Tag Archives: character moments

Once Again on SHIELD

Yep. I’m talking about this show again. Because it’s great and I don’t have much time to watch new movies (besides The Dark World) or read or play much video games. So we’re talking about Agents of SHIELD again.

The show started strong and since then has steadily improved in itself. Characters have been fleshed out, dynamics enhanced, and it’s proved itself capable with taking on different sorts of plots. What’s even better is that all of this is usually done together, rather than individually.

See, it’s easy to do these one at a time. When How I Met Your Mother does a high-concept episode it’s usually at the expense of characterization. This isn’t necessarily bad, there’s nothing wrong with a plot-powered episode in a show that’s usually very character driven. Shows like Community and Lost occasionally mix new concepts with character growth (see “Remedial Chaos Theory” and “The Constant”), but beyond that mixes are few and far between.

SHIELD is one of them. The most recent, “F.Z.Z.T.,” dispenses with the usual good-guys-fighting-bad-guys typical of shows like this in favor of a far more internal conflict, one that can’t be shot at. What’s remarkable is that the writers take this in stride, maintaining high tension throughout an episode where the action could be described as “they science stuff.”

Not only was it well done, but the plot allowed for some fantastic character moments. With the conflict science based, we were able to see Ward grapple with being powerless. Similarly, it allowed the show to further explore the dynamic of Fitz and Simmons. Prior they’d been presented as two parts of a whole, albeit two parts with a few contrasts. “F.Z.Z.T.” explored those contrasts, really highlighting not only what makes them individuals, but also why they work together. It’s a character study facilitated by a shift in the nature of the conflict.

The best character moment, however, is probably Coulson’s. With a relatively quiet threat, we’re able to see more of Coulson’s character. When he comforts a firefighter we begin to see the consequences his death had on him. When Simmons is at risk we his his steadfast devotion to saving his team. And lastly, his own doubts about himself show is another side of him. He becomes far more deep and we, as an audience, are informed that there is baggage there to be worked out. And baggage makes for good television.

“F.Z.Z.T.” is another step forward for Agents of SHIELD for so many reasons. Characters are stronger, humor hits more, and the drama’s more dramatic. I was excited when the show first aired, now I’m thrilled with where this show is going.

 

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Broken Pieces

I saw Silver Linings Playbook the other day and loved it (it is currently my favorite of this year’s Oscar nominations). For many reasons, really. Like the brilliantly intelligent script that doesn’t talk down to its audience, some great cinematography, stellar acting and so on. But what really got me was how the protagonists were just so broken. No, not their lives; they were broken. There’s a difference.

Let’s take Uncharted. Nathan Drake is not a broken person. Sure, he’s got crappy luck but he’s a whole person and never finds himself completely lost and gone.

Cloud Strife of Final Fantasy VII, on the other hand, is broken. Events prior to the game traumatized him into adopting the identity of someone else. When this illusion comes crashing down he is left a quivering, paralyzed husk. Cloud is compelling due to his need to put himself together to beat the villain. This is accentuated all the more by the help his friends provide. That’s what a broken character is.

Another example? Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly is in pieces. He saw everything he believed in abandon him in the Unification War and now he’s stuck living in the ruins. His demons haunt him and shadow everything he does. Mal doesn’t want to get too attached to his crew for fear that he might leave them, but he does anyway and hates to mention it. He never came back from the war and he can’t; the man just wants to find some semblance of Home. His brokenness isn’t just a motivation: it’s his very being. When Mal makes a sarcastic biting remark he’s not trying to be funny, it’s him masking his pain.

 See, what makes broken characters broken is their traits, complications if you will. They have their goals but their personal complications get in the way. It’s an incredible sort of internal conflict. A guy has to defeat himself to defeat the villain.

Iron Man 2 features a broken Tony Stark. Sure, his brokenness not as developed as the characters in Silver Linings Playbook (more on that in a bit), but he still works as an example. What’s wrong with Tony? He’s realized he’s dying, the hero schtick isn’t working out and he’s lost. So he does stupid things and alienates everyone near him. In order for Tony to beat Vanko he first has to deal with his own issues. Only when he gets past his brokenness can the plot continue.

