If you’ve known me for longer than two minutes, you know I love a good antagonist-turned-protagonist. You need look no further than my list of Favorite Fictional Characters to see said list is probably 93% full of them. If you’ve known me longer than three minutes, you know my two favorite TV character of all-time are Leonard Snart (The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow) and Alexander Mahone (Prison Break).
(Actually, you’re excused if you didn’t know that second one. It was a rapid obsession developed over a period of a few weeks. I still can’t believe he surpassed Michael.)
My love for Snart gave me much ire recently when Legends of Tomorrow decided to scrap 99% of everything likeable about Snart during the final two episodes of the second season. I KNEW this was Criminal Snart – you know, before all his character development and whatever – but what they gave us felt like the evil twin of an already shady character. (I have a theory for why it was so Not What We Wanted, but that’s a story for another time.) My distress over the botching of my favorite character caused me to look long and hard at his characterization throughout The Flash/Legends of Tomorrow, a sort of ‘how did we get here’ traipse through the Arrowverse.
This reflection led me to a realization: The Snart on Legends of Tomorrow had very little in common with the Snart we knew from The Flash. On The Flash, Snart was a hardened criminal. Was he endearing? Absolutely. Did we love him? Yes, we did. Did he light up the screen with his snark, charisma, and brilliance? You bet.
However, we also saw the Snart who a) murdered someone just to test Barry’s speed, b) was perfectly willing to endanger an entire trainload of innocent people just so he could get away, c) kidnapped people, d) stole whatever he wanted, e) double-crossed Barry and unleashed known killers into the city — the list goes on. Did Barry see the good in Snart? Absolutely, much to Snart’s annoyance. We all knew it was there – Snart was chock-full of raw, protagonist potential. It’s what helped make him such an excellent villain — we almost wanted him to win, dagnabbit. That version of Leonard Snart was not only a thief, but a murderer. That’s a big deal, by most people’s standards.
Legends of Tomorrow, however, gave us a different Snart. Sure, he has the same attitude and mannerisms, the same sense of humor, and the same abilities. Only this version was suddenly a lot more kid-friendly. People call him ‘crook’ or ‘thief’ all the time to remind us hey, don’t forget – he’s a criminal! but aside from the occasional petty theft, Snart has lost most of his hardened criminality.
Now, here’s the thing – on one hand, I adored this. We did get some beautifully-written, skilfully-executed character development – some of the best I’ve ever seen on television – but. But. What if it had taken an entire season for Snart to overcome his instinctive criminal tendencies? What if, instead of a near-immediate personality change, we’d seen Snart murder someone and have to deal with the consequences? What if we got to witness the intricacies of a painful, difficult, and epic character arc – one that felt real, that made more sense, and didn’t leave us wondering I love these changes and I’m all for them because I love Snart, but…WHY is he so good so suddenly?
We did get a magnificent character arc, but it was rushed because the writers cut corners. Somewhere between his transition from The Flash to Legends of Tomorrow, Snart developed a conscience that wasn’t there before. It’s common for writers to struggle with the antag-to-protag curve, because it’s tricky – and understandably so.
Picture: Your hero spends a good amount of time battling an antagonist who, slowly but surely, becomes one of the good guys. What then? This guy was the foil for your hero, the only person equal to him in matters of power and prowess. You can’t have him overshadowing your hero!
Unfortunately, many writers then perform one drastic surgery on this ex-antagonist: they take away their power. The character strong enough to best the hero is suddenly and inexplicably weaker than he used to be.
This is, of course, taking the easy way out of a complex – but delightfully fun – problem. If you want your antagonist fighting side-by-side with the hero, you still want people to notice your hero, without sacrificing the full potential of a redemption arc.
That being said, you shouldn’t need to weaken your antagonist-turned-protagonist (ATP from here on out) to do that.
Which brings me to Prison Break. Special Agent Alexander Mahone isn’t brought into the show until season two, when the Fox River Eight successfully break out of prison and go on the run. In many ways, Mahone is the perfect antithesis of Michael.
He knows how Michael thinks, he’s able to decipher puzzles only Michael would understand, he’s so close on Michael’s heels that sometimes he’s actually ahead of him. He’s a powerful antagonist to the hero we’ve come to know, love, and root for. As Wentworth Miller put it, “I think Mahone is a reflection, whether Michael realizes it or not, of what he could one day be. If he continues to walk down this very dark road, Michael might wind up very much the man that Mahone is today; someone who started out as a good man doing good things and then became a good man doing questionable things and then became a questionable man doing evil things.”
There’s a reason Prison Break is my favorite show of all time — it does everything flawlessly. You should know I never describe writing as ‘flawless.’ Not mine, not yours, not Tolkien’s. Prison Break, however, does everything right.
Including their ATP redemption arc.
Mahone chases Alex from Illinois to Panama, using any means necessary to trap – and kill – the fugitives he’s after, because he’s not simply chasing them: he’s hunting them down, with orders to murder every single one of them. As the show continues, we see exactly why a character we respect and even like, despite everything, is stooping to such lows. His actions are not excused, but they are explained.
Through a series of events far too long to list here, Mahone winds up on the same side as Michael. He’s officially one of the Good Guys – kind of. Sort of. Technically he’s only there because he has no other choice, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t helpful. In fact, he’s indispensable, and saves the lives of the heroes multiple times, whether they want his assistance or not. He makes himself invaluable to the team by achieving Good Guy Ends through Bad Guy Means.
Where Snart suddenly and inexplicably gave up his life of crime, Mahone doesn’t relinquish his ruthlessness or effectiveness. He takes the step nobody else is willing to take; he kills when others can’t stomach the idea — all because he wants his life back, and this is how he achieves that goal.
Until, of course, he really starts to care. And to question exactly how far he’s willing to go in his quest to get said life back. He’s been a reluctant killer, sure – but a killer nonetheless. He’s done plenty of good things – but mostly, he’s done them for his own reasons.
In season four, Michael flat-out tells Mahone that he doesn’t trust him, for these exact reasons. (This does sting, because there were several instances where Mahone did, in fact, help out of purely selfless reasons – but it doesn’t negate the fact he often helped for selfish ones.)
In the very last episode, The Final Break, Mahone’s character development is complete. He has Michael’s complete trust – so much, in fact, that Michael entrusts him with a plan he refuses to tell the others. It’s made more poignant by the fact Mahone would benefit greatly from betraying Michael – but he doesn’t. His redemption arc is finished – he’s no longer an antagonist in any capacity. He’s a full-on protagonist, a Good Guy with no strings attached.
Prison Break did something very rare in television history – they didn’t ever weaken Mahone once he became a good guy. He never lost his edge because they never took it from him.
The writers were more concerned with putting out a great story than they were with ensuring Mahone wouldn’t outshine Michael. Instead of making Mahone less intelligent, less ruthless, less interesting than he was before he and Michael were on the same side, they allowed him to be exactly who he always had been – cunning, intelligent, efficient, and an incredibly important supporting character.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY:
Don’t cut corners. Don’t make literary sacrifices because you want to play it safe. Let your readers experience a full, nitty-gritty redemption arc, and don’t get bogged down wondering whether or not your ATP will be too interesting or too good at his job. Let your character have issues to work through, struggles to overcome, flaws to fix. Make it hard.
Your readers, and your ATP, will thank you.