Monday, March 24, 2008
Heroes Volume Two Analysis: Noah Bennet
Subject: Noah Bennet
Volume Two Summary: Hid from the Company with his family in California. Did a disastrous job of keeping a low profile. Teamed up with Mohinder to destroy the Company. Murdered his former mentor. Got spooked by a series of precognitive paintings that suggested Mohinder would kill him. Got paranoid about Claire. Got paranoid about Mohinder. Got shot in the eye by Mohinder. Got resurrected by Mohinder. Went back to work for the Company.
Analysis: Ew. This character got mangled beyond recognition in Volume Two.
You can see how this happened. In Volume One, the talented and versatile Jack Coleman brought a great deal of panache to his supporting role. Noah Bennet was pretty awesome back when he was a shady, sinister character, a hired gun in the guise of a paper salesman, who seemed to genuinely get a kick out of his double life (just watch him in the pilot episode, where he’s having far too much fun antagonizing Mohinder for no particular reason. This is a man who looooooves his job). Viewers responded well to Bennet, so his role was expanded. He was given complexities and layers. It was made explicitly clear that, for all his wrongdoing, he was devoted to his family. So far, so good. Bennet was a great, interesting, original character.
And then, somewhere around the time of the first-season episode “Company Man”, it was decided Bennet needed to have the audience’s sympathies as well as their approval, that he needed to be heroic. That’s where the trouble started. By midway through Volume Two, he had fallen apart at the seams through inconsistent characterization.
In Volume Two, right from the start, Bennet worked at cross purposes with his new partner, Mohinder, in their scheme to infiltrate and destroy the Company. Mohinder wanted to stop the Company from doing any more terrible deeds, whereas Bennet just wanted to eliminate any threat to his family. In Ukraine, Bennet interrogated Ivan, his former friend and mentor, and then shot him in the head, even though it was made clear he didn’t need to kill him. The Haitian could have wiped Ivan’s memory clean of any trace of the encounter, but Bennet wanted to make absolutely sure no evidence could ever lead back to Claire. Fine. Bennet’s a soulless killer whose only weak spot is his love of his family. However, he botched the killing by leaving his fingerprints all over Ivan’s home, thus alerting the Company to his actions. Meanwhile, back in California, Claire negated all of his efforts to protect her with a big public display of her powers that brought the Company’s attention straight to her.
Gee, that worked out well. Sorry, Ivan. Guess you got shot in the head for nothing.
Bennet’s actions also had the result of deeply spooking Mohinder, who hadn’t realized Bennet’s part of their plan would involve cold-blooded murder, and whose trust in his partner was already shaken by Bennet’s earlier dismissal of him in his time of crisis. When Molly fell into a coma, Bennet counseled Mohinder against taking her to the Company for help -- in essence, advising Mohinder to let her die rather than let the Company gain a hold on him -- and then left him stranded in a dangerous situation. It’s fine that Bennet considered Mohinder a disposable tool. It doesn’t speak well of him as a person, particularly after he made a point earlier of reassuring Mohinder he’d be protected, but after all we’ve seen ample evidence that no one is important to Bennet outside of his family.
But then he explicitly let Mohinder know he considered him expendable. This, like his carelessness with Ivan’s murder, was not smart, especially since Mohinder was in a position to bring ruin down upon him. Which Mohinder promptly did, by confessing to Bob about his involvement with Bennet.
If I could rest assured that this was exactly what Heroes was trying to do -- portray Bennet as unnecessarily violent and spinning out of control and responsible for setting in motion the events that led to his own destruction -- that’d be fine. That’d actually be an interesting study in a tragic character. But then along came “Cautionary Tales”, an episode which, like “Company Man” in Volume One, was told mostly from Bennet’s perspective and which was intended to paint him as sympathetic and even heroic. “Cautionary Tales” and “Company Man”, often regarded as two of Heroes’ strongest episodes, both leave a bad taste in my mouth. Both episodes are well shot, well acted, and, in large part, very well written, but they’re both emotionally manipulative, and both provide Bennet with a faux redemption. Bennet -- flailing, destructive, selfish, violent Bennet -- has done nothing to earn the abundant sympathy these episodes give him.
