We love a good villain. Villains with complex characters, mysterious motivations, and great resourcefulness are the best. The hero needs to be challenged, right? The better the villain, the greater the hero’s triumph will be at the end. (Going by movies such as Thor and The Avengers, Loki hits pretty high on the villain scale. This is a character that challenged not only one hero, but an entire group. Even Holmes had his Moriarty, a villain so great that they both went over Reichenbach Falls.)
When villains are emotionally sympathetic, we even like to cheer for them at least a little bit; however, appreciating them as characters is not the same thing as wanting them to win entirely. When it comes to criminal stories, we can’t allow the villain to truly win. It’s not in our nature. By the end of the book, movie, or episode we want, even demand the resolution that allows the villain to be brought to justice. In those rare instances where the villain gets away, it is only because at some later date the villain will return and have to face justice then.
But what if that’s not the case? Rereading the story of Jason and Medea got me thinking about how she got away in the end. She murdered her children, Jason’s fiancée Glauce, and Glauce’s father Creon, and then set fire to a city before disappearing completely. She got away. She never faced justice.
Okay, some may say that what she did actually balanced justice. Jason betrayed her, first, and she responded as was befitting (I won’t debate whether acts of murder and arson are equal to casting Medea aside.)
What about a villain who was not wronged first? Shakespeare’s play Othello has a lot in common with Medea's story, especially concerning the villain Iago.
A master manipulator, Iago orchestrates first the demotion of Cassio with a drunken brawl, and then convinces Othello that his wife Desdemona has been having a secret tryst with Cassio. Othello smothers his own wife, believing his wife betrayed him, when she was, in fact, guiltless.
Iago stands triumphant in this moment until his own wife Emilia reveals what he did, but even this can serve part of the villain’s goals. Iago does not seem upset to be discovered. He utters, famously, “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.” Though found out, he basks in this triumph silently, even witnessing Othello’s suicide. Iago has been wounded and is a prisoner, but the play ends with no declaration of his fate.
Iago’s crimes are not elaborated. He did not kill either Desdemona or Othello. He did wound Cassio, but not kill him, and he did it from behind, so it’s unlikely the authorities would find enough proof to convict him for that. At most he lied to Othello and Desdemona, and is guilty of placing a handkerchief in an inconvenient place.
However, at every turn, the hand that committed the crime was not his. He simply let his puppets dance in front of him. By keeping quiet, Iago virtually guarantees that he won’t face any kind of severe punishment, and Shakespeare subtly implies this by the fact that Iago is alive at the end of the play.
We do love our villains, especially the complex and intelligent ones, but we’re still not prepared to let them get away with what they’ve done. Some part of our morality won’t allow us to be content when the villain triumphs. It needs to be temporary; the hero needs a chance to rally and overcome. But sometimes, just sometimes, we need to be reminded that in the real world villains do get away with it.
Bottom image via moth-eatn at deviantart
Andy Adams is an adjunct professor of English at various colleges in the Phoenix area. He has an affectation for fedoras as they complement his villainous goatee. He’s been known to poke his head onto Twitter @A3Writer, but he’s never been big into birds. He blogs at A3writer.com about writing, teaching, and the conquest of fictional worlds—they’re more fun than the real world.
Read all posts by Andy Adams for Criminal Element.