Posts Tagged ‘The Vampire Diaries’
Note: Spoilers follow for the series finale of The Vampire Diaries.
On Friday, I said goodbye to The Vampire Diaries, a series that I once thought was one of the best genre shows on television, only to stop watching it for its last two seasons. Despite its flaws, it occupies a special place in my memory, in part because its strengths were inseparable from the reasons that I finally abandoned it. Like Glee, The Vampire Diaries responded to its obvious debt to an earlier franchise—High School Musical for the former, Twilight for the latter—both by subverting its predecessor and by burning through ideas as relentlessly as it could. It’s as if both shows decided to refute any accusations of unoriginality by proving that they could be more ingenious than their inspirations, and amazingly, it sort of worked, at least for a while. There’s a limit to how long any series can repeatedly break down and reassemble itself, however, and both started to lose steam after about three years. In the case of The Vampire Diaries, its problems crystallized around its ostensible lead, Elena Gilbert, as portrayed by the game and talented Nina Dobrev, who left the show two seasons ago before returning for an encore in the finale. Elena spent most of her first sendoff asleep, and she isn’t given much more to do here. There’s a lot about the episode that I liked, and it provides satisfying moments of closure for many of its characters, but Elena isn’t among them. In the end, when she awakens from the magical coma in which she has been slumbering, it’s so anticlimactic that it reminds me of what Pauline Kael wrote of Han’s revival in Return of the Jedi: “It’s as if Han Solo had locked himself in the garage, tapped on the door, and been let out.”
And what happened to Elena provides a striking case study of why the story’s hero is often fated to become the least interesting person in sight. The main character of a serialized drama is under such pressure to advance the plot that he or she becomes reduced to the diagram of a pattern of forces, like one of the fish in D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form, in which the animal’s physical shape is determined by the outside stresses to which it has been subjected. Instead of making her own decisions, Elena was obliged to become whatever the series needed her to be. Every protagonist serves as a kind of motor for the story, which is frequently a thankless role, but it was particularly problematic on a show that defined itself by its willingness to burn through a year of potential storylines each month. Every episode felt like a season finale, and characters were freely killed, resurrected, and brainwashed to keep the wheels turning. It was hardest on Elena, who, at her best, was a compelling, resourceful heroine. After six seasons of personality changes, possessions, memory wipes, and the inexplicable choices that she made just because the story demanded it, she became an empty shell. If you were designing a show in a laboratory to see what would happen if its protagonist was forced to live through plot twists at an accelerated rate, like the stress tests that engineers use to put a component through a lifetime’s worth of wear in a short period of time, you couldn’t do much better than The Vampire Diaries. And while it might have been theoretically interesting to see what happened to the series after that one piece was removed, I didn’t think it was worth sitting through another two seasons of increasingly frustrating television.
After the finale was shot, series creators Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec made the rounds of interviews to discuss the ending, and they shared one particular detail that fascinates me. If you haven’t watched The Vampire Diaries, all you need to know is that its early seasons revolved around a love triangle between Elena and the vampire brothers Stefan and Damon, a nod to Twilight that quickly became one of the show’s least interesting aspects. Elena seemed fated to end up with Stefan, but she spent the back half of the series with Damon, and it ended with the two of them reunited. In a conversation with Deadline, Williamson revealed that this wasn’t always the plan:
Well, I always thought it would be Stefan and Elena. They were sort of the anchor of the show, but because we lost Elena in season six, we couldn’t go back. You know Nina could only come back for one episode—maybe if she had came back for the whole season, we could even have warped back towards that, but you can’t just do it in forty-two minutes.
Dobrev’s departure, in other words, froze that part of the story in place, even as the show around it continued its usual frantic developments, and when she returned, there wasn’t time to do anything but keep Elena and Damon where they had left off. There’s a limit to how much ground you can cover in the course of a single episode, so it seemed easier for the producers to stick with what they had and figure out a way to make it seem inevitable.
