In most realistic fiction, there exists a fuzzy line between what’s “good” and what’s “bad.” Anti-heroes slip between those distinctions and end up challenging the viewer or reader’s basic assumptions. That isn’t a bad thing — in pushing definitions to new boundaries, we challenge ourselves to reconsider what we might take for granted, or have never questioned to begin with.
But oftentimes, it’s a lot simpler in fantasy. Sure sure, you can have characters who are double agents or whose motives change as they grow, but look at most fantasy narratives and, while the protagonists can sometimes have amorphous agendas, when it comes down to good vs. evil, they will take a side, not drift aimlessly between those relative distinctions.
Take the new “Captain America” movie. Tonally a spy thriller, the characters do start out as shifty, ambiguously-affiliated persons. But the film still exists in the fantastic Marvelverse, and as it goes on, the rift between good and evil becomes much wider, and though characters do slide from side to side, they ultimately find themselves set in one definition (with the exception of one… but that’s a spoiler).
Even for something like “Game of Thrones,” where most of the characters have honed the art of deception to a fine point, there are still sides to root for, whether it’s Daenerys and her dragons or Joffrey in the Red Keep. You generally have an idea whether or not a character is ultimately good or ultimately evil, and when you’re presented with characters that straddle that perception (e.g. Littlefinger), they generally get sorted in with evil — because you know they are not good.
That isn’t the case with shows like “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad,” where the modern world, without a notion of true right or true wrong, plays out according to its own rules. But whenever there is a higher stake at work, apart and adrift from the relentless necessity of the present, we as observers have the ability to remove ourselves and judge the action from above. In creating new lands, we lord over them — for in reality, we cannot cast judgment upon ourselves, and good and evil are nowhere near as defined.
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