Joss Whedon: Master of Character

As I re-watch Star Trek: Deep Space Nine I find there are a lot of character building episodes where a character faces a personal challenge and overcomes it. The further in the show I go, however, I realize that these character building episodes result in no real character change whatsoever. By the next episode, the character falls back into their normal personality and rhythms.

This is like false character building, in that the character goes through the process of changing, but never actually changes. While these aren’t bad episodes and are even fulfilling, we as an audience respond more strongly when we get to be party to a character changing, from their beginning state, to the conflict, to the character that emerges. There’s a deeper connection to this kind of character building. But so far, Deep Space Nine is missing that kind of character building.

As I thought about this, I realized other shows skimp on character building too. To help illustrate how character building is done properly, I decided to contrast some poor examples of character building episodes with a few episodes from a master of character building, Joss Whedon. While a couple of the Whedon episodes I mention are written by other writers (Steven DeKnight, Marti Noxon, and Douglas Petrie) many of the character threads that lead to these character building episodes run throughout the season, and for the purposes of making the title of this piece more simple, I’m giving the works of Whedon the nod here, rather than the man himself (though I suspect he had input on these character arcs).

Here are three examples of shows that did character building poorly, and three more examples where Joss Whedon shows did it better.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – S01 E17 – The Forsaken

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This is actually one of my favourite episodes of Season One. Part of this episode focuses on Odo, the shape-shifting security officer on the station. Odo is a curmudgeon and he has reason to be. To the best of his knowledge, he is only member of his race in the quadrant — so he’s lonely. He buries himself in his work and his routines. He has relationships with people, but in the first season of Deep Space Nine you could make a case that Odo doesn’t have any friends, because he never let’s anyone get close enough.

A lot of people don’t like this episode because it heavily features Lwaxana Troi, a telepath who was in a few episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. She’s kind of annoying, but much like Odo she’s putting on a front. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why she becomes attracted to him. Naturally, Odo wants no romantic involvement of any kind and this only makes him even more interesting to Lwaxana.

Eventually, during Lwaxana’s pursuit of Odo they get caught in an turbolift together where they are trapped for hours. It’s Odo’s nightmare. She keeps prodding him with personal questions, and worse, when he doesn’t open up she starts to tell him about her own life. After a few hours, Odo is forced to reveal something private about himself. Odo is basically like a big blob of goo and can only keep his humanoid form for so long; every sixteen hours he must return to his liquid form. Unfortunately, Odo and Lwaxana have been trapped inside the turbolift long enough that Odo can’t hold his form anymore. He’s embarrassed because no one has ever seen him in his liquid form — seen him weak. So Lwaxana takes off her wig and tells him that no one has ever seen her that way either.

The two share a moment of vulnerability together. Odo shares a part of him no one else has ever seen before. But in the next few episodes does Odo start sharing his thoughts or feelings with other people? Or opening up to them? Nope. He goes right back to being a curmudgeon.

 

Supernatural – S04 E01 – Lazarus Rising

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While Supernatural will always be a special show for me, it also misses character building opportunities.

At the end of Season Three, we see Dean die and go to Hell. At the beginning of Season Four he comes back. The show has an opportunity when this happens to show us a slightly different Dean. One who has been changed because of his experiences in Hell.

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In a conversation with Dean’s brother Sam, Sam asks, “what was Hell like?” Dean says he can’t remember and that he probably blocked it out. But then we see Dean alone, staring in a mirror and reflecting back on his time in Hell; we can see that he does remember. And yet he seems like the same old Dean. The first few episodes of the new season are more about investigating Castiel and Dean’s return than they are about how Hell changed Dean as a character. He’s still the same fun-loving Dean we remember who calls up Sam during a supplies run and reminds him to get pie.

He hasn’t changed at all.

 

Mr. Robot – S02 E01 – unm4sk-pt2.tc

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Another type of character change that marks a missed opportunity is the kind that occurs in-between seasons. At the end of Season One in Mr. Robot, we see Angela join E Corp (a corporation she hates). At the beginning of Season Two, Angela seems different. She seems more confident, more calculating, and more cold. When we first see her she’s on the phone with a Bloomberg employee trying to secure terms for an interview. Bloomberg is being difficult. Angela lies to Bloomberg and says that CNBC has agreed to all terms and hangs up. Her co-worker (who hates Angela) asks in disbelief, “Did you just hang up on Bloomberg?” Then threatens to get Angela’s supervisor. Angela tells her, “Get her. Go ahead and get her, tell her whatever you want, but right now get out of my fucking cubicle.” The co-worker leaves and gets Angela’s supervisor, but by the time they return Angela has already received a call back from Bloomberg and they have agreed to all of her terms. Angela relays this information to her supervisor and simply walks away.

How did Angela become this confident? When we see her join E Corp in Season One we see a few scenes that telegraph this change in her. She witnesses a man commit suicide while being interviewed and gets blood on her shoes. The CEO of the company, Phillip Price, gives her some cash and tells her to go buy new shoes. While Angela is in the shoe store, the clerk begins to tell her that she shouldn’t work for E Corp and that they are evil. Angela snaps on him and says, “I don’t know who you think you’re talking to, but I’ll try the Pradas next.”