But that’s when there’s a villain. Silver Linings Playbook has no classical villain. See, Pat has issues. A lot of them. As does Tiffany, the female protagonist. They’re cruel and sarcastic to try and compensate for their hurt. What we get from the movie isn’t some story where the protagonists have to overcome some obstacle so they can fall in love, they have to get past themselves.

It’s unusual for a cinematic romance; two characters having to become someone worth loving in order to be loved. It’s painful as we find out why these characters are who they are and it’s crushing to watch them fail and hurt each other. But more than that it’s honest; an honest look at brokenness and damaged people.

It’s different and it makes for a compelling story. So yeah, Silver Linings Playbook is my pick for Best Picture, ‘cuz it’s a love story about broken people. Go watch it.

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A Series Of Arcs

I decided to sit down and watch some old How I Met Your Mother episodes once, and by old I mean Season One. It was weird to watch since everyone was well, so different from where they are in the more recent seasons. It’s jarring in light of where they end up.

This, of course, is one of the great things about TV shows: character development. When you have a couple dozen episodes per season you can spend a lot more time with the protagonists and working out who they are.

Now, character development in this case is different from a character arc. A character arc is more often seen in movies, like Carl going from grumpy old man to loving surrogate-grandfather in Up, or Columbus deciding to actually step up and be a hero in Zombieland, or Scott learning the power of self-respect and becoming a decent human being in Scott Pilgrim VS The World. Arc’s are a character getting from a to b.

Development, on the other hand (or at least as I’m using it) is where a character goes from a to b to c to d. It’s a series of arcs, one after another. It also takes time and is often far more nuanced than in a movie.

Let’s take Sokka from Avatar: The Last Airbender. He starts off as the skeptic in the party (Team Avatar, that is), and proves very useful as our exposition man. As the series progresses, Sokka loses his skepticism (to point b), finds his place as the idea man/tactician of the group (point c) and eventually the de facto leader of Team Avatar (point d). It takes all three seasons for him to get to that point. The Sokka of Book One is wildly different from the Sokka we see at the end. It takes time for him to get there.

Similarly, Zuko in the same series has his own very complex character development. He’s introduced as a selfish antagonist hellbent on capturing the Avatar. Within the first season we come to know him and his relationship with his uncle. Through it we’re given hints that beneath his exterior he does have traits worth redeeming.

Come Book Two we see him grow in his own right to be an honorable, if still mildly maligned, young man. He eventually rejects the call of the light side and winds up starting Book Three with everything he ever wanted from the beginning. In light of what’s happened to him, though, he decides it’s not worth it and finally switches sides. Even then it still takes time for him to become a proper hero. It’s a convoluted, bumpy arc of redemption, but all the more rewarding for it.

Stories of redemption tend to benefit most from the format. Sawyer, in Lost, started out as the guy no one liked. Over time we found out that he didn’t want any one to like him because, as far as he was concerned, no one ought to like him. As the story goes on he becomes a sympathetic character to us and, through a con on the part of a friend, ends up ingratiating himself to the other survivors (see episode “Left Behind”).

Later on, Sawyer quite literally faces his personal demons. That done, he can progress from his original arc (a vengeful man haunted by his past) to what’s next in store for him. Sawyer becomes a protector of the others and, eventually, a man who just wants to live life as it is. It’s a marked change from the selfish prick the series started out with.

Video Games can do this too. Ezio Auditore of Assassin’s Creed II is introduced as a bit of a brat. Granted, he’s seventeen, but he’s not the best guy you’ll find. His family gets wrongly executed and he finds himself thrust into a world of espionage and conspiracy he didn’t know existed. Ezio is forced to grow. He gains responsibility, takes up the mantle of an Assassin, and by the second sequel (Assassin’s Creed: Revelations ) is radically different from where he started out from.

It’s not just one arc, though, it’s a bunch of small ones and moments that tell us not only who he is but who he’s becoming.

