Monday, 1 March 2010

Having Been Human

Again, with the spoilers. Oh so many spoilers.




Well, that was grim. And bleak. And bloody. Grim and bleak and bloody. Body counts are way up, and recurring characters still in possession of all necessary body parts or spiritual essences are way down.

It certainly deserves having a "The Horror tag" added to this post.

But was it any good. Well... Yes. Mainly. Sort of. In a sense.

There's a lot I could say about the two episodes that concluded this season, but for the sake of my fingers I'm just going to focus on one aspect to it; the one thing that bothered my thoughts the most after watching it: MaCMaFE.

When you get right down to it, I think that there are simply certain aspects of television that I am unable to entirely accept. Doubtless many of these have surfaced over the two years I've been writing this blog (almost to the day: time to order myself a cake) , but the one I'm mulling over right now is the Main Character Magnetic Field Effect (MaCMaFE).

I was lucky enough to be in my early to mid-teens when it first seemed to truly dawn on people that television shows did not have to be explicit serials in order to allow a story to run over multiple episodes, or even years. In a sense, I was growing up as television was. I remember very clearly finding an article in the Radio Times discussing those few TV series that had managed or bothered to break free of the "reset button" format (though this was back, I suspect, before that term was coined).

Even at that early age, I was entirely aware of how limiting a concept the repeated enforced return of the status quo was, and it irritated me a great deal. Either an event had to be entirely undone and implausibly resolved, or it did have lasting consequences, but they were simply (and conveniently) never mentioned again. Voyager was arguably the nadir of this concept, at least in sci-fi, partly because DS9 had demonstrated the value of allowing organic changes to the narrative and partially because of all the Trek shows (including the later Enterprise), it had the very least justification for trying to return to equilibrium each time.

Nowadays it's actually much harder to find a show that does reset each week (though that might well be selection bias on my part). This is, generally speaking, good news. True, it often makes things harder for shows by demanding more attention from their viewers (never an easy sell), and the trouble with constant movement is that you risk drifting too far from the original premise that made it all work in the first place (Gooder has argued several times, and I think rightly, that the point at which Scrubs dropped precipitously in quality was the exact moment each of the conflicts set up early in Season 1 had been resolved). On the whole, though, I'm glad for the change.

MaCMaFE is an inevitable side-effect of that shift, however. One of the advantages of at least partially serialising your show is that the conflict between the characters can become much more real and serious. The disadvantage is that real and serious conflicts often lead to people drifting apart.

It is one of life's little ironies (or my own little hypocrisies) that whilst I push for emotional and dramatic realism in the shows I watch, I tremble with dread at the thought of losing major characters. This is why I'm desperate for Annie to return in Season 3, even if she was totally wasted this year and Lenora Critchlow might well be advised to look elsewhere for her wage packet. The problem is, of course, losing "major characters" is exactly what happens in real life. It's entirely possible to have a major row with a friend and then not see them for weeks, or months, or ever again, and often, even when peace is declared, things are an awfully long way from being what they were. In TV land, where the shouting matches tend to be about whether or not someone blew up their mate's father's spaceship because he was possessed by a murderous killer parasite hellbent on galactic dominion, one would expect the rifts to be deeper than those we experience.

Instead, the opposite happens. Sooner or later, main characters forgive each other, or at least declare piece in a manner indistinguishable from forgiveness. They move back in together, or at least close enough to not need two sets anymore. Horrible, heartrending betrayals are smoothed over on the flimsiest of pretexts (I don't want to spoilerise anything here, but the first episode of True Blood Season 2 contained a particularly eye-popping example of this, which might be why it was on my mind as I watched Being Human a few minutes later). People change jobs and come right back. Relationships break up and both sides bicker endlessly without apparently considering the benefits of just not hanging out any more. Whatever it takes to keep the same people in the same situation, so the same viewers can watch without feeling alienated. It keeps me happy in the sense that we're still enjoying the adventures of the characters we love, but there's always the voice at the base of my skull, slowly growing in strength, telling me that this doesn't make sense. That these things aren't, and possibly shouldn't, be forgiven.

Having watched Being Human last night, it's impossible to ignore the strange low hum of a MaCMaFE generator once more being switched on (MaCMaFE generators are available at Currys, PC World, online at Amazon, and for those in a hurry, one can purchase the McDonald's McMaCMaFE and medium fries for £5 at your nearest drive-through). Surely, on the list of Bad Things main characters have done that will be tough to forgive, massacring an entire train carriage has to be fairly near the top. It's all the worse because Mitchell did it, at least in part, as revenge against humanity. As horrible, vicious, petty, directionless revenge. The show is called Being Human, for God's sake; it's whole existence resolves around the questions of redemption and what it means to be human. By declaring war on humanity, by destroying it utterly in the first box he found it in, Mitchell has done more than kill twenty people. He's killed his own humanity. It was already battered and bruised, perhaps even on life-support, but for two years the question has always been whether Mitchell can keep the embers alive through a squall of temptation (I can hear this metaphor starting to creak already).

But now? Now, it's simply dead. Mitchell can force the vampire within him to sleep for a while longer, but it won't be to allow his human side to surface anymore. He is now a vampire, or he's an empty box.

It's possible anyone reading this might argue I've gone too far. Well, maybe, but I'd note in my defence that I think showrunner Toby Whithouse agrees with me, at least in part. How else do we explain the last minute journey into perversion and mass murder embarked upon by the previously unflappable Kemp? Whithouse knows that you can't make your hero more sympathetic, you have to make your villain more villainous. And it worked, too, just about. I guess from a certain perspective you can understand how a man so devoted to the Bible might care little for psychics, even those he employs, and killing his clairvoyant henchman to banish Annie makes some sense in terms of a petulant swipe at Mitchell. But still, this is pantomime villainy. Once you reduce a character to killing because it's the easiest available option at that exact moment in time, you're not trafficking in shades of grey anymore. You're just in a race to the bottom. More than anything, its dramatic cheating, compensating for the darkness erupting from one of your heroes by painting everything he dislikes black, so we can still feel essentially comfortable. It's like how each episode of Hustle requires that the gang's mark be resolutely unpleasant, so we can feel good about watching criminals steal their money. Only this is worse, because it's more like someone having their money stolen by our heroes and then retroactively made into a bastard so we can claim that karma has done it's job, just whilst working along a different time dimension to the one we like to jog along.

So you find yourself watching a man of God licking the lipstick from co-workers stolen mug, and you grit your teeth through the sight of his head technician (whose name I've forgotten and will henceforth be known as Techie del Wankfest) proves to engage in acts of pointless peeping-Tom onanism (seriously; the guy can't work out how to get the internet in there?). Now they're bad, you see? They're all sexually weird and stuff. Being the latest in a long string of dead bodies is to good for 'em.

Is that true, though? Really? In the course of that facility being open, so far as we know, four werewolves have died. In each case, it was in the process of attempting to cure them. That in no way justifies either Kemp's callousness or the need to pre-order body bags (as Mitchell points out), but their deaths can plausibly be called second order; known as a likely result rather than specifically aimed for (and with an actual honest-to-God potential upside to those in question if the treatment worked). In addition, Kemp ordered the extermination of thirty mass murderers who the police have demonstrated they have no interest in actually, y'know, policing. Mitchell argued he had them under control, but we already know that this was, at best, temporarily true. He was already determined to leave. He was handing control of the group of addicts to a lapsed haemoholic, for fuck's sake, because he'd only just killed someone and now he wanted to run away. How long was the peace going to last? It's clear vampires almost if not actually invariably relapse; the very most noble one we know has killed twice in the last year.

So, thirty mass-murderers running around being ignored by the law are now dead. Again. And in return, twenty innocent human beings, none of which (so much as Mitchell knew) have so much as kicked a dog get ripped to shreds. Four failed cures and thirty stone-cold (literally) killers vs twenty innocents. Even I don't like reducing this sort of thing to cold numbers and functions, but if I did, it is to put it mildy massively uncertain that Mitchell would come out ahead when the final score is tallied.

But hey, MaCMaFE. So now Mitchell is skulking in another house, in another town,waiting for the next time he can't help but kill again. George may say he hasn't forgiven him, can't forgive him, maybe, but it doesn't matter. Time will pass and whether or not George has forgiven him won't matter at all. Eventually silence starts to sound like forgiveness anyway. Or it doesn't, and the guilt leads to a relapse, because guilt is smarter than you are and tends to hide exactly in the opposite direction to the one you assume it's heading.

Whether or not George can forgive him is irrelevant, of course. The question is whether we can. As black-hearted as Kemp proved to be, we never needed to believe anything different. What we believe about Mitchell is crucial, and I'm far from sure we can get back to where we were, or get to wherever else we need to.


Minnie said...

Hmmmmmm. Interesting points. Thank you!

SpaceSquid said...

Glad I could help, Minnie.

Chemie said...

I wouldn't say the need to keep the 3 main characters bound together was particularly incongruous. The point of Being Human in both seasons was that, irrelevant of what they wanted the 3 of them needed each other. They (often literally) couldn't live without each other.

I too found Kemp's rapid descent into Mr reallynasty a bit aggravating. Much better to leave it with the question 'Are they the victim of their natures/demons or are they making excuses?'

SpaceSquid said...