“Company Man” concluded with Bennet letting the Haitian shoot him and wipe his memory to keep Claire safe from the Company. It’s a great, touching moment, and both Jack Coleman and Hayden Panettiere acted their socks off, but it’s also old news: we know Bennet would willingly suffer grievous bodily harm to protect Claire. He’d certainly kill to protect Claire -- after all, he later traveled across the country with the sole intention of killing little Molly Walker so the Company couldn’t make use of her tracking ability. He hesitated when he saw his target was a small child, and it’s up in the air whether he would have gone through with murdering her if Mohinder and Matt hadn’t stopped him -- but still, he traveled thousands of miles to kill an unknown person whose only crime was that there was an off-chance their existence would someday jeopardize his daughter’s safety. This isn’t noble, and this isn’t sympathetic. This is overkill. Literally.
“Company Man” and “Cautionary Tales” both suggest a turning point for the character, but both episodes cheat: there’s been neither change nor redemption for Bennet. His goals may have changed -- he’s now out to sabotage the Company because the Company is after Claire -- but there’s no indication his moral position has changed. Bennet voluntarily spent close to two decades hunting, examining, torturing, and eliminating a specific class of people -- those with special abilities -- in the service of the Company. There’s been no suggestion he regrets his involvement in any of this, other than to the extent that it has endangered Claire. Once again, this is fine from the perspective of making him a complex character… unless the audience is expected to have sympathy for him. Which, it seems, we are.
Watch “Cautionary Tales” by itself, out of context with the rest of Bennet’s character arc, and Bennet comes across as the sympathetic party: Mohinder is trying to kidnap his daughter, whom Bennet just wants to protect. Watch it in the context of the rest of the season, and you can see it’s a cheat. Given, the episode is not Mohinder’s shining moment, either -- he makes some very bad, very out-of-character blunders, as I’ve discussed extensively in my section on him -- but he’s not portrayed in a sympathetic light, whereas Bennet very much is. “Cautionary Tales” tries to wash Bennet with nobility: he gave his life to protect his daughter. Noah Bennet may be many things, but noble isn’t one of them.
Prognosis: It could go either way. I have enough faith in the actor and in the character that I’m willing to be optimistic he’ll get back on track in Volume Three. I may, of course, be horribly mistaken.
Suggested Course of Action: At the end of Volume Two, Bennet was back working for the Company, and he may or may not be the person who shot Nathan Petrelli. Bennet has two paths in front of him: either he can go back to being the quirky, cool, bloodless killer of Volume One, who managed to squeeze Matrix references in alongside veiled threats and who didn’t worry overmuch about things like principles or redemption, or he can undergo a legitimate redemption arc, complete with both an introspective examination of his life and consequences for his past wrongs. I’d vote for the former, because it sounds like a whole lot more fun, but let’s say Heroes chooses to do the latter. What needs to happen?
His wife Sandra needs to leave him. He’s brought violence to her and her children. He’s damaged her brain by having the Haitian repeatedly wipe her memory against her will (he’s probably damaged son Lyle’s brain, too, if Lyle’s complete lack of intellectual curiosity is any indication). It’s clear he loves Sandra, but he’s been a bad husband and a bad father, and he’d probably do it all over again if he had the chance. Let him see that his actions have driven her away. Key word: consequences.
He also needs to make amends. Have him work to bring down the Company because he’s genuinely ashamed of his past involvement with it (in “Company Man”, his former partner Claude mentions vivisections. Vivisections, Bennet), not just because he wants to protect Claire. Claire is becoming her own independent person and thus will soon be less reliant upon his protection. This is nothing but good news for Bennet, whose devotion to his daughter has bordered on unhealthy. Claire resisted his attempts to protect her at every step in Volume Two. Let him ease up on the overprotective impulses in Volume Three. They just made him look weak and desperate, and he’s much better than that.
Next Subject: Matt Parkman, Jedi Knight.