Thursday, March 17, 2011

Being Human, Season 3

A year ago, when Being Human concluded its second season, I was pretty sure I was done with the show.  Being Human's first season was a fun but underbaked affair, clearly too charmed by its own premise--a vampire, Mitchell, a werewolf, George, and a ghost, Annie, who move into a house in Bristol--to do very much with it.  The show's second season took that premise and ran with it, and the result was not only a poor piece of storytelling, but morally revolting.  Having rid himself at the end of the first season of his genocidal sire-turned-enemy Herrick and thrown in his lot with humanity, Mitchell discovers that his human girlfriend Lucy is in league with the preacher Kemp, who has sent men to kill Mitchell.  Mitchell takes out his anger over Lucy's betrayal on all of humanity, waylaying a passenger train and slaughtering the twenty people on board, but the season ends by concluding that Lucy and Kemp are the true villains. 

"Look at us both, covered in other people's blood," Mitchell tells Lucy in the season finale, "But there's one difference between you and me: you had a choice."  This is by no means the only occasion in the finale in which Mitchell permits himself to take the moral high ground with Lucy, whose experiments on werewolves led to the deaths of several people.  Even though Mitchell's body count dwarfs hers, she eventually accepts his right to do so.  Kemp, meanwhile, is simply a monster, ranting about fire and brimstone as he lusts after Lucy, and proclaiming his righteousness as he kills her, banishes Annie to purgatory, and is dragged bodily into hell.  Mitchell, on the other hand, is allowed to return to the bosom of the family he's formed with George and his werewolf girlfriend Nina, who are willing to overlook his past crimes and remain ignorant of his more recent ones, brooding over his misdeeds without taking any steps to atone for them or ensure that they won't recur, and reclaiming his role as a romantic hero by vowing to rescue Annie from the underworld.

Being Human's fascination with Mitchell, and its determination to shape itself around him and his stories, was in its first two seasons the show's greatest flaw.  The tormented vampire who tries to stop killing is, after all, a rather familiar and even worn trope, and unlike Angel, his obvious template, Mitchell has no mission or life goal to distract either him or us from the monotony of his core dilemma.  He spends his time struggling manfully against his desire for human blood, occasionally giving in to that desire, and then beating himself up over his lapse and vowing never to fall off the wagon again (the addiction metaphor is deliberate and made quite explicit over the course of the series, but like True Blood's paralleling of vampires with homosexuals, and especially in light of how Mitchell's story concludes, the analogy is quite problematic).  After the third or fourth iteration of this story the audience might be forgiven not only for feeling bored, but for wondering just why such a character--who is either an unrepentant murderer or an irredeemable monster--was still being portrayed as sympathetic and deserving of our affection.

I've written before, particularly in my posts about Dexter, about the moral bankruptcy that underlies a lot of the writing for, and audience reception of, antiheroes and reformed villains.  Whether we like or dislike a character usually has nothing to do with how moral they are, or whether they do good or evil.  We like characters whom we find attractive, and immoral behavior, when cast in the right light, can be very attractive.  Power, even if it's just the power to kill, is attractive.  The coolness and audacity to declare yourself above the rules of common man, even if those rules are necessary and right, is attractive.  In handsome men, tormented brooding over their past misdeeds--so long as it doesn't spill over into an ugly display of uncontrolled emotion--is very attractive.  Some storytellers recognize the danger of portraying an antihero in too attractive a manner and try to undercut it, usually with only limited success (Tony Soprano is the best example--no matter how hard the show's writers tried there was always a portion of the audience who thought of him as a hero and just wanted him to bust a cap in his enemies), but as its second season ended, it seemed that Being Human's writers were using every tool at their disposal to maximize Mitchell's attractiveness--pitting him against villains who are not only evil but uncool and decidedly unattractive, showing him in the grips of photogenic remorse, blaming his lapse on a girl.  It was easy to imagine Being Human becoming a show dedicated to the woobification of John Mitchell, and to the perpetual justification and whitewashing of his ever more horrific crimes.  I wrote off the show in disgust, but curiosity (as well as an appetite whetted by the otherwise lifeless American remake) prompted me to give its third season a try.  I'm very glad I did.  Not only is Being Human's third season a huge step forward for the show's storytelling, but it does the one thing I never thought the show would have the guts to do.  It makes Mitchell unattractive.

