Castles in the Sand: Why We Root for Doomed Relationships

Romance and love stories dominate entertainment.  It’s tough to call up examples of a TV show where a major plot point wasn’t a romantic relationship between a couple. (Although current “best show ever” Breaking Bad and former “best show ever” The Wire do come to mind)  When you start picking at the thread, asking yourself why these fictional relationships are so important, why we care so much, you start to ask yourself some fundamental questions about the nature of life itself.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all Philosophy 101 on you here.  (Though, I was a Philosophy major.  Surprise!)  But to understand why we care so much about fictional relationships, even – and especially – those that shouldn’t work, that are doomed to failure from the start, we need to look at how the concept itself resonates with what it means to be a human living in a fundamentally transitory world.

Let me explain what I mean by that.  By and large, I think we are drawn to stories – movies, books, television, theater – because they let us experience strong emotion without consequences.  Stories cut out most of the boring parts of real, actual life – the two hours you spend at Ikea without anything interesting happening or anyone cracking wise about how frustrating Ikea is.  We get the highlights, the peaks and the valleys.  We get a snapshot, and we fill in the rest with our impressive imaginations.  This combination of powerful moments and imagination makes characters who are written and/or acted well as ‘real’ as anyone.  This is why we get invested in characters, why it’s possible for the death of a beloved character to make you cry, or why two characters falling in love can make you also cry, but for a different reason.

Love and attraction are powerful emotions.  They can be a touchstone directly to our empathy, our understanding.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best:

“And what fastens attention […] like any passage betraying affection between two parties? […] We see them exchange a glance or betray a deep emotion, and we are no longer strangers. We understand them and take the warmest interest in the development of the romance. All mankind loves a lover.”

(I got that quote, by the way, from the excellent, comprehensive, massive timesink that is TVTropes.  If you want to read expanded thoughts on the nature of romantic relationships in fiction, check out this link, but be warned: it’s easy to lose a couple hours clicking through that site, so don’t go there unless you’ve got some free time.)

I’m interested in a more narrow subgroup than just “fictional relationships,” however.  I’m going to break down these relationships into three groups.  In fiction, you have couples that are presented as a partnership already.  Their trials and tribulations can change the nature of their relationship, but they come as a unit, they complement each other extremely well, and they are presented, above all, as partners.  These are the “steady as she goes,” or “rock solid” relationships.  They’re not prone to huge, grand moments of passion, but they’re also not prone to spectacularly flame out, either.  I’m talking about couples like…

Pretty much the gold standard

Then you have the star-crossed lovers.  These couples want to be together, are attracted to each other, complement each other, and are just generally burning with chemistry, but there’s an external factor or factors keeping them apart.  This could be any number of things, from rival families to the nature of their jobs to their nature as living creatures – or even nature itself, depending on the type of fictional universe we’re dealing with.  Expect a lot of meaningful glances, smouldering looks, secret trysts, and heaps of angst and brooding.  Romeo and Juliet are probably the most famous example, but a more modern one springs to mind…

By definition, a Vampire and a Vampire Slayer are going to have some external problems…

Then there’s the third subtype.  For me, this is the most interesting.  I’m talking about two people who really shouldn’t be together.  A couple that, both in a narrative and practical sense is doomed from the beginning.  Not necessarily from external factors – although there may well be some of those – but from internal ones.  They aren’t going to work out.  As opposed to star-crossed lovers, whom the fates conspire against, these two need nothing more than themselves to make their relationship crash and burn.  As Cassius says in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar,  “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Why is this the most interesting type?  Because it appeals to our very basic, very human need to fight entropy.  Every single one of us has to deal with the fact that everything we do, every mark we make on the world, everything we leave behind, is a castle in the sand.  Some may last longer than others, but they all get washed away eventually.  It’s just how it works.  Don’t blame me, blame thermodynamics.  Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, etc, etc.  But we don’t have to like it.  We can still fight against it.  There’s a kind of nobility in fighting a losing battle.  We can achieve moments of perfection where we, for a time, beat back the unending waves of entropy and just, for a moment, push back the tide.

