While I consider what to do for the next Writing What I Hate article, I decided to do something that’s kind of the opposite and turn my critical and analytic eye to a series I enjoy, yet which managed to piss me off but good. It was while mulling over this idea that it hit me that while I’ve talked at length about the contract between writer and audience, I haven’t been able to show a case study. Well here it is.
First though, it’s talk about cache or as I like to call it benefit of the doubt points.
You see, writers are imperfect beings and as such, so is our work. You will never find a perfect work of fiction any more than you will pull a completely flawless diamond out of the ground. It’s the writer’s ability to make us enjoy everything else that smooths those flaws over—or gain points if you will. Conversely, when they drop the ball, perform a massive flub or just plain fail to meet our hopes and expectations, they loose points. When the amount of benefit of the doubt we’re willing to give reaches zero, we stop watching, reading, and listening.
It is the writer’s job to maintain that good will in us such that we continually grant just that little bit more benefit of the doubt. Some series, like Heroes or Lost (some will say only the later seasons, but I quite after season 1 of Lost because I realized we were never going to get anywhere) manage to maintain this by constantly promising answers to questions in the next episode, then not giving them so they maintain just a tiny sliver of good will long enough to get them to the next episode. Other do it by telling a good story with good characters and hoping that just being good will be enough to keep them going. And if that doesn’t work, they make a feature film that novas away all that good will in a firestorm of WTFery and dead characters. See also: Firefly/Serenity. And there are works that occasionally do stunts to try and supplement their reserves of good will.
With today’s subject… I don’t know which it is yet. The series isn’t finished, so there is still a chance for the writers to either rectify some of their moments of serious cache bleed, or do something so spectacular that I and other fans forgive them. For the moment, I do recommend people still watch at least the first two seasons. They work pretty well alone and they’re fun, light slices of life that border on both the Fantasy and Superhero genres, so you know it’s in the wheelhouse for people who enjoy my own work.
That series is RWBY, and if you don’t know anything about it, watch this:
Werewolves being exploded, Little Red Riding Hood wielding transforming weapons of mayhem. It’s just wonderful.
RWBY is the brainchild of the late Monty Oum, a member of the web production staff Rooster Teeth. You might know them for their most famous body of work: Red vs Blue, which used Halo assets to tell the story of the titular teams of soldiers fighting it out in a box canyon. I’ve seen the first two seasons and it’s pretty damn funnny.
As for RWBY itself, the best way I can describe it is what would happen if your D&D 4e campaign was DMed by Paul Dini. It’s set on a Death World where humanity exists only in small pockets or in large, fortified cities. They manage to have a modern level of technology with which they fight the enigmatic monsters called Grimm thanks to a resource extracted from the ground called Dust. Some people specialize in fighting Grimm with weapons powered or enhanced by Dust and with the special soul-based ability called Aura, which makes them and their weapons, stronger, faster and more resilient.
The story takes place in the prestigious Beacon Academy, which trains people to become Hunters.
What really drew me in is the world building, which is delivered initially by a prologue narration that slowly turns out to be some sort of threat against mankind by an unseen villain. The Grimm themselves are poorly understood and spoken of as if they’re some sort of supernatural force, drawn to negative emotions and dissolving when destroyed. It’s clear that humanity has barely held them back and may be still fighting a losing battle. We also keep getting shots of ruins and a shattered moon that hint at a very interesting history.
I also like the characters, though how they’re presented is a sign of the growing pains of internet media in terms of deciding how to structure stories. By this I mean the have a group of protagonists, the titular Team RWBY (the name derived from the names of the members: Ruby Rose, Weiss Schnee, Blake Belladonna and Yang Xiao Long) and then they have an entire other set of protagonists in the form of Team JNPR (Jaune Arc, Nora Valkryie, Pyrrha Nikos, and Lie Ren). I imagine these were secondary characters in pre-production that someone liked a lot, because they get roughly half the screen time… and I am not complaining.
All these characters are literally colorful and reasonably fleshed out given the first volume of the series was largely made up of 12-15 minute episodes. They’re extremely likable and fun, which is good because the action premise from the trailers largely gives way to Super—School slice of life stuff that really requires you care about these people beyond the cool stuff they can do.