Not entirely, of course.  Aidan Turner is as handsome as ever and does his fair share of emo brooding.  But over the course of the season the show exposes and eventually foregrounds the narcissism and hypocrisy that lie beneath Mitchell's facade of coolness and charm.  In the season premiere, Mitchell ventures into purgatory to rescue Annie.  There he meets Lia, a woman whom only his colossal self-absorption and century-honed capacity for denial allow him to fail to recognize as one of his victims from the train car.  During a brief tour of some of his past murders, Mitchell makes the by-now familiar excuses for his crimes--he can't help himself, he is also a victim, it was all the other vampires' fault--but when Lia reveals herself he finally admits that he is a monster who has enjoyed slaughtering his way across a century.  In itself, this is not a meaningful change in the show's depiction of Mitchell.  Admitting his monstrousness and expressing self-loathing was part of his cycle of relapse and remorse in the show's first two seasons and probably for decades beforehand.  The show has always found a way to suggest that there is a loophole to his incurable desire to feed and that this time around Mitchell would find it.  But Lia is as uninterested as we are in yet another round of this game, and sets up the season's overarching plot when she tells Mitchell that he is going to be killed by a werewolf.  With those few words, she explodes Mitchell's pretense of penitence.  The minute he hears that he is about to get the punishment that he claims to crave, Mitchell begins scheming to find ways to avoid it.

As the season draws on, Mitchell's aura of coolness is replaced by the stench of desperation, and the acts he becomes willing to commit in order to save himself grow more and more off-putting.  When George and Nina befriend McNair and Tom, father and son werewolves, Mitchell fixates on the older man, who has a chip on his shoulder about vampires, as his potential killer, and sells him to local vampires as the star attraction in a lethal circus act.  When Herrick, brought back to life at the end of the second season, shows up on the family's doorstep with no memory of who or what he is, Mitchell becomes obsessed with learning the secret of his resurrection, to which end he tortures Herrick, and very nearly feeds him an innocent woman.

"I think there's a poison in you which has nothing to do with being a vampire," Nina tells Mitchell halfway through the season, and the third season, in which Mitchell does not drink a single drop of blood but nevertheless does so much damage, seems dedicated to exposing that poison, the core of emptiness in Mitchell's heart.  Like Dexter, Mitchell is a sociopath whose few meaningful relationships mask a fundamental inability to grasp that other people are real, but unlike Dexter, he isn't content to think of himself as a monster.  Throughout the season we see Mitchell make up stories, narratives of his life in which he is the tragic, and ultimately blameless, hero.  But, like the stories that Mitchell spins for George and Annie when they start asking questions about the train murder, or for the police when they do the same, these narratives keep changing to serve his interests, which ultimately exposes their hollowness.  Mitchell tells Lia that he wants to be punished, and at the beginning of the season he delights in declaring to other vampires the worthlessness of their race.  But when he and Annie become romantically involved, the narrative changes.  Now Mitchell must spare Annie the heartbreak of knowing what he's done, and his efforts to stay alive are consecrated by her goodness and the purity of their love.  When Annie begins to investigate the train murders and urges Mitchell to help the police catch the vampires responsible, he tells her that to reveal the existence of the supernatural to humanity would spark an all-out war that humans are bound to lose.  Staying out of prison thus becomes an act of heroism.  But when Mitchell is arrested, he begs Annie to break him out by claiming that he's the underdog--the terrified, uncomprehending humans are bound to kill him.  When Lia asks Mitchell why he didn't kill himself upon becoming a vampire, he tells her that he wasn't going to let "it"--the vampire--win, and it's obvious that he thinks himself brave for this choice.  A few episodes later, trying to persuade Herrick to feed, Mitchell paints giving into hunger as the brave act.  By the time Mitchell, at the end of the season, comes to understand himself fully and asks George to kill him, thus ending the cycle of death, we as well as the characters have heard so many of his stories that we can recognize this request--earnest and genuinely remorseful as it clearly is--as yet another of Mitchell's attempts to cast himself as the tragic hero of an angsty story.  His heroic death is therefore tinged with the same narcissism that had guided his life.

