Good and Evil in Harry Potter, Buffy, and True Blood

Between Christmas and New Year’s is a strange, directionless void where it’s impossible to decide what to do with your life. I like to rewatch the Harry Potter series during this time. It’s also a great occasion to eat all the junk food I got for Christmas. I like to think I’m carb loading for New Year’s Eve.

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This past Christmas, as I was watching The Philosopher’s Stone, something Voldemort says to Harry caught my attention. “There is no good and evil,” he tells Harry. “Only power and those too weak to seek it.”

This is a pretty common trope. And, of course, it’s always a villain who says it. “There’s no such thing as good and evil?? That’s such an evil thing to say!!” It is often a straw man version of Friedrich Nietzsche’s existentialism. Too many people interpret Nietzsche as a delusional nihilist, which is unfortunate because if you actually read any of his stuff you’d see that he recognized such a possible interpretation and adamantly denied it. In a word, Nietzsche’s point is that there are no absolute metaphysical forms of good and evil.

Nietzsche’s moral philosophy is critical in orientation. He’s more concerned with deconstructing contemporary mores than laying down his own systematic political/moral system. A lot of people would say this is a cop-out, but I think Nietzsche’s point was that we should always be striving to create new modalities and paradigms, and never allowing ourselves to be ensnared by dogma. It would be hypocritical for Nietzsche to say “this is what morality looks like” because what he’s saying is, “don’t allow others (including even myself) to tell you what’s good or evil.”

For me, I think of evil as a metaphor. It exists only in fiction. Nonetheless, it can be a very useful metaphor to explore moral issues, especially when you’re dealing with archetypal depictions of evil (think Star Wars, fairy tales, etc.). Therefore it is fruitful to explore depictions of evil in popular culture.

In Harry Potter, Voldemort is obviously evil. But what makes him so evil? Is it because he pursues power? Not necessarily. Dumbledore, who is perhaps the greatest example of goodness in Harry Potter, is an eminently powerful and ambitious wizard who rose through the ranks to become headmaster of Hogwarts. He even had the Elder Wand for Christ’s sake!

So how are they different?

To me, it matters to what end they pursue power. Voldemort is a megalomaniac who uses his power to create a despotic regime. Whereas Dumbledore is dedicated to fostering a robust wizard democracy. Dumbledore is disobedient and singularly powerful, but in the service of wizarding society as a whole.

Voldemort is evil in a Schellingian way. He raises his ego above the the whole.

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Let’s look at another instance of “being above good and evil” in pop culture: one of my all-time favourite shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In the seventh season (not the final, though, because we’re on season ten in the comics, which is totally canon, bitches), the main antagonist, or Big Bad, is the First Evil. Intense. Disguised as a dead student, the First tells Willow, “Fact is, the whole ‘good and evil, balancing the scales’ thing? I’m over it. I’m done with the mortal coil. But, believe me, I’m going for a big finish.”

Again, obviously evil, right? It’s called the First Evil! So evil.

Like Voldemort, the First is raising its ego above the whole. However, unlike Voldemort, the First Evil has more anarchistic or chaotic goals. It wants to eradicate the slayer line and unleash an army of uber-vampires on the world, the Turok-Han.

I suppose this would be the ultimate expression of power insofar as only the powerful could survive such a world, but it’s certainly not the world Nietzsche envisioned. I believe Nietzsche would think power expressed as the dominion over the weaker is an enslavement to ego.

As much as I enjoyed the seventh season, I felt like it was a bit of a missed opportunity. I liked that it delved more deeply into the metaphysics of the slayer/vampire dichotomy, showing that the slayer was created by ancient shamans infusing a captured woman with the essence of a demon. I felt like this was a chance to break down the metaphysical chasm Whedon had built between humans and demons, but it never really rises to the occasion.

What I love about Buffy is how Whedon uses archetypal monsters as fresh metaphors. Generally, the show has a feminist core, as evil is often expressed as misogynistic forces. But by season seven I felt the show’s dynamic hit a ceiling. I wanted it to break through by blurring the line between good and evil. Yes, Angel and Spike, for example, straddle that line, but in absolute ways; the difference being whether or not they possess souls.

I despise that kind of humanism, which puts an idealized concept of humanity at the top of a hierarchy of being. I want a pluralist, non-hierarchical ontology.

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While True Blood isn’t as good as Buffy, the series really exemplifies what Nietzsche means by going beyond good and evil.

The show’s premise is that vampires have outed themselves (yes, the pun is intended as there is a lot about queer theory in the show). Thanks to a new synthetic formula, vampires no longer have to feed on humans. Of course, the transition is difficult. Mainstream society struggles to adapt to this newly de-veiled secret society.

I only watched the first four seasons of True Blood. I felt the fifth jumped the shark and I bailed. But I think where True Blood succeeds where Buffy doesn’t is how characters blur the line between the normal and paranormal. Like I said, in Buffy these things are seen as absolutes, but in True Blood the line is fuzzy, blurred. Eric, for example, oscillates between good and bad without need of a soul.

I also liked how True Blood deconstructed power structures in both the human and paranormal worlds. What constituted as evil in True Blood wasn’t so much the supernatural, or powerful, but attempting to restrict the expression of power for other groups.

In that sense it transcends Buffy and Harry Potter because there’s no metaphysical force that’s off limits (dark magic, or soulless demons); it’s more about the direction of power.

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~ by braddunne on February 5, 2016.

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