Bad Antagonist

There is a trope that I seem to be encountering more frequently lately, enough so that it is starting to really bother me: the omniscient antagonist.  Now, it is in the nature of antagonists to be frustrating, so it’s important to be clear that the part of this that is troubling is the omniscient part.  You expect an antagonist to cause problems; you expect them to cause breakdowns; you expect them to generate conflict.  After all, the protagonist needs something to overcome, so the antagonist plays a necessary role.

However, when the antagonist knows everything, every possible move that a protagonist could make, every potential outcome, every relevant piece of information to a situation, they become not only capable of creating chaos, conflict, and confusion, but theoretically unstoppable.  If knowledge really is power, then the omniscient antagonist may as well be omnipotent.  And if there is one figure in any narrative who is both omniscient and omnipotent, that person is the author.

In other words, just as there is a Mary Sue problem in making the protagonist too capable, likable, etc., there is a similar problem in making the antagonist too knowledgeable, too capable, etc.  For, when the antagonist and the author become too closely related, it defeats my identification as a reader with the protagonist.  As much as the protagonist needs an obstacle to overcome, that obstacle should not be the author.  As a reader, I am already giving the author my time, my attention, my money, and my suspension of disbelief.  The last thing I want is to have an antagonistic relationship with them.  That’s not entertainment; that’s abuse.

There are all sorts of valid complications of this over-simplified structure: unreliable narrators, unreliable narratives, meta-narratives, and so on.  But part of what makes a good storyteller is that the story takes center stage, and the hand of the author disappears behind the various machinations of the characters in the world that they inhabit.  When an author resorts to giving god-like capabilities to the antagonist in order to advance the plot, conflict, and characterization of a story, it calls attention to the man behind the curtain.  Whether it happens through incompetence, arrogance, or polemicization does not matter.  It breaks the fundamental contract between narrative creator and consumer.

Totalizing narratives, like conspiracy theories, are comforting in their own way.  It is easier to believe that someone is in charge and making bad things happen than to believe that no one is really in charge and bad things happen sometimes to good people, for no discernible reason other than life isn’t fair.  We do not celebrate art, though, for doing what is easy, comfortable, and reassuring.  If you want me to take you seriously as an author, you need to find a way to make your villains threatening for credible reasons other than your need as an author to have them be so.  Otherwise, you’re just wasting my time.

The West Wing Stands the Test of Time

Like most television series, we didn’t get into The West Wing right off the bat.  I think we picked it up somewhere in the second or third season, and had to go back and catch up on DVD (this was before Netflix).  At the time, there were a lot of reasons why we fell in love with it, but one of the central ones was that in the middle of the “W” presidency, it was a reassuring fantasy to believe that well-intentioned, hard-working, smart, articulate people could potentially run the country and do it well.  I have wondered since then how important this was to our experience of the show.

Well, recently, we started watching the show again (on Netflix), and I have to say that it still stands up.  Sure, the writing of Aaron Sorkin, with its playful, highly-literate treatment of dialogue was sure to appeal to our language-loving hearts.  Of course, the cast was spectacular, and the characters were all appealing in their own ways.  The cinematography and careful use of music were just as good as we remembered.  The intellectual, academic approach to political issues and realities was bound to make sense to us.

The surprising thing, at least to me, was how effectively the show makes use of silence.  Even in the early episodes of the first season, when many shows are struggling to find their footing, to establish the rhythms and themes that add up to a larger body of work (I’m looking at you, X-Files), there is a confidence in the direction and performances that shows through in the quiet moments.  As much as we love Sorkin’s call-and-response repetitions and the intricate rants he puts into the mouths of his characters, the moments when the characters are still, when things sink in, when the performance is all body and no words, these are truly masterful.

All too often, shows these days are all about action, plot, exposition, relentlessly moving forward as if our information-saturated brains would flip channels if given any pause.  That may be the reality.  But, The West Wing takes the time to space out its beats.  The frenetic pace of many scenes is offset in the tranquility of others.  At these moments, it is not the story that is being told, but the way that it is told that steps to the front.  And it is still a joy to watch a great team of storytellers at work.