The fact that it works at all is a tribute to the skill of the writers and cast, as well as to the fact that the whole love triangle was basically arbitrary in the first place. As James Joyce said in a very different context, it was a bridge across which the characters could walk, and once they were safely on the other side, it could be blown to smithereens. The real challenge was how to make the finale seem like a definitive ending, after the show had killed off and resurrected so many characters that not even death itself felt like a conclusion. It resorted to much the same solution that Lost did when faced with a similar problem: it shut off all possibility of future narrative by reuniting its characters in heaven. This partially a form of wish fulfillment, as we’ve seen with so many other television series, but it also puts a full stop on the story by leaving us in an afterlife, where, by definition, nothing can ever change. It’s hilariously unlike the various versions of the world to come that the series has presented over the years, from which characters can always be yanked back to life when necessary, but it’s also oddly moving and effective. Watching it, I began to appreciate how the show’s biggest narrative liability—a cast that just can’t be killed—also became its greatest asset. The defining image of The Vampire Diaries was that of a character who has his neck snapped, and then just shakes it off. Williamson and Plec must have realized, consciously or otherwise, that it was a reset button that would allow them to go through more ideas than would be possible than a show on which a broken neck was permanent. Every denizen of Mystic Falls got a great death scene, often multiple times per season, and the show exploited that freedom until it exhausted itself. It only really worked for three years out of eight, but it was a great run while it lasted. And now, after life’s fitful fever, the characters can sleep well, as they sail off into the mystic.
In the opening seconds of the series premiere of Riverdale, a young man speaks quietly in voiceover, his words playing over idyllic shots of American life:
Our story is about a town, a small town, and the people who live in the town. From a distance, it presents itself like so many other small towns all over the world. Safe. Decent. Innocent. Get closer, though, and you start seeing the shadows underneath. The name of our town is Riverdale.
Much later, we realize that the speaker is Jughead of Archie Comics fame, played by former Disney child star Cole Sprouse, which might seem peculiar enough in itself. But what I noticed first about this monologue is that it basically summarizes the prologue of Blue Velvet, which begins with images of roses and picket fences and then dives into the grass, revealing the insects ravening like feral animals in the darkness. It’s one of the greatest declarations of intent in all of cinema, and initially, there’s something a little disappointing in the way that Riverdale feels obliged to blandly state what Lynch put into a series of unforgettable images. Yet I have the feeling that series creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who says that Blue Velvet is one of his favorite movies, knows exactly what he’s doing. And the result promises to be more interesting than even he can anticipate.
Riverdale has been described as The O.C. meets Twin Peaks, which is how it first came to my attention. But it’s also a series on the CW, with all the good, the bad, and the lack of ugly that this implies. This the network that produced The Vampire Diaries, the first three seasons of which unexpectedly generated some of my favorite television from the last few years, and it takes its genre shows very seriously. There’s a fascinating pattern at work within systems that produce such narratives on a regular basis, whether in pulp magazines or comic books or exploitation pictures: as long as you hit all the obligatory notes and come in under budget, you’re granted a surprising amount of freedom. The CW, like its predecessors, has become an unlikely haven for auteurs, and it’s the sort of place where a showrunner like Aguirre-Sacasa—who has an intriguing background in playwriting, comics, and television—can explore a sandbox like this for years. Yet it also requires certain heavy, obvious beats, like structural supports, to prop up the rest of the edifice. A lot of the first episode of Riverdale, like most pilots, is devoted to setting up its premise and characters for even the most distracted viewers, and it can be almost insultingly on the nose. It’s why it feels obliged to spell out its theme of dark shadows beneath its sunlit surfaces, which isn’t exactly hard to grasp. As Roger Ebert wrote decades ago in his notoriously indignant review of Blue Velvet: “What are we being told? That beneath the surface of Small Town, U.S.A., passions run dark and dangerous? Don’t stop the presses.”