That’s the hallmark of character development: those little moments along the way that show us where a character is. It could be Sokka guiding the blind Toph onto a boat or Sawyer running through a gauntlet of gunfire as he carries Claire to safety. It could be Willow deciding she doesn’t need the ghost sheet outfit anymore or Jayne sliding the cup of booze across the table at Simon.

It’s those moments where you look at characters and realize that wow, they’ve changed. And you hardly noticed while it was happening.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit! It’s a collection of short stories however, so no epic character arcs.

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Shawarma

So the other day I was looking for lunch and ended up ordering shawarma at a falafel joint. As such there is a picture of me taking a Thor-sized bite out of it on Twitter. To those curious, it tastes more like a doner kebab than a gyro, just different toppings and stuff. And more Middle-Easty.

But why shawarma? I was hungry, but why’d I pick some middle-eastern delicacy over barbecue, burgers or brisket? It wasn’t cheaper and I wasn’t even sure if I liked it (but I like meat, pita bread, and food, so there’s that).

If you stayed to the end of the credits of The Avengers — and by the end I mean the end after every last name has rolled past the screen — you’ll have seen this wonderful little scene. It’s the titular heroes sitting in a restaurant and eating shawarma. There’s no dialogue; it’s just them eating after the battle.

It’s a quiet scene, and a bit of a joke too since there’s no big epic stinger as was the case for the other Marvel movies.

But it’s important, because it’s about them. The shawarma scene shows that after saving New York City and the world, they need a break. Again, it’s about them, taking time together at a point where there’s nothing left to say.

I’m not going to lie: these sorts of scenes are my favorites. I love character relations in my media (see: Firefly, Community, Super 8…) as much as I love adventure.

So what are some other great examples of quiet character moments?

Avatar: The Last Airbender is rife with them. The episode ‘The Runaway’ focuses on the personality clash between Toph and Katara. We’ve got shenanigans aplenty in town and bits of excitement strewn all over. But the best part?

Toph and Sokka sit down and talk about Katara and how they all work together. It’s just talking, but it accentuates who they are.

Better still is a moment during the finale. Team Avatar is getting ready for Aang to confront the Fire Lord and save the day. Everyone knows there’s a massive epic battle coming up. One of the ‘members’ of Team Avatar, Zuko, spent most prior episodes as an antagonist. He’s helping them now, but he feels like an outsider.

There’s a group hug for reassurance before they set out, and Katara sees that Zuko chose to stand it out. Now, Katara was the one who distrusted him most, the one who just about hated him. But now she turns to him and tells him that “being part of the group also means being part of group hugs”. That’s it, no big spiel about forgiveness or redemption, just acceptance.

Later on the finale Zuko is reunited with the uncle he betrayed. He feels undeserving of even speaking to him and quietly waits at his bedside for him to wake up. When Iroh wakes and sees his nephew, he doesn’t even let Zuko get a word out before capturing him in an embrace. We’ve followed these characters for three seasons, we feel the same relief as the prodigal nephew and the same joy as the loving uncle.

Besides Avatar, I begun watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer this summer. The premiere episode for season two, ‘When She Was Bad’, has Buffy acting remorselessly towards everyone else, friend and foe alike. She alienates and manipulates one of her best friends and later viciously tortures a vampire for information. In the aftermath she’s scared and feels terribly alone.

The next morning she goes to school, unsure of where she stands. The way she sees it she doesn’t deserve to be forgiven or even treated with a shred of warmth by her friends.

But they’ve saved her a seat, they make plans for the day, joke about teachers and the events of the night before. The camera pulls away and their conversation fades out. Without outright saying it, we know they still love her and still accept her as one of them. It’s simple, quiet, and wonderful.

Character moments are special, since that’s our most basic way of relating to them. Like them, we have relationships, we have friends who see us at our best and worst and put up with our crap. We have that sense of familiarity when we see it happen on screen, whether it’s an impromptu game of what might be basketball in Serenity’s cargo hold or a group of superheroes sitting together silently.

In any case, I liked my shawarma.

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