All of this built up a lot of good will on my part and that’s good for them because there are some clear flaws in the show, especially in terms of juggling their concepts and the animation. Most glaring first: RWBY is animated in Poser, which is a 3D animation suite based on marionettes and control points. Every character is essentially a mannequin the animators work the ‘strings’ of to perform motions.
If you’re a major, major fan of my works, you might remember a webcomic I did called Pointy Bits where I used vector graphics puppets in the same manner. The problem here is in the slow moments (and again, we stay in slice of life mode a lot) where the models seem very weightless and have trouble with things like run cycles that I can only assume require more fluid animation than Poser is capable of. I’ve seen a lot of meanspirited commentary on things like clipping in the animation and such, but I could care less about those and more about the actual motion. I will say, however, that in action scenes, things look amazing and kinetic, so even something that is normally a downside for a show in my mind is forgiven by what they can pull off moving at speed.
So at the point where the second season ended, I would say the show had built up a ton of good will and therefore benefit of the doubt. Yes, it had put the action premise into a secondary priority, but it did a great job of being engaging and entertaining. I was lucky enough to have started to show when it was near the end of the third and most recent series, so I saw them all the way through and was invested in these characters and their story. I was also looking forward to the much-foreshadowed Vytal Tournament even though I normally hate tournament arcs (more on this later.
And then season three happened. From this point forward, I will warn you there are Spoilers for RWBY Season 3. I am going to be going over major plot points and why they burned cache in my eyes and the eyes of many fans I’ve talked to. I am going to try to speak on this on professional terms as a writer and not as an outraged fan. I am also well-aware that the series isn’t over yet and there are all sorts of ways they can rectify some of the issues, so I will try to keep that in mind as I go along.
I encourage those of you who are interested in this series to watch Seasons 1 and 2 first at least, then come back to see the gruesome postmortem of 3. Like I said, they’re worth it.
In the interests of full disclosure: In the finale, they killed off my second favorite character in the series in a manner that highly suggests fridging. They died so someone else could unlock their powers and presumably so my favorite character, that character’s love interest can have ‘development’ into a brooding angst bucket, devoid of all the bumbling, awkward fun that made them my favorite character.
Understandably, I am not happy with this. However, had the rest of the season not completely destroyed all the previous benefit of the doubt I could give the creators, I could still have faith that they could make it all meaningful if not undo it in a creatively satisfying way. Remember: resurrection is only overdone because LoL Deaths are overdone. And that’s what we’re here to talk about. First and foremost:
Denying the Promise of the Premise
I talked about John Rogers’s amazing concept of the promise of the premise before. For those who don’t want to follow that link: it means that when you’re doing a show with a given premise, there are certain things the audience wants to see. If there’s a lone hero and a big bad, you expect to see them duke it out in the end. If you’re writing a sweet romance, we expect the couple to get together. If you put a gun on a mantelpiece in act one, Mr. Chekov demands that gun gets fired by act three.
So RWBY has promised us the Vytal Tournament. In fact, the show brings in new characters just for that purpose and shows them winning the qualifier rounds.
Now, I hate tournament arcs in general. Most of the time, each fight is filler that lasts multiple full episodes with no new characterization or storytelling. The show managed to remedy this by having highly varied and kinetic fights that didn’t even take up a full episode, allowing plot to happen around them. But then they cut out several of the fights we the audience would clearly have a stake in.
Remember how I was talking about Team JNPR being secondary protagonists? Well we see them win their qualifier, which in the rules of the tournament, would allow them to sent two members to fight in the next round. Yeah,w e don’t get to see that. We actually only see two double’s matches: the one with the villains and the one with Team RWBY’s pair. That team they brought in just to showcase in their qualifier? They won the qualifier and we never see them again. We see JNPR sends someone to the semifinals, but not how they got there.
And then the villains’ plans preempt the whole damn thing. Admittedly, it is a badass plan, but in terms of presenting a show, having a tournament, then a scattered street fight with monsters is better than truncating the tournament you foreshadowed for two years for the scattered street fight.
But really, this is a minor sin compared to…
The Chris Carter Effect on Steroids
If you’re not a fan of TVTropes, the Chris Carter Effect is named after famed X-files creator, Chris Carter, infamous for creating engaging ontological mysteries and plot threads… that ultimately went nowhere because he either abandoned them or had no idea how to resolve them.