As a result, if you want to watch Riverdale at all, you need to get used to being treated occasionally as if you were twelve years old. But Aguirre-Sacasa seems determined to have it both ways. Like Glee before it, it feels as if it’s being pulled in three different directions even before it begins, but in this case, it comes off less as an unwanted side effect than as a strategy. It’s worth noting that not only did Aguirre-Sacasa write for Glee itself, but he’s also the guy who stepped in rewrite Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which means that he knows something about wrangling intractable material for a mass audience under enormous scrutiny. (He’s also the chief creative officer of Archie Comics, which feels like a dream job in the best sort of way: one of his projects at the Yale School of Drama was a play about Archie encountering the murderers Leopold and Loeb, and he later received a cease and desist order from his future employer over Archie’s Weird Fantasy, which depicted its lead character as coming out of the closet.) Riverdale often plays like the work of a prodigiously talented writer trying to put his ideas into a form that could plausibly air on Thursdays after Supernatural. Like most shows at this stage, it’s also openly trying to decide what it’s supposed to be about. And I want to believe, on the basis of almost zero evidence, that Aguirre-Sacasa is deliberately attempting something almost unworkable, in hopes that he’ll be able to stick with it long enough—on a network that seems fairly indulgent of shows on the margins—to make it something special.
Most great television results from this sort of evolutionary process, and I’ve noted before—most explicitly in my Salon piece on The X-Files—that the best genre shows emerge when a jumble of inconsistent elements is given the chance to find its ideal form, usually because it lucks into a position where it can play under the radar for years. The pressures of weekly airings, fan response, critical reviews, and ratings, along with the unpredictable inputs of the cast and writing staff, lead to far more rewarding results than even the most visionary showrunner could produce in isolation. Writers of serialized narratives like comic books know this intuitively, and consciously or not, Aguirre-Sacasa seems to be trying something similar on television. It’s not an approach that would make sense for a series like Westworld, which was produced for so much money and with such high expectations that its creators had no choice but to start with a plan. But it might just work on the CW. I’m hopeful that Aguirre-Sacasa and his collaborators will use the mystery at the heart of the series much as Twin Peaks did, as a kind of clothesline on which they can hang a lot of wild experiments, only a certain percentage of which can be expected to work. Twin Peaks itself provides a measure of this method’s limitations: it mutated into something extraordinary, but it didn’t survive the departure of its original creative team. Riverdale feels like an attempt to recreate those conditions, and if it utilizes the Archie characters as its available raw material, well, why not? If Lynch had been able to get the rights, he might have used them, too.
Note: Spoilers follow for Quantico.
Halfway through the series premiere of Quantico, the new drama being sold to viewers as Homeland meets Gray’s Anatomy, it occurred to me that they had filmed the pitch for the show without bothering to write an actual episode. A second later, I realized that this is exactly what a network pilot is supposed to be. If democracy, as Churchill is supposed to have said, is the worst form of government except for all the others, the process by which shows are picked up on the basis of standalone pilots is the worst possible way to get good television, except that nobody has managed to come up with anything better. A pilot is less the proper opening for an ongoing series than a commercial for what the show could become, and if the industry were smart about it, it would treat those two objectives as totally separate: the network could be sold on the premise with a highlight reel alone, or, maybe better, with an extended trailer followed by the real thing. Instead, we’ve somehow come to the conclusion that these two functions are really the same, which means that nearly every series starts off with an overstuffed, vaguely desperate advertisement for itself. And in a television environment in which the pilot may be all a show ever gets, it’s no wonder that so many series—especially dramas—burn themselves out within the first couple of installments.
