I like the TV show “The Blacklist.” Sort of. The writing is uneven and some of the longer story arcs strain credulity, but there’s something about the show that draws me back. The other day, I figured out what that was.
The relationship between crime lord Raymond “Red” Reddington and FBI agent Elizabeth Keen is, in a number of ways, very similar to the dynamics between my Forgotten Realms characters Elaith Craulnober, a moon elf crime lord, and Arilyn Moonblade, a Harper agent.
Story is conflict. When you have any sort of relationship with a villain, conflict is guaranteed. This gets more complicated when the hero and the villain are attempting to work together.
There’s the obvious conflict between lawful and criminal. Yes, these crime lords have valuable information, contacts, and skills, but where’s the line? At what point does ignoring illegal activity cross over into condoning it? When does condoning become enabling? When you’ve got friends in low places, you’re constantly waging a war for your own soul. Or at least your D&D alignment.
In D&D terms, Liz and Arilyn are both Chaotic Good. Orphaned at a young age, they were raised by deeply flawed surrogate fathers. Liz had Sam, who was a career criminal, Arilyn was trained by Kymil Nimesin, who gave her a solid education in classic fighting techniques but also made sure she was trained in “lower skills” such as lock-picking, street fighting, and second story work. Perhaps to compensate for their upbringing, both women joined law enforcement agencies. Both believe in the rule of law, but they’re willing to bend the law for what they perceive to be a greater good. So they already have a high level of moral complexity, and the internal and external conflict that comes with it, before you factor in a helpful crime lord.
These women are high achievers who value skill in others. Because Red and Elaith are undeniably good at what they do, Liz and Arilyn regard them with a considerable amount of admiration. Grudging admiration, sure, but since they “shouldn’t” like and admire crime lords who do horrible things, any positive feelings the women have set off the jangling alarms of cognitive dissonance. And because they do have positive feelings, whenever the criminals do yet another horrible thing, cognitive dissonance is triggered from another angle. This gets very noisy.
There are many other similarities between Liz and Arilyn. Both are observers, better at assessing people than interacting with them. They are serious, self-reliant, inclined to be loners but capable of friendship and a fiercely devoted love. And they both feel the lack of roots and the need for answers about their family heritage.
The crime lords view these younger women, at least on some level, as the daughters they should have had. There’s a strong paternal bond. This is more reciprocal in the Red/Liz relationship; Liz is far more inclined to view Red as a father figure, and there was never any question that Elaith might actually be Arilyn’s father. But there is a close connection, known to the reader but not to either Elaith or Arilyn: He’s the father of Arilyn’s half-brother.
Red and Elaith are both fallen heroes. Something happened to shatter their worldview and change the trajectory of their lives. (We don’t yet know Red’s back story, which is one of the reasons I keep returning to the show.) These young women are a reminder of their younger, better selves. Neither of these criminals has any illusions about themselves nor any expectation of redemption, but I think they see Liz and Arilyn as evidence that there is still something good and pure in their lives.
The criminals will do anything for the young women they’ve “adopted”….except leave them alone. While both Red and Elaith probably realize, on some level, that their involvement in Liz and Arilyn’s lives endangers and compromises them, they can’t seem to break away. At heart, Red and Elaith are deeply self-absorbed, even when they’re at their most altruistic.
So what makes these two hero/villain pairings so appealing to me? There’s a lot of power in the notion that there’s someone who will do anything for you, without reservation. There’s the possibility of redemption for the fallen heroes. The level of trust that, despite everything, exists between them. The tragedy of lost love, and the futile attempt at some sort of a second chance. And frankly, I like conflicted heroes and unpredictable villains. You’re never sure whether Red or Elaith will do something incredibly noble or shockingly venal.
Relationships are messy and mysterious. One of the main attractions of fiction is being able to experience other people’s relationships and perhaps gaining a little insight from how things work out. Fiction makes us hopeful, because in fiction, a happily-ever-after is possible. Even when the situation is hopelessly complex, when any possibility of resolution and redemption seems remote, we still hope. Perhaps old wrongs can be righted. Perhaps an understanding between father and daughter is possible. If not this episode, not this story, then perhaps the next. If not, perhaps someday.