We have previously talked about how Redemption narratives are so often flawed in the genre by being too easy and too fast. The Redemption Train gets moving and before you know it your wicked evil villain is now team good guy and you’re left wondering when the moral shift happened.
But it’s far from the only flaw we have with Redemption Narratives - because we also see another thread of redemption stories: one that is awe inspiring in their self-centredness. Rather than redeeming a villain to the side of good, these Hero Redemptions usually follow a main character or protagonist who has done terribad things and needs to be “redeemed” (which, I guess, is better than protagonists who do terribad things and everyone just kind of runs with it or ignores it). In theory anyway - in reality the redemption is usually just a way to have them play in another plot line and have our sexy actors practice their soulful gaze in front of the cameras and make something else All About Them.
The most classic of these Self-Centred Redemptions is Martyrdom. How many protagonists are there out there who don their hair shirts and wail their self-loathing to the skies? There can be no greater example of this than Louis de Pointe du Lac from Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicle series. Louis’s entire character is about his suffering, even though he explicitly chose to become a vampire. He wanders through the years viewing himself as a member of the cursed due to his disconnect from humanity. It harms his senses that in order to live he must take life and so he searches for some greater meaning in his existence or at least a different food source. The fall from grace is the fall of a century causing him to reflect nothing but sadness. Those who do not mirror his depression are thereby judged to be not moral or beyond redemption. It is why he can so easily turn his back on Lestat in Tale of the Body Thief when Lestat turns to him for help in retrieving his immortal body. Humanity, to Louis, is the only form of redemption in existence.
Louis was, of course, the first but he formed a template in which innumerable Musty Vampires followed. From The Vampire Diaries to True Blood to Angel and Buffy (who has medals in this) we have a genre that is positively in love with Evil Vampires Who Did Evil and Now Feel Sad About It. It’s a virtually a religion among vampires and its sacrament is Sexy Brooding.
What connects them is that while all these characters are happy to crawl in a corner and moan about how cursed they are, their pain takes centre stage. Even when these characters are actively trying to do good as well, this seems rarely to be the point. The point is their pain - their pain is beautiful, their angst supposed to pluck our heart-strings. The focusing on their guilt makes these characters sympathetic; not deeply flawed people who have a long road back to being acceptable.
Related to this is the redemption quest - the terribad protagonist decides he simply has to make up for the evil things he has done by partaking of an epic quest. In extreme instances this need for redemption becomes so all encompassing that it literally causes even more problems for the team - including people who were victims of their evil acts in the first place.
Take The 100 where we have Bellamy on a quest to get essential equipment to try and protect people against the oncoming nuclear apocalypse (The Renuking! Even More Nuclear!). Without it their plan can’t possibly work - as he very well knows. But faced with a choice of claiming the device or freeing slaves… he choses to free the slaves, jeopardising a fragile alliance and destroying the equipment. And let’s be clear here, this has nothing to do with any kind of moral outrage over slavery - we’ve already seen Bellamy play some heavy “end-justifies-the-means” games: No this is because Bellamy followed Pike and now has All The Guilt. Bellamy needs redemption. Bellamy needs to be good again - and his need for a redeeming act completely supersedes actually saving everyone - including the people he hurt with his support for Pike in the first place.
The Vampire Diaries in its closing season positively revels in this. Stefan in particular is utterly driven to make up for his many many many many many many oh-so-many massacres. So he demands he be the one who takes various active roles in bringing down Cade and/or Katherine. Despite being human and therefore being slower, weaker, more fragile and with duller senses than his still vampiric brother. In fact, despite them literally fighting desperately to save the entire town and possibly the world from hellfire and damnation, Stefan actively incapacitates Damon not once, but twice. On two occasions he removes one of their most powerful assets and insists on stepping in himself, despite being far less capable - just because his redemption is more important. His Redemption Quest takes precedence over the very survival of the other characters - including his victims.
Perhaps even more pernicious simply because at least the previous examples at least acknowledge some of the evil done and the need to feel guilty, is the idea that Love is Redemptive
And doesn’t that sound pretty? I can see the Hallmark card right now - Love is Redemptive, Love Conquers All, Love turns even the raging beast into the sappy Valentines cliche
But think how shallow this is - and how utterly selfish.Someone does terrible things but the fact they’ve fallen in love shows they’re capable of good? Shows we should trust them? Means we should put their misdeeds in the past?
Again, the broken morality of The Vampire Diaries is quick to run with this - Damon does one of the fastest heel-turns in narrative history as he shifts from amoral, serial killing evil who grins sexily while licking the blood of his victims from his fingers, to the angst-laden, trying-to-be-good co-protagonist once he gets all sappy for Elena. The last 3-4 seasons have been characterised by Damon wearing “what would Elena do?” bracelets and being accepted by people he regularly abused, tortured and even murdered. Because LOVE!
