Enemies With Benefits

There is a trope I have sometimes referred to as enemies with benefits, where, to use simplified terms, a hero and a villain bang. Like that’s the simplified version of it, because it’s never just that simple. I also use it in the context of a relationship not just a single incident, so this isn’t your ‘I have you now my pretty’ peril style thing. It refers to a pair of characters who are opposed, perhaps even through violence, who nonetheless through colossal bad judgment, wind up having some kind of romantic or sexual (or both) relationship.

This is a story beat that obviously can go real bad and it’s interesting how many shows I’ve seen that do something like it in ways I don’t like. At first I thought ‘surely there are a bunch of relationships that work this way in shows I like,’ and to my amazement there kinda isn’t? Like, there’s this anime called Madoka that kinda wants to do it, because the villain is doing it because they’re in love with the protagonist, but nobody wants to talk about things and make sensible decisions and in fifteen years time we’ll find out how they want to sort that out.

It’s a really common thing, by the way, in gay media: Two characters who are on opposite sides of some great conflict are also deeply in love with one another, but in those stories, overwhelmingly, it’s about how they do not, in fact, give in to love, and instead, one or the other dies, and they have to be all tragic about it, and this is great iconic gay media when it’s being done by schoolgirls or whatever.

But this isn’t that.

This is about when, with mindfulness, two characters, hero and villain knowingly get engaged in a sexual relationship and how that complicates their plans.  They don’t have to start the relationship that way, mind you. Hypothetically, it’s possible for two characters to start a relationship, unknowingly, then have it revealed that they’re on opposite sides, and then have that complicate things, but it feels more interesting if that complication is something that was present before the characters committed to the relationship.

And bear in mind ‘committed’ and ‘relationship’ are terms doing a lot of heavy lifting.

This isnt’ characters deciding, well, okay, we’ve looked at the paperwork but we think that if we commit to this now we’ll be able to afford a house in a neutral zone. That would be silly, and any relationship of this ilk would be silly if you approached it sensibly, and with, you know, common sense. That’s the point of this kind of relationship, it’s kinda a sign that these characters are being carried along by bad judgment, and that they’re capable of seeing something in one another, empathising with something about one another, that the greater forces they’re complying with or serving don’t meet all their needs emotionally.

Yes, if you ship Aziraphale and Crowley, fine example, though they’re definitely not a very high-quality version of it for me.

Some details about this that are important to me, though, so I can enjoy this trope in stories:

  • The reason for the hookup-and-relationship should make emotional sense, but doesn’t have to make logical sense.
  • There needs to be a potential future
  • The metaphysics of the universe shouldn’t have to get involved to make this okay. Like nobody with an ‘evil’ switch in their head that gets flicked on and off.
  • Both parties need to be forgiveable. This means that in the context of their stories, these two characters can’t have committed acts that make their moral differences irredeemably different.

That last one was Zuko from Avatar? That guy did bad things, undeniably, but in the context of that universe, his crimes were ultimately that – crimes, things that could be forgiven. Also, the person who he committed most of his crimes against was someone he could ask for forgiveness. That’s important, because you can really ruin this by making a villain something really terrible – like, say, Gul Dukat from Deep Space 9, an actual factual space Nazi – and then try and redeem him through a relationship with a Space Jew.  That sucks, because then you’re presenting this character’s primary relationships and primary problems as being the on-screen ones as opposed to that planet-sized concentration camp he ran and the sexual assaults he did. That’s Bad Stuff!

It works well in action series where you have a sort of direct opposition. For example, a character who attacks the protagonist and attempts to bring them back to the villain is definitely a problem, but not one that can’t be redeemed. It also means that the main moral problem of that character is presented in opposition to a hero.

Less commonly, but also a thing, is that I really lose hope when a series makes a hero do something completely morally unacceptable in the name of his pure pureness. Like, if a series had a character be willing to tolerate genocide in the name of his own personal spiritual journey, I would find that unsatisfying and it would diminish my ability to appreciate that character as a point of moral contrast to a villain they were dating. For example.

(I’m not into Zuko/Aang, but they’re just good examples for this purpose.)

In the end there’s a story underneath these that works for me, which makes sense as a former churchboy who was always seeing stories about the church person luring in a sinner and helping them become a good church person and wondering about how that story might actually, I dunno, be interesting. The way that moral and emotional differences and our ability to see the humanity in one another meant more than necessarily hard ideological rules. The idea, perhaps, that what is done in the name of love can be beyond good and evil.

And yes, sometimes you want to watch a devil and an angel dance and come to the conclusion that both of them are working for jerks.

And now that you’re prepared with the idea of it…