On the importance of character arcs

Matthew-CrawleyIf another character – Falcon, or the Winter Soldier – takes up the shield of Captain America, he will not be Captain America. I want to know the story of Steve Rogers.

If another character – like Jane Foster – picks up Mjolnir to become ‘Thor’, that will not be the story of the Odinson.

Most human stories have no wider significance. There are no wider lessons to be learnt. They are tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Those are not the stories that I wish to invest my scarce and precious time absorbing. ‘Life is hard, random accidents happen at all times, beware’. Thank you for telling me something that I did not know.

Think of Brienne in Game of Thrones. If she doesn’t end up with some sort of decent narrative closure with Jamie then that will be a very long story without much meaning (there is some meaning already, I’ll grant that). Whereas if Jamie, for his crimes, is exiled and has to spend the rest of his life confined to the island of Tarth… well, that’s a story worth telling.

All this is triggered by my disgust at the show runners of Downton Abbey. A clear dereliction of duty. The soul of the story has gone – why continue? A mere accumulation of events, and what is the significance in that?

Mad Men: Bad End (or, how bad it gets when scriptwriters lose the plot)

So – we finished Mad Men last night…

SPOILERS after a picture of Joan and Don


These last two series or so have been so incredibly frustrating. The writing quality seemed to have declined so much, with no integrity or care for character arcs.

So: Megan chops and changes between liking Don and hating him, with nary an explanation in between as to why she is changing.
Ted got divorced? When did that happen?
Everyone hates Don? Why? Oh, they’re friends again now – why?
Don – let’s give him an affair with a neighbour we’ve hardly seen, obviously his plot line is getting boring.

What seems to have happened is that a bunch of soap opera writers got drafted in with a brief to keep things interesting. In doing that – ie, in bringing in ‘incident’ to the narratives – all coherence and integrity for particular characters was sacrificed.

Grrr. It all started out so well.

On good endings

Over the last few days, I’ve watched the endings of Ashes to Ashes, Lost, and also (by a quirk of fate) the ‘Journey’s End’ episode of Doctor Who (end of series 4), which is where my eldest son and I have got to. I think that all three TV episodes ended well. (In fact, I am now open to seeing the whole of Lost again at some point (in a few years time), when I was quite sceptical of it.) So the question of endings is on my mind; most especially, the question of good endings. What is the essence of a good ending?

I would say there are two elements that apply to any story, and then something that I look for personally to gain the most satisfaction from an ending.

The first and possibly most essential element of a story ending is that it is consistent with the characters. The actions taken – and the consequences of those actions – must flow from authentic behaviour and not be mere contrivances to advance the plot. Characters must be given their own integrity, otherwise the authorial voice is overwhelming and we are no longer in story territory, but in sermon territory.

The second element is that the plot should be coherent and intellectually satisfying on its own terms, that is, the ‘universe’ being explored should be consistent and have its own stable framework. (Where the framework is the same as our lived existence, you have realist fiction. Where the framework is altered is a specific way, you have what is called fantasy or science fiction.) Essential questions need to be answered!

Those two elements I think are essential for anything to qualify as ‘good’, ie to have a certain degree of quality. For me, personally, there is a third element that I look for which ‘knocks the ball out of the park’ when it is achieved successfully, and this is when the creation succeeds in showing that death is not terminal for meaning. What I mean by this is that there is a framework of value which is articulated through the story which is shown to be vindicated beyond the death of the lead character(s). Of course, this is a Christian perspective. It is perfectly possible to have a high quality story that is not ‘orthodox’ in this sense (Un Couer en Hiver is the best example I can think of).

Where the third element is in place, then an element of grace enters in to the story, and it makes letting go much easier – for the characters themselves, and also for those watching or reading. There IS such a thing as a good death.

Things I particularly enjoyed from those three TV episodes:
from Ashes
– the destroyed Quattro, and then Gene looking at a Mercedes brochure;
– the Railway Arms, and all that was symbolised by that (and by the parallel symbolism elsewhere);
– the realistically sad note about Molly.
from Dr Who
– the final resolution of the Rose character arc;
– everything about Donna (sort of tragic).
from Lost
– Juliet coming back in the way I predicted, and the ‘Go Dutch’ resolution for them;
– Locke forgiving Ben, and Ben staying outside;
– Jack’s redemption.

For me, the most effective treatment of these themes – and the best ending – isn’t found in television, or in novels, but in comics, specifically the Sandman sequence, which is all about the nature of a good story (and therefore, by definition, all about a good ending). My three criteria are all fulfilled in abundance here, but most of all, there is a richness of allusion and metaphor and incidental characterisation that makes the re-reading of the stories an immense pleasure.

In keeping with the nature of the medium – herewith one of the many endings in the Sandman sequence (you’ll have to read it to really understand it!)

TV/ Movie notes

I’m really getting out of the habit of these.
Duplicity 3.5/5 Entertaining and a good ending
Push 3/5 So-so
Seven Pounds 4/5 Very interesting and well done, not sure it’s at all orthodox though.
Now for the trashy ones:
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans 3/5
Friday 13th (remake) 4/5 Better than the original
Lesbian Vampire Killers: 2/5 utter drivel

Also watching at the moment:
Torchwood (season 2) – gets better and better, particularly liked the memory episode
Caprica – excellent, really engages with the themes of identity
Lost – is managing to raise my hopes that it will achieve a better resolution than BSG
24 – average
Fringe – Walter Bishop is a genius character, but the programme as a whole has lost its way

I’ve also been a very naughty boy. Let’s just say I now have the capacity to play Bioshock 2, but not on my PC….

Lost and a brief thought about evil

I re-watched the last two episodes of Lost last night, prior to the new series coming back in February, and I was very struck by the way in which the ‘non-Locke’ character (viewers will understand) incarnates evil. What I mean is that, in prompting Ben to kill Jacob, he feeds Ben’s own sense of victimhood. Evil is the whisper prompting someone to believe in nothing. “What about you?”
Anyone wanting a rapid memory-refresh (that manages not to mention my favourite character Mr Echo):

Posted in TV