Saturday, April 24, 2021

Flipping the Script on the Subversives

The British TV series Father Brown is a mystery drama based on a character created by the novelist G.K. Chesterton. One episode caught my eye in that it delivers an especially heavy dose of subversive moral messaging. The episode in question is “The Sacrifice of Tantalus,” the sixth episode of season seven. The episode is subversive on a number of levels. It subverts, among other things, the nuclear family, the police, the judicial system, and the Catholic Church. G.K. Chesterton must be rolling in his grave.

I won’t review the entire episode, but will focus on one scene that appears at the end. Sergeant Goodfellow is in the hospital, recovering from a gunshot wound. Inspectors Mallory and Sullivan come to visit him at his bedside and are accompanied by Father Brown. The inspectors lie to Goodfellow, telling him that the man he thinks that shot him really didn’t do so, that in fact it was someone else. Earlier, the two inspectors hatched a conspiracy to let the criminal who shot Goodfellow evade justice. To carry this out, they will have to falsify evidence and give false testimony under oath in a court of law. Their lies to Goodfellow are only the first step. 

Have Inspectors Mallory and Sullivan stopped to consider what will happen if their deceptions are found out? Apparently not. At a minimum, they will be fired, and their careers and pensions will vanish in a puff of smoke. They might even be criminally prosecuted. And the evidence they have presented in previous cases might become tainted. A wily defense attorney might argue that his client's conviction should be overturned.

The writer conveniently neglects to explore this side of the problem. This is a common trick that subversive writers use: they never show the harmful effects of transgressions. The audience is led to believe that transgressions are consequence-free.

The writer deploys another trick in this scene, a trick that's the subject of this essay. Inspector Sullivan pulls Father Brown aside and asks, “Do you think we did the right thing?” Father Brown agrees.

The Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp discovered that there are patterns in stories that occur over and over again. If a pattern appears in one story, chances are it will eventually pop up again somewhere else. If a pattern is subversive, you can bet that certain writers will latch onto it like a tick.

The underlying pattern in the episode above is as follows: Step one: A character, who is one of the good guys, commits a transgression. Step two: Another character, someone of high moral standing, validates either the transgression or the transgressor. The intent of this is to normalize the transgression in the mind of the viewer.

As I noted in a previous essay, this pattern also occurs in an episode of Death in Paradise. In the Father Brown episode, it is Father Brown who validates the transgression. In Death in Paradise, J.P. Hooper validates the transgressor.

Recently, I rewatched season one of Thunderbolt Fantasy in preparation for season three. I discovered that the series’ creator, Gen Urobuchi, tore a page out of the subversives’ playbook and used it against them. There are plenty of villains and scoundrels in Thunderbolt Fantasy and plenty of bad behavior. But the good characters don’t praise or validate transgressions; rather, they condemn them.

A case in point is the character called the Enigmatic Gale. He is a trickster, a master thief whose skills border on the magical. He prefers to target villains, so his objectives line up with those of the good guys. (His complex schemes to bamboozle the villains are one of the more entertaining aspects of the show.)  A subversive writer would use a character like this to normalize the transgressions of thievery and deception. But the good characters dislike and distrust the Enigmatic Gale, because they too have been burned by his chicanery. The story’s lead protagonist, Shāng Bù Huàn, disapproves of the Enigmatic Gale’s methods. He says, “Even if he targets villains, someone who gets his kicks from making a mockery of people still makes me sick.”

Even the bad characters get in on the act. In one scene, the Enigmatic Gale has a conversation with Miè Tiān Hái, who is the story’s main villain. The Gale asks Miè why he collects magical swords and the latter replies that he feels “joy” at possessing weapons of such destructive power. The Enigmatic Gale remarks, “I can’t imagine any joy that would make me trample holy ground and murder others.”

Miè takes this rebuke and throws it back at him. He asks the Enigmatic Gale why he chose a life of crime. He notes that the Enigmatic Gale, being the brilliant man that he is, could easily have achieved wealth and power by legitimate means. He says, “Yet you persist in your transgressions against the law, your undertaking of evil. Why?” This isn’t an explicit condemnation, but the condemnation is implied by the way he words the question.

A few minutes later, their conversation is interrupted when a third character, Shā Wú Shēng, bursts into the room. When the Enigmatic Gale criticizes him for barging in uninvited, he replies, “I’m not here for a lecture in etiquette from a thief.”

Shā Wú Shēng is an expert swordsman and a mass murderer. Earlier in the story, he struck a deal with the Enigmatic Gale and has now come to collect. When the Enigmatic Gale tries to weasel out of fulfilling his end of the bargain, Shā says, “You argue nonsense without any sense of shame. Not that it matters. There is nowhere for you to run.”

The thief expresses revulsion at murder. The ruthless killers express distain for thievery, dishonesty, and deception. If lines like these were ever to appear in a Hollywood film script, your typical writer or director would react the way a vampire reacts to holy water.

I once watched a video by a YouTuber who reviews fantasy fiction. In that video, he praises grimdark and takes a few moments to criticize J.R.R. Tolkien. He doesn’t like the moral stance of Tolkien’s characters: they’re goody two shoes and people don’t act like that in the real world. You encounter arguments like that from time to time, usually from people who are apologists for the depravities of George R.R. Martin. When I hear arguments like that, I question whether the person making them is being honest and arguing in good faith. The charge that these fictional characters are “unrealistic” is a misdirection. The real problem is that these characters have high moral standards; standards the detractors don’t want to live up to in the real world. That is why some people are so eager to deconstruct superheroes or paint fantasy worlds in shades of grey.

Most, if not all stories contain some type of moral messaging. It used to be that we could count on stories to convey traditional moral values, but that’s no longer the case. Subversive moral messaging is invisible to most people because they’re conditioned not to look for it. Look for the moral messaging embedded in the stories you consume. If the messaging is subversive, you will also find dishonesty and manipulation on the part of the writer. The manipulation is fairly easy to spot if you take the time to look for it.

If you’re an author and would like to read my essays on narrative patterns and techniques, check out the book Pulp on Pulp, edited by Kit Sun Cheah and Misha Burnett. It’s only 99 cents on Amazon and for free on other platforms.

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