Are we allowed to understand the villain regardless of their crimes?
In Who Among Us… there’s a scene that I wrestled with for some time and very nearly left it out. In London, Satanist assassins Jennifer Enzo and Shalini Mithra murder an informer. The attack is devastating killing their target and a number of bystanders.
The day after, in the Cumbrian town of Keswick, Frieda Schoenhofer and Klaus Linzl discuss innocence. Klaus is outraged to hear Frieda displaying no sympathy for the attack’s ‘innocent victims.’
I still argue with myself about this scene (not out loud, obviously), but the crux of Frieda’s argument can be summarised like this: in a big bad world of suffering, most people ignore the suffering, preferring to complain about trivial problems like poor restaurant service. Only when the big bad world attacks them do they decide something must be done.
Online trolls often truncate this argument into the phrase ‘first world problem.’ And to a degree they’re right. The first world increasingly abandons everybody else leaving them to endure the fallout of geopolitics and international terrorism. Hundreds can die in Peshawar and it barely earns a mention in the western press. But shoot a number of cartoonists in Paris and the west unites in demands to stop the attacks (on us).
So, Frieda’s question comes around again: were the London victims innocent? And if not, is anyone truly innocent?
The question is problematic because the character asking isn’t a two-dimensional villain of cheap pulp thrillers and Hollywood blockbusters. Writers like to make life easy for their audience by not fleshing out villains in case we start to sympathise with them. But in Who Among Us… it wasn’t my intention to make people sympathise with Frieda Schoenhofer, but to see all sides of the antagonist, the complete person, and force the reader to look beyond the immediate plot.
I’m sure the reader will consider themselves ‘innocent’ and empathise with victims of attacks. So would I. But when I wear my author’s hat my role is to challenge the obvious and hold it out for scrutiny.
We’re very selective when it comes to villainy. We treat old lags with their convoluted bank robberies like latter-day highwaymen. We cheer the hustlers of Oceans Eleven and The Italian Job. Why? Because they’re doing over someone else. The drunken actor is a hell raiser, the drunken youth on a night out, a yob. Why? Because the actor has charisma when they’re sober. They entertain us. The yobs simply get in the way.
But it’s all very arbitrary and demonstrates the flexible nature of right and wrong. Morality is not fact; ethics are not absolute. And innocence isn’t a factual condition like being blue-eyed or bald, it comes with strings attached. If I sit in the home section of Millwall football club and celebrate the away team scoring am I the innocent victim of the inevitable beating?
Frieda would say not and have no sympathy. She believes in consequences and responsibility, but she doesn’t stop at direct cause and effect, but works backwards from effect through many steps to a cause no one else may have considered; a process that in her mind leaves everyone open to a charge of guilt even if they don’t have any immediate connection to the crime they’re victims of.
It’s a dangerous view to hold. It can lead to a license to commit crime and inflict suffering. But to do that without a reason would mean abandoning rationality and Frieda doesn’t act irrationally.
Unlike Jennifer Enzo, dangling high above the Swiss Alps, conceiving embryonic thoughts of a scorched earth policy that will leave her alone in the world with her incubus. In Jenzo’s world everyone is guilty by virtue of being human and alive. She is the arch-nihilist forced out of her private bubble and inspired by a sense of cinematic destiny to be the hero.
Here the discussion of guilt and innocence flips from victim to perpetrator. In this case is the antagonist fully responsible for the horrors she inflicts?
She doesn’t justify what she does. If there is a reason it’s probably a desire to recreate a scene from a film. She has no fondness for personal memories, but she doesn’t see herself as a victim of life or upbringing; there’s no self-pity. If she refuses to blame her behaviour on circumstances does this make it problematic to hold her to account?
Neither guilty nor innocent, simply devoid of rationale, she is the polar opposite to Frieda, and we risk finding ourselves in a reductio ad absurdum: if Jenzo’s nihilism is the opposite to Frieda, does that make Frieda a humanist? A murderous villain who is also a humanist!
Why not? In Frieda’s world an innocent victim can be guilty. In Frieda’s world anyone can exist in two opposing states at the same time: a quantum state. And in Jenzo’s world there is nothing: entropy.
Alpha and Omega. Frieda is the beginning. Jenzo is the end. And on the subject of innocence, the jury is still out.