The Hero’s Journey in Episodic Television – Part 1
by Diana Black
Before we explore the concept of ‘The Hero’s Journey’ in relation to episodic television, let’s first define ‘The Hero’ and the nature of the ‘Heroic journey’.
It’s generally hard to be heroic while doing the laundry, the weekly grocery shopping, shaving or any of the other mundane day-to-day things we occupy ourselves with…hence we unconsciously yearn for more – to experience ‘living on the brink’ , in fear of losing that life, so as to test ourselves on ‘the battlefield’ where we hope like hell to prevail. Perhaps this is the reason why high-intensity sport is so popular – for the adrenalin rush it provides. Perhaps it’s also why for more than a few, there’s a desire to reminisce with cherished comrades who also survived the insanity of ‘the’ war.
So if ‘normal’ life falls short of providing us with self-validation, what can we do? Among other things, we can experience pain and triumph by proxy – ‘experiencing’ being a hero via the big or little screen.
But let’s back up and first define the hero…
The Hero goes beyond the ‘every-day’ in terms of achievement and experience – but the challenge/s resulting in heroic action are generally thrust upon them, rather than being embraced willingly.
Who is or has the potential to be a hero? In a word, and I’m not being sexist here – the ‘everyman of day-to-day and of anywhere’ IF and only if, he/she can rise above that day-to-day and be willing to sacrifice themselves for those who may never know their name or ironically, don’t care to know.
Think of the fire-fighters who routinely put their lives on the line for the sake of others, those who refuse to leave a ‘man’ behind, no matter what the personal cost, or those who’ll defend with their lives if necessary, the countless other species who have no voice. Our world is rich with day-to-day heroes and the smaller they are, the more insignificant, vulnerable – the better they’ll serve and inspire the rest of us. Why?
To illustrate, let’s review J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; brought superbly (and heroically) to the big screen by Peter Jackson. Why in essence, is J.R.T.’s work considered by some to be the new mythology of our time? Well that’s another story but recall it was populated by a swathe of hero’s, each in their own way, willing to sacrifice themselves in order to rid Middle Earth of a ruthless evil. For those who haven’t seen it – SPOILER ALERT!
Consider Frodo Baggins… this humble, ordinary, little life-form proves, through great trial and personal sacrifice, that he has the potential for greatness… and so do we; at least we hope we do and yet… we fear we don’t.
If that little person could do it ‘this way’ under the worst of circumstances, then hopefully we can too. . Remember we’re an animal – we can either learn by observation, which is free or, by trial-and-error, which is potentially expensive to the point of being lethal. But it’s not enough for us to be told – ‘do this or don’t do that’…we need a detailed plan – we may have to implement it someday… and thus the narrative (the survival lesson) takes the form of a ‘journey’, with ‘sign-posts/steps’ that were formulated over two thousand years ago by Aristotle in his Poetics (335BCE) that take the form of the 3-Act Structure, which has a beginning, a middle and an end. Joseph Campbell coined the phrase, ‘The Hero’s Journey’ in relation to the main character’s experiences over the course of the narrative.
In our day-to-day life, unless we’re engaged in a dangerous occupation, we may never be seriously tested and the same applies for our potential Hero. As if providing us proof of this, we initially see him/her as ‘one of us’ – we’re exposed to them living a peaceful/normal/mindlessly blissful or miserably depressing day-to-day existence, where they hang out and the general tone extant within their social environment. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t open with Frodo in Mordor – he’s in his ‘normal’ world – the Shire but then…
But then along comes the ‘inciting incident’ followed by a ‘call to action’. Our Hero’s life is about to be turned ‘upside down’ and given the choice, they’ll respond with a, “Fuck Off!”Frodo isn’t so impolite. However, he can’t ignore the brutal fact that the Ring – left in his custody (thanks a lot Bilbo), cannot stay in the Shire if his home is to remain the peaceful, boring place he’s grown up in and there’s no one else willing to bear the Ring – Gandalf refuses. Frodo must remove it himself (moral dilemma) – fuck! Being the good, kind lad he is with a potential for greatness, he reluctantly and fearfully ‘steps up to the plate’ (demonstration of courage) and thus answers the ‘call to action’.
