I love the moment when a character is at their lowest point. When they can’t look up and see the light, when they’re down and being kicked, when things are a mess. I love drama and mess and catharsis. What I don’t love is when writers tend to beat characters down for no good reason. We’re going to go over a few examples of breaking characters down in mostly western dramas because it is a unique issue faced by series that go on for hundreds of episodes with a constant need to ratchet up the tension. Because we’ll be talking character arcs and plot points: a spoiler warning is in effect: proceed with caution if that’s something you’re particularly sensitive to.
Dr. Spencer Reid has been through a lot. His time in all 15 seasons of Criminal Minds saw him battling an addiction to painkillers, the death of his girlfriend at the hands of an insane stalker, the continued ups and downs of his mother’s deteriorating mental health and the death of his mentor, loss of his best friend and the faked death of a beloved coworker. Spencer has been through a lot to say the least. But what does that do for Spencer? Spencer who is already kind, trusting, supportive and loving: what does it do for him? Does having his mentor murdered and having to solve the case make him a better investigator? Does having to watch his girlfriend die make him more empathetic? Does losing Morgan after years of dating- I mean, friendship do anything for him? No, it makes him hardened and sad and pathetic. And while he is far from the only character in Criminal Minds to have episode after episode hurt him, it feels particularly undeserved for Spencer; who as of the narrative has already been through so much.
Sam Taggart is a nurse we meet in ER and when she’s introduced she’s scrappy, young and has a child despite her young age. She’s often referred to as Teen Mom and becomes less known for her actual character traits and more for the men she sleeps with from Dr. Kovac to Dr. Why is John Stamos Here. Sam is also known for her no good ex who is a literal convict and garbage human. She does her best to distance herself and her son from her horrible baby daddy but a dramatic season finale and season opening episode duo have her literally kidnaped by her convict ex along with her son. She is taken on a hostage road trip for a while after her convict ex stabs her then ex-boyfriend with a paralytic drug and during the road trip, she is raped by her ex. For network television, we see a pretty decent amount of the crime which turned my stomach upon first viewing. You see the light leave Sam’s eyes, you see her lay here, you see her resist and then not. It’s a tragic scene that ends with her murdering her attacker and taking herself and her son to freedom. What was that supposed to teach Sam? What is the lesson? What was the reason? Was the lesson to continue to do what she had been doing: not trusting her ex and being strong? Was the lesson that rape makes a woman stronger? Was the lesson that overcoming your attacker with violence makes a woman stronger? What was the lesson Sam and thus the audience is meant to learn from her trauma?
By now you may be asking why I care so much. You may be curious since I started by saying that I love melodrama and stakes. Well, I do. But they have to amount to something. We’re going back to Criminal Minds for an example of an arc done right. Aaron Hotchner, the person who revealed that I have Daddy Issues, had an amazing arc of him losing his marriage and wife because of his dedication to his job at the BAU. After his season nemesis, The Fox, escapes and threatens the safety of his ex-wife and son; he drops everything to save his family. The episode is full of tension and drama and ends with Hotchner losing his ex-wife, who he still loves dearly and is the mother of his only son: Jack. The funeral scene that we get of Hotchner eulogizing his wife and actually taking time off of work to be there for his son shows us how important his job is and was to him but how much this particular loss hurt him. Hotchner was broken but did learn a lesson; one he continued to learn until he was killed off of the show because his actor was bad.
Any time a character is hurt, it should mean something and shows that go on for hundreds of episodes: it’s hard to keep making pain meaningful. It’s hard to continue to invent new, fresh horrors for fictional characters to undergo and the nature of serialization means that oftentimes, many of these things happen in intense proximity to each other. Spencer Reid goes through many of his losses in what we can only assume is a year’s time. That’s enough to break anyone down. It’s especially distressing when this happens to female, BIPOC or neurodivergent characters because oftentimes trauma is a shorthand for character development for these kinds of characters. It’s lazy and bad experiences do not make up for a lack of character development. Breaking characters down does not make them more relatable, more human, more complex or anything: it just leaves them broken. And especially when dealing with characters of color, the neurodivergent or female characters; it’s so important to let them have stories that are happy and okay. So many queer characters, female characters or characters of color are faced with stories that are just punishing; they often end in death or suicide and that does something to you when the only representation you see is that of strife and pain. That does not minimize the stories that are painful, those will always be there but being able to just one see everything come out okay in the end: that would be truly something.