Then look at Grimm.In retrospect it is easy to see that there has always been a triangle involving Nick, Adalind and Juliet. The series began with Juliet unaware of Nick being a Grimm and happy in a romantic relationship with him. Adalind played the part of antagonist who set her mind on making Nick as miserable as possible.The easiest way to accomplish this was to prey on Juliet because her ignorance of the danger in her life made her vulnerable. It was nothing for Adalind to have a cat scratch Juliet and put her into a coma. When Adalind did attack Nick directly, it was to change her body into Juliet’s and rape him.
Despite harming Juliet, and repeatedly trying to kill Nick, Adalind was redeemed by Nick’s love. Yes, I know it’s preposterous for a rape victim to fall in love with their rapist but for some reason the writers are unwilling to untie the knot they created between Nick, Adalind and Juliet. The moment Nick acknowledges his feelings for Adalind, her crimes against him ceased to matter. Adalind became an important member of the scoobies and contributed answers to whatever problem they were facing and her past deeds were forgotten.
For much of Grimm, Juliet, as Nick’s love interest was clearly on team good guy. It’s only after she became a hexenbiest and turned to the dark side (yes Star Wars analogy) that things changed. Juliet was filled with rage, having blamed Nick for his own rape and even fear that, as a Grimm he would try to end her life. Juliet responded by burning down the Grim trailer and then killing our beloved Mommy Grimm Kelly. If that were not enough, Juliet tried to kill Nick and was only stopped by Truble. Despite everything that Nick and Juliet have meant to each other, when your former lover kills your parent that should be a deal breaker right? Well, according to Grimm everything can be forgiven because Juliet who is now Eve has been forgiven and reintegrated into the Scoobies. There is still awkwardness between Nick and Eve owing primarily to the fact that despite Nick’s shacking up with Adalind, thus creating a new nuclear family, he and Eve have romantic history. It’s Monroe who keeps inelegantly pointing this out reminding viewers of the ongoing romantic knot between Nick, Adalind and Juliet.
At different stages in their relationship, both Juliet and Adalind have been redeemed for their bad acts because of either their ties to Nick or their romantic relationship with Nick. Their prior bad acts become irrelevant and simply swept under the rug as though they never happened. Never has love or friendship washed away so many sins, particularly because neither woman is entitled to neither given their actions. Viewers are now expected to think of the awkwardness of Juliet and Adalind being in the room together with Nick, or question Nick’s unresolved feelings for Juliet when Nick sits at her bedside, rather than wondering why he is with either of them at all. No effort was needed for the redemption of either woman because love either romantic or platonic served as the magical currency.
What connects all these Redemptions is the focus. It’s all about the person being redeemed. The victims are quickly forgotten. Their misdeeds are hardly mentioned or remembered. What they did, who they hurt, what they damaged, doesn’t matter to the story. What matters is their character development - making them sympathetic, giving them motivation, defining their relationships. Redemption itself is not considered and even real character growth is ignored - if you examine these characters, their redemption gives them feelings but doesn’t actually develop the characters in a great fashion. If they change it’s a complete reinvention (which is retconning, not character growth) and usually they’re just embraced as good. Contrast that to Once Upon a Time, a show which certainly had issues with Redemption - which at least made it clear Redemption is a long pathway, requiring multiple actions and is not fast-forwarded because of love nor completed just because of the pain experienced by those being redeemed
This matters because it defines how we relate to redemption and guilt. It adds to our cultural focus on valuing the suffering of the wrong-doer over aiding the wronged. It emphasises their guilt over the victim’s pain and centres healing and growth on the perpetrator rather than the persecuted (who are often put under pressure to “forgive” in response to their abusers pain). It prioritises gestures of penitence - especially dramatic ones - over legitimate growth, learning and healing and puts little value at all on the actual wrong done.
We can see the reflection of this in our society today - we focus on punishment rather than recompense; we focus on the guilt, absolution and reformation of the wrong doer (often exclaiming how they’ve changed) while sparing little thought for the victim. This causes us both to value hurting the guilty - even victimising them - more than helping the wounded; inflicting more suffering on them becomes more valuable than easing the suffering of their victims. For that matter, how often are the victims entirely forgotten if the victimiser has made a sufficient display or appropriate repentance? How often are victims judged for not forgiving and accepting this? How often do victims no longer have value when we don’t want to use them as a club to beat the guilty?
And this definitely applies to marginalised communities -how many self-confessed ex-bigots are celebrated for their redemption? How often do we praise society itself for “learning” and “growing” while ignoring that marginalised people are still suffering from the scars inflicted? This will not change until we can give less focus on the attackers regretful tears and more on the grievous weeping of their victims.