Wednesday, October 8, 2014

March Sadness Redux: October Edition (Or, I Blather on About Narrative to Keep from Crying)

SPOILERS for the season 3 premiere of Arrow.


Let’s talk about women in refrigerators.

If you’ve somehow managed to avoid this term, it refers to a comic book trope in which a woman in a superhero’s life—usually his wife or girlfriend—is killed suddenly and viciously, in order to motivate his fight against the bad guys. One conception of the term has it referring to any sudden or violent death of a female character, but that’s an oddly broad and not particular useful conception, so I’m going to stick to the first, more commonly used definition.

On the third season premiere of Arrow, Sara Lance (this universe’s version of the Black Canary) was killed. Suddenly, and violently, at the very end of the episode. (I mean, probably. They could still find a way around it if they wanted to, but I doubt they will.) Lots of people are going to refer to her death as a fridging. There’s some validity to that, I guess, although it’s not the male hero who’s going to get the real motivation from Sara’s death; it’s Sara’s sister Laurel, who is the Black Canary in the DC Comics, and who the show’s writers have made no secret is going to be the Black Canary eventually on the show. Sara dies in Laurel’s arms, and now Laurel’s going to take up the mantel from her—maybe not next episode, maybe not this season, but eventually, and as a direct consequence of this moment. This storyline is so clear and obvious that most people predicted Sara would die last season.

There are other narrative purposes for Sara’s death, of course. We don’t know who killed her (though I and others have some theories), and that mystery will undoubtedly carry a lot of the season’s plot; Sara was in Starling City on some mysterious errand, and the secret she took with her to the grave will likely be important.

But the question, when killing off any character, is whether that character’s death is necessary for the narrative. If it isn’t, what are the other ways you can achieve your goal? And if it is, you have to weigh whether the character in question brings more to the story alive than they do dead.

The problem with women in refrigerators—well, one of the many problems—is that the women often brought a lot more to their narratives dead than they did alive. They were in the story for one reason and one reason only: to die horribly, and in so doing, spur on the main character’s journey.

That’s not the case with Sara. She’s a rich character, an interesting one, a fun one, with a complicated history and a story all her own. She makes hard choices that have far-reaching consequences. She’s beloved of fans—pretty much all fans, although there are a strange, comics-obsessed core who don’t like the fact that someone not named “Laurel” is the Black Canary, as if that matters at all. On a show full of divisive characters (Roy, Thea, Moira, even Oliver) she was one of the few who really worked on every level, to almost all viewers. Her actress has massive charisma.

It’s pretty damn hard to imagine that her death could bring anything nearly as interesting to the show as her life did and would have. And it’s even harder to imagine that there wasn’t a way to achieve it without killing her. The only exception to that is Laurel-as-Black-Canary, which only really works if Sara’s dead. But Laurel is a terrible character—boring, annoying, inconsistently written, and a bad person in a way that doesn’t even make for enjoyable conflict. Sara’s life for Laurel as Black Canary is one of the worst narrative trades I’ve ever seen.

There’s a feminist argument to be made about Sara’s death, to be sure, as she’s the third female character the show has killed in order to spur on someone else’s journey. (They’ve also killed one male character for the same reason, to be fair.) There’s probably also an argument about LGBT representation. But honestly, I’m more concerned by the narrative faux pas. Sara wasn’t just a woman; she wasn’t just bisexual; she was a great character, in part because of those things, and in part because of a million other things.

I’m going to keep watching Arrow (I’d say I’m quitting, but who am I kidding?), but it’s going to be less enjoyable now, less interesting, less rich with characters I care about. Sara’s death, far from enhancing the show, has made me that much less invested.

And when people start saying that about your story, you know you’ve gone wrong somewhere.