In RWBY Season 3, we see both plotlines from previous Seasons burned like they were infected by John Carpenter’s The Thing and then plots set up literally one or two episodes ago destroyed in a flash as well. It was kind of amazing and it’s something that bothered me before I saw the finale just on the level of someone who tries very hard not to do that and at least salvage what pipe I’ve laid down in the story already.
Let’s go all the way back to the start. We have the character Jaune. His big deal for two episodes was that he had a dark secret: he cheated his way into Beacon. This initially made me happy because it’s rare in these stories that they explain how the screw-up comic relief character got into the company of elite peers. The main threat in those two episodes is that his secret would be revealed and by the end, the problem still existed, he just managed to silence the person who found out and blackmailed him over it.
It’s a shoe that was going to drop sometime and… By the end of Season 3, Beacon is destroyed and the Headmaster is missing. The setting is moving away from the school and that plot? Doesn’t matter anymore. Yeah. That important part of this guy’s character? Effectively the ONE thing that sets him apart from literally being Ron from Kim Possible (which is not a bad thing, but still.. he’s a blonde goofball prone to flights of unearned confidence at the wrong time and crippling under-confidence at all other times in a comedy/action duo with a hyper-competent redhead who is also his love interest. He also has hidden depths in traditionally feminine arenas and a hidden power. I was actually pleased with this. Who wouldn’t want magitech Kim and Ron?) and it’s gone. It will never and cannot ever matter again. Well great. It’s worth noting that his two-year romance arc is also wrecked by the aforementioned death, so there’s that.
From the second season finale, we also have a plot point where a recent events have caused the ruling council of the region to lose faith in the school’s headmaster, Ozpin. Now there’s potential! Is he going to be forced to change things to the council’s liking? Will be be replaced? There’s a goldmine of potential here!
You all know where this is going. By the finale of Season 3, Beacon is destroyed and Ozpin is missing. That plot hook meant nothing and now we will never seen any of its potential realized.
Okay, so we didn’t know that until the finale. What about the hooks they burned during the season itself? Let’s look at the character Pyrrha Niko. Yes, she’s the one that was killed. Yes, according to many fans, who have offered me proof, her death was foreshadowed from the beginning. Her name is Pyrrhic Victory for god’s sake.
As an aside, I saw the foreshadowing and assumed she was being set up for a start of Darkness. All her power effects are either blood red or black, she won her fame thought clever, almost cheating means and regrets said fame, her only real meaningful connection is with her love interest who doesn’t notice her (and they made no one but two songs for the soundtracks that make her sound borderline obsessed) and who, let’s face it, was the one most likely to die should things turn dark, being the weakest and the comic relief. Oh, and she’s been shown to be able to easily handle a whole team on her own. I honestly worried Jaune was going to die and Pyrrha was going to snap.
But no, she’s the one who was slated to go, but in the most jerk-your-chain series of events, they piled at least three character arcs on the poor girl in the back half of the series—NONE OF WHICH RESOLVE.
First, she’s chosen to take up the mantle of a magical champion called the Fall Maiden but via an experimental process that might alter her mind or even overwrite her with the previous holder of the mantle. That’s heavy damn stuff and they give her a full episode mulling over doing what’s right for the world versus keeping the life she’s grown to love. It’s pretty hard-hitting and it’s a choice that… bhahaha, you though that was going to matter? Nope. That plot goes nowhere. When she finally makes her choice, it’s too late, she gets no powers and those same powers are later used to kill her. Potential personal tragedy balanced against the hope of a fresh start for someone who struggled a long time with their identity? F that, there’s cheap drama and fridging to be had!
But they still weren’t done with her. During the tournament, she’s manipulated via an illusion to kill another competitor in the ring (that person is a robot, so she’ll be fine. But still). To the credit of both the animators and the voice actress, you can tell she is destroyed by this shit. It clearly helps her choose to risk being reformated at the soul level, but it’s something she’ll have to live with… nope. If the show’s timeline is to be believed, she’s dead about an hour later.
I mean I guess that’s efficient pathos, but goddamn. Hell, consider the point I just made that that character is totally going to be back. How the hell is she going to take it having to interact with someone she ripped to pieces after EMPing her soul out? Oh wait, she can’t because she’s dead.
