Tuesday, March 26, 2019

ON WRITING, making characters complex, one example

A couple weeks back, in my week in review, I wrote about the final episodes of the final season of THE AMERICANS, and how the writing staff on that show has consistently put forth some amazing television, with compelling characters.  One of the most impressive aspects of the show has been that characterization.  Each character is distinct, and their personalities run up against one another in ways -- especially when discussing the marriage of Philip and Elizabeth -- that heighten the drama.  Episode 8 of this final season did this magnificently, in the case of Elizabeth's character. 


In this final season, a few years have passed, Philip has retired from the spy game but Elizabeth is still deeply involved and their daughter, Paige, is also working for the Center, in a limited capacity, under her mother's watch.  It is 1987, Gorbachev is the leader of the Soviet Union, and negotiations are nearing a close on agreements to curb the nuclear weapons race, with an eye to ending the Cold War.  There is a large group, back in Russia, led by a cadre of military generals and working in conjunction with the Center, who believe Gorbachev is just throwing away their security, damning the Soviet Union to second-class citizenship, and they want to stop their leader, at all costs.  Meanwhile, a faction from the Center, including our old buddy Oleg, want these talks to go through, want peace with America, want to begin working to lift up their country, once more, out of the poverty that has spread throughout the country, due to the corruption of many of those in power. 

In America, Elizabeth is charged by her handler to go to Mexico and speak with someone who has some very important intelligence.  It is one of these former generals (or at least someone high up in this resistance movement against Gorbachev).  He tells Elizabeth a story, about how Gorbachev is betraying his country and how the negotiators that have come to America are selling out the Soviet people.  They need to do something to stop these talks.  And so, she begins working to find out all she can regarding the negotiations. 

Meanwhile, Oleg has returned to America, without any diplomatic immunity.  He cannot be connected with the Center, in any way.  Oleg contacts Philip, explains to him the danger Gorbachev faces, as well as the danger their homeland faces if these talks are derailed.  Oleg needs Philip to spy on Elizabeth, to find out what she knows, what she is being asked to do, and to try and come up with a way to stop these generals and their fear of peace.  And so, Philip is drawn back in, not only lying to his best friend across the street -- FBI Agent Beeman -- but lying to his wife, while he tries to get out of her any information he can. 

Eventually, Philip has to tell his wife.  Though their marriage was arranged, to provide a cover story, it has become something very real, for both of them.  Strained by their work, and the ugly things necessary for success in that vein, they still love one another and look to each other for support and comfort. 

In episode 8, Philip finally confesses to Elizabeth what he's been doing, that he's been watching her and trying to elicit information from her, and why he's been doing it.  He wants peace with America.  Those who contacted him want peace with America.  What the generals are doing and what the Center is doing goes against the best interests of their people.  Philip asks Elizabeth to, for once, think independently, not to take her orders at face value or without question.  Those in the Center may decide what needs to be done, but he and she and all the other spies are the ones who actually do the work, do the ugly things that need doing.  Ultimately, he says, they (she and he) are responsible for their actions.  Elizabeth is furious.  But she now has something else to consider with regard to her orders from the Center. 

Over the course of the rest of the episode, Elizabeth comes to realize that what she is being asked, specifically to kill one of the Soviet negotiators who has been deemed a traitor, is wrong.  She listens to the recording of the most recent secret meeting, which she got, and realizes this negotiator is merely a family man trying to do what is right for his country.  He is not giving away military secrets, as the Center told Elizabeth, he is doing his job, negotiating with the Americans to try and limit each country's nuclear arsenal, to hopefully provide a better future for his children and everyone's children.  Elizabeth realizes that Philip was right. 

In the end of the episode, Elizabeth comes home to Philip and tells him that she needs to get a message to the person he's in contact with.  A message needs to get home about the lengths those aligned against Gorbachev are willing to go to stop these nuclear arms talks.  He, Philip, was right about them. 

BUT, he was wrong in keeping it secret and spying on her.  Philip betrayed Elizabeth, betrayed his wife, and even if it was for the right reasons, it is still unconscionable and unforgivable, in Elizabeth's eyes.  She will not forgive him any time soon, and she will not allow him to forget about this betrayal for even longer.  This part of the episode was the most amazing bit of writing in the whole thing:  it felt natural and it felt right, but it also swerved from what might typically occur in most television writing and most writing in general. 
The expectation, when someone is revealed as having been "right," is that the other person who originally argued with them immediately comes around to their way of thinking, upon this realization.  Certainly, Elizabeth did come around to understand the point Philip made, but in being true to her character, she retained the right to criticize him for the betrayal.  There is no chance for reconciliation at this point, even though he's right.  It's brilliant. 

Probably the reason this resonated so strongly with me is that I feel it is something I truly need to work hard at in my own writing.  I grew up on a steady diet of fables and fairy tales, science fiction and fantasy, and, for the most part, those stories I read and absorbed during my formative years had happy endings.  I became (I am) a person who wants, terribly, for things to just work out.  I worry that I may too easily fall into the trap, with my writing, of tying things up too neatly, too quickly.  I need to keep in mind that my characters should be breathing, thinking, living humans, who have flaws and emotions and do not always act rationally.  Just because one person's perspective is proven correct, throwing another's into the shadow of being wrong, does not mean that second person will just throw their hands up and accept it all.  People don't like to be wrong.  And people really don't like to be betrayed.  Asking them to just get over it isn't realistic.  And I have to keep that in mind when writing. 


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