Power of the Pooch — Never Shoot the Dog

Hunting Dog

Could you shoot this face?

Blake Snyder has written a very good screenwriting book called Save the Cat.* The idea that gives the book its title is that a gruff or potentially dislikable protagonist can gain viewer sympathy quickly if you show the protagonist saving an innocent. This can include saving the life or innocence of a child, or the life of an animal, especially a pet. Like, say, a cat.

(Actually, the core of his argument is that the screenwriter has to do something to give the audience a connection to the protagonist. But I’m going to focus on the animal angle for this post.)

The flip side of this, of course, is that if a character kills an innocent, such as a child, or a pet, then they come across to the audience as irredeemable. All sympathy is lost and the viewers will want to see that character go down.**

Here’s one example, the movie Drag Me to Hell, directed by Sam Raimi. The main character has been cursed to be pursued by a demon intent on – as you might expect – dragging her to hell. Early on, she’s a very sympathetic character. My wife and I saw this in the theater and we were pulling for her. We didn’t want to see her get dragged to hell.

Until…

That’s right, the main character committed the irredeemable act. She killed a kitten. No hesitation. No remorse.

In case there was any doubt about where my sympathies lie in this matter, I have three cats.

Yep, the moment she did that my wife and I were ready to watch that bitch go to hell by the movie’s end. Sam Raimi knew this. In fact, I’d go so far as to say he counted on it. Because sending his formerly sympathetic main character to hell was exactly his goal, and exactly what happened by the movie’s end.

My wife and I were quite happy with this resolution.

Which brings us to this week’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

(This space provided to warn you of spoilers ahead, in case you haven’t seen the episode yet.)

(If you’re wondering why I provided no spoiler space before talking about Drag Me to Hell, give me a break! The movie came out five years ago!)

In this week’s episode we got to see some of Ward’s history with Garrett. This included Garrett getting Ward out of juvenile hall, and leaving him to fend for himself in the woods, with only a hunting dog to help him. The hunting dog – whose name is Buddy, of course – was Ward’s only constant companion for several years out there.

I’m sure you see where this is going, even if you didn’t see the episode.

That’s right, before Ward gets to go off to S.H.I.E.L.D. academy, he is ordered to shoot the dog. We are shown this scene in quick cuts with current time, where Ward has been ordered to kill Fitz and Simmons, the former of which has been the only one arguing that deep down Ward was good, that he would not hurt them.

In other words, Fitz was showing the unwavering devotion one might expect from one’s hunting dog.

We see Ward aiming his sidearm at the pooch’s head. We hear him pull the trigger – but he shot into the air, startling the dog into running away. We cut back to current time, expecting to see Ward find some way to release Fitz and Simmons.

But then we cut back to the past, where Ward is targeting the dog through a rifle scope. There’s a sound that might be a gunshot, or it might be the current time sound of the release as Ward dumps Fitz and Simmons into the ocean in a powerless, sealed box. It might be both.

Now, that’s a deathtrap, not a murder. And we all know that when you put heroes in a deathtrap, you’re only slowing them down, not killing them.

You could argue that Ward knows they have a tracker (which the viewers know they have, even though we have seen nothing to suggest that Ward knows about it). You could argue that Ward was taking one last look at his dog and never intended to pull the trigger. You could argue that we never saw Ward holding the rifle whose scope is trained on the pooch.

I don’t buy any of those arguments.

(Well, I might buy the argument about the tracker, if people tell me in the comments below that there’s a moment of Ward’s discovering it. I was a bit distracted last night after the Blazers loss and might have missed a detail. However, it does not resolve the question of how else he could have killed them, since implicit in the scene was that the room, once sealed from the inside, was impenetrable. Otherwise the whole confrontation is meaningless. Jettisoning them into the water is no meaningful alternative to killing them, unless we know he had a better way of doing it and chose not to use it.)

I don’t buy that Ward was just taking one last look at his dog. If he chose to set the dog free and not kill it, he would have needed to turn his back and walk away. To deal with his decision. Also, Garrett would have found out. Ward got the dog from Garrett after all. Whoever was looking down that scope at the dog shot it.