Despite the heavy debt that it owes to the Buffyverse, one of Being Human's most interesting, but also most frustrating, traits in its first two seasons was its rejection of that universe's stake-and-crossbows ethos.  Everyone on the show, and Mitchell in particular, balked at dealing the death penalty to even the worst and most murderous vampire.  The implication was obvious--vampires and werewolves are still people, and killing a person is murder.  The third season reinforces this message.  In the episode "Adam's Family," George and Nina become the unwilling guardians of a teenage vampire who has slowly drunk his parents to death, and try to fob him off on a local vampire couple only to discover that these new guardians are racist, classist fetish freaks whose debauched lifestyle terrifies their new ward; in "The Longest Day" (an excellent, meaty episode that is one of the season's, and the series's, highlights), Nina insists and finally persuades George that to kill the helpless, amnesiac Herrick would be murder; in the season's penultimate episode, Annie stakes a vampire in order to stop him from killing a woman, and calls herself a murderer for it; and in the season finale, George, Annie, and Nina, even knowing the things that he's done and how inevitable his relapse is, take a long time to talk themselves into killing Mitchell.

There's something very admirable about this approach, especially when one considers the conventions of the vampire story in most other venues.  It's too easy to categorize certain people as "other" and therefore not as deserving of life, or of the same protection of the law and due process, as the rest of us, and Being Human challenges us to remember that whenever it rejects the easy solution offered by the stake.  But there's also a one-sidedness to it that left a huge moral gap in Being Human's first two seasons.  It's all very well and good to say that all life, even vampire life, is sacred, but what do you do with someone who refuses to recognize that sanctity?  Morality in Being Human is on the level of the individual, not of society (which doesn't seem to exist for werewolves or ghosts, and is entirely immoral in the case of vampires).  There is no law or due process that applies--or is allowed to apply--to vampires, and this translates into a carte blanche for vampires to wander the earth for centuries, killing left and right, without anyone having the moral authority to take their lives.  The third season addresses this imbalance, first through Mitchell losing his compunctions about killing vampires, then through his killing of Herrick, and finally through his recognition that his return to the bloodsucking fold is inevitable and his death at George's hands.  It's not quite justice--victims like McNair and Lia still find themselves having to choose between letting their abusers go free or becoming monsters themselves in the pursuit of revenge--but it is an acknowledgment that in the system the show has created, killing isn't always an indication of a lack of respect for life.

In fact, I find myself wondering if the pendulum hasn't swung a little too far.  The fact that Mitchell is actually killed at the end of the third season is, if not exactly gratifying, then at least the only honest, satisfying, moral ending to his story.  I'm shocked and deeply impressed by the writers' willingness to take that step, which I had been certain, all the way to the last swing of the stake, that the show would chicken out of.  (The cynic in me, however, wonders whether this story would have been written if Turner weren't attached to the Hobbit production for at least the next year, and probably hoping for bigger and better things out of that role.)  But Mitchell's end also means that the take-away from his story is that being human was, ultimately, something he couldn't do.  And as Mitchell was one of only a few pro-human vampires featured on the show, and just about every other vampire who has tried, like him, to stop feeding has eventually fallen off the wagon (the possible exception is Adam, who, if he hasn't already lapsed, has only been dry for a few months at the end of the third season), it seems reasonable to conclude that this inability extends to the entire race, and that therefore the right, moral response to a vampire is to stake them.  (The show could, of course, replace Mitchell with another sympathetic vampire, but then the writers would find themselves in exactly the same bind they were in with Mitchell.)  The season ends with George, Annie and Nina realizing just how high up vampire infiltration of human institutions goes, and with a new head vampire introducing himself to the group and promising to make their life hell, to which George responds, "you've got a fight on your hands."  The implication is that Mitchell-less Being Human will be about the fight to defeat or maybe even rid the world of vampires, and as frustrating as I found Being Human's localized pacifism in its first two seasons, I'm not sure that switching to a vampire slaying story will be an improvement.

