Saturday, October 23, 2010

Beyond The Pale

When does a fictional character cross the line so far that he or she becomes irredeemable, assuming that said person has up to that point been a hero in the most traditional sense? It's one thing to be an anti-hero or even a dark hero, where by the very nature of the definition the character's actions and methods are already morally ambiguous. But what actions push a reader or viewer so far that they are no longer capable of forgiving that character? In fact, the reader/viewer's fundamental view of that character is forever altered, perhaps even retroactively.

The most excellent (and biggest time suck on the planet, so beware) website TV Tropes lists something called the Moral Event Horizon, a line which when crossed represents a character's descent into true evil or from hero to villain. After crossing the Moral Event Horizon, a character is marked as generally irredeemable. While a Moral Event Horizon is always a subjective thing - what behaviours one person views as reprehensible and unforgivable another person might accept given certain circumstances - it seems writers of fiction approach such an act with great intention that it be recognized as a significant point of change. You always know an MEH when you see one.

Last night on one of my favorit-est TV shows ever, Supernatural, Sam Winchester came within micrometers of the Moral Event Horizon if not actually crossed over it.
I'm still trying to decide which side of that line he now lives on, but I'm very afraid it's the wrong side. Sam stood by and watched - lifted not so much as a pinky finger to help - while his brother Dean was turned into a vampire.

And while this alone is more than plenty for evoking the MEH, Sam actually expressed satisfaction in the situation by smirking. The moment was truly bloodchilling.

Now, I honestly have no idea how the writers and creators of Supernatural can ever bring Sam back. Personally, I can never trust him again. And no amount of apology or self-flagellation or sacrifice will ever be enough for Dean to forgive his brother.

What's sad is that I've always liked Sam. Even back in Season 4 when Sam became addicted to drinking demon's blood - an initial attempt, I believe, made by TPTB to push Sam over the MEH - I was never mad at the guy. He was still Sammy Winchester, demon hunter and all-around-great-guy.

Which goes to show you how one person's MEH is not someone else's. Drinking demon blood and even choosing to follow the Demon Ruby at the expense of abandoning Dean didn't come close to the MEH for me. Watching as his brother is attacked, nearly killed and ultimately changed into a beast is pretty darned close.

There are many acts that are no-brainers as far as MEHs. Pedophilia and abuse of children in any form is 100% unforgivable and anyone who perpetrates it is irredeemable to the nth degree. For me, abuse of animals is over the MEH. Genocide: crosses the MEH. As does rape. Taking advantage of people with limited abilities or resources skirts over the line. And I believe there is a special place in Hell for corrupt politicians, CEOs and others who bilk people who trust them out of millions or even billions.

Murder is a little bit ambiguous because there are circumstances when I can understand it. Torture follows down that path. I recall the episode during Lost's first season when Sayid tortured Sawyer in order to get him to reveal the location of some crucial medication. Not pleasant to watch or contemplate but at least marginally justifiable.

I suppose it comes down to circumstances and justification. The best person can be made to do some pretty reprehensible acts if given enough motivation. A lot of fiction deals with this scenario. Would you steal medicine if you had to in order to save someone's life? Would you kill someone in revenge if they killed or hurt someone you loved? Would you kill someone if you believed it served the greater good?

But regardless of how noble the intentions, if an evil act is carried out and brings any kind of joy or satisfaction to the person doing it, the MEH must be contemplated. Last night, later in the show, it was suggested that perhaps Sam had a good reason for letting Dean get turned. By becoming a vampire himself, Dean could gain access to the real vampires' hidden enclave and work from within to destroy them. While this is a somewhat questionable way to go about this, at least it's a plan with a good intent behind it.

However, Sam clearly gained some form of positive feeling about what happened. And that negates any justifiable reasons he might have had for not helping his brother. With that smirk, Sam crossed the Moral Event Horizon.

I have no idea how the Supernatural folks plan to un-do this. Short of revealing that the Sam we've been watching all season is actually an impostor and that the Real Sam is tied up somewhere completely oblivious, I don't know that they can ever take this character back.

Which goes to demonstrate that crossing the MEH must be done with great care and consideration. Even skirting that fine line is a risky thing to do. You have to be pretty certain of your grand plan and that sacrificing such a character is something you are prepared to do.

No comments: