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.
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!
**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.