Which brings us to the it-wasn’t-Ward argument. It might be that in the next episode we will revisit the scene and pan back to reveal that Garrett was holding the rifle. That Garrett shot the dog when Ward couldn’t do it.

And if they show us such a scene, I will feel cheated. In this week’s episode we were shown cuts in and out of Ward’s memory, not Garrett’s. We were looking down the scope first-person, the same way we saw Ward take aim at the dog with his pistol.

It’s true we didn’t see Ward pull the trigger. We didn’t see the dog drop, dead. But you could also argue that this show is intended to appeal to the whole family, and the show avoids portraying deaths unless plot-important. (One reason that Skye is able to emphasize that Ward is a murderer. He actually kills someone on camera.)

Ward has been revealed as a villain who has been in disguise all season. Ward is Hydra, the viewer’s link to the betrayal that the other characters are experiencing. The show can do a lot with that premise and carry it through into next season. This could be big. This could be awesome.

But if they back off in the finale – without a damned good and believable explanation – I won’t be likely to tune in next season.

What do you think? Is killing that dog enough to make Ward irredeemable? Or is the issue more complex in your mind? Let me know below!

*Plus follow-ups Save the Cat Strikes Back, and Save the Cat Goes to the Movies

**TV Tropes has an astonishing number of links around this concept. Here’s one if you’re interested. But I’ve already warned you that it leads to TV Tropes, so if you lose several hours there, don’t blame me.

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  • Comments (3)
    • Lori P
    • May 8th, 2014 12:45pm

    In House of Cards, they show the main character kill a dog in the first 10 minutes of the first show. He does it after it’s been (presumably) fatally injured and gives a little monologue about putting things down rather than letting them suffer. I wasn’t sure I could watch the show. I managed to make it through, and the writers used that scene to make us understand the razor’s edge that character walks on: he does what he thinks is right, even (and especially), if its not right. I actually enjoy the show (as much as I’ve seen so far), but that first part really upset me.

    In another movie, The Warrior’s Way, the master gives the apprentice a small white puppy and tells the child it will be his only friend. Through grueling training, nearly starving, inclimate weather, he has the dog. His final task before leaving is to kill the dog. They do not show if he’s done this or not, but, since he’s become the top assassin in his clan, its assumed he did. This is used for his reformation later, when he saves the innocent(s) (rise from bad to good).

    Finally, there’s Dexter. In flashbacks just a few episodes in, we see the main character made up to look like a teenager, with dead animals around him. They are at the base of the scene, barely visible, and after his father initially reacts to them, they are cut from viewing ENTIRELY. In this case, they have to sell Dexter as a psychopath (whose pathology requires he start by killing animals), but as they want him sympathetic (you are rooting for him not to get caught because he is sort of a anti-hero in that he adores killing but only kills “bad” people) they try to minimize the killing as much as possible, while giving him as many innocents to save as they can.

    Its an interesting trope – all three movies handled it differently to sort of short hand information about the protoganist in ways that “show” instead of “telling.”

    • melissa manlove
    • May 8th, 2014 7:37am

    No, there’s no legitimate argument that Ward didn’t shoot the dog. So yes, maybe the show is headed in the direction of casting him as irredeemable. But I wouldn’t put it past Whedon to be warming up to making a point about how who we are is less about what we’ve done before and more about what we will do next.
    But as much as I enjoy Whedon’s points, if this is the plan I am going to be dissatisfied simply because of how successfully the actor has channelled creepy and dead in the eyes. When he was telling Skye that his feelings for her were real, there was something so off about his affect that I’m just not buying anything other than that Ward is true a sociopath.
    But then Ward admits to having fond feelings for FitzSimmons, and I start worrying that the show is trying to have its cake and eat it, too…
    arg

    • That’s one of my concerns. They can’t seem to decide how they want us to interpret Ward. This show tries to play a number of things both ways. Consider that this is the Marvel universe and that there are actual superheroes and supervillains running around out there. Now consider that the show has emphasized several times that psychic powers are a ridiculous concept unworthy of serious consideration. More than a little inconsistent.

      I half expect Ward to die in the next episode, sacrificing himself in some redemptive act. Whedon hasn’t killed a main character yet this season, so we should all know it’s coming.


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