Updated: Nov 20, 2021
Despite the presence of a huge ensemble, most storytellers have to, at the start or at the end of their story, decide the primary relationship in their beloved tale. Usually, this relationship is how the story will choose to wrap up its very last moments, unless there is another singular protagonist, in which case, it will be last only to a very final self-reflective moment, akin to Walter White’s approving nod to Jesse right before he wanders the room surrounded by his one true love.
Now, the important thing to remember with this is not to be too narrow-minded with your approach to this. A single-minded loyalty towards a preconceived idea of the dynamic doesn’t allow your characters room to change in unexpected ways. As such, let’s see how some of the best stories decided how their characters affect each other.
“I love that I got to be with you guys. You saved my life. And changed it forever. Thank you.”
The simplest and most comfortable relationships in your life are, in fact, some of the hardest to write. With the other, more complicated relationships that allow for greater nuance as well as invoke mixed feelings, how many platonic relationships really get to shine in those discussion threads?
Using what I believe to be the pinnacle of this friendly dynamic, Community shows Jeff start out as the ambitious guy held back into mediocrity, and has ensured that his goal is to jumpstart his career. However, if you know Dan Harmon, you know that the characters never get what they want. A story is about character growth, and acceptance of the life you have is a major one.
As such, Jeff’s ending was never designed to be about his career, as was at the end of season 4. He reached, what he considers, the lowest of lows: teaching at a community college. Anyone starting off the show will see it as a tragic angle, that we were supposed to get a Scrubs-like ending where the protagonist leaves Harmon’s story-circle having changed, yet he might be the last one there.
In this twisted ending, Jeff gets NOTHING a protagonist is entitled to. The big career, the girl, the fame, nothing. And Harmon, in the end, is telling us that this is not a tragedy. Everything he had with Annie, with Abed, Troy, Shirley, even Pierce, nothing has changed. As the show wraps up and Jeff and Annie kiss once again to leave him with no regrets, Jeff follow’s Abed’s advice and finally let’s go. But not before hugging him a second time.
“This giant hand was sent to all of us as an invitation. To increase our mastery over the power to hold on. And let go.”
Why do we love these people so much? Mr Miyagi, Obi-Wan, Iroh and so many mentors are the most beloved characters in their franchises. It might be a strong desire to have someone in your life who has answers, or it may be a desire to BE them for the people that rely on us. While I would likely discuss Noriyuki Miyagi here, having done so before, I’ll go with Dr Cox.
So, Scrubs’ first episode had JD face the tough realities of his job. People will die and he would be completely powerless. He does not have the mastery over the procedures he thinks he does. On-call duty sucks. And most of all, he is, to Kelso, nothing but a pile of Scrubs. So, what is the thing that will keep him going?
“I don’t get it. If Kelso’s the jerk… Who’s the good guy?”
Well, as it turned out, we get the grizzled and desensitized old cop who still hasn’t lost sight of morality. It’s not that he doesn’t care about JD or Elliot or Turk, it’s just something only Carla gets, that attention is a limited commodity, and a doctor’s needs come in second after the patients. He doesn’t like this about him. He wishes he could give his conscience up like (seemingly) Kelso has, and stop holding himself accountable in case he fails, but he just can’t. In an early episode, as JD is worried that his neglect might have killed a man, and everyone convinces him that it wouldn’t have made a difference, only Dr Cox lets him go on feeling guilty, because JD treated him differently, and he COULD have killed him.
“You want to be like me? You understand that… I just barely wanna be like me.”
In the most important arc for these two, Dr. Cox’s carelessness ends up killing two patients from Rabies. At a lunch where the role of the advisory body shifts to JD, he convinces him that he did NOT make a bad call, the situation just didn’t allow for a win. The most powerful part is that when JD says that he would have made the same call, instead of disregarding his opinion and his career, Dr Cox looks for reassurance. If JD would have made the same call, then it is what any good doctor would have done. JD is a good doctor.
But then, it came to the third patient. From the very moment Cox promises him a kidney, you can sense a tragedy coming up. The tragedy here is not his death, no, but that JD now has NOTHING left to help his fallen idol rationalise that it wasn’t his fault. There we go. Dr Perry Cox’s first kill, and it traumatised him more than he ever let on.
“Each and every one of you is going to kill a patient. At some point during your residency you will screw up, they will die, and it will be burned into your conscience forever.”
As JD, at the very end, visits a broken and defeated mentor, he gives him the same reassurance he got years ago, that it wasn’t whether he killed them or not, but that he still has this unbelievably strong conscience after all this time, one that would seem like a hindrance to most. JD sees the value in his breakdown, and exhibits that he was able to be this wise because of Dr Cox. He needed to return.
In the end, he tricked him into saying what he truly felt, that JD is the best damn doctor in Sacred Heart. That his attachment to his patients made his life and career way more difficult and stressful, but he weathered it to no end. He embraces him as a friend for following his path, even after his attempts to shake him off. That last hug was more than well-deserved.
Let’s be honest, right here, right now, writers swoon over these characters. Making an anti-hero reflection of your main protagonist allows them to play around the limitations they have set for their heroes without actually having to drastically change the dynamics. Cobra Kai’s Daniel twists it by being the non-impulsive reflection of Johnny, allowing him to finally take the spotlight he deserves.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up one of the strongest redemption arc television has to offer. Zuko’s role before The Storm was entirely to be “the villain”, a destructive force that just needs to be dealt with externally. Every time he did fight Aang, however, Aang completely schooled the proud prince with his airbending skills alone, and the collateral damage is what prevented Aang from ever winning outright.
Following the storm, however, Zuko’s dynamic shifted. Now, he was a victim of his nation just as much as anyone else is. Now, we don’t have a single goal (Aang becoming the Avatar) with an obstacle (Zuko stopping him). Now, we have Zuko’s journey, whom we often find ourselves rooting for, until he does get close to the Gaang.
After being hurt, betrayed and tricked by Zuko for so long, the final straw for Aang was his role in the Catacombs. In the moment of truth, at the crossroads of destiny, Zuko made his choice not to redeem himself. Only Iroh was present for Zuko’s development in Book 2, and only Katara witnessed his plight to not be identified by his scar. Zuko thus hurt all three of them in different ways, and sealed any scope of redemption.
This final time, however, he did not let any adversity or challenges set him back. In fact, to ensure that it doesn’t, he made the ultimatum to Ozai himself. Now, he could either help Aang or be executed for his crimes against the fire nation. The whole world now hated the scarred prince who betrayed the Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation and the Avatar.
It is not a bold assessment that the arc that followed, redeeming Zuko for each of the members, is one of the strongest in television history, where he had to prove himself as a person without Iroh lighting his way. For Aang to accept Zuko as his firebending teacher, he had to first accept that his change in drive was legitimate, and all it took was two legendary dragons to prove it.
In the finale, as Aang and Zuko have finally redeemed themselves, both are delighted that they can now, at the end of their journeys, be in the same room, and can replace their chase with a hopeful hug, embracing one another what they have become.