Though this is out of character and gives us an insight into Angela’s future character change, she’s still the same Angela we’ve watched throughout Season One. The real change in her character occurs in-between seasons. And while I applaud Mr. Robot for making some of their main characters different each season, by having Angela’s journey to that change occur off screen we miss experiencing her character’s growth with her. They simply telegraph the change in Season One a little bit then show us the new Angela in Season Two and expect us to be invested in a process we missed.

 

Buffy – S07 E10 – Bring on the Night

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Joss Whedon (or more specifically, in this episode, writers Marti Noxon and Douglas Petrie) knows how to show character building. Up until Season Seven, Buffy the Vampire Slayer had fought evil with her friends. For six seasons it was mostly just her and her small group of friends against the forces of darkness. In Season Seven, however, the main enemy is The First Evil, who is the original evil that predates man or demon and is the manifestation of all evil.

That’s a big bad.

And The First’s plan is to destroy the entire line of Slayers. Because of this, all girls with the potential to become Slayers flock to Buffy’s house so she can protect them.

In this episode, Buffy and her friends learn that The Watcher’s Council (the ancient organization that helps train and support Slayers) has been destroyed and The First has released an uber vampire (basically a stronger, harder to kill vampire) to attack Buffy and the potential Slayers. Buffy confronts the ubervamp multiple times and is beaten swiftly and definitively. When a potential Slayer gets scared and runs away from the house, Buffy chases after her but fails to stop the potential Slayer from being killed.

Back at the house, Buffy’s friends and the potential Slayers doubt Buffy and doubt themselves. Then Buffy comes downstairs and gives this speech:

From this moment forward until the end of the season, Buffy stops being a girl who is fighting evil with her friends and becomes a general commanding an army. And thanks to this episode, we get to experience with her the full process of what pushed her down to her lowest point and allowed her to stand up and become something more than what she was.

 

Buffy – S06 E19 – Seeing Red

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This episode is probably one of the strongest episodes that shows character change because the entire season is built around it. Over the course of Season Six, Willow displays much deeper magical prowess and an increasing addiction to it. Her journey begins with the spell that Willow performs to raise Buffy from the dead. Unbeknownst to the rest of the group, the spell is extremely dark magic. When Giles finds out what Willow has done he scolds her. Similarly, Tara also worries that Willow doesn’t respect the dangers of using magic. Willow even goes far as using a forgetting spell to make Tara forget about a fight they had, which causes Tara to break up with Willow.

Near the season’s conclusion (just as Tara and Willow are reconciling) one of the season’s villains, Warren, attempts to kill Buffy with a gun. One of his shots misses errantly and hits Tara, killing her. Willow is furious and her eyes go red with power and anger. In the next episode, we see Willow acquire more dark magic in order to get revenge on Warren. Eventually Willow is so changed by the dark magic that she tries to destroy the world.

While this episode is the trigger that pushes Willow over the edge, everything we’ve seen happen to her in the season helps us understand the change. As though we were a part of the process, agreeing that Willow bringing Buffy back to life might have been doing a bad thing for good reasons, to witnessing the arc of Tara and Willow’s relationship from difficulty, to turmoil to reconciliation, to death. And because we were there when Willow was on the cusp of overcoming her addiction to magic and we were there to see Tara die, we can understand Willow’s fall from grace because we’re as upset as Willow is — because we changed with her.

 

Angel – S05 E15 – A Hole in the World

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Angel is such a great show that I could have used it to make all my examples of how to do proper character change. But the example I decided upon is the episode where Fred dies. For three seasons of the show, we watch Wesley and Fred and hope they will end up together. And at the beginning of this episode, Wesley and Fred are together and happy and by the end of it, Fred is dead.

Wesley changes a lot over the seasons, but this episode marks a more subtle change. In this episode, we get to see a tender side of Wesley as he cares for Fred as she’s dying. By this point in the series Wesley has self-actualized. He’s no longer skittish and afraid, he is self assured, but he’s also more brooding and cold. And yet, Fred loves him anyway (as though she believes in the best in him). So when her love is taken away from Wesley, all the good things that Wesley could have been dies with her.

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From this moment on, Wesley is aloof and distant. He constantly looks disheveled, beaten, and lost in thought. And this dour nature is brought on precisely when Fred dies. He is never the same again. And when he dies, I think he welcomes it. I don’t think he wanted to be a part of a world without Fred.

Even though this change happens near the end of the season, this episode shows us an event that creates a lasting character change. We can see that in every subsequent episode Wesley is affected by Fred’s death. And it is a clear journey we are a part of in a way that the character building in DS9, Supernatural, and Mr. Robot lack.


I’m starting to believe that the most enduring, effective television revolves around strong characters. Characters we cheer for; that we grow and mourn with. That show us personal battles they must overcome just as we must overcome personal battles in our own lives. We need to see these changes to feel a part of them, to grow with them and the show, in order to create the kind of love in our hearts that feels as real to us as the character’s change does.

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