As a ‘little’ person (no pun intended), he thinks all he has to do is pass the Ring on – to those he perceives to be far more capable – the ‘bigger’ people who are surely braver and stronger than he. Yes – that’s doable. So we see him and Sam (along with Pippin and Merry) head out on ‘the quest’ – to make it to Rivendell. Usually a Hero once answering the call to action, ‘crosses a line’ – physical and/or psychological and in this instance, it’s the boundary of the Shire.
The observant will note that Sam, Merry or Pippin don’t volunteer to take responsibility for the Ring; they can only support Frodo through their presence, love and loyalty. The Hero, surrounded by those who love him (or not), stands alone – figuratively. Well, shit! The trip to Rivendell was hard enough – Frodo almost died. So the Hero rightly asks, “Aren’t we done yet?” Nope! ‘The’ quest hasn’t even begun. The obstacles are about to appear, the tension and the stakes now escalate.
Elrond refuses to harbor the Ring, which means this beautiful, deadly ‘thing’ must be taken to the very last place any of them want to go – Mordor. The Council argues – who will take it? Can’t we wield it ourselves? Frodo is dismayed. If the bigger, more superior folk can’t agree on the Ring’s fate – some are so easily lulled into thinking they can harness its power; oblivious or choosing to ignore, the thralldom they’ll forever endure, then what’s he – a yokel from the Shire, to do? He was so hoping to get rid of the horrid thing but realizes he can’t – he’s going to have to take it there (courageous decision).
Thus we have what Syd Field, a renowned master of screenwriting instruction, calls ‘Plot Point One’ – the last scene of Act One – where the Hero’s life is going to change big time – physically via traversing unknown and dangerous lands and psychologically with the realization they’re likely to be going ‘toe-to-toe’ with the enemy. Frodo’s dismayed – well that’s tough luck… but…if they can’t do it, how in hell can he?! But he knows he must. So now, the dramatic question for us viewer’s – can Frodo & Co. achieve the mission objective or will the enemy win?
While Frodo has support in the form of the fellowship, we’re reminded that they’re incapable of taking over the mission. Syd Field refers to this as ‘Pinch One’ and occurs halfway through Act II. While each has sworn to protect Frodo, he’s still essentially alone. He’d love nothing better than to give the responsibility of the Ring to someone else, but they’re all ‘found wanting’ (obstacle and dilemma) – Gandalf’s lack of vigilance, Boromir’s arrogance – lives are lost. Aragorn, as Isildur’s heir, is fighting his own demon of self-doubt and so he daren’t touch the Ring.
While Boromir sacrificed himself to save Frodo, thus redeeming himself in our eyes, Frodo comes to the truly bitter and terrifying realization that he must go it alone if he is to save his friends and the Shire let alone the rest of Middle Earth – talk about high stakes (the moral dilemma resurfaces). This is the ‘Midpoint’ – the point of no return. This little Hobbit must walk willingly into the maws of Hell (the sacrifice for the ‘other’), even when he doesn’t know the way (obstacle) if he’s to destroy forever, this awesome manifestation of destructive power – what clearer demonstration of courage could one possibly want.
But things aren’t all bad…he has one invincible weapon – love – the most profound and powerful gift one can bestow on the ‘other’. Sam will be by his side to the bitter end – no matter what the cost. Much appreciated but of small comfort – Frodo knows in his heart that the enemy is already there – in the form of the Ring and it’s trying to kill ‘him’ and it does – the old ‘him’. It’s a character in its own right and its malevolent power is increasing – it’s going to fight him every step of the way (the relentless obstacle). Thus we have reached the mid-point…the point of no return. Also worth pointing out that inanimate objects and the environment itself, can be characters in their own right.
Joseph Campbell, in The Power of Myth ( ) maintains that the Hero’s journey is twofold – not only is it a quest to sacrifice oneself in order to ‘save the other’; it’s also an inner exploration of self. Frodo is not only battling the malevolence of the Ring and those who would take it from him, he’s also waging a war within himself – not to cave into desire –- the evasion of responsibility.
