“To spare another man’s life…”
Why do our villains always have to die? Roger Ebert says somewhere—I haven’t been able to track down the exact reference—that he’d be happier if a movie ended with the hero sealing the bad guy’s fate with a few well-chosen lines of dialogue, followed by a closeup of the bastard’s face as he absorbs his predicament. And there’s no question that this would be much more satisfying than the anticlimactic death scenes that most stories tend to deliver. It’s safe to say that if a book or screenplay goes through the trouble of creating a nice, hateful antagonist, it’s usually for the sake of his ultimate comeuppance: we want to see him pay for what he’s done, and hopefully suffer in the process. In practice, the manner in which he ends up being dispatched rarely lives up to the punishment we’ve mentally assigned to him in advance. For one thing, it’s often too fast. We want him to perish at a moment of total recognition, and the nature of most fictional deaths means that the realization is over almost before it begins. (This may be the real reason why so many villains are killed by falling from a great height. It leaves the hero’s hands relatively clean, however illogically, and it also allows for at least a few seconds of mute astonishment and understanding to cross the bad guy’s face. The story goes that during the filming of Die Hard, director John McTiernan let Alan Rickman drop a second before he was expecting it. Rickman was understandably furious, but the look he gives the camera is worth it: there are few things more delicious than seeing him lose that mask of perfect, icy control.)
All things being equal, it’s best to allow the villain to live to deal with the consequences. But there are also situations in which a death can feel dramatically necessary. I’ve never forgotten what Robert Towne once said about a similar plot point at the end of Chinatown. Originally, Towne had wanted the movie to conclude on an ambiguous note, but he was overruled by Roman Polanski. Years later, Towne said:
In hindsight, I’ve come to feel that Roman was probably right about the ending, that I don’t think that what I had in mind could have been done; that an end with that ambiguity and ambivalence that I had in mind simply could not satisfactorily be done as the tag to a movie with that much complexity; the end had to have a level of stark simplicity that at the time I thought was excessively melodramatic. Roman rightly believed that the complexities had to conclude with a simple severing of the knot.
Chinatown, of course, ends with anything but the villain getting what he deserves, but the principle is largely the same. In some respects, it’s a matter of contrast. A story that consists of one act of violence after another might benefit from a more nuanced ending, while one that teases out its complexities would go out best with a stark, sudden conclusion. I’ve always preferred the brutally abbreviated last scene of The Departed to that of Infernal Affairs, for instance, because that twisty, convoluted story really needs to close with a full stop. As De Niro says at the end of Casino: “And that’s that.”
And a villain’s death can be necessary in order to close off the story completely: it’s like scorching the end of a nylon rope to prevent it from unraveling. Death is nothing if not definitive, and it can seem unfair to the viewer or reader to leave the narrative open at one end after they’ve come so far already. The decision as to whether or not to spare the villain is a tricky one, and it can be determined by forces from much earlier in the narrative. In his director’s commentary for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie says that they spent countless drafts trying to figure out ways for Ethan to kill Solomon Lane, only to find that none of the results seemed satisfying. The reason, they discovered, was that Lane hadn’t done enough to make Ethan hate him in particular: it just wasn’t personal, so it didn’t need to end with anything so intimate as a fight to the death. A story’s internal mechanics can also push the ending in the other direction. The original draft of The Icon Thief, which persisted almost until the book went out to publishers, had all three of the primary antagonists surviving, and in fact, Maddy even asks Ilya to spare Sharkovsky’s life. In the rewrite, I realized that Lermontov had to die to balance out the death of another character earlier in the novel, which in itself was a very late addition, and that Maddy had to be the one to take that revenge. This kind of narrative bookkeeping, in which the writer cooks the numbers until they come out more or less right, is something that every author does, consciously or otherwise. In this case, it was a choice that ended up having a huge impact on the rest of the series, and it influenced many other judgment calls to come, to an extent that I’m not sure I recognized at the time.
Chapter 59 of Eternal Empire, for example, is maybe the bloodiest sequence in the entire trilogy, in emotional impact if not in raw body count: it includes the deaths of two major characters and a fair amount of collateral damage. I get rid of Asthana, whom I liked so much that I kept her around for an entire novel after I originally planned to dispose of her, and Vasylenko, whose presence has haunted the series from the start. Looking back on it, I’m pretty happy with Asthana’s swan song, which consists of a complicated set of feints and maneuvers against Wolfe. It’s fair to both characters, and it gives Asthana a second or two to process how she’s been outsmarted. (I wasn’t thinking of Arrested Development, but it’s hard for me to read it now without imagining Asthana saying to herself: “I’ve made a huge mistake.”) But I’m not particularly pleased by how I handled Vasylenko’s death, which is too bad, since by all rights it ought to be the climax of all three books. In some ways, I wrote myself into a corner: there’s really no plausible way to keep Vasylenko alive, or to extend his confrontation with Ilya for longer than a couple of paragraphs, and in my eagerness to write a definitive ending to the series, I may have rushed past the moment of truth. In my defense, the chapter has to provide closure for multiple pairs of characters—Ilya and Maddy, Ilya and Wolfe, Ilya and Vasylenko, Wolfe and Asthana—and I do what I can to give each of them the valediction they deserve. If I had to do it over again, I might have toyed with switching Asthana and Vasylekno’s final scenes, in order to close the novel on a position of greater strength, but this probably wouldn’t have been possible. The Icon Thief ended with Maddy asking Ilya to spare another man’s life; Eternal Empire had to conclude with her asking for the opposite. They don’t end in the same way. But Maddy isn’t the same person she was when we started…