Being Human's third season is not perfect--George and Annie are still being written somewhat inconsistently, as is the romance between Annie and Mitchell, which in the season's last minutes is retconned from an ill-advised and painfully awkward relationship to the great love of both their lives; the season finale is oddly structured, and the whole season, but especially its latter half, is very talky.  Nevertheless, the season sees the show finally finding the story it was meant to tell, and once that happens Being Human's storytelling improves dramatically--for all its flaws, the season is tense and hugely entertaining.  The only question is, what's next?  Can Being Human reshape itself without the character that acted as its core for three seasons, and with an entirely different story to tell?  If the third season teaches us anything, it's that given enough time and the proper inducements, Being Human's writers can meet the toughest challenge, but does this mean it'll take them another two lackluster, frustrating seasons to figure out how to take the show to the next level, and will they even be given that chance (Turner was a huge part of the show's draw and it's not difficult to imagine a large part of its fandom tuning out now that he's gone)?  Whether or not Being Human manages to survive the shake-up at its end, the third season is worth applauding and celebrating in its own right.  I'm very glad that I didn't break with the show last year, and got to watch it.

9 comments:

pangloss said...

Hmm, well we have very different tastes. I liked series 1 a great deal as a light and unusual comedy drama somehow interspersed with dark moments; felt series 2, though it still had moments, notably Annie's indy music ghost b/f, and fabby Nina, took a bad tumble with Mitchell's killing spree; which left series 3 in the hopeless state of trying to write its way out of a moral mess - rather as Chris Claremont found himself forced into killing off Jean Grey to make her pay for the Phoenix's sins. Oops. In the course of so doing, it lost the essence of all the characters: Annie went from delghtfully ditzy to tediously moralistic; George from solidly British to some one who could tell someone he loved them with a straight face while killing them; Nina from sarcastic and funny to moralising bore; and Mitchell, well, Mitchell - see above - he started off as a UK Angel, yes, which he wasn't too bad at really, and somehow transmogrified into a sort of annoying evil Bob Geldof with messy hair. Death itself ceased to be terrifying as in series 1 (the "men with sticks " line was inspired) and became a kind of dull airport waiting lounge. I think the series has basically terminally run out of ideas and I won;t be sorry, or surprised, if it doesn;t return withoit Turner. The lack of any significant response in the UK blogoverse (before yours) to what should have been a shocking finale is also significant, I think.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think we agree that the first season was lighthearted and the second took a wrong turn, but where we disagree is on whether that lightheartedness was justified. I don't see much moral difference between Mitchell in the third season and the first, in which his plotline, after all, begins with him murdering a woman (who, after she gets turned into a vampire, he treats as morally inferior to himself) and concludes with him signing on for the genocide of humanity (the fact that he was stupid to realize it was genocide he was signing on for is surely no excuse). I'm also not sure I'd call season 1 Annie merely "delightfully ditzy," when a major part of her plotline involves the revelation that in life she was such a doormat that her abusive, murderous boyfriend doesn't fear her as a ghost. One of the things I liked about her relationship with Mitchell in season 3 was how much it recalled that abusive relationship while at the same time making it clear that Annie has grown to a point where she will no longer take the kind of shit that got her killed in the first place. (And if it's moralistic to think that someone should be punished for committing mass murder and to say so quite loudly, then call me a moralist.)

Though I've been watching the show on the UK schedule, I'm not very aware of UK fandom. The reactions I've seen to the finale, mostly from foreigners like myself, have nevertheless been quite positive. The one Brit I know who watched the show quit after the second season for the same reasons I almost did, and though I've mentioned to him that the third season was an improvement I don't think he's come back.

Zach said...

Wasn't there a gay vampire in the second season who got Mitchell straight in the first place, and didn't feed on blood?

I thought the second season was a failure in so many ways, not the least of which was the way the entire conspiracy plot was played out. The fact is there was nowhere for them to go once Mitchell murdered a train load of people, and I'm glad they decided that he had to pay for it permanently.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Zach:

That character exists, yes, but he comes back into Mitchell's life after having killed his human lover, with whom he'd lived peacefully for years. Before the third season, it's this episode that most clearly states that vampires, even the supposedly reformed ones, are ticking time bombs, and that given their eternal lifespan their relapse is inevitable. It's also the episode that cements the antipathy between Mitchell and Nina, who can't understand why a murderer is being let go simply because he's a vampire.

Zach said...