That’s why we obsess over things like doomed romance.  Because they overcome so much, even their own character flaws, to come together for a few fractured moments in time.  And that resonates with us.  Because we know that ultimately, that’s all we can do in our lives anyway.  That’s why I appreciate the Eric and Tammy Taylors of the world, but I am drawn in and compelled by people like…

For how dysfunctional and twisted their relationship got, good old Starbuck and Apollo had their share of perfect moments.  It’s pretty remarkable that they worked as well as they did together considering their personalities.  Lee Adama, the consummate professional who alternatively hates/is terrified of disappointing his Dad, straight-laced, by-the-book, except when he’s not.  Kara Thrace, firebrand, hates herself, hides her deep-seated issues with herself behind sarcasm, alcohol, and sex with coworkers.  In the rare moments when Apollo loosens up that happen to line up with the times with Starbuck isn’t randomly punching superior officers, they’re golden.

They complement each other.  They go on missions together, they finish each other’s sentences, (and sandwiches) and they subvert the hell out of traditional gender roles.  Kara’s a doer; brash, bold, smokes, drinks, enjoys sex for its own sake.  Lee’s a thinker; introspective, meticulous, overachieving, cautious.  They balance each other out.  They make it work.

Of course, “work” is a relative term.  When you have a whole episode with a clunky boxing plot device to get the two of them in the ring to literally beat each other senseless, and that’s what passes for an apology (“Sorry I married that other guy after sleeping with you, Lee.  “Yeah, no problem.  Sorry I married that other girl to get back at you for marrying that other guy after we slept together.”), well, you can be pretty sure a happy ending isn’t in the cards.

But they’re a joy to root for.  They have so much history.  Just in their first scene, they go from this wry, witty banter to Lee sticking his foot in his mouth and Kara threatening to punch him. (Oh, yeah, they’re talking through jail bars because she’s in lockdown for “striking a superior asshole.”)  When next they meet, later in the miniseries, Armageddon has happened and they both thought the other one was dead.   The way Lee smiles at her when he sees her working under that Viper, and her grin when he offers her a hand up shows a vulnerable, open, little-seen side of Kara.  “I thought you were dead.  It’s good to be wrong,” she says, grinning.  “You should be used to it by now,” says Lee.  Kara kind of shrugs and smiles ruefully.  “Everyone has a skill.”  Then they stare deeply into each other’s eyes for a long, long beat, before Lee awkwardly starts asking how the repairs are going.  C’mon.  If you can’t get behind that…

How about a little Jeff and Annie?  God, Community is so meta that they just enjoy the hell out of teasing this relationship, and they do it blatently, even leaning on the fourth wall in the particularly memorable Season 3 musical introduction.  And it could never, ever work.  I mean, yes, the smoldering looks, the banter, the long glances.  But, as Jeff points out, “It’s called chemistry.  I have it with everybody.”  This is a relationship that works best on the back burner.  The idea of “Jeff+Annie” is one that works best as a fantasy within a fantasy, as Annie discovers both when Abed plays her in the Dreamatorium and when she herself plays “Mrs. Winger” at the hotel during the Inspector Spacetime convention.  OK, so is it sad or awesome that I could write that last sentence without going to Google to check those facts?  Maybe both.  I love Community.  Anyway.  There’s one big reason why they could never work, and it’s this, summed up perfectly by this exchange:

When they talk about that awkward moment, Jeff has this to say:

“Listen, when you really hate someone the way you hate Annie Kim or you feel the way I feel about you, the easy loophole through the creepiness and danger is to treat them like a child. ‘Chip off the old block!’, ‘You’re the best kiddo!’ It’s a crutch, it’s a way for me to tell you how important you are from a distance. But now you’re becoming this mature, self-possessed, intelligent, young woman and I can’t keep patting you on the head or talking down to you.”

Annie responds, “But I like how close we are.  I don’t want to grow up if it means losing what we have.”

Jeff:  “Well, tough, Annie.  You have to grow up because the world needs more women like you. (He reaches over and tilts up her chin.)  Can’t keep doing this forever, kiddo.”

Annie looks up at him, her eyes wide, and says in a soft voice, “Can’t we?”

A beat, and then they pull back simultaneously, talking over each other: “No.  Nope, I can’t.”  “Nope.  Nope.  It’s gross.  I feel gross.”

