Betrayal – to lead astray; to deliver to an enemy by treachery; to fail or desert, especially in time of need; to disclose in violation of a confidence.
-both, Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Today’s cheerful topic is courtesy of one of humanity’s most ancient and… well, awful, really… yeah, that’s the word… character traits: our propensity, as trusted colleagues/friends/spouses etc., to turn around and stab those we work with or care about in the back. Annnd where’s this coming from? you ask, some of you less charitable types in probably hopeful fashion. Any dark skeletons popping out of the closet? Well, no, not particularly. But after screening most of its first season at the behest of my youngest son, I can’t watch the Lost in Space 2018-2021 reboot TV series anymore… which is not really the non sequitur it first appears to be, and raises some interesting thoughts about my current frame of mind.
The Lost in Space reboot --- which is more intelligent than the witless 1960s TV show of the same name, by the way… though I admit that’s not saying much as a ringing endorsement --- features the intrepid family Robinson (they’re not Swiss, however) in the near future who, along with many others, leave a devastated Earth on a colonizing expedition to a nearby star, literally seeking greener pastures. Naturally, things don’t go quite as planned --- there’d be no story if they were wildly successful and everything went swimmingly --- and our heroes find themselves crashed and… well… lost in space. But the item in the narrative that, interestingly and unexpectedly, rattled my chain was one particular character: a petty career criminal named June Harris. She starts by making her way aboard the expedition’s starship through deceit and almost literally throwing her sister under the bus. After killing one of the crew, followed in short order by the disaster which crashes the ship, June, who assumes the identity of someone else to conceal her sordid past, begins hatching all sorts of underhanded and undermining plots while obviously remembering Lady Macbeth’s sinister advice to her clueless husband… yep, June is clearly a Shakespearean scholar, all right. I’ll save you the bother of asking: in the eponymous play, Macbeth is early on told sharply by his harpy of a wife to ‘look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it’ --- in other words, smile cherubically and openly to put ‘em off their guard, while performing evil deeds quietly, out of sight. You’re welcome. (Yeah, I know: Lady M is a piece of work, all right. Don’t get me started.) It’s not long after the initial crash that June goes into overdrive with misdeeds, some small, some pretty large, against her fellow survivors. Why? Well, that’s one of the simultaneously repelling and compelling things about villains of the traitorous vein, isn’t it? We’ll get to that discussion, too, a little later. In the meantime, let’s just say June certainly qualifies as a traitor as defined above… and she’s obviously read SF author David Gerrold’s works, too: in one of his novels, a character offers up a suitably bleak definition of the concept of trust, saying it’s the condition necessary for betrayal. Ouch. A pretty damning indictment of human nature if I ever heard one. Especially since it’s so accurate.
You see, one of the maddening things about literary traitors is they typically cruise along with varying degrees of serenity --- some of the more psychopathic can calmly look you in the eye and convince you all’s well, while others possess a certain high-strung, neurotic mania --- all the while looking like harmless magnolias or something, but in reality, being cobras coiled beneath. And in the process, writers take fiendish glee in letting us, the readers, know what the traitors are doing, but ensure, through various machinations, that the story’s characters have no clue as to what’s going on. (Sometimes these machinations are credible, other times they make us want to tear our hair out at the Absurdity Of It All. By the way, folks, don’t be one of those latter type of writers. Please.) This can be a good thing… or not. I think we’ve all been there, frantically flipping through a book’s pages, or hollering in horror at the screen, watching the protagonist walk straight into the traitor’s trap: ‘NO! DON’T ENTER THE @#$% TUNNEL, FRODO! THERE’S A SPIDER THE SIZE OF A HOUSE IN THERE, AND IT’S GONNA MESSILY DEVOUR YOU!’ Or, you know, words to that effect. Yep, it’s maddening, all right: we know what’s going on, but our characters don’t, and there’s no way of warning them.
Which is why I just can’t watch June plot her dastardly deeds anymore. I’m not sure whether this is me being unusually hyper-sensitive in an environment fostered by two years’ worth of pandemic that’s left just about everyone a little paranoid and on edge, or superb writing on the part of the series writers. I think, quite honestly, it’s the former rather than the latter. June’s antics are often made possible by the stupidity of characters around her, who first of all, should (and do) know better, and second, seem to be really poor communicators for a bunch of people who’ve theoretically had all kinds of training in catastrophe scenarios, working in an endeavour where excellent communications skills are not only absolutely vital, but can mean the difference between life and death.
Damn. I’m fast approaching my self-imposed 1000-word-ish limit for blog posts, without even touching on a number of things I wanted to discuss regarding literary traitors… so consider this the first of at least a couple of posts regarding this interesting/maddening aspect of writing, and stay tuned for more… traitorous… musings.
I won’t betray you… I promise.
Post-script: youngest son, who’s seen the series already, has convinced me to give the series another try, saying June’s character has been (mostly) defanged as the second season begins. So (sigh) I will. Not that I’m expecting any great epiphany from her which will transform her into some paragon of virtue, you understand. Villains, in particular, aren’t always the kind of characters to undergo major redemptions. But you never know. Would a villain’s redemption be a betrayal of all they hold dear? Oh, the humanity.