Lately, there’s been a lot of talk surrounding several shows I watch concerning redemption arcs. Fans have been wondering if characters are redeemable, if they have been redeemed, or why they haven’t been. So, naturally, I started thinking about the topic, beginning with what is a redemption arc? And I’m running across a lot of fans who want to see their favorite characters get one, so I’ve also been wondering what precisely the appeal is. And also, under what circumstance a character needs/should have an arc of this sort. To answer that first question about what precisely is a redemption arc, I started with one of the classics of the type, and then began thinking of variations, until ending with the one that’s been most on my mind lately.
(Obviously, this is a topic that can only be discussed with spoilers, but spoiler phobes shouldn’t be too worried. I’m going to spoil three classic stories most of you likely know, and I’m only going to discuss the ending of BBC’s The Musketeers pretty vaguely.)
Sydney Carton—A Tale of Two Cities
Truly the classic redemption arc, Sydney Carton starts the novel lazy, drunk, and selfish, and ends the novel by literally sacrificing his own life to save another man’s. It’s an incredibly satisfying transformation because Dickens makes us care deeply for Sydney Carton and the people and cause he eventually sacrifices himself for. And on a more basic level, we like the redemption arc because we want to believe all people have the capacity to grow and change and become better human beings. We like to think that if we ever fail, there will still be hope for us. Sydney Carton provides that and then some by going the extra redemptive mile by becoming even better than we are and making the sacrifice we all want to believe we would have the strength to make in his position.
But what if his opportunity for redemption had been offered and he turned it down? Is that still a redemption arc? I think so, and here’s an example.
After spending hundreds of pages (or dozens of songs, depending on which telling of the story you have in mind), Javert, the quintessential obsessed policeman, has a shot at redemption. For decades, Javert has been searching for Jean Valjean, and when he finds him, Javert could let his hate and obsession go, along with Jean Valjean. He could finally exorcise his demons and be a better, happier person. He could, in other words, finish his redemption arc by allowing Jean Valjean to go about his own life while continuing on with his own minus the unhealthy drive. But Javert doesn’t accept the redemption being offered to him, and instead commits suicide.
So, this is the redemption arc answered in the negative. Is there another way for this to play out? Yes. Yes, there is.
Frodo and Gollum—The Lord of the Rings
Like Javert, Frodo and Gollum are both ultimately offered redemption, but refuse it. All they have to do is cast the One Ring back into the fiery chasm from whence it came. (Aside—How awesome is that line exactly?) And yet, the One Ring has made them both so mad, so enthralled to its power, that neither of them can do it, thus damning all of Middle-earth to an eternity of darkness under the dominion of Sauron. Except, that’s not actually what happens. What happens is the eucatastrophe. A force greater than Frodo, Gollum, or Sauron sees the One Ring destroyed. And that force also decides to grant Frodo the redemption he previously rejected. Gollum isn’t so lucky, but greater forces get to be fickle like that. But as readers/viewers, even if we feel bad for Gollum, we take comfort in Frodo’s arc, that even if we are so blind/stupid/insane to turn our backs on redemption, the possibility exists for us to get it anyway. And that’s a comfort.
Can a redemption arc fail or be rescinded? Like everything in storytelling, execution is everything, so sadly, yes it can.
Milady de Winter—The Musketeers (BBC)
Now, I’m not going to get into specifics. And I’m not even sure where precisely I fall on the issue of Milady’s final outcome on the show. But there are many fans, with whom, even when not in total agreement, I sympathize with greatly, who feel as though the show failed this character in terms of her redemption arc. Through the first two seasons, it certainly seems as though Milady, one, had an arc, and that two, it was redemptive. She is introduced in Season 1 to the viewer as a cold blooded murderer who literally tells a priest while in confession, “I’m not looking for absolution. I want revenge.” By the end of Season 2, she claims she no longer wishes to be a woman who lies and kills—she wants to be a decent, happy person, as she was when she first married Athos. With very limited screen time in Season 3, Milady ends the season (and the run of the show) decidedly closer to the woman at the beginning of Season 1 than the woman at the end of Season 2. Fans of the character, including myself, question if the writers of the show missed an opportunity for a redemption arc here. And even if Milady was never going to stop being in essentials the character to whom we were introduced, some fans wonder if she couldn’t have had more agency in choosing her resolution, rather than feeling as though she were not merely denied redemption, but never offered it or any say in her future.
I think the important lesson I take away from The Musketeers as a writer is that when dangling a redemption arc in front of a character, you snatch it away at your own peril. Again, the belief that we can be better and find forgiveness and happiness is a strong emotion in all of us. Not allowing that to a character who the reader believes deserves it can be immensely disappointing. Although, J made an interesting observation that the important difference between, say, Sydney Carton and Javert is that one of them is the hero and the other is the antagonist. Perhaps Milady could only have redemption offered but not granted? I’m not sure. But I’ll certainly be thinking about it.