Ah, perfection.  Perhaps they’re not doomed in the tragic sense, but they’re certainly fated to never progress.  The Narrative Gods have deemed that it’s too much fun to continually tease, and honestly, it works that way, from a ‘what’s best for the show’ standpoint.  This is fantasy, pure and simple, but you have to be able to believe in something as stupid and crazy as this if you want to fight entropy, if you want to push back that tide for a second.  But maybe you need a little more “doom” in your doomed couples in comedy shows.  Well, say hello to…

No couple is more fun to root for.  Because there’s no logical reason for them to be together, and yet when they are, they generate so much comedy and even manage to tug at the ol’ heartstrings when they occasionally drop their guard.  They have nothing in common except raw animal magnetism and the fact that they’re on the exact same wavelength in terms of cultural context.  Cece is a model; Schmidt is a shallow douchebag.  Both are masks they’ve adopted to cover their vulnerability.  Schmidt is a terrible person, on the outside.  Cece goes for terrible, terrible men.  (Usually)  I mean, does this sound like something you want to base a healthy relationship on?

Regardless, they run on the same fuel.  That scene where they’re trapped in the back of the car in “Fancyman Part II,” trying to hide from Winston, naked and covered in road maps and flashlights, is the most normal thing in the world, FOR THEM.  Schmidt’s filter-free banter just flows over the unflappable Cece.

Oh, they’re completely doomed as a couple.  Cece is Jekyll and Hyde when it comes to commitment and approach to relationships. In her default mode, she’s way too much for Schmidt to handle, and in her vulnerable, thinking-about-getting-married-and-having-kids mode, she’s lacking in confidence and prone to hitting the “destruct” button.   Can you even imagine them having a steady, long-term relationship?  But it almost doesn’t matter.  Just hang on and enjoy the ride.  That’s the point I’m trying to make.  Schmidt and Cece will never work in the long run, but the moments they have work on their own.  Wishing they somehow make it is fun, but the real joy comes in appreciating the subtle things that are already there regardless of what happens in the future – like the way they look at each other.

And last but not least, let’s look at a couple that isn’t even a couple yet.  I’m talking about two characters that share such amazing chemistry that they haven’t so much as shared a single kiss, and I already root for them so hard.  I’m talking about two characters who are blessed with the kind of banter and repartee that would put His Girl Friday to shame.  Straight out of a 50’s screwball comedy comes the two most likable characters on a show that apparently the internet just loves to hate, from a creator that people love to endlessly complain about despite writing some of the most compelling dialogue in television history, it’s…

That’s right.  Don and Sloan from The Newsroom.  (If you’ve ever seen Oliva Munn in, well, anything else, please reserve judgement until you’ve seen her in this.) This, right here is what I’m talking about.  They get the timing wrong.  Don thinks he’s a bad guy, Sloan describes herself as social incompetent.  Don is incredible at his job.  Sloan is the smartest person in the room.  They each have huge, huge blind spots for each other.  Their normal conversations go something like this:

The single, solitary time they’ve made any kind of declaration or statement about their feelings for each other was this:

Oh my god, that clip gives me All The Feels.  If you really want to push back the tide, you can believe in a world where such people exist, and fit together, and make each other whole, and drive themselves to even greater heights.  I don’t know.  That’s what I dream about.  And I have to think that it’s possible.

Who knows?  Some castles last for long, long time.  Maybe that’s enough.

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  1. As you say in your title, we root for these relationships.

    But you’re just relating the (sexual) romance in your story.
    The Wire and Breaking Bad are all about romance, just a variation on the theme.
    Breaking Bad works solely because of the romance between Jesse and Walt. “What will they do next?”
    You ask yourself that every 5 minutes in this thing, they really keep your head spinning. And you tune in more for that than anything else. Walt’s decent into darkness that happened a couple seasons ago was great television, but you have to remember he was pushing/pulling Jesse with him the entire time.
    And The Wire was compelling stuff in season 1, enough so to keep you watching it’s entire run. But you can’t tell me that those two cops, Jimmy and Bunk, didn’t make the best couple on the show to watch.

    Thanks for the article, I enjoyed it.

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