I noticed that in my favorite movies and TV show, the main character is often a person leading a double life—”The Family Man,” “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” any of the Bourne thrillers…
The internal life and external life–or secret life and public life–intersect, or collide, to create drama. But as a trope, why is it so effective at creating drama?
Option: Because I identify with those characters. And why would I do that? Because I feel like I’m leading a secret life? That could make sense: there is the ever present internal life that everybody struggles to express, with or without knowing, through personality. But I don’t think so. It’s because I don’t feel like I’m leading a secret life. I love, as all audiences love, watching a timid character find strength in the traumas of his secret life (his alternate identity has allowed him to assume a different personality without appearing schizoid). It’s even more thrilling to watch the character apply his new strength to his public life–watching him be liberated from his old timidity, as though the real fantasy was not of secrecy, but of exposure. Not that the secret be exposed, but that the hidden personality be exposed. Anger, frustration, violence, profanity–all suppressed according to a gentler, social code of conduct. It signifies the emergence of the Id, I guess.
The fantasy is that trauma leads to liberation, à la “the one who has lost everything is afraid of nothing.” It isn’t hard to rattle off a list of unexpected cinematic heroes. But what crops up unexpectedly is the quiet insistence of trauma in the character’s development. There is the scene of the happy family at a picnic, or the two loves cuddling, or the friends sharing a laugh and a pint. Then there is the trauma: a car accident, a murder, a terrible loss. Somehow ensconced in the trauma itself is the germinating seed of the hero’s redemptive awakening. Without the trauma, there would be no Spiderman, no Batman, no superhero of any kind. In a sense, this makes all heroes into antiheroes. Their new identities, simultaneously awakened and created, are one and the same as the trauma itself.
On one hand, the trauma is forced upon the recipient character. It visits him in his innocence. The force of his counterreaction, his hardness and lack of mercy–or boldness and initiative–is put in play by the trauma itself. The liberation is caused by the trauma.
But the character’s is still a passive role. Films and TV shows only allow a character to break so abruptly with himself if there is a trauma that excuses it. In “Breaking Bad,” the central drama revolves around Walt’s secret life as a drug dealer. But how did he get this way? An almost extraneous plot point: he was diagnosed with cancer (the dramatic trauma). Initially, we sympathize with his desire to leave money behind for his family. Once it becomes clear, however, that he prefers his new personality–or is addicted to its powers–the balance of our sympathy shifts away. What has made his behavior up to that point excusable is the trauma.
Hence odd, paranoid fantasies about unpleasant things. Hence jealousy. Hence the dark imagination. The fantasy of the trauma, not as a destructive force, but as a liberating force. Who would I be if everybody I knew died? What would it take for me to escape this life, to run, to hide, to kill? The dreamer patiently awaiting the blast that shreds his life into something unrecognizable.