It’s too early to write off Quantico entirely, but the omens aren’t particularly promising, as much as I enjoyed a lot of what aired on Sunday. The series certainly has a nice, juicy premise: it’s a soapy look at a class at the FBI Academy, intercut with a flashforward that reveals that one of the trainees—we don’t know which one—is a sleeper agent who will later be responsible for a devastating terrorist attack at Grand Central Station. We can set aside, for now, the issue of how blithely the show trades on images of terrorism in New York mostly as an engine to drive a show in which pretty people sleep with one another: viewers, including me, are ready to forgive almost anything if the result is slick and entertaining. But the show hits all of its beats with such robotic precision that it’s almost unsettling. It isn’t particularly curious about what it would actually be like to be an FBI trainee, or really about anything except how to keep its own plot in motion: within a few minutes, it’s clear that the vision it presents of the academy itself doesn’t have much to do with reality. This isn’t to say that the result can’t be watchable on its own terms, and there’s plenty to like here, particularly in the primary cast. In the leading role of Alex Parrish, Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra more than lives up to the hype. I was pleased to see more of Johanna Braddy, who made such a strong impression on UnREAL. And it might be a lot of fun to see these characters collide.
What’s less fun is how impatient the show feels: it wants to do everything at once, rather than let the story unfold at its own pace. Every network drama these days starts out with a series bible, a document that outlines the premise and characters in enough detail that the writers can draw on a consistent body of material. One of the unwritten rules of these bibles is that every important character has a secret that will only be exposed later on. Quantico, hilariously, discloses all those secrets in the pilot in the most guileless way imaginable: the trainees are told to investigate one another to find out their secrets, which are then laid out for us in a series of mock interrogation scenes. This isn’t to say that there aren’t more surprises coming, or that the ones we see here won’t reveal additional wrinkles later on—at least one of the trainees, after all, is allegedly a terrorist. But having the characters essentially deliver their secrets to the camera is such a blatant narrative shortcut that it almost starts to feel inspired. I’m not even mad; I’m just impressed. Still, it gets old pretty quickly. At one point, there’s a conversation between two supporting players in which one all but says to the other: “Hey, remember how we used to date?” That kind of bald exposition is standard for any pilot, and we’ve learned to accept it. But nearly every scene serves the same kind of double duty. It’s like a briefing on the show that we could be watching, but aren’t.
That said, the pilot is full of punchy moments—a trainee who commits suicide out of fear that his past will be exposed, the reveal that one of the characters is actually a pair of identical twins—that have an undeniable impact. But they’d be much more interesting if we’d spent more than ten minutes with these characters beforehand. The showrunner, Joshua Safran, is clearly an intelligent guy, and he presumably knows that a character’s death is more powerful if we’ve gotten to know him over the course of a few episodes, or that it’s more fun to produce a set of twins if the series has managed to mislead us for most of the season. But he doesn’t have the time to do it properly, or he’s afraid that he won’t get it. Quantico is like a shaggy dog story that repeatedly tells us the punchline before the joke is even finished, out of fear that we’ll stop listening before it’s over. It shows us a twist as if describing the episode to somebody who hadn’t seen it, and then invites us to admire how great it would have been if it had been allowed to unfold for real. It’s possible that it has more up its sleeve, but precedents here aren’t encouraging: shows that make a point of burning through ideas rarely have enough to sustain a whole season, let alone an extended run. (Even The Vampire Diaries started to run out of steam after its third year.) But it’s exactly the kind of show the pilot system was designed to create. And until somebody comes up with a better way, it’s the best we can expect.
Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What individual instances of product placement in movies and television have you found most effective?”
One of the small but consistently troublesome issues that every writer faces is what to do about brand names. We’re surrounded by brands wherever we look, and we casually think and talk about them all the time. In fiction, though, the mention of a specific brand often causes a slight blip in the narrative: we find ourself asking if the character in question would really be using that product, or why the author introduced it at all, and if it isn’t handled well, it can take us out of the story. Which isn’t to say that such references don’t have their uses. John Gardner puts it well in The Art of Fiction:
The writer, if it suits him, should also know and occasionally use brand names, since they help to characterize. The people who drive Toyotas are not the same people who drive BMWs, and people who brush with Crest are different from those who use Pepsodent or, on the other hand, one of the health-food brands made of eggplant. (In super-realist fiction, brand names are more important than the characters they describe.)
