We all have our favorite and least favorite tropes. From love triangles to slow burns, tropes are often the best ways to showcase great characters and storylines. They can also be frustrating and make you question why it is even a trope at all. In this bi-weekly column, we’ll take a deep dive into some of the most classic television tropes.
It can be easy, when watching a television show, to constantly root for the good guy. After all, it can leave a sour taste in your mouth when you support a character that has done some awful things in their lives. But let’s be real — sometimes rooting for the bad guy is just a lot more fun.
So then you start asking yourself whether that terrible character has the chance of flipping the table and actually becoming the good guy that you can support.
Redemption arcs have been a huge staple in television shows. They not only allow for some complexity within a series, but they also make you really think about the story and the characters involved. Maybe someone you thought was the scum of the earth isn’t really that bad at the end of the day. Is it possible that a villain could ever land on your good graces? Well, that’s what a good redemption arc aims to accomplish.
The first character that comes to mind when I think of a redemption arc is Dan Scott from One Tree Hill. I’m sure there’s a bunch of other characters that had better redemption arcs than him, but a storyline that lasts nine seasons is, of course, going to stick out to me.
I have to admit I’m a bit hazy when it comes to remembering the last few seasons of One Tree Hill despite all the times I’ve seen it. However, I do remember actually feeling sympathy for Dan at the end which is something I would never have imagined given the events of season three. How do you forgive a man that murdered his brother in cold blood?
One Tree Hill does have a good reputation of turning once bad characters into ones you want to be best friends with. Nathan Scott is the prime example after he had a quick one season redemption arc. He started out as a man who was a douche to everyone he knew, to someone who became a wonderful husband and father. That being said, Nathan didn’t do half the crap that Dan Scott did.
Whether or not I believe Dan Scott was redeemed at the end of the series doesn’t detract from the fact that I think One Tree Hill did a great job of trying to make the viewers believe that Dan was more than just a villain and was a true member of the family. A lot of this had to do with the writers’ decision to have Dan and Jamie have a relationship (I probably wouldn’t let a murderer hang out with my child, but okay). Having those two become best friends most definitely reshaped the way some viewers saw Dan. This — on top of his actions in the final season — made it pretty clear that Dan would do anything for his family.
The great thing about Dan’s redemption arc is that it added another layer to the show. You were left constantly wondering what side Dan was on, and he never became a boring or unnecessary character.
Dan Scott was one of the first redemption arcs I ever became invested in. But he’s not the best example of it by any means. There are two specific characters that I believe had flawless redemption arcs: Steve Harrington from Stranger Things and Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Both entitled and annoying when they first were introduced, Steve and Zuko ended up becoming the true highlights of each show. The writers, especially in the case of Zuko, really took their time in fleshing out the characters and peeling back their layers. If they just rushed through it without any planning, I don’t think that Steve and Zuko would’ve turned out to be such great characters.
Another iconic version of this trope is none other than Klaus Mikaelson from The Vampire Diaries. This may be one of the more controversial opinions that I have, but I never understood how people could possibly view him as anything other than the villain. And here’s the thing — there’s nothing wrong with just being a villain!
Klaus was truly at his peak when he was the big bad of The Vampire Diaries. And once his stint of being the most fearsome original vampire ended, he never really did anything that was remotely redeemable in my opinion. Granted I never watched The Originals, so I’m basing this entirely off of his character developments in The Vampire Diaries. The reason I bring Klaus up is that sometimes you just need to let a villain be a villain. There doesn’t always have to be a redemption arc especially if that character is already interesting enough.
I do suppose that makes me sort of a hypocrite because I was a huge fan of Damon Salvatore’s redemption arc. Even though he was super fun to watch in early season one, I did love watching him become the softie we all knew he was deep down.
So I guess I’m 50/50 when it comes to supporting whether a show should even attempt a redemption arc. I do think it is a notable effort whenever writers try to repaint a picture of a character already introduced.
One show that really did try to redeem one of their main characters was Once Upon A Time. For seasons, we watched Regina Mills aka The Evil Queen toe the line between good and evil. Most of the time she was just plain evil. Not only did she take away the agency of Sherrif Graham and held him as a sex slave, but she also killed a bunch of people. To me, there’s no way for you to effectively redeem that no matter how long and hard you try.
I guess the writers figured that out because in the later seasons they decided that maybe if they separate Regina from The Evil Queen that would wash away all her former sins. To me, that was just a giant cop-out and didn’t negate the fact that she may just have some darkness in her heart. But hey, there’s a bunch of people that love and support Regina so maybe this redemption arc did work after all — just not on me.
Perhaps the problem with Regina is that the writers spent way too long proving to the viewers that she was The Evil Queen. Even though this was a Dinsey show that was most definitely catered to a younger audience, the writers didn’t hold back it trying to show all the evil things this queen was capable of. Maybe the younger audience wouldn’t notice that Regina knowingly kept Belle captive in an insane asylum for over twenty years, but I certainly did.
The writers thinking that all these terrible things could be easily ignored once they separated Regina from The Evil Queen didn’t turn out quite the way they hoped. If anything, it just made them lazy.
But it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. That is reserved for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer was seen for a long time as a mean vampire whose only goal in life was to kill people, specifically the slayer. And while Spike did do that for a couple of seasons, things really started to change the more we got to know him. Call it a chip in the brain or whatever, but I do think the time that he spent with the Scooby gang led him to become a better person.
But leave it to Joss Whedon to completely erase all the hard work they made in making us believe Spike was a good person.
The moment he assaulted Buffy was the moment his character was and will forever be dead for me. Yeah, he sacrificed himself in the end and Buffy said that she loved him, but there was never any great resolution to this giant issue that had arisen. It’s such a shame because they were doing so well at redeeming Spike and making the viewers believe that he could be a man worthy of Buffy.
But in the end, the writers simply had no idea what they were doing or going with the character. Not only was this a disservice to Spike, but to all the viewers that spent countless hours rooting for him.
Essentially, the only way a show is going to have a successful redemption arc is if it meticulously thought out. Otherwise, it’s just going to look like a rush job and won’t be as nearly as effective.
What do you think? Do you love redemption arcs or hate them? Do you think characters like Regina and Spike were successfully redeemed? Let me know in the comments!