Killing the Boogeyman: A TV Perspective on Osama bin Laden
Monday, May 02, 2011
If the real world were a television show, last night's announcement of Osama bin Laden's death would be a season finale. After extensive time spent searching, fighting and emotionally-investing our way to defeat a foe, the work was done and the jubilation can commence.
But, like a TV show guaranteed a new season, the finale is not the end. There's always another foe to fight. It's true on television, and it's true in real life.
Crazy as it seems, looking at the death of Osama bin Laden in the context of television does clarify things. All of the warnings about elevated threat levels, the symbolic vs. real impact of the death and the continued influence of al-Qaeda would fit perfectly into the context of a high-drama TV show coming back for yet another season.
Need proof? Shows that fought off their own boogeymen help make the case for viewing bin Laden's death as a season finale.
Take, for example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For the show's first three seasons, Buffy Summers vanquished deadly enemies, trusted friends and authority figures, but her work was far from over. In season 4, the heroine found that even a supposed antidote to evil could destroy the world. A shadowy government agency, the Initiative, created Adam. This monster/robot/soldier then decided to take control, making him an unstoppably evil force to put bin Laden to shame.
And of course stopping Adam didn't mean the evil was over. More "Big Bads" were on their way for the remaining Buffy the Vampire Slayer seasons.
Similar cause and effect are there for the real-life case of Osama bin Laden. American support for anti-communist movements in 1980s-era Afghanistan helped to bring this new evil into power. And the defeat of this apparently unstoppable enemy is just one link in a chain of bad guys wanting to do harm to the world.
Even stopping the ultimate evil doesn't mean you're done, not on TV anyway. On last season's Supernatural, Sam and Dean defeated the Devil -- the Devil! -- in order to avert the apocalypse and save the world. You'd think that would be enough to save the day, right?
Not so much. The removal of Lucifer only left a power vacuum, filled by the demon Crowley, the Mother of All and apparently the Winchesters' former ally, the angel Castiel. Sure, the world isn't in quite as imminent danger of global Armageddon, but it's still a mess, filled with evildoers.
Now, Osama bin Laden doesn't quite have the evil chops of Satan himself, but we know there are plenty of other nasty people out there ready and willing to take on bin Laden's task of mass killing.
Television only ever allows for a true happy ending one time: the series finale. At this point, the monsters can all be killed while the heroes happily ride off into a boogeyman-free sunset.
This moment does not, however, apply to real life. Killing one boogeyman, no matter how terrifying and horrible, is never an ending in reality. It's both fortunate and unfortunate that there is no single evil big enough to allow for "happily ever after" following its defeat. Osama bin Laden, bad as he was, was never the root of all evil. Terrorism, evildoers and the like can survive without him.
Yes, it's simplistic to compare real life -- especially a part of real life so soaked in trauma and death -- to television. But it's not entirely wrong either. Television takes its greatest stories from real human fears and struggles, trying to find solutions and resolution to the problems of the world. In its search for a happy ending (or sometimes just any ending), TV shows a way forward.
It's just important to remember that reality never has a series finale. There's no "happily ever after." We never defeat the real boogeyman forever -- he's always back next season.
(Images courtesy of al-Jazeera, the CW and the WB)