As a long-time soap viewer, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to hear a character on General Hospital declare that, “Sonny is a good man.” They could record that line and just play it back as needed — and if I had a dollar for every utterance, I could retire in Fiji. But, while early retirement sounds nice, the problem is that Sonny Corinthos is not a good man. He’s a flawed man, a broken man, stubborn and selfish and violent. He’s abusive to women, a bully and an asshat. No amount of telling us “he’s a good man” changes what we’ve seen him do onscreen. You know what does? Other stuff he does onscreen, without fanfare or a Greek Chorus pointing out how awesome he is. Sitting by Stone’s bedside, helping Connie when Trey was dying, having sane conversations about his kids with his ex-wife — that’s what explains to the viewer that this guy is worth keeping around.
“You asked for a soul,” vampire Angel points out to his protégé, Spike in season five of his eponymous series. “I didn’t. It almost killed me. I spend a hundred years trying to come to terms with infinite remorse. You spent three weeks moaning in a basement, and then you were fine. What’s fair about that?” Not much, that’s for sure! Especially since Spike’s reappearance on Angel undercuts his genuine self-sacrifice in the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — the ending Spike earned, after nabbing his soul didn’t really work out.
Truly effective redemption arcs happen without incentive, without characters spelling it out for the reader or viewer and waiting for the redeemed at the finish line with a gold medal. They aren’t quick fixes.
[Spoilers for Game of Thrones and Once Upon a Time below the jump]
No one gives Game of Thrones’ Jaime a cookie when he rescues Brienne from the bear at Harrenhal. Nor does he expect one. Just like he didn’t expect anything out of telling their captors that Brienne could be ransomed for sapphires in order to prevent her from being raped. As far as he is concerned, when he takes these chances, the odds are against him. Nowhere in Jaime’s arc does he think he’s doing anything remotely heroic. It’s relentless misery, a literal journey back to his family, and he doesn’t, for one second, think that his and Brienne’s give-and-take of mutual rescues means anything more than debts paid. That’s what makes it compelling to watch: seeing this man who tossed a kid out of a tower to protect his sister widen his net and care about other people without even realizing he’s doing it.
On Once Upon a Time, Rumpelstiltskin and Regina are constantly in pursuit of cookies, of approval. They only do good to be thought of as good. The character changes are only for incentive. He wants Belle’s good opinion. She wants Henry’s love and respect. There is no altruism, no real thought for anyone else. They beat the crap out of people, try to kill their enemies and then still expect olive branches and offers of forgiveness.
As the Bree half of author Moira Rogers said on Twitter, “ ‘I haven’t mauled anyone in four days WHY AM I NOT THE MOST LOVED YET?’ isn’t really a great platform for redemption.”
In flashbacks throughout the season, we see Regina grasp onto hope that she could be good just because Snow sees some good in her. But when Snow sees that the evil queen has slaughtered an entire village and decides that Regina is indeed beyond redemption, Regina turns on a dime. As if Snow’s opinion, not her own crime, is what mattered. That’s ridiculous, and not the least bit redemptive: “I’m only bad because people think I’m bad.” Similarly, when Regina “sacrifices herself” to save the town in the second season finale, it’s because she wants Henry to think well of her. Never mind that, one episode prior, she was plotting to destroy the town herself and steal him away. We’re just supposed to forget that and agree with Henry when he declares her a “hero” and sigh when they exchange “I love you”s. I couldn’t. I was too busy rolling my eyes so far back that I could see my rear end.
The same ludicrous “See, he’s really a good guy!” moment happens for Rumpelstiltskin, who begins the finale fraying a rope swing to try and kill Henry, his own grandson, and then ends 40 minutes later going on a potentially fatal mission to save the boy. In case we don’t know it’s redemptive and heroic, we have ladylove Belle there to tearfully remind us of the power of their love.
Show the viewer that Regina and Rumpel have truly learned the error of their ways. Show us that they’re saving the town and rescuing Henry because somewhere, deep down, they know it’s the right thing to do. But Once Upon a Time has a bad habit of constantly telling. Snow White and Charming even have to tell their fellow good guys that rescuing Regina is the right thing to do — when it’s patently obvious that it’s their nature to do such things. Why actually declare it? There is no need to hold the viewers’ hands and lead them to that particular revelation. Not if you’re telling the story right.
It’s why Captain Hook’s arc in the season finale is perhaps the best, because between the flashbacks and the present-day happenings, we see his nature lead him to both the wrong and right decisions. As the show’s loner character and true outsider, he doesn’t have a legion of cheerleaders rooting him along…which is funny, since he’s the only villain who hasn’t actually killed anyone. But I digress. Hook makes a choice at the end of the episode that makes perfect sense given what we know about him, without veering into over-the-top “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” territory. And no one even tries to sing that song. So, it’s organic. It feels like a natural progression and not a forced act of heroism. Much like Jaime Lannister, he’s widening his net in a believable fashion.
Redemptive acts need to surprise the characters committing them just as much as they surprise the viewers and readers — and they also need to make sense.
If you haven’t mauled a person in four days and expect a prize, who’s to say you’re not going to bludgeon a bystander with that trophy in a week?