, too. Good.
So give me capes and uniforms and white hats and green berets. Give me morals and laws and convictions. Call me old fashioned, but give me heroes to root for; give me good men intent on doing the right things. Give me imperfect women struggling to make hard decisions. Give me a character redeemed.
Give me heroes. I miss them.
Next time: There’s a Party on Abydos, and You’re Invited!