And sometimes the clever deployment of brands can be another weapon in the writer’s arsenal, although it usually only works when the author already possesses a formidable descriptive vocabulary. Nicholson Baker is a master of this, and it doesn’t get any better than Updike in Rabbit is Rich:
In the bathroom Harry sees that Ronnie uses shaving cream, Gillette Foamy, out of a pressure can, the kind that’s eating up the ozone so our children will fry. And that new kind of razor with the narrow single-edge blade that snaps in and out with a click on the television commercials. Harry can’t see the point, it’s just more waste, he still uses a rusty old two-edge safety razor he bought for $1.99 about seven years ago, and lathers himself with an old imitation badger-bristle on whatever bar of soap is handy…
For the rest of us, though, I’d say that brand names are one of those places where fiction has to retreat slightly from reality in order to preserve the illusion. Just as dialogue in fiction tends to be more direct and concise than it would be in real life, characters should probably refer to specific brands a little less often than they really would. (This is particularly true when it comes to rapidly changing technology, which can date a story immediately.)
In movies and television, a prominently featured brand sets off a different train of thought: we stop paying attention to the story and wonder if we’re looking at deliberate product placement—if there’s even any question at all. Even a show as densely packed as The Vampire Diaries regularly takes a minute to serve up a commercial for the likes of AT&T MiFi, and shows like Community have turned paid brand integration into entire self-mocking subplots, while still accepting the sponsor’s money, which feels like a textbook example of having it both ways. Tony Pace of Subway explains their strategy in simple terms: “We are kind of looking to be an invited guest with a speaking role.” Which is exactly what happened on Community—and since it was reasonably funny, and it allowed the show to skate along for another couple of episodes, I didn’t really care. When it’s handled poorly, though, this ironic, winking form of product placement can be even more grating than the conventional kind. It flatters us into thinking that we’re all in on the joke, although it isn’t hard to imagine cases where corporate sponsorship, embedded so deeply into a show’s fabric, wouldn’t be so cute and innocuous. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s a fake version of irreverence, done on a company’s terms. And if there’s a joke here, it’s probably on us.
Paid or not, product placement works, at least on me, although often in peculiar forms. I drank Heineken for years because of Blue Velvet, and looking around my house, I see all kinds of products or items that I bought to recapture a moment from pop culture, whether it’s the Pantone mug that reminds me of a Magnetic Fields song or the Spyderco knife that carries the Hannibal seal of approval. (I’ve complained elsewhere about the use of snobbish brand names in Thomas Harris, but it’s a beautiful little object, even if I don’t expect to use it exactly as Lecter does.) If it’s kept within bounds, it’s a mostly harmless way of establishing a connection between us and something we love, but it always ends up feeling a little empty. Which may be why brand names sit so uncomfortably in fiction. Brands or corporations use many of the same strategies as art to generate an emotional response, except the former is constantly on message, unambiguous, and designed to further a specific end. It’s no accident that there are so many affinities between advertising and propaganda. A good work of art, by contrast, is ambiguous, open to multiple interpretations, and asks nothing of us aside from an investment of time—which is the opposite of what a brand wants. Fiction and brands are always going to live together, either because they’ve been paid to do so or because it’s an accurate reflection of our world. But we’re more than just consumers. And art, at its best, should remind us of this.
Note: Spoilers follow for Mad Men, The Vampire Diaries, and Game of Thrones.
