Redemption arcs are very rarely done well and they usually focus simply on a character doing one good deed before dying, which is supposed to make us believe that they have now become a completely better person. This is lazy storytelling at its finest, because you don’t have to do any deep character development or show the character changing in any real way. Furthermore, this storyline is unrealistic when it comes to how others respond to the redeemed character. It always amazes me that one act of kindness is enough for sometimes an entire race of people to forgive someone for a lifetime of atrocities. Everything in this type of storyline just feels very unrealistic. Thankfully, Welcome to Night Vale comes to the rescue. WTNV is pretty revolutionary and creative when it comes to much of its storytelling, but I was especially pleased when I noticed the much more nuanced way that WTNV addressed redemption arcs.
Spoilers for WTNV from Season 1 to Episode 73.
In the first season of WTNV, we are introduced the notorious Apache Tracker, the man whom radio show host Cecil constantly critiques for being a racist, because he is a white guy who dresses in a cartoonish Native American headdress and calls himself the Apache Tracker. The Apache Tracker is one of the big characters in WTNV. He seems to know more about what is happening in Night Vale than a lot of other people and seems to be involved in many of the strange events and conspiracies. Yet he is also a racist and culturally appropriative asshole. In the first season finale of Welcome to Night Vale, the Apache Tracker saves Carlos, a scientist and Cecil’s love interest, from a city of tiny people who attacked him. The Apache Tracker’s heroic actions save Carlos, but in the process he dies himself. Cecil even admits in the episode that he might have misjudged the Apache Tracker. Had the story ended here the Apache Tracker’s redemption arc would be the same as all the others. But Cecil discusses him again in the episode “First Date” that puts a new spin on things.
In related news, the City Council has erected a monument to the fallen Apache Tracker—that hero who died for the welfare of us all. The monument will be dedicated in a secret silent ceremony, attended by no one, and the monument itself will be buried in the desert where no one will find it—because he was also a racist embarrassment and we don’t want our town associated with that kind of thing.
The Apache Tracker may have performed a heroic act, and we can certainly honor that, but as Cecil points out, he still was a racist and problematic figure. The Apache Tracker did nothing to undo all the problem of his cultural appropriation. Just because he did one good thing does not undo all the other issues with him. In this way the Apache Tracker becomes actually more human. He is neither a villain nor a hero, but just a typical human with all of humanity’s strengths and biases.
Sometimes a redemption arc is less about redemption and more about reconciliation. Throughout WTNV, Cecil constantly complains about a man named Steve Carlsberg. The WTNV fandom knew little to nothing about this character other than what Cecil said about him, and it speaks to the media’s power that pretty everyone assumed the worst of him because of Cecil. However, when we finally meet Steve in “Old Oak Doors Part B” we discover that the real issue is that Cecil disagrees with Steve on almost all their world views. Steve is actually a great father to Cecil’s niece Janice and is strong-willed and opinionated. In this instance we have a perceived villain who turns out not to be a villain at all. Steve is redeemed in the eyes of the audience, but he really did nothing wrong to begin with. Instead, what is achieved is Cecil having the tiniest bit of respect for Steve where he didn’t before.
And finally we have Kevin, who was a member of Strex Corp and the radio show host in Desert Bluffs. From the moment we meet Kevin he comes off as eerie, but when we really get to know him he becomes even more terrifying. He does everything from killing people and decorating his studio with their insides to threatening Cecil and his family. Kevin was both a sinister and terrifying character. However, in “Old Oak Doors Part B” there is a hint that there is something more to Kevin than we originally thought. Kevin mentions being much like Cecil and resisting Strex Corp at first before he finally gave into them. This hints that Kevin had very much been broken by Strex Corp and made into the twisted figure that he is. After Strex Corp is defeated and Kevin is sent into the Desert Otherworld, we see that he starts to get better. He is still eerie and creepy, and seems to have his own secret agenda, but he certainly comes off as less horrifying that he originally had been. Finally, in the episode “Triptych”, we see a very different side to Kevin. In fact, we see several. In this episode, Cecil is able to talk with versions of Kevin from the distant and recent past as well as the future. We meet Kevin both before Strex Corp takes over, while Kevin is under Strex Corp’s control, and later in the future when Kevin largely free of Strex Corp’s hold on him but still very broken.
Kevin: Oh, what StrexCorp and their Smiling God did to my wonderful little town. What they did to me. I’m not myself anymore. I’m a smile, and a twitch of the wrist. It has been years, Cecil. I’ve drifted away from myself. Sometimes I am one me, and then again I am the other. What they did to the sentient heat trapped temporarily in my body.
Cecil: Oh, Kevin.
Kevin: “Kevin.” Even my name is a strange figment. My tongue has forgotten how to form the word. And once, I was so good with words!
Now I am an ancient thing, withered away by what they did to me all those years ago. The power of the Smiling God is an endless flow. It ebbs, like the tides. But, like the tides, it returns.
Kevin is not necessarily redeemed, at least not in the conventional sense, but it’s starkly revealed to the listeners how much Kevin was not in control when he was working for Strex Corp. This is different than the narratives you often see in comics like Batman where the villain has a tragic past and for whatever reason that passed compels them to go off and kill people. This would be more like Batman being mind controlled or brainwashed and then going to kill people at the behest of those who now have control over him. No viewer would blame Batman for what he did under those circumstances no matter how horrible. The atrocities committed by Kevin when he was under the control of Strex Corp are still terrible, but we learn that we cannot blame Kevin and that he is just as much of a victim as those he hurt. Kevin’s redemption arc then comes through the reveal of his lack of autonomy and his struggles with overcoming that in the future.
Redemption arcs are well beloved storylines that can often be done in sloppy and stereotypical ways that seem more of an attempt to garner an emotional response then actual good storytelling. Writers need to remember that there is a variety of ways that we can show that someone is redeemed. Redemption arcs don’t have to always be so cliché with the typical one-heroic-act-then-death thing. Writers can avoid this cliche by delving into the characters story and background, and allowing their characters to grow, change, and develop, as well as having the audience/viewer/reader’s perception of them grow, change, and develop. By doing this, whether the characters are bad or good in the end, they become more human and relatable for their audience.