Moral Complexity Is Not Plot Complexity, Or ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ And Dark Television

In keeping with some of the things that I and Linda Holmes have been writing about an obsession with darkness and grit that’s become more for its own sake than it is for a larger narrative purpose, Stephen Lloyd Wilson has a good piece at Pajiba about the difference between plot complexity and moral complexity:

And even in this hair-splitting description, the language doesn’t quite work right, because complexity also has implications of plots that resemble spaghetti, which isn’t exactly right either. What we’re really trying to get at is moral complexity, not plot complexity. Difficult questions are not the same as complex ones.

In the second season of “24”, the last one I bothered watching, there’s a wonderful illustrative example. There’s the conspiracy to blow up a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles, thwarted by bravery and pluck, and for a several episode sequence all evidence points to the plot being a joint effort by several Middle Eastern governments. Planes are in the air, ambassadors are recalled, the world is on the brink. And of course Jack Bauer discovers the key evidence that reveals that the cabal was actually within the American government itself. Complex? Well that isn’t a simple plot. Dark? Well there were nukes and people dying. But morally complex?

All the air went out of the show at the exact moment of that reveal because it turned a terrible moral question of how to respond to a horrific act of war (do you drop the bomb even though the plot failed? Invade three other countries?) into a simple question. Find the bad guys. Shoot them.

I’ve been thinking of Buffy the Vampire Slayer a lot in this conversation, because it’s a show that largely eschewed physical disgustingness—the Gentlemen and their jars of hearts were about as gross as the show ever got—but had plenty of moral complexity. The fifth season of the show feels to me like a perfect example of a way to pose a range of morally complex questions that aren’t limited in stakes to avoiding violent death, and to do so without communicating those stakes through grotesquerie. Among the issues at stake: what does Buffy owe Dawn, the girl she is brainwashed to think is her sister, but who is actually a construction of ancient monks? Who is Buffy without her mother? What does it mean to parent someone? How do we handle death? How do we—or in this case, Xander and Anya—know when we’re ready to get married? When is self-sacrifice selfish, and when is it necessary? How do we handle people who are, in themselves, innocent, but who can’t help committing unspeakable evil? In the case of Spike, how do we know when someone evil has truly reformed?

There are a lot of plots in play in Buffy, but as a network show, it had a longer season to let them all flesh out—and one downside to the shorter seasons of prestige cable is that sometimes showrunners try to stick too much plot spaghetti into their fewer episodes, rather than limiting the amount of story they try to tell. And the basics of the season were fairly simple: Glory, the main Big Bad of the season, sometimes was stuck in the body of a doctor named Ben, who also happened to be treating Buffy and Dawn’s mother for cancer. The dynamic animating those elements was fairly simple: Glory looked for Dawn, the gang tried to keep her from figuring out what Dawn was, once Glory knew Dawn was the key, the gang tried to keep Glory away from her. There were variations, but the core structure was strong. Sometimes, it seems, moral complexity is actually served by plot simplicity. And as the end of the fifth season of Buffy should serve to remind us, sometimes death is most effective when it comes imbued with deep love, rather than simple brutality.