Earlier this month, in the span of less than a week, I said goodbye to three television shows that had been part of my life for a long time. One farewell, to Mad Men, was an involuntary one, forced by its series finale; the others, to The Vampire Diaries and Game of Thrones, were a matter of choice. And while my decision to bail on the latter two might seem to have clear reasons—namely a major cast change and a repellent scene of sexual violence—it was really more gradual and complicated. When we fall out of love with a show, it’s often like the end of any relationship, where it can be hard to pinpoint the moment when it all went wrong. In many cases, as with Glee, I can barely remember when or why I stopped watching. And even a more obvious trigger might only catalyze a growing sense of disillusionment. At first glance, it might seem that I gave up on The Vampire Diaries because Nina Dobrev, its ostensible lead, was leaving, or that I’m abandoning Game of Thrones because of what it did to Sansa Stark and how it did it. Really, though, I’m bowing out because of a calculation, reluctant in one case and decisive in the other, that neither show is the best use of my limited time. An isolated scene or cast departure isn’t likely to send viewers packing if a series remains rewarding in other ways. But in both cases, sadly, the shows made my choice an easy one.
This becomes all the more clear when we compare it to a show that I loved and savored until the very end. The last scene of Mad Men is fiendishly clever, almost a little too clever, but the more I think about it, the more impressed I am at how perfectly it encapsulates everything the series, and particularly the character of Don Draper, has been building toward for years. Matthew Weiner hit on the one perfect image that both tied a bow on the story and raised countless questions of its own, and it works because of how deeply he understood and identified with Don himself. And it looks even better next to The Vampire Diaries, which muddled through Elena Gilbert’s endgame precisely because it never quite figured out who she was. Elena, at her best, was a compelling, resourceful heroine, but after season after season of personality changes, possessions, and memory wipes—and the inexplicable choices she made just because the story demanded it—we were left with an empty shell. (It’s no accident that Elena is sidelined for most of her own last episode, asleep in a magical coma while the real action unfolds everywhere else.) And if I’m bidding farewell to a show I once really liked, it isn’t because I’ll miss Elena so much, but because a series that can’t decide what to do with its protagonist doesn’t seem likely to make smart choices once she’s gone.
Any series that runs for an extended length of time will experience a few bumpy transitions, and the real issue is less about any one development than about whether the show can be trusted thereafter to pay back our investment. This is what makes the case of Game of Thrones so interesting, and ultimately so sad. What many of its defenders fail to recognize is that the issue isn’t a rape scene in itself, but its presentation, its context, and what it says about the narrative strategy—or lack thereof—of the series as a whole. For its first two seasons, this was an uneven but masterfully paced show that burned quickly through plots and knew how to balance subversion with payoffs. Later, perhaps as the showrunners realized that they were coming too rapidly to the end of the material in the books, it began, for lack of a better word, to stall: long stretches of inaction or reversions to the same few beats were punctuated by the “Oh, shit” moments that were the only way it knew to hold our attention. Even a year ago, this pattern was becoming grindingly obvious, and using Sansa’s rape as an episode’s punchline only confirmed how mechanical, even lazy, the approach had grown. In particular, the fact that the show’s writers thought that it was a good idea to capitalize on it, after a similar scene had aroused such outrage the previous season, implies that they’re either clueless or don’t care. And neither possibility fills me with much hope that this show will continue to be worth watching.
It all boils down, as I said before, to a question of trust. A show with any narrative ambition asks for some degree of patience from its viewers: when we don’t know where a story is going, we can only hope that we’re in good hands. Game of Thrones has slowly been squandering that goodwill for a long time, and last week’s episode eliminated what little remained. It’s a show that no longer seems to remember that a subversion of the viewer’s expectations can only be justified if the payoff is greater than if it had been played straight, and for too long, this series has been all subversion and stasis without any reward. (Even if Sansa’s arc is “going somewhere,” as I’m sure the writers would insist, it’s a basic mistake to put the scene of her wedding night at the end of an episode, without any sense of what comes next, which leaves us with nothing to anticipate except whether our time would be better spent catching up with old episodes of Deadwood.) I honestly don’t know how I might have reacted to the scene if this season of Game of Thrones had been consistently fantastic, any more than I know if I’d still be watching The Vampire Diaries in Elena Gilbert’s absence if the show had maintained its quality from its height. Both had a good run, but in the end, they lost the narrative trust that Mad Men maintained up to its final minute. And it’s why I watched one show to the very end, and I’m saying goodbye to the others now.