Again, it’s not just that they killed her. It’s that they willfully demonstrated all this other stuff that could be done with her and then did it. That’s rule goddamn number one of writing: Don’t Show People You Could Have Written a Better Story! At least if the character was just killed, however cheaply, we could just call it lazy and move on. This… I don’t even know. They dd all the work, but then made the worst possible choice.
I won’t get into the out of character choices that led up to this, because I cannot in all honesty say my opinions there aren’t compromised by how much I like the character. I’m keeping this to the writing itself.
And once more I will reiterate that it isn’t too late to fix this. The show will have at least one more season and as far as I can tell, RT isn’t beholden to anyone like a network that wants to shift the demographic or something. I’m not even asking for a resurrection, just something that makes it meaningful and gives a point to all the burned plot threads that ended up just being wastes of time.
That right there is big thing: the goal of a writer is to make sure the audience doesn’t think any part of your story is a waste of their time. Being forgotten entirely is better than that because they won’t remember to hold it against you.
And finally, the last straw of all this came when I realized they…
Abandoned All My Reasons For Watching
Okay, all is probably harsh. These are still badass teen heroes using mecha-shifting weapons to fight monsters. There’s still something to like and something to be a bit hopeful for.
However at the end of the day, I watched this show because it was light and fun and had characters I loved. The action that drew me in was not what kept me there. By the end of Season 3, the show had become grim and dour; one of my favorite characters was dead, the rest were emotionally broken in ways I can’t see them bouncing back from very soon, the school setting I liked was gone, and everything that could have gone wrong bth in universe and out did.
I get that this was literally the main villain’s plan: the make the world darker, cruelly and less joyful, but damn it, I watch and read heroic fantasy to see the heroes stop or fix that… and I don’t have faith in the creative team anymore that that’s going to happen. I am out of benefits of the doubt to give them when it comes to providing me the kind of story I’ll enjoy.
When I think back on series that have done this to me before, only Harry Potter stands out. JK Rowling purposefully darkened the books so they would ‘age’ up with the readership and… it turned the series int a different animal from start to finish that I didn’t especially appreciate. The last straw there came when she did a funny comedy beat (Note: I read the first two books, then it was movies all the way to te end, so this might not be accurate) with a love potion… and then later we find out that the bad guy is implied to be the bad guy because he is the product of his mother using a love potion to date rape his father.
Not to digress too far, but I hate love potion plots for that reason already, but I try to give them a pass. It did not help AT ALL that the story tried to have fun with the concept, then make it clear that yes, that’s rape. I came into the story willing to give the benefit of the doubt, but then the nature of the story changed such that I couldn’t anymore.
And that’s part of what happened with RWBY. If it had started with a darker Fantasy version like the trailers promised, I could have dealt with that. But it didn’t. It let me get comfortable and appreciate what it was giving me—and then it took all that away.
More than any character death, more than any dashed expectations, that is unforgivable. A show can change it’s genre and even its sensibilities and that can work. Somewhere along the line, I’ll talk about Sword Art Online and how it almost pulled that off. But you can’t do a 90 degree turn at the speed of sound and expect to come out intact. Not for me.
Now I’ve been told from conflicting sources that while things like the death were foreshadowed from the start, a lot of what’s to blame on Season 3 both is and isn’t to blame on the death of series creator Monty Oum and his friends taking over to complete his work. I can’t speak to that.
What I will say is that it’s admirable that they’re undertaking the project. At the same time, the nature of the situation will make it impossible to ever fairly judge if not the series, then the transitional period. We will neve really know what Mr. Oum intended here. I would hope about 13 more episodes of build-up over the arc, but that’s just me.
Famously, Steven Spielberg crashed and burned doing this same thing, trying to bring to life the late Stanley Kubric’s attempt at making a Spielberg-esque whimsical film. The result was AI: Artificial Intelligence, A movie I hated for its ending for almost a decade… before finding out that the movie kept going for like 20 minutes after what I thought was the ending and it turned out even worse. And we will never know who was to blame for what problems (except we do know Kubirc insisted on the aliens).
My point being, that we can’t and shouldn’t try to assign blame. All we can do is judge the work we were given. I’ve spent hours speculating with other fans on what was, and what could have been, but it doesn’t matter. We got what we got. And in this case, we got something that for me at least, provided an object lesson in how to gain the world, then screw up and lose it all.
Whether you feel the same is up to you.
Luckily, where canon fails, there’s always fanfiction.