I disagree about casting Mitchell as the "core" of Being Human's story for the past 3 seasons. The first season was as much about Annie gaining the self respect to stand up for herself and others, and about George's struggles to accept or fight against the wolf as it was about Mitchell and the vampire clan. This is best seen in the final episode of that season where the only heroic act Mitchell really displays is refusing Herrick's plan, whereas Annie bursts through the morgue and rescues all the hostages and George actually kills Herrick.

And while I don't want to be accused of casting morality as quantitative instead of qualitative, the fact is that by killing the vampires before their (supposedly, I'm not 100% convinced) inevitable relapse is that it discounts their entire life, good and bad. If Mitchell had, say, killed himself immediately upon becoming a vampire, George would have died at the hands of the vampires at the diner long before the time period of the show began. Herrick would have succeeded in his plans, and many more people would have died than Mitchell has killed so far.

The inevitability argument would apply to the werewolves as easily as it does to the vampires. The werewolves, as we've seen with Tully in the first season, Nina in the second, and Tom in the third actively wants to propagate its species. As long as a werewolf lives, it wants to attack others, it wants to tear them apart and subject them to month after month of horrific transformations and the possibility of becoming the same monster themselves, of infecting others with the same horror they're infected with.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

While it's true that George and Annie have storylines of their own, these are usually secondary to Mitchell's. In the first season in particular, they tend to be shaped by, and feed into, his - as you point out, both Annie and George's growing confidence ends up enabling Mitchell's victory over Herrick.

the fact is that by killing the vampires before their (supposedly, I'm not 100% convinced) inevitable relapse is that it discounts their entire life, good and bad

Surely this could be said of all murderers? Doesn't make their victims any less worthy of justice, or them any less deserving of punishment. The fact is, we've never met a vampire who hasn't taken even a single life, and those lives shouldn't be cast aside just because the vampire is also capable of doing good.

It's true that the inevitability argument could be applied to George and the other werewolves as well as Mitchell (though differently, as while Mitchell is halfway between human and a monster, George is one or the other of those things, completely, at different times). It's one of the unfortunate consequences of the show's foregrounding of Mitchell that this issue is never seriously addressed.

Sarah Rees Brennan said...

a teenage vampire who has slowly drunk his parents to death

Poor Adam, that's a bit of an overstatement. His father looked to be in his seventies: drinking people's blood over thirty years is old age drinking them to death rather than you. (Not that drinking old sick people's blood doesn't hurt them, and not that that isn't problematic.)

I agree completely that deconstructing and then killing off Mitchell was a brave thing to do. But it's established in the universe that it's when you quit drinking blood that the memories of killing drive you back to the oblivion offered by same - which offers both hope for Adam, and any other brand new vampires (the policewoman?)who might be introduced. A potential to keep a sympathetic vampire around, and a way around the eternal tired go-around of the vampire who Has Done Terrible Things And Is So Sorry.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Sarah:

The teaser for "Adam's Family" takes place several decades before the body of the episode, and at that point his feeding has already started to have an adverse effect on his mother's health. In the episode itself it's made clear that both she and his father died as a result of his constant feeding, which weakened their systems (I think it's even stated that she died relatively young). So I think it's fair to say that Adam drank his parents to death, even if he did so very slowly.

I seem to recall that when Lauren is introduced as a newly-minted vampire in the first season she's craving blood and rhapsodizing about wanting to kill her family. The show makes it clear that it's not just the oblivion of feeding that vampires crave but the actual blood (to extend the addiction metaphor, eventually junkies take drugs to keep themselves from feeling bad, but they start out doing it to feel good). It's still not impossible, I suppose, for the show to feature another vampire character who cracks the code and manages to stay clean, but at this point I can't imagine a way of doing that that wouldn't contravene the show's copious worldbuilding about their nature.

TheElusiveN said...

Late to this post, but I agree with much of it.
I agreed with you about the Annie/Mitchell romance--I felt like his comment that she was the love of his life was shoehorned in to satisfy the shippers, at the cost of marginalizing his relationship with Josie.

My one disappointment in the third series was that Adam was a new character, and not the younger child that Mitchell turned in Season One. I feel like bringing the kid back--one of the few things that Mitchell felt was a good thing that he had done--and showing him that he had created a vicious monster like himself would have further underscored the point.

Post a Comment