What is redemption? Google dictionary defines it as ‘the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil,’ which seems a pretty fair assessment… and serves to underscore the irony of the opening quote: we want redemption for ourselves, but not for that terrible person over there. In fact, your Honour, throw the book at that terrible other person. Absolutely. They deserve everything they get. We want to see them suffer.
Now, I hope that’s an exaggeration. I really do. I’d like to think the vast majority of people are compassionate, wanting to extend mercy and grace to their fellows, even when those fellows have wronged said human beings. But… the mindless howling Roman mobs who watched the slaughter of innumerable humans and animals and called it entertainment do not appear, unfortunately, too different from the mindless howling mobs on our newsfeeds today. (I was going to say especially today because my gosh, our newsfeed is terrifying with the lack of redemption presented, but then I got to thinking of… oh, I don’t know… Nazi rallies at Nuremburg and things like that, and, well, guess I’m not going to say especially today. It’s just a continuation of a long and dismal, dishonourable chronicle. Sigh.)
Many of our stories nowadays seem to contain a lot less in the way of redemption than stories of yore. Why is that? Are we ever more jaded, needing a lot more in the way of displays of shocking behaviour to maintain our interest? Is it because storytellers are nothing more than a reflection of the society in which they live? Hard to say, and I have no glib answer. But let me give a couple of examples about today’s stories:
Game of Thrones As I’ve said before, with GOT, I’m guilty of Cardinal Sin #1, because I haven’t read the books, just watched the series. (Up to season seven, that is, because the Blu-Ray hasn’t been released yet and I’m too cheap to get HBO. Besides, patience is a fast disappearing virtue. Or something.) So my observations for GOT are, perforce, based on the series, which I’m told diverge markedly from the books. Yes, I’ll probably remedy that in the future, although the TBR piles (To Be Read) beside my bed are each already over a metre/yard tall, and a serious toppling hazard every time my wife opens her closet.
GOT is a tale with very little redemption. The good characters (what few there are) seem to get killed off at the same rate, and with the same degree of savagery, as the bad ones. Only there are way more baddies, who all seem to expend enormous creative energy developing unspeakably evil plans to unleash on ordinary folk.
The Walking Dead (I don’t feel the need to make the same confession about Cardinal Sin #1 with TWD, because its written form is --- and here I offend the graphic novel crowd --- only a ‘graphic novel,’ which is, frankly, just a pretentious name for what is essentially a comic book. And yes, I read comics… when I was a kid. Graphic novels are not the same as novels, any more than Green Eggs and Ham is the same as War and Peace. Sorry, graphic novel aficionados. You’re entitled to your opinion. So am I. And yes, by the way, I have looked at the first TWD graphic novel.)
TWD likewise displays little redemption. Seven seasons in, and most of what I seem able to take away from it is that a post-apocalyptic world will be filled with really, really nasty survivors who just want to commit all sorts of atrocities on fellow survivors.
So why watch, hypocrite? you ask smugly. Well, largely because they’re guilty pleasures --- TWD more so than GOT, which I admit is (mostly) fairly intelligently written. Most of us do like watching a metaphorical train wreck, especially in slow motion. (Which certainly says something about us as a species.) As long as it’s not us in the path of the wreck, that is. But I don’t watch either series expecting to feel uplifted by the noble nature of the human spirit.
Now, as writers, I understand we need a certain level of ‘un-redemption’ in stories, because if we don’t, we don’t have stories. Or at least not very good ones. Stories where everything is all sweetness and light tend to be, at their core, just not very interesting. (Which also says something about us.) But I think stories need to move towards redemption (unless you’re writing a Shakespearian tragedy, but most of us aren’t, and even in those, there’s a certain level of redemption). Maybe Rick, his crew and his adversaries in TWD will reconcile to found a utopian society by series’ end. And maybe Dany, Cersei, Jon and the Night King in GOT will all join hands and sing a few rounds of Kumbaya together. But I rather doubt it.
So what does literary redemption look like? Well, Star Trek is a good example. Gene Roddenberry said “Star Trek is successful because it’s one of the few science fiction stories done which has a happy ending. We also had real heroes, almost old-fashioned heroes, people who believed in their work, believed in honour, who believed that things must be done at the cost of great danger and sometimes, your life. It’s an optimistic series that not only says the human race is going to make it, but that we’re going to make it in a very civilized way.”
Yeah. Maybe that’s something we could do with a little more of.