The Lady Galadriel was tempted when he offered it to her…but the mirror provided a cruel reminder, backed up by Galadriel’s warning, that if he fails – the Shire will be destroyed. He like Gollum will be lost and forever homeless. Is he the happy-go-lucky Halfling that looked forward to Bilbo’s Birthday party? Unfortunately not – he’s becoming grimmer by the day; dog-tired, yet determined.
Obstacles not only geographic ones (remember the environment is a character) are piled up in front of him and Sam. They find a way ‘forward’ thanks to Gollum but he betrays them. Faramir (in the movie at least) forces him to make a significant detour and thus we as the viewer, vacillate between hope and fear. Faramir is also alone and burdened with his own internal wound – that of rejection. But he has gifts for Frodo – empathy and compassion. Far wiser than his arrogant brother, he sets Frodo and Sam back on the path.
When Frodo and Sam are effectively lost – physically and psychologically, it is Sam that reminds him what they’re fighting for – the green verdant fields and the people of the Shire but that now seems like a distant memory; one that’s fading fast. This comprises ‘Pinch Two’.
We’re fast approaching ‘Plot Point Two’ – where everything seems to be on track but then, ‘goes to hell in a basket ‘…Gollum returns and through deceit and guile, convinces Frodo to abandon the only friend he’s got – Sam. We know this is seriously diabolical – Nooooo! Frodo’s going to become Shelob’s meal – in a way ‘punishment’ for his disloyalty towards Sam. The Ring’s having a wonderful time!
But does Sam give up? Of course not but, is he too late? Hope and fear, hope and fear…Oh, my! Now we’ve reached ‘The Crisis” – Frodo’s ‘dead’. Good, honest Sam has failed Frodo – for him there are worse things than dying. Utterly heart-broken, he resolves to complete the quest alone and takes the Ring.
Could things get any worse – hell, yeah! Frodo’s not dead and destined to become the Orc’s next meal or trucked off to Sauron for torture. Fuck! Sam, admonishes himself for being a silly little, ignorant Hobbit. But with added determination, he rescues Frodo – all is forgiven, but the Ring is snatched back – we’re not out of the woods yet – we’re dealing with ‘damaged goods’ here.
With some measure of renewed vigor they make the final leg of the journey into Mount Doom. Now we’ve come to ‘The Climax’ – Frodo you fool, what can you be thinking?!
There, standing on the precipice, he has a change of heart and refuses to relinquish the Ring. All the hardship and misery that has gone before, the sacrifice of loyal friends,; it was all for nothing. But Gollum serves one last function – J.R. despised the weakness of humankind – particularly their penchant for greed and power. Driven by avarice and desire, Gollum fights Frodo for the Ring and wins! For one brief, glorious moment, he’s victorious but that will be the last thing he remembers as he along with the Ring, are incinerated by the lava of Mount Doom.
Frodo sans digit is pulled back from ‘the brink’ – both physically and metaphorically. Yet even for his monumental albeit, momentary lapse in judgment he remains the Hero. Sauron is vanquished. But peace and a return to ‘normal life’ will be no longer possible for our hero. It is not for nothing that Frodo tells Sam the last pages of The Red Book – recording this heroic journey, penned as “The Lord of the Rings” is really Sam’s. As if being punished for his brief failure, the Shire cannot remain Frodo’s home, nor will any real peace for him in Middle Earth.
The Hero is older, wiser but often ‘damaged’ in some way, so that they remain alone; no longer ‘just one of the boys’. So Frodo leaves Middle Earth with the last of the Eldarlie.
So, now we’ve explored how this is done on the big screen – thank you Frodo & Co., what about the little screen via episodic television? Is there a difference…well perhaps not, in that we have a ‘Hero’. However, does the Hero undertake a heroic journey and does that automatically equate with a transformation of the hero…perhaps not and if not, why not?
We’ll explore that next….
Diana Black is an Australian actress and writer. TVWriter™ is proud to call her a member of our Advanced Online Workshop.