beer_good_foamy: (Wild as the wind)
[personal profile] beer_good_foamy
There's been talk of redemption again in fandom, partly inspired by Mark Watches getting up to "Sanctuary". [personal profile] deird1 had a good post about it here, for instance.

And I just wanted to jot down some loose thoughts.

Now, on the one hand, I love a good redemption arc. It's why characters like Faith, Spike and for that matter Jed Bartlet and Bubbles are among my favourites on TV. The idea of forgiveness, of being a better person today than you were yesterday, of stupid mistakes or selfishness or ruthlessness not being a door that shuts in your face forever, is a powerful one. They've built religions around it for a reason. Stories about it can, when done right, be extremely cathartic. (Exactly what makes them work is a long story, possibly for a later post.)

On the other hand, I occasionally find myself sick to fucking death of atonement stories. Which is probably why characters like Lilah Morgan and Tony Soprano who openly reject it are also among my favourites on TV. Now, I'm not going to give any particular examples, partly because this is just a general musing, partly because I could go on for ages about both spectacularly failed redemption arcs and spectacular deliberate subversions of them, and partly because everyone in fandom draws the line in a different place and this post isn't about whether specific characters' actions can or should be forgiven. (Feel free to comment with examples if you want, though.)

But it seems to me that exactly because the narrative of the Hero Searching For Redemption is so engrained in us, appearing in every other story since Homer, it's easy for both writers and readers to get lazy or blasé about it. Redemption becomes an end in itself, a Get Out Of Jail Free card that the writers can play anytime they want simply by saying that they're playing it, which means that... well, especially in an ongoing story where you occasionally need to keep it fresh by adding new mistakes or atrocities for the hero to atone for, it's easy to get to one of these points (which are really just different sides of the same coin):

a) you get careless about why s/he* keeps making the same mistakes again and again, since the audience knows that s/he'll atone for them anyway. So whenever you need the story to have some extra catharsis, you have the hero do something s/he shouldn't, for which s/he then feels bad. In which case the question becomes, at what point does the hero become a complete monster who still keeps doing the things s/he feels sorry for? If the only person who benefits from said atonement is the atoner him/herself, who gets to feel good about the fact that at least s/he feels bad... is that really the point of the redemption narrative? (Actually, it may well be, but that's a different discussion.)

And on the other side:

b) If the Atoner needs to atone, then there must be something for them to atone for. Therefore, the more they have to atone for, the nobler they are. Therefore, while the horrible things they did may look horrible, they are in fact not only forgivable but even admirable - because without them, how could there be these powerful redemption stories that help us feel good? Except... once you've done this a couple of times, and the aforementioned laziness/blaseness sets in, it's easy for the story to shift from one about redemption to one that glorifies villainy and calls it redemption.

Again, the point I'm trying to make here definitely isn't REDEMPTION ARCS BAD. It's more like... um...

XANDER: And was there a lesson in all this huh? What did we learn about beer?
BUFFY: Foamy.
XANDER: Good, just as long as that's clear.


Yup. They're foamy. Tasty, thirstquenching, intoxicating, even necessary. But if you water them down too much, or consume a whole bunch of very similar ones in one sitting, they'll give you a headache and possibly double vision. And if you drink them from a broken bottle, they can even be outright harmful.

Sorry about that last metaphor. I'll go brood over that now.
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