The newest villain is the one who was once a hero.
As with anything, trends in entertainment are cyclical. Right now, we’re in the midst of a love affair with dark and – say it with me now – gritty adaptations. Good and noble men and women just aren’t as popular as villains and the antihero. There are very few black-and-white decisions for television characters to make these days; everything seems to be a shade of gray.
But even that must run its course eventually. While bad guys doing bad things has become de rigueur, we’ve already starting to retread old territory in narrative terms. The result is that this season has found the bump of a mini-trend on television, one that addresses the challenge of how to present a classic villain archetype in a new way. Or, at least, a way that hasn’t been pulled out of the trope bin and dusted off for quite some time.
The idea? It’s that the best villain is a good guy who has gone bad. Real, real bad. Genre shows have embraced the Face-Heel Turn this season, with their biggest baddies having once fought on the side of the good guys. The twist is that they have been bad all along, right under the protagonists’ noses, while still masquerading as good.
No less than three different genre shows, each massively popular, have fused this concept as a major narrative arc this season. In Supernatural, the angelic sidekick formerly known as Castiel was possessed by Lucifer – yes, that Lucifer – to become the manipulative (albeit hilarious), demonic creature fans now refer to as “Castifer.” Also on the CW, the big question plaguing Barry Allen and his allies all season long on The Flash has been just who, exactly, is Zoom? Turns out, it’s serial killer-turned-speedster Hunter Zolomon, who had been masquerading as good guy Jay Garrick in order to get close to Barry’s speed and steal it for himself. And a slightly different take has evolved on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: We’d already seen this double agent double-cross from Grant Ward in season 1 when he revealed his Hydra allegiances to his S.H.I.E.L.D. teammates. But Ward underwent yet another transformation this season when his corpse was hijacked as a host body by the malevolent Inhuman, Hive. Turns out the ancient Inhuman Coulson’s team has been hunting all season is wearing the face of their old friend-turned-enemy-turned-even-worse-enemy.
This mini-trend playing out on television is part of the larger movement we’ve seen happening in genre entertainment as a whole. For the most part, we’ve been content to focus on stories where the threats were external, where the good guys had clearly defined enemies that came from the outside. When genre shows first came charging to the forefront, it was the relatively early days of the geek culture explosion, at least on television. Mainstream audiences were still trying to get their heads around the concepts of superpowered heroes and supernatural creatures, and the villains of genre shows reflected that. Straightforward, clearly evil “Others” that audiences could get behind rooting against while the protagonists were still feeling out their allies and role in the story.
But you can only swing fists at external villains for so long. The narrative of any team, whether it’s in a movie franchise or a television show, must evolve, and so must the challenges it presents. What better challenge is there than the one that is internal? What greater threat than the one that threatens to tear a team apart from the inside?
The act of taking a former ally and turning him or her into a villain also forces an emotional reckoning upon the protagonists, even more so when disguised as a wolf in sheep’s clothing for the better part of a season. The television medium has really had fun exploring the concept recently, focusing on the guilt, the grief, and the emotional upheaval it causes in its protagonists.
The result is that it’s made for some great TV in the past few months, with long-running shows being reinvigorated and younger shows plumbing new depths.
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