At the core of any story is the relationship between protagonist and antagonist, especially in a story where the protagonist must understand his enemy in order to find him. The best battles between good and evil are convoluted with characteristics that could be categorized as either, or neither. When hero and villain are more alike than either would want to admit, that makes for a dynamite struggle between them. There are so many books out there that explain how to achieve that element in storytelling, but few movies ever do it as well as David Fincher‘s serial killer masterpiece Se7en.
Honestly, we’ve learned to expect nothing less than greatness with a Fincher + serial killer collaboration, and Se7en was his first. This almost neo-noir thriller follows the investigation of a serial killer using the seven deadly sins to justify brutal killings all over an unnamed city. Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is an aging homicide detective on his way out of the department when he’s assigned the worst last case. He’s paired with his replacement, an idealistic and determined young detective named Mills (Brad Pitt). They’re forced to work through their differences to solve the case, which is more horrifying and unpredictable than either could imagine.
There are viable arguments for who is the true protagonist in this movie, Somerset or Mills. For the sake of reading the rest of this article, just humor me if you disagree that Somerset is the protagonist in this story. He begins and ends this movie, most of the struggles are his own, and he’s in ninety percent of the scenes. While Mills has a major relationship with the killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) as well, what convinces me that he is not the protagonist is the connection and similarities between Somerset and Doe.
This town sucks
The unnamed city in which Se7en is set in is the worst of the worst when it comes to crime, and there’s no doubt Detective Somerset has seen his share of vile humans being a homicide detective. We can’t blame him for wanting to get out of the city and live the reclusive life he desires after retirement, especially thanks to the depressing atmosphere Fincher creates for the movie. The thing the detective hates the most about the city is its apathy toward helping people, which ironically has bled into Somerset’s own perspective. He has given up trying to find the good in the city, therefore becoming as apathetic as the people he hates. He has such a bleak outlook on the world that he advises Mills’s wife Tracy not to have a baby in the city because it’s a horrible place to grow up in.
We later find out that the serial killer Somerset is trying to catch feels that same hatred towards what he considers to be the corruption of the city. In a similar sense, he’s given up trying to help make people better through the spread of his religion. All he sees is the sins people make in the city and has let them take over his outlook on the world. His hatred for humanity is abundantly clear in the journals he keeps and in the conversation he has will the detectives at the end of the film, especially the following quote:
Only in a world this shitty could you even try to say these were innocent people and keep a straight face. But that’s the point. We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it’s common, it’s trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon, and night. Well, not anymore.
That specific quote isn’t terribly far off from what Somerset has been expressing for the rest of the movie. They both witness the benign acceptance of atrocity in the world and grow to hate it. Their similar outlook is evermore comparable when it’s set against the optimistic perspective of Detective Mills. He still believes in doing good, irradicating evil, and finding justice in the world despite also witnessing everything Somerset and Doe see. He acts as a foil for these two and amplifies their similarities in perspective. Their outlook on the city isn’t the only thing that binds them.
Intelligent minds think alike
Immediately after Somerset figures out the motive behind John Doe’s killings, he goes to the library to read every biblical text he can find, trying to understand where he might go next. It’s clear in that scene in the library that he’s a regular there, either for work or pleasure. To be a detective Somerset has to be intuitive, but he’s obviously very intelligent as well. In many scenes, he says very little, but what he does say is wise and stoic, that of a smart man. He uses logic to solve his cases, rather than the emotions or personal opinions that bled into Mills process of investigation. This intelligence is used for good, unlike his enemy.
Doe’s intelligence is mystified throughout most of the movie, but it is actualized once the audience hears him speak. He had to be extremely calculative to avoid capture from a seasoned detective like Somerset. All of his murders hold immense details that a regular person wouldn’t normally recognize, many of which allude to the same literary works Somerset studied in the library. Once we do meet Doe, his language shows his intelligence, or at least how intelligent he thinks he is. Most serial killers that kill in the same manner as Doe are extremely smart, but thwart that intelligence to do evil, like in his speech below.
Lonely states of being
Both John Doe and Detective Somerset live alone, partnerless, and devoted to their work. Somerset hints at a former girlfriend in his conversation with Tracy, but like other typical detectives, it seems he’s pushed relationships away to focus on work. We don’t see him with any friends throughout the movie and his coworkers don’t seem like friends. He even tells Tracy at dinner in the Mills’ apartment, “Anyone who spends a significant amount of time with me finds me disagreeable.” Somerset is capable of being social, but he chooses to be alone. It’s unclear for the reason of his alienation, but he lives a lonely life, not unlike the killer. Doe’s apartment is evidence enough that he has barricaded himself in his home, living alone. Typical for serial killers, he’s isolated himself from relationships or friendships, making it easier to fall under the radar. Somerset plans to leave his work, but only because it has consumed his life. He was once passionate about his work like Mills is, probably as passionate as Doe is for what he considers to be “work.” He refers to his crimes as a work of art, which he has labored over for some time.
Impact on the story
These characteristics don’t just make for good character work, they play a huge part in the detective aspect of the script. Somerset’s similarities to John Doe ultimately help him catch him, something Mills could not do alone because he doesn’t hold the same mindset as the killer. Somerset uses his intelligence to find the books Doe checked out at the library. In his conversations with Doe in the car, Somerset seems to be the only person to be a match for Doe. He angers him because Somerset is the only person as smart as Doe. Somerset’s mindset helps him understand Doe unlike the other detectives and helps him know what details to look for when investigating him.
These similarities in character also amplify their difference in action and morality once they decide their fate. Doe hated the crime in the city, but instead of helping people he decided to punish them in the most gruesome way possible. Somerset originally wanted to escape the hatred in the city but after the events with Doe he has changed his mind and decided that he can make an impact by continuing his detective work. It’s even more satisfying that Somerset was just as hopeless about society as Doe at the beginning of the film, but his viewpoint changes after he solves the case, as horrific as it was. If anything could have solidified that humanity is lost in the city, it would be Doe’s killings, but his good nature is revealed instead and he can find hope again. Characters who share similar qualities, but are on opposite sides are more interesting to watch than characters so clearly good or evil, especially in detective stories like Se7en.