I wouldn't say it was incongruous until now, which is why it's now that I'm pointing the problem out. Up until this latest burst of mass murdering viciousness, I'd agree that it made sense that neither Mitchell nor George has been able to move out (and certainly Annie's situation makes perfect sense). It's the logic of George choosing to stay with the guy who murdered twenty people a few weeks before because he "needs him too much" that feels like an excuse rather than a logical character development.

Having said that, I guess it's possible to justify George remaining with Mitchell a) by playing up the fact that he's clearly refusing to even contemplate what Mitchell did to avoid being unable to stay with him (and that scene with the radio implies that George is pretty deep in denial, the guy has an IQ of 170-odd, he can make a link between Mitchell having done something terrible and Mitchell being obsessed with the news coverage of something terrible), and now b) because Mitchell might be able to help get Annie back.

In fact, were I Whithouse at this point I would most certainly make sure I wrote the opening episode(s) of Season 3 so that Mitchell saves Annie from purgatory and imply heavily that this redeems him for the train carriage. Personally it's a little hard to swallow the idea that one can balance the scales from murdering twenty people by helping a ghost move from one room to another, but it would at least make enough emotional sense from George and Nina's perspective (and certainly Annie's) that they could return to living together and it not seem too much like another burst of MaCMaFE, and also prevent Mitchell from being forever unsympathetic (and believe me, I am unsympathetic beyond belief right now).

Chemie said...

c) Mitchell is the only other person who understands about being 'different' or coping with the 'beast within'
d) Mitchell has saved and supported George numerous times
e) Mitchell is along with his ex the only person who knows about George's 'curse'
f) Mitchell has tied him to the events at the facility, if there is fallout it's heading to him as well - and past seasons have shown they only survive together
g) Mitchell is the only family who really knows George that he has left
h) George was just in a serious anti-supernatural situation. Of course he's going to stay with the only supernaturals he knows. Also the only one who can protect him.

Which is logical character development. George is needy, he's tried to be independent and it failed. He tried to tame the beast and it failed. He's run straight back to the only situation that has ever helped him. I saw Mitchell, Nina and George being together at the end as all of them being hurt, scared and confused but having no-where else to turn.

Minnie said...

Also, maybe George accepts Mitchell better than we do because he knows things we don't. Mitchell has been around (as a vampire) a long time, and the series has alluded to a very violent past - Herrick said in Series 1 that Mitchell had 'the blackest heart of us all'. It's a pretty safe bet that murdering the 20 people in a train wasn't the worst thing Mitchell's ever done - albeit the worst thing that we, the viewers, have seen. But we've only known Mitchell for a very short part of his vampire life, and during a period in which he has been hugely determined to abstain.

George also observes that it must take Mitchell enormous energy to resist his blood lust at the end of series 1. Perhaps he sees this as a slip off the wagon - after all, this is a vampire we're talking about. He ISN'T human. The atrocity he's committed is an abomination in human terms, but you could argue that it is 'natural' behaviour for a vampire. George accepts that Mitchell is a vampire, and that it is something Mitchell has to work tirelessly to control. Given George's condition, perhaps he is able to forgive a loss of control in Mitchell. I don't think it's because George thinks it's completely fine for Mitchell to go and murder a train full of people, more that he accepts that Mitchell is what he is.

Whether the BH viewers can forgive Mitchell is a different question, but the fact is that we've seen the titanic struggle he's been involved in, conscience against instinct, for 2 series, giving him a huge amount of sympathy. Depending on the start of series 3 (agreed re. saving Annie) I think he is redeemable.

lyndagb said...

Hm... I'm with Chemie on this one.

Also, the last conversation with Lucy - "If you want forgiveness you've got to offer it first." shows a clear and fairly humble desire to make amends including by making peace with the woman who sparked his pique-induced massacre in the first place. (Or perhaps it's just that he's still too infatuated to stay pissed!) Which helps the viewer feel his remorse and see his more human side.

SpaceSquid said...

Hmm. I was going to point out that some of Chemie's arguments are either irrelevant in the face of Nina's return, or place too much emphasis on the idea that living with a blood-craving supernatural killer is somehow preferable to the risk of angry mobs just because George is cursed as well, but I just remembered that vampires hate the taste of werewolf blood, so a lot of my objections just evaporated.

I do think it's incorrect to say George has tried to be independent and failed. He tried to be independent but then gave it up for Nina, which is a very different thing.

As to George knowing Mitchell better than we do, for having been around him longer, I can understand the argument up to a point, but I think knowing what Mitchell has done (and it's by no means clear that George knows as much about Mitchell's past as Herrick does) is very different to knowing Mitchell whilst he's doing it. I know that George has a delightful habit of judging misdemeanours in perfect inverse proportion to how much they genuinely matter, but it is very different to forgive someone what they've done before you met, and what they've done after, in much the same way that one might be far happier living with a recovering alcoholic than a lapsed one.