Old Dogs and Dead Horses: The Shifty Elephant in the Room

I’ve mentioned a few times (if one of you wants to go count it and tell me just much more than a few it was, feel free) that stories are riddled with stereotypes that just won’t die, like characters who just. Won’t. Die. And forced similes. So, in my ongoing effort to enforce my extremely specific view of what constitutes good writing, which isn’t in the slightest an ironic form of literary censorship, I’m launching this new series to viciously murder those tropes in a dramatic, overdone fight that ends in my choking them to death, then bawling my eyes out because I can’t believe what I’ve just been doing for the last five minutes.

Now, to segue into my actual topic for tonight, The Walking Dead began its new season just a tad more than one day ago. You’ll never guess what I saw- and, pretty easily, saw coming- in that episode. Actually, you probably will guess. Stop me if this sounds familiar (ha, you can’t, because this is already finished when you read it!): hero character, in an attempt to prove a moral point to a villain, chooses to keep said villain captive. A distraction of some kind arises, often because of a master plan on the villain’s part but possibly out of pure unrelated circumstance (as in this episode of TWD). Villain uses the confusion to escape, while the hero somehow forgets every reflex and skill that allowed him/her to subdue the villain the first place, leading immediately to the villain taking some weaker person hostage (it was a baby this time, which is too cheap for words). Tense struggle for pretty much no reason, pretending that the hero isn’t going to regain the upperhand through a ‘clever’ reversal, as if she/he and the villain are just exchanging a virus of pure moronic incompetence (Brain Flu?) until one of them slips up enough to die. SPOILER: It’s almost always the villain.

So, first off, I don’t think any of us has ever really been surprised by this. There’s never been a single scenario in which we’ve ever said, “Holy Shit! I’m so surprised that the evil, dishonest guy turned out to be evil and dishonest!” The crowning achievement on that front was Loki in the Avengers (the damn trickster and servant of the dark powers played everyone? That’s surprising?) but the Walking Dead scene definitely gets an honorable mention for having a man talking about how badass he is for his incredible ability to abandon babies to die. Also, newsflash pal: the Spartans and Athenians made an active habit of that one. If the Ancient Greeks were doing that crap in the context of a functioning society, no one should be impressed by you. Yeah, a baby is pretty useless- so how much more badass than you is the guy who can keep that baby and himself alive and travel dozens of miles?

This is a subset of the bigger issue for me, though- that every single group of heroes, even in situations where they would never otherwise be so stupid, will inexplicably choose to spare a bad guy who any idiot can see is in a perfect position to screw them over. Carol’s standing right there while he gives his ‘Ha, I kill things that are totally incapable of fighting back, I’m so tough’ speech. Carol. Yeah, the character who shot her own people preemptively to stop them infecting others with a respiratory disease? That Carol. I do not for a second believe that someone like that wouldn’t put a bullet between Blandy McEviljerk’s glazed eyes purely because he’s talking shit. I was expecting her to do it any second. I was rooting for the writers to A. Pull through on the most basic level and B. Keep their own character consistent. Somehow, some way, they failed on both counts and fell into the same fetid cliche as hundreds of other TV, book and game writers before them. And no, I can’t give you a numbered list, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a series in which sparing the villains ever turned out to be a good idea. Excluding Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings, anyway. Look, the ratio’s decidedly weighted towards the ‘this is dumb’ end of the spectrum. Fair?

And don’t say ‘moral high ground.’ You know what constitutes moral high ground? Being able to recognize when someone is going to betray you the first chance they get, and permanently removing them from the equation, because the people you’re protecting are more important than not proving some smug prick’s point. Who gives a shit if you prove him right? He’s dead, he can’t brag about it. You can even rob him of that enjoyment by simply saying, “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” as you shoot him. The best way to disarm a person who constantly eggs you on is simply to show that you’re okay with proving them right, and then doing it- by giving them precisely what they want, except the reluctant bit. But let me reiterate- the very mortal lives of the people you have sworn to love and protect, openly or implicitly, are more damn important than whether or not you prove the villain ‘right.’ Who gives a shit if you lose the argument? Technically, he wins either way, because that’s how a villain like this sets up his argument- if you don’t do what he says, you’re too weak and deserve to die, and if you do, you’re just like he is (because killing a mass murderer is clearly the same as being one). If you kill him, he only gets to be smug once- or not at all, if you do it suddenly enough.

Even if you ignore all that, why is it okay to kill infinite numbers of hapless, helpless grunts with no remorse or reflection, but when you get to the people who actually participated willingly, who chose to start this whole mess rolling in the first place, suddenly heroes start having cold feet about the murder business if the bad guys happen to surrender? The fact that the heroes now have power over the villains is meaningless, it’s totally irrelevant, because it’s not actually any different from the dynamic of a full-on fight. If a hero is more skilled than someone, to the point where he can effortlessly kill them- remember, all the dead cannon fodder?- how is that any different from a callous execution? This isn’t drawing a line they refuse to cross, it’s half-heartedly tracing a single dash in the ashes between a dozen ruined cities and shrugging.

I’m not honestly convinced this trope has anything to do with advancing the plot anymore. If I were the paranoid type (hey, whaddya know, I am!) I’d say it’s mostly about pissing off the audience by showing them something they’ve seen too many times already, tauntingly saying, “Haha, you see what’s coming but you can’t stop it! I’m toying with your emotions!” Well, so they are. They shouldn’t get smug, though, I get the same feeling of helpless indignation from corporations of all kinds, politics, religious debates, racial intolerance, religious intolerance, intolerance in general, idealism, pessimism, realism and pretty much everything else that people carry to extremes just because they can. Congratulations, TWD writers, you and your cohorts achieved the same result as a Youtube comments log, but you had to spend several million dollars where they spent, at most, fifteen seconds.

If that’s good writing, then the U.S. Congress is a brilliant satire of itself.

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