Podcast

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Hypocrisy Can Build Sympathy

(Warning: This is long!)
I written before that it’s not really true that most villains are the heroes of their own stories, even when those villains have their own TV shows. It is true of deranged psychopaths, like King Joffrey of “Game of Thrones,” but most antiheroes (Frank Underwood, Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Patty Hewes of “Damages”) are content to “play the villain.” They feel that their actions are justified, but they know they’re far from virtuous.

But “Scandal” shows us another type of antihero: the self-deluding hypocrite. You would think that this would be the least appealing of any type of antihero, but it turns out to be quite compelling, generating a varying amount of sympathy and a consistent amount of empathy from the audience.

As the pilot opens, Quinn is recruited to join the firm by Harrison, who tells her that
  • Harrison: We all get paid crap salaries because we're the good guys […]You'll change lives, slay dragons, love the hunt more than you ever dreamed because Olivia Pope is as amazing as they say […] When you work for Olivia. You’re a gladiator in a suit.
But as soon as Quinn arrives on the job, she begins to suspect that she’s been lied to:
  • Quinn: It is an honor to work for your law firm.
  • Olivia: We're not a law firm. We're lawyers, but this is not a law firm.
  • Stephen: Law firms are for pansies.
  • Olivia: We solve problems.
  • Abby: Manage crises, save reputations.
  • Quinn: Right. Of course. It's still an honor.
  • Olivia [squints at Quinn]: Harrison feed you a line about being a gladiator in a suit?
(We also see in that scene that they collect a huge check for facilitating a ransom, and they’re proud of the amount, so maybe there’s another reason for the crap salary.)
Later, Harrison is training her in and now his tune is starting to change:
  • Quinn: So you guys don't try cases? You don't go to court?
  • Harrison: We do our jobs right, we never need to go to court. Now look, the reason we're not a law firm is we don't have to play within the rules of the law. We're fixers, crisis managers. We make the problems of our client, big or small, go away. It's not about solving a crime. It's not about justice. It's about our client.
After Quinn helps Olivia destroy the life of the president’s suicidal mistress, she finally realizes what she’s gotten into and has a breakdown. In the end, one of their clients turns out to be guilty (the president) and the other turns out to be innocent (the war hero Sully), but even there, we can’t expect a TV “heroic” ending. They box up everything after he’s cleared:
  • Quinn: So Sully's innocent.
  • Harrison: He didn't kill Paige.
  • Quinn: Then who did?
  • Huck: Don't matter.
  • Harrison: It matters, just not to us. All that matters is Sully. That's the job. Look, I take all this stuff to the police. Maybe it helps them. Finding Paige's killer is their job.
  • Quinn: You said we were the good guys.
  • Harrison: We are.
  • Quinn: Really? I mean, is Olivia .... is she one of the good guys?
  • Harrison: No. She's not one of the good guys. She's the best guy. It's not enough to say it. You gotta believe it.
  • Quinn [timidly]: Gladiators in suits.
  • Harrison: That's what I'm talking about.
Of course, this is another example of ironic set-up and pay-off dialogue: At this point, Quinn is probably remembering that, historically, the gladiators were never “good guys”: they just fought bloodsports for the entertainment of the wealthy, much as OPA will do.

It is to the show’s enormous credit that they don’t show the defense attorneys tracking down the real killer, even in the pilot (where heroes are usually more purely good than in subsequent episodes.) In the comments last week, I said:
  • In many ways, Rhimes is the second coming of David E. Kelly: when her shows are at their best, they feel like complex and thoughtful drama, but the very next week the silliness can tip over the line, and they seem like unintentional farce. That was true of “Chicago Hope”, “The Practice”, and “Boston Legal”, and it’s equally true of Rhimes's shows.
“The Practice” doesn’t get enough credit for its part in the rise of morally complex antiheroes on TV. There had been dozens of lawyer shows, but it was the first one that showed its “heroes” successfully getting vicious criminals off the hook on a regular basis. “Scandal” will also be willing to go there from time to time, so how do you do that without losing sympathy? Do you show that they feel really bad about it (as “The Practice” did)? Do you show that they’re totally amoral (as “Damages” did, although that was tort law)?

Rhimes finds another way: she wraps her characters up in many layers of hypocrisy and self-delusion. They are semi-aware of this (which engenders some sympathy, because we can see they’re trying) but we are more aware of it than they are (which engenders empathy, because we understand them better than they understand themselves.)

Hypocrisy is considered to be a cardinal sin in our culture, and therefore it might seem like unforgiveable (it’s certain not a job-interview flaw), but it’s actually deeply compelling and identifiable: after all, who doesn’t feel that they are, deep-down, a hypocrite?

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