I’ve noted elsewhere that I have mixed feelings about the increasing willingness among television shows to abruptly kill off their characters. On the one hand, it discourages audience complacency and raises the stakes if we feel that anyone could die at any moment; on the other, it encourages a kind of all or nothing approach to writing stories, and even a sort of laziness. Ninety percent of the time, a show can coast along on fairly conventional storytelling—as Game of Thrones sometimes does—before somebody gets beheaded or shoved in front of a subway train. But it would have been better, or at least more interesting, to create tension and suspense while those characters were sill alive. Major deaths should be honestly earned, not just a way to keep the audience awake. At least Game of Thrones knows how to milk such moments for all they’re worth; with a show like The Vampire Diaries, diminishing returns quickly set in when characters are dispatched in every other episode. It cheapens the value of life and personality, and it starts to feel questionable on both narrative and ethical levels.
Of course, I’ve been guilty of this myself, and the way certain character deaths have been incorporated into my novels testify both to how effective and to how arbitrary this kind of device can be. Ethan’s death in The Icon Thief gets a pass: it’s a striking scene that propels the last third of the story forward, and although it works in terms of momentary shock value, its repercussions continue to define the series until the final book. (The fact that it was a late addition to the story—indeed, it was one of the last things I wrote—hasn’t kept it from feeling inevitable now.) The corresponding scene in City of Exiles, which echoes its predecessor in a lot of ways, is a little harder to defend. It’s a nice, tricky chapter, and I’m still proud of the reversal it pulls, but it feels a bit more like a gimmick, especially because its consequences don’t fully play out until the following novel. From a structural point of view, it works, and it provides a necessary jolt of energy to the story at the right place, but it’s not that far removed from the way a show like 24 will throw in a surprise betrayal when the audience’s attention starts to wander.
Looking back, I have a feeling that my own uneasiness over this moment—as well as the high body count of the novel as a whole—may have led me to spare another character’s life. Toward the end of the process, there was a lot of talk about whether I should kill off Powell. After reading the first draft, my agent was openly in favor of it, and it’s true that things don’t look particularly good for Powell at this point: realistically speaking, it’s hard to imagine that anyone on that airplane could have survived. Much earlier, I’d even toyed with the idea of killing Powell at the end of Part I, which would have made Wolfe’s journey all the more urgent. Between these two possibilities, the latter seemed much more preferable. A death at the conclusion of the novel wouldn’t have advanced the narrative in any particular fashion; we’re only a few pages from the end anyway, and if the stakes aren’t clear by now, there’s no point in trying to heighten them in retrospect. Killing him earlier would have served a clearer dramatic purpose, but I also would have lost his far more wrenching scene on the plane, which I don’t think would have been nearly as strong without him at its center.
