-Webster’s New World Dictionary
A strange concept, really, when you stop to consider it… like many human characteristics and motivations: someone hurts us (in any number of appallingly creative possible ways, alas), and so we want to hurt them back, in some kind of perverse quid quo pro. Why, though? How is that possibly supposed to fix/heal/restore-balance-to-the-universe? The definition above is good at explaining the what, but doesn’t even attempt the why. Well, in the 2002 film of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (a marvellously clever adaptation I highly recommend, even though it takes a number of liberties with Dumas’ original story), the protagonist, Edmond, explains why he doesn’t want the people who destroyed his life simply murdered: “Death is too good for them. They must suffer as I suffered. They must see their world, all they hold dear, ripped from them as it was ripped from me” and I think that’s about the best, simplest rationalization for revenge you’re likely to get. In other words, if I’m going to suffer, you’re damned well going to suffer, too… at least as much as me, and preferably more, as punitive punishment for starting the whole thing in the first place. If I hurt and you caused it, I want you to hurt, too.
But in his famous 1625 essay on revenge, Francis Bacon came out against it, for several reasons: it’s illegal and immoral; it focuses on stuff done in the past; it carries grievous consequences against the avenger if caught; and perhaps most importantly, from both moral and literary perspectives… it just leads to more revenge i.e. it initiates a cycle of bloody acts, as the first wrong is avenged by a second, which leads to a third, and so on ad inifinitum. Whether he actually believed what he wrote… well, who can say? He was a contemporary of a certain writer named Will, who also had a few things to say about revenge in… oh… quite a lot of what he wrote. Because revenge is a great character and plot motivator. Just ask Hamlet… or Lear… or Iago… or Macbeth… or…
I’ve been musing on this topic because I’ve just finished a couple of stories, in two different mediums, which both focus on revenge as their primary motivator. And they’re both extremely well done. We’ll focus on the first one today.
The Last of Us 2 (TLOU2) is a PlayStation video game released earlier this year. As the ‘2’ should alert you, it’s a sequel to the 2014 original. The first TLOU takes place 20 years after a plague --- considerably nastier than the current one we’re dealing with --- has essentially collapsed modern society. Joel, a small-time 50-something smuggler, is tasked with ferrying 14-year-old Ellie across the decayed remains of the US… because, it emerges, Ellie is the only person immune to the infection’s gruesomely lethal effects. If she can be delivered to a group called the Fireflies, maybe a vaccine can be crafted from her. So Joel and Ellie --- who initially loathe each other --- unwillingly set off from the Boston Quarantine Zone on their epic trek. By the time they actually reach the Fireflies in what’s left of Utah, their relationship has grown to the point they’ve effectively bonded in a father/daughter relationship. The good news on arriving: yes, a vaccine can be harvested from Ellie. The bad news? The process will kill her. Joel must make a split-second decision, with vast, historic ramifications. Does he acquiesce and quietly leave Ellie to her fate, knowing we’re talking about salvation for the entire human race? Or does he play the protective father, throw humanity to the winds, and save Ellie’s life?
It’s probably no great surprise (especially to any parent) he does the latter, fighting his way through the Firefly installation and rescuing Ellie, killing a whole swatch of Fireflies in the process --- including the doctor who’s about to perform the vaccine removal process on an unconscious Ellie. The denouement is their successful escape to a survivors’ settlement in Wyoming.
TLOU2 takes place five years later, and guess what? Yep, turns out the doctor Joel killed had a daughter, Abby… and she’s been searching for Joel ever since. Doesn’t appear she’s read Bacon’s essay, because she’s obsessively determined to avenge dear old dad. Which she does: Joel dies a pretty horrific death at Abby’s hands --- with Ellie forced to witness. The people travelling with Abby want to kill Ellie, too, a pragmatic if not overly merciful move overruled by Abby and her on-again, off-again boyfriend. They came for Joel; mission accomplished, and it’s time to be on their way. End of story.
Except, of course, it’s not, just as Frankie Bacon predicted. Ellie sets out with her BFF to track Abby and avenge Joel’s murder… and yes, folks, weeee’rrrre off! Embarked on the Revenge Carousel, that never-ending round-and-round cycle of perpetual retaliatory attacks!
Now, the interesting thing occurring at the game’s finale is that, after all the slaughter and destruction, Abby and Ellie finally square off against each other. Like two superpowers engaged in Cold War games, they’ve spent most of the storyline engaged in proxy wars, killing subordinates left, right and centre, but now, there they are, Actually Fighting Each Other (gamers refer to this as a ‘boss fight’), quarter neither given nor expected. They’re both physically and emotionally exhausted, burned out to the core by their mutual hatred, ready to settle this once and for all.
But they don’t. Abby, near death from the ordeal of being captured and enslaved by another group, is weaker than Ellie --- who’s also had a pretty harrowing time tracking Abby down. After rescuing Abby solely so she can kill her, Ellie finds, to her stunned dismay… she can’t finish the job. Keep in mind that Ellie, like Melville’s Ahab, has had this single-minded obsession of revenge against Abby, her own Moby Dick, for months.
So… why can’t Ellie complete her self-set task of revenge?
Well, I’ve reached my self-imposed word quotient for today… so that’s a discussion for next time.
Same bat-time, same bat-channel.