The Supreme Court justified its existence in the eyes of many Americans today by deciding an abortion case. But I'm not going to write about that. Instead, I'm going to write about Harry Potter and Lost.
I really hate the Juliet character on Lost. At first, I thought it was just because of her insufferable and ever-present pucker-mouthed smugface, but then I realized that what really bothered me was how cheaply her character is constructed. As often happens when writers try to create multi-layered characters, the folks at Lost have mistaken inconsistency for complexity. This made me think of another irritating example of this phenomenon: Severus Snape of the Harry Potter books. As I thought about this during the BART ride to work this morning, I came to a whole 'nother set of conlusions.
(1) Snape and Juliet aren't internally inconsistent;
(2) They're important to their respective fictional universes; and
(3) As characters, they're still boring.
Let's start with Snape. His gimmick, ever since the first Harry Potter book, has been "I'm evil, I'm evil, I'm evil, just kidding I'm good." This was fine, such as it was, and served the plotlines of each book. By the end of Book Six most readers had resolved themselves to the fact that Snape was, at base, a jerky good guy. He was mean and unpleasant, but when it came to brass tacks he was on the side of goodness and righteousness. This is why Snape's sudden betrayal at the end of Book Six comes across as not only jarring but also cheap. We're meant to believe that no, really, Snape was evil all along, he was just waiting for Voldemort to come back so he could throw off the sheep's clothing once and for all. This diminished much of what went on with Snape in previous books and just seemed like a really lame way to create some extra drama leading into Book Seven.
Similarly, Juliet's shtick since her first appearance on Lost has been the maddening ambiguity as to whether she's a fully committed Other or whether she really wants to help the castaways. Over the course of the third season this has lent itself to a number of twists and turns, enhanced by an exploration of Juliet's past that seems to indicate a deep animosity toward the Benninites, and yet based on her actions on the Island she's a willing soldier in the Other Army. At last, in the most recent episode, we learn that she really does hate Ben (her attempt to get Jack to kill Ben wasn't a trap after all -- or was it?), she really is being held on the Island against her will, and she really does want to get off the Island. After fifty minutes dedicated entirely to establishing this and ingratiating Juliet to the castaways, we then learn that she really is still in league with the Others and really is working with Ben to plot their demise. Again, a completely inconsistent twist that completely tears down the preceding well-constructed episode, and very cheaply sets up some extra drama for the remaining five episodes of the season.
Before I address this issue of whether Snape and Juliet's respective betrayals are authentic, I'll explain why it doesn't matter. And before I do that I'll explain why these betrayals, even if they are authentic, aren't indications of character inconsistency.
Put simply, Snape is neither good nor evil. He's motivated only by raw opportunism -- he doesn't have any emotional allegiance to a particular team, he just wants to be on the one that's winning (this is reminiscent of Madonna's trailer-bait line from Dick Tracy: "[I'm on t]he same side I'm always on: my side."). And because ambition is the hallmark of the Slytherin House, this makes sense. Likewise, while Juliet likely has no loyalty to the Others, she certainly has no loyalty to the castaways. Rather, she has her own opportunistic motivations -- either getting off the Island, or simply surviving. She's going to align herself with whichever side will get her to either place. So, either Ben has figured out another way off the Island (maybe Michael's back with the boat?) and has promised Juliet her freedom if she helps him this one last time (no, really, baby, just one last time), or she realizes that she has a far better chance of seeing her hair turn grey if she sticks with the side with the higher firepower.
In the end, however, it doesn't matter what Snape or Juliet do. As I said, their characters aren't interesting in and of themselves. What makes them interesting is their effects on the other characters and the broader themes of the stories. Harry's fundamental distrust of Snape has dramatic effects on his interactions with the other characters -- he inevitably gets into arguments with Ron, Hermione and Hagrid about whether Snape can be trusted. More importantly, Dumbledore's unflagging faith in Snape affects Harry's faith in Dumbledore, a plot element that becomes all the more significant as Dumbledore's own invincibility begins to break down in the later books.
Likewise, the tedious agony of "Can we trust her? I think we can trust her. No, we can't trust her." is a recurring theme among the principal characters in Lost, and reveals important things about their relationships. The most dramatic example of this is when Jack overrides Sayid and announces that Juliet is under his protection. I've also predicted that the seemingly pointless B-plot from a recent episode in which Hurley fools Sawyer into becoming the leader of the castaways in Jack's absence (seemingly pointless because Jack returns the very next episode) was a set-up for Sawyer wresting the leadership position from Jack, whose ability to lead has been compromised by his misplaced faith in Juliet (or perhaps having been fully brainwashed -- why was he still asleep when Kate found him?). The scene from last week's episode where Sawyer and Sayid ambush Juliet in the jungle lends support to this hypothesis.
So, getting to the question of whether Snape and Juliet really are in league with the dark side, it doesn't really matter. Certainly, Juliet could be secretly sabotaging whatever Ben has planned for the immediate future, or could switch sides at the last minute and save the castaways. Likewise, Vegas odds are that Snape's apparent betrayal of Dumbledore was actually part of a broader plan of goodness rather than evilness, and that what Dumbledore was saying right before he died was "Please kill me" instead of "Please don't kill me." But the fundamental ambiguity in these characters doesn't leave room for fully committed allegiance. In other words, their functions in their stories -- creating conflict and revealing the power structures among the other characters -- would be vitiated if these ambiguities were resolved. In the case of Snape, he could be made to pick a horse without much trouble because the series is ending. In the case of Juliet, however, she would serve no purpose other than being an extremely annoying character if she committed to good or evil without immediately leaving the Island or dying.
And because despite my realization that Juliet actually does serve some purpose, her pouty face still drives me crazy, so here's hoping the season finale includes one of those events.