In the end, I let him live, though badly hurt, for a number of different reasons. At the time, I thought that I wanted to preserve the duo of Powell and Wolfe for a potential third novel, although as it turned out, they don’t spend a lot of time together in Eternal Empire, and his role could conceivably have been filled by somebody else. Powell also benefited from my impulse to pull back on the death toll of plane crash: I didn’t want to kill off Chigorin, mostly because he was transparently based on a real person whose imagined demise I didn’t much feel like exploiting, so most of the other passengers ended up being protected by his character shield. Most of all, I thought that keeping Powell alive would restore a necessary degree of balance to the ending. City of Exiles concludes on something of a down note: Ilya is still in prison, Karvonen’s handler is still at large, and Wolfe still doesn’t know—although the reader does—that the traitor in her organization is someone close to her own heart. Killing off Powell would have left the situation feeling even more hopeless, so I spared him. If this all sounds a little cold and calculated, well, maybe it was. Powell might not have made it, but he escaped thanks to luck, impersonal considerations, and a moment of mercy from the universe. And that’s true of all of us at times…
One of the dangers of writing any kind of fiction, literary or mainstream, is how quickly the story can start to exist within a closed circle of assumptions. The rules of a genre aren’t a bad thing: as I’ve noted elsewhere, they’re essentially a collection of best practices, tricks and techniques that have accumulated over time through the efforts of countless writers. A trick that survives is one that has repeatedly proven itself, and much of the pleasure of reading comes from watching as the author honors, subverts, or pushes against the constraints that the narrative imposes. The trouble is when a story moves so far from the real world that its characters cease to exhibit recognizable human behavior, as its internal rules become ever more strict and artificial. A show like The Vampire Diaries, for instance, takes a surprisingly casual approach to murder, with the average episode boasting a body count in the high single digits, and the reaction to each additional death amounts to a shrug and a search for a shovel. Within the confines of the show, it works, but the second we start to measure it against any kind of reality, it comes precariously close to collapsing.
That’s true of literary fiction as well. Even great authors operate within limits when it comes to the kinds of situations and characters they can comfortably depict. In Genius and Lust, Norman Mailer draws a memorable comparison between the tonal ranges of Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry Miller:
The cruelest criticism ever delivered of Henry James is that he had a style so hermetic his pen would have been paralyzed if one of his characters had ever entered a town house, removed his hat, and found crap on his head (a matter, parenthetically, of small moment to Tolstoy let us say, or Dostoyevsky or Stendhal). Hemingway would have been bothered more than he liked. Miller would have loved it.
The more closely we read certain writers or genres, the more we see how much they stick to their particular circles. Sometimes that circle is determined by what the author can talk about through firsthand experience; sometimes it’s the result of a genre enforcing an unstated decorum, a set of rules about what can and can’t be said.
When it comes to suspense and mystery fiction, these rules can lead to a suspension of emotion, at least of certain kinds. A murder mystery never shows much regret over the fate of the departed; it’s too busy moving on to a trail of clues to waste any time in mourning. Suspense works along similar lines. Sometimes a pivotal death will serve to motivate an ensuing course of action, but along the way, the bodies tend to pile up without much in the way of consequence. I wouldn’t say that my own novels take this as far as The Vampire Diaries, but when I look back on The Icon Thief and its sequels, there are times when I get a little uneasy with the way in which the plot advances on moments of casual violence. (On a much higher level, you can hear some of the same ambivalence in Francis Coppola’s voice when he talks about The Godfather, and by the time he gets to The Godfather Part III, he seems outright weary at having to supply the hits and kills that the audience has come to expect.) There’s a mechanical pleasure to be had in seeing a story run fluently through those conventions, but when you step briefly outside, you start to see how limited a picture of the world it really presents.
That’s why I’m particularly proud of Chapter 45 of City of Exiles. It’s a short chapter, as short, in fact, as I could make it, and my agent even suggested that it be cut. I’m glad I kept it, though, because it represents one of the few points in the entire series when we pull away from the primary characters and depict an event from an outside perspective. In it, I introduce a character named Ivan, fishing on the ice with his dog, who happens to witness the crash of Chigorin’s private plane. In some ways, my decision to cut away here was a pragmatic one: none of the passengers is in any condition to directly experience what happens, and there’s a world of difference, in any case, between describing a plane crash from the inside and showing how it appears on the ground. On a more subtle level, I wanted to depart from the closed circle of the novel to reinforce the horror of the moment, even if it’s described as clinically as everything else. Objectively speaking, City of Exiles is a violent book, and there are times when the faces of the victims start to blur together. Here, for once, I wanted to suggest how it would feel to a man who didn’t know he was part of the story. Ivan won’t be coming back again, but it was important, if only for a moment, to see through his eyes…