August 16th, 2013, 8:43 am

The Business of Betrayal in Writing

Betrayals are big for drama. That's why we know names like Judas, Brutus and Benedict Arnold in the first place. In fact, I would argue traitors are every bit as common place in comic books as character deaths. The start of every big storyline usually starts with "Someone will die . . . and there's a traitor in the midst." (No, the two aren't usually the same person). Anyway, lately I've seen this trope down very well in one place . . . and very poorly in another. One is a highly-acclaimed TV show on USA. The other is an equally acclaimed TV show . . . on Nickelodeon. It might surprise which fails and which succeeds at a crafting a convincing arc of betrayal and redemption. (Some spoiler below for both shows).

If you've been reading this blog, it won't surprise you to know that the one that succeeds is in "Avatar: The Last Airbender". The character perpetually in question is Prince Zuko, the scarred son of big bad Fire Lord Izon, who pursues the Avatar and his friends in a misguided effort to earn his father's approval and end his exile. At the end of Season Two, Zuko is on the run from the Fire Nation and almost starts helping the Avatar's chief ally Katara . . . until he ceases the opportunity to attack the Avatar, betraying his wise uncle Iroh in the process.

What works about Zuko's case is that his motives aren't just clear - they're also extremely sympathetic. Part of the tragedy going into season three is watching Zuko's gradual realization that he is traded his uncle's genuine love for his father's hollow approval. His road to redemption are some of the most hilarious and heart-wrenching moments of the season, as Zuko wonders how to approach the people he has hunted for two seasons ("Why am I so bad at being good?!") to trying to win the trust of a betrayed and hostile Katara. The characters in this arc are also extremely well-realized. Katara's hostility is understandable, given her protectiveness of her friends, her issues with her father leaving to fight in the war, and her clear hatred of the Fire Nation.

And all of this comes from a simple half-hour cartoon on Nickelodeon, which makes it all the more frustrating when a hour-long drama from USA like "Suits" fumbles the ball. Perhaps it's because the character in question, Mike Ross, is the protagonist, rather than the antagonist, like Zuko. Regardless, the "betrayal" (I honestly have trouble calling it that) occurs in the second season when Mike Ross is coerced by senior partner Jessica Pearson into betraying his mentor Harvey, revealing pivotal information which would have stopped the firm's merger. Pearson threatens to reveal Mike's faked credentials if he doesn't comply, leaving him with an ultimatum. His actions ultimately result in Harvey (and his secretary Donna) ending their friendship with Mike.

There's a right way and a wrong way to handle this kind of story. "Suits" generally picks the wrong way for every answer on the test. I can understand Harvey being angry at Mike, but they practically treat Mike as if he were Judas. Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, not because the Pharisees threatened him with jail time. Harvey's reaction would have seen justified if Mike had betrayed Harvey on his own volition. Mike has more luck telling his love interest Rachel he's been lying to her for two seasons about attending law school, and the obvious deception doesn't even stop them from starting a relationship, while Mike's one mistake leads Harvey to all but cut him off.

My problem with "Suits" is this has happened before. The show is running smoothly and then all of the sudden characters act or react in tremendously unrealistic ways. Last season we saw Mike start a relationship with a married woman and start using drugs again. Now this part actually made sense, seeing how he lost his grandmother, who was essentially his surrogate parent. But the episode after he declares he's going to clean up his life, he's late for work because he wanted to clean his apartment (which consisted of sweeping up all of four blunts off a coffee table). The show is built around the dynamic between Mike and Harvey. These actions are designed to build suspense by imperiling said dynamic, but the results are more frustrating than compelling.

The act of betrayal, like the act of killing a character, is ultimately a tool to create more drama. There are right ways and wrong ways to use such a tool to build up drama that is compelling and engrossing instead of flat and stagnant. For a betrayal to work the audience must accept both the traitor's motivation and the betrayed's reaction. There's a reason why Judas and Brutus line the Ninth Circle of Hell. Their actions enrich and escalate the story as a whole, paving the way for their cameo in Dante's Infenrno and a dozen other works throughout literature. But betrayal can backfire for the writer just as easy as it can the traitor. Betraying audience expectations can be just as dangerous as betraying the Muse herself . . . so write with caution.

(That's it for this rant. Check out a new Blue Yonder next week!)

Stelknecht (Guest), August 16th, 2013, 1:54 pm

Airbender Just an observation on The last Airbender. Started watching it with my kids, and ended up finding missing episodes on Hulu, youtube and any other place. Best animated show of the last 5 years, in my opinion, which matters. Mostly to me and my kids. But seriously, the show made me sniffle, learn, think and feel, all of which are rare and unusual for TV today.

RDPulfer, August 16th, 2013, 7:19 pm

I totally agree Stelknecht. As I said in my last blog, I watched the last episodes this last Sunday, and I cried when Zuko's uncle hugged him. Truth be told, I'm a little jealous for kids today having such a great show!

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