Apologies to all for the unintentional month-long hiatus–wait, what? Two months? Wow, damn. Sorry about that. Well I’m back, so let’s dive right in!
In the last article, I referenced masterless samurai. Not a new concept in film and television, but there’s a sub-class of this loner-type hero I want to look at which I’ll call The Lonely Men. You’ll probably know exactly who I’m talking about once I mention a few names.
For my purposes, the Lonely Men are stereotypical lone wolves who…
- …are being chased by people
- …as they wander from place to place
- …trying to stay under the radar as much as possible
- …while on a quest.
You know the type. Think Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. In SF/F genre terms, think David Banner in The Incredible Hulk, Kwai-Chang Caine in Kung Fu, the starman in Starman, or Bennu of the Golden Light in The Phoenix, and others. (Oh yeah, I dug into the dusty corners of my childhood memories for that last one…)
Nowadays you might have a TV character go on the lam for a story arc or two, falsely accused of a heinous crime or even rightly accused of a morally defensible one. But you don’t see a whole series made out of it like you used to.
Could someone successfully go on the lam in a post-9/11 world, though? Yes, according to the FBI who says there are about 6,500 or so fugitives out there on the run. And the way these folks stay under the radar is by essentially doing what people in the Witness Protection Program are supposed to do: Don’t draw attention to yourself, avoid anyone from your former life, and most importantly, not do anything remotely illegal.
You might get by sticking to cash and disposable cell phones. You could find places to stay via couchsurfing websites and the like, and use all sorts of other strategies. But you can’t expect to stay under the law enforcement radar by walking the earth, like Jules in Pulp Fiction, meeting people and getting into adventures. And you definitely don’t do the sorts of things the heroes of these shows do like stopping to help the folks you meet along the way–delivering a baby in the back of a car, helping a runaway kid, or risking capture to rescue the person chasing you from careening off a waterfall.
See, I never understood that last part. Even as a kid, I figured if you were in a situation that required you to evade authorities for a good cause, you’d prioritize. You might feel bad, but go on you merry Machiavellian way. I would. After all, the minute you Hulked out, started levitating shit, or took out six guys at once with your illegal ninja moves from the government, you’re bound to get got.
And that’s part of why TV shows like these don’t work anymore.
I’m not talking about the logistics. Sure, these Lonely Men were able to criss-cross the country week after week in ways that defied even TV logic sometimes. And it’s not like these guys were criminal geniuses, either. Very little in these characters’ previous experiences–as an alien, physician, scientist, Shaolin priest–really prepared them to live on the lam.
But what they did have, regardless of whether they possessed any alien or radiation-induced superpowers, was their sense of the righteousness of their cause. The Lonely Men were only ever out to find The Truth, or The Antidote, or their True Love. They didn’t want to hurt anyone to find it, although they would hurt a bad guy if they absolutely had to. They would overcome every obstacle, and they certainly weren’t going to let anyone like Sam Gerard stop them.
We were okay with that as an audience because we could sympathize with the righteousness of their causes as well. And we knew they were generally righteous people because they did help others along the way and didn’t try to, say, shoot their pursuers in the back when they had a chance. That’s what allowed us to root for them as they evaded capture.
What I’m really talking about though is the extent to which we’ve lost the belief in that kind of hero. It’s true that even now, we don’t necessarily equate a TV character’s civil disobedience with moral turpitude. But it’s also true that we, as an audience, just won’t buy a character who’s supposedly that desperate, yet that heroic at the same time.
There’s more to it than our culture being more savvy than it was thirty years ago. Acts of terror since even before 9/11 have reinforced what PSAs and our parents always told us about strangers trying to stay under the radar, hitch a ride from us, or make all their transactions in cash–that these are folks more likely to fuck us up than to just go about their business, never mind help us. Sometimes fucking us up is their business. Remember, terrorists can be desperate people who believe in the righteousness of their causes, too.
And so we accept the fact that this world just doesn’t have a place for traveling do-gooding fugitives anymore. It doesn’t matter if you’re a stranded alien, a Dr. Jekyll looking for a cure for your green Mr. Hyde, a Shaolin monk trying to find your brother and a fresh start, or just trying to find your wife’s real killer. In this day and age, you–and by extension, maybe the rest of us–would just be out of luck.