The Anatomy of a Mentor
Updated: Sep 1, 2021
My least favourite trope in a story is a flat character arc for the mentor character. The dynamic between a mentor and a mentee makes for some of my all-time favourite movie dynamics, a few of which I will discuss below. But the idea that the student does not bring a drastic change in the teacher's life is, to me, pretty boring. All of the most interesting relationships in fiction are a give and take, where the balance may not be even, but both characters are influenced by each other and neither possesses the same characteristics they did at the beginning. I have thus examined some of my favourites.
Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker (& Luke Skywalker)
Luke and Obi-Wan on their own are not as interesting without the context of Anakin Skywalker. Obi-Wan was the reluctant master of Anakin, the strongest force user known. Throughout the Clone Wars, we see Anakin developing as he keeps becoming a better fighter, pilot and tactician. By the end, he is superior to Obi-Wan in many aspects.
Obi-Wan has been, throughout the canon, a perfect Jedi. Therefore, he must have been the perfect example for all learners. However, this meant that he perfectly depicted everything Anakin despised about the Jedi. Obi-Wan gave up his true love for the order. When his Padawan was falsely accused of crimes against the Jedi, Obi-Wan maintained his diplomacy as she was cast out, which, to Anakin, was cowardice on his part. Obi-Wan went along with a ploy to fake his death without letting Anakin know to allow for complete authenticity, while Anakin, who agonisingly suffers the fear of losing the people he loves, flew around the galaxy with a blind drive for revenge. What Anakin really needed was someone who would empathise with him, someone who will understand that from where he stood, the Jedi were heartless cowards who choose diplomacy over their ideals. He needed someone to see that he fears loss, and he will go to any extremes to not feel the emotion which allowed him to slaughter an entire village.
This is not the portrayal of Obi-Wan most fans are familiar with. This is because actively, he is a fine mentor. He is one of the most important generals in the republic and Jedi in the order. Obi-Wan and Anakin have a fan-favourite dynamic in the Clone Wars where they are competitive and tease each other. His shortcomings as a mentor have been defined nowhere better than Dooku defining the shortcomings of the Jedi.
“The Jedi Order’s problem is Yoda. No being can wield that kind of power for centuries without becoming complacent at best or corrupt at worst. He has no idea that it’s overtaken him; he no longer sees all the little cumulative evils that the Republic tolerates and fosters, from slavery to endless wars, and he never asks, “Why are we not acting to stop this?” Live alongside corruption for too long, and you no longer notice the stench. The Jedi cannot help the slaves of Tatooine, but they can help the slavemasters.”
In Mustafar, Obi-Wan faces the failure of the teachings of the Jedi. Every strike that he has to defend, he taught it. For all Obi-Wan realised through his last interaction with Anakin, he was contented about defeating the Count, showered each other with heartfelt compliments and parted ways with him, hoping to see his master, no, his friend, soon. After defeating his student, Obi-Wan stands over a cliff, where he let's his disappointment out. Obi-Wan did not save his old friend, nor end his suffering. With an unbroken commitment to the order, he leaves. This was the lowest point for the Jedi.
Obi-Wan clearly grew as a person while mentoring Luke. He was a spiritual guide to him and sacrificed himself. This sacrifice allowed Luke to learn the most important thing a powerful Jedi should know: There is no loss. Obi-Wan was with Luke even after death, and Luke, reframing what the Jedi are, helped the slaves, not the slavemaster.
Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute
Of all the most interesting subversions of sitcom tropes in The Office, Michael as a mentor is my favourite. Their relationship in the story can only be achieved through cohesive character-writing before the story beats take place, something that is not present in lower sitcoms.
Dwight is an authoritative nightmare who has the utmost respect for all his bosses, but most specifically, Michael. What separates Michael from the other bosses around him is that Michael WANTS to be looked up to, to be adored, to be defended, and most importantly, to have an errand boy that does not see through his facade of witticism and charm.
The good thing is, if you empathise with Dwight, you can see why. Michael was formally the best salesman in the company and has been a great closer. He trained Dwight about effective sales methods, he is not "appreciated in his time" by the "commonfolk" that surround him, has been able to trick Dwight into thinking he was the new boss and successfully beat Dunder Mifflin through his own company.
My absolute favourite part of their dynamic is how perfect it fits within each other's arcs. They have an interdependence, something you need in an office lest you end up like Toby. While others seek to survive the social disaster of a formal power structure, Dwight seeks a king. He needs someone who will take charge, delegate more and more work to him in exchange for authority over others. Michael needs someone who respects him and makes him feel as smart and skilled as he wants to be. Both their character arcs involve breaking this dependence, and if the show jumped from Michael's exit to the wedding, it would have been more explicit.
In the end, Michael accepted all his co-workers as his friends, not family, not disciples, not Toby. In his ending, Michael gives Dwight a game of paintball, no pettiness or mistreatment. In his ending, Dwight abandons his narrow view towards authority and power, making him better at his job, as a manager, and most notably, as a father and a husband. Michael hugs Dwight at his wedding, their relationship evolved to its highest level: as friends.
Mr Miyagi and Daniel LaRusso
If your learning relationship has become the stock example for a mentor, you did something right. Many parodies now have a scene portraying Miyagi's learning process as redundant and exploitative. While most only do it to make a joke, it really ignores the point of these two characters individually.
One of the themes of this story is self-improvement, something Daniel shows little interest in. His motivation is born out of the social structure he is trying to survive. Mr Miyagi, on the other hand, is less interested in pulling him out of this hole he has created for himself and wants to make him not just physically, but mentally, a self-sufficient person. All of his actions, from declining training to an enraged Daniel to giving him a Karate Gi and a car for his birthday, were born of Daniel's sufficiency.
What elevated the story to an iconic sensation relevant to this day is Miyagi's history. Having served on the side of the allies, Miyagi only got to learn through news that his wife died in childbirth in an internment camp when no doctor was available. Miyagi's idealism has cost him more than Daniel can ever fathom, yet he still chooses to live by it.
This realisation make Daniel start training much harder than before. The moment of truth comes for him once he is injured. Daniel puts the entire story into perspective and cries that defeating Johnny is not about pride but ending the torment that has been laid upon him. Daniel has understood Karate. The form is not about being the strongest or defeating many people, it is about defending the downtrodden, which, in this case, is Daniel himself. Miyagi's arc converges here, where he realises the importance of the fight to come and sees his student perfectly exemplify the form, both physically, and mentally.
Daniel cheated, of course, but that is what sequel shows released 35 years later are for.