Naturally, part of the fun of following a TV show is discovering and getting to know its characters. The thing to keep in mind here is that we are not defined by how we enjoy success, but rather how we handle failure. Therefore, it's essential for the good guys to mess up every once in a while.
Let's take a look at a few different muck-ups by the good guys from four popular animated TV shows and what we learned from them.
4. Complacency Of The Jedi — Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Who messed up? The entire Jedi Council in Season 5, Episodes 17–20 of Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
How did they mess up? These episodes focus on Ahsoka Tano, the Jedi apprentice of Anakin Skywalker, being framed for a murder. Without giving Ahsoka a proper chance to prove her innocence, the Jedi Council expels her from the order. Later, the council is proven wrong and the members must face the error of their judgement.
What did we learn from it? The way the Jedi conduct themselves during this arc, is one of the most painfully clear examples of the complacency and lack of self-criticism that was apparent within the Jedi Order. Rather than just owning up to the error of their judgement, which would have been a simple and obvious thing to do, the council goes in a bit different route. They conclude, that all the trouble, Ahsoka went through for these false accusations, was actually "the will of the Force" and served as a trial for Ahsoka to prove her worth as a Jedi. Following that little masterclass of logic, Ahsoka does the sane thing and walks away from the order.
It goes to show that, at this point, the Jedi Order had become the good guys only in theory. However noble or selfless their philosophy and code were, they had gotten a bit smug to say the least. Instead of following the code out of a conviction, most of them simply did so because it had worked for so long, and therefore had to be perfect.
These events also served as a culmination of Ahsoka's arc in becoming a mature and self-reliant character. Additionally, her departure moved a certain Anakin Skywalker further away from the Jedi Order and closer to The Dark Side. All in all, I'm starting to think that the Jedi were doomed even without Emperor Palpatine's little purge.
3. With Great Power Comes Great Stupidity — Digimon Adventure
Who messed up? Tai Kamiya in The Arrival of Skullgreymon, the 16th episode of Digimon Adventure.
How did he mess up? A little background for those unfamiliar with this little gem from the '90s. At this point in the story, the group of kids, accompanied by their Digimon partners, have been trying to figure out (and survive) the fairly hostile Digital World for quite a some time. Now, they are faced with the following set of circumstances:
- Their Digimon companions need to become stronger (to digivolve further), in order to beat the ever increasing threats that the Digital World throws at them.
- The digivolution process requires food for energy and the digimon's human partner to be in some sort of danger.
- The self-appointed leader of the group, Tai, is so far the only one who has gotten a device that could potentially enable digivolving further.
How does Tai react? Well, by force-feeding his digimon partner, then getting himself in as much danger as possible with the purpose of making his partner digivolve to a new level. Now, that did result in Tai's partner, Agumon, digivolving further. Unfortunately, into a gigantic out of control horror who nearly killed the entire group.
What did we learn from it? So, Tai messed up big time. However, he also owned up to it, thus enabling him to understand the fine line between being courageous and being foolish, being proactive and being brash. In other words, what can be a valuable character trait, can just as easily become a character flaw. Furthermore, Tai's willingness to deal with this flaw kick-stared a season-long arc that concluded with him becoming a considerate and balanced de facto leader of the group.
This turn of events also set digivolution up as metaphor for the need to have one's heart in the right place in order to reach the full potential. Subsequently, it created a precedent for the Digimon franchise to further explore the dark outcomes of good guys losing their way, which has resulted in some very interesting and emotionally compelling arcs.
2. Batman's Self-Inflicted Doubt — Batman: The Animated Series
Who messed up? Batman (well, kind of). I Am the Night, 49th episode of the first season of Batman: The Animated Series.
How did he mess up? Interestingly enough, a strong case can be made on the Dark Knight not really doing anything wrong in this one. Batman, voiced by the brilliant as ever Kevin Conroy, got a bit late to a drug bust to capture a gangster known as "The Jazzman." During the bust, Jim Gordon, a friend and a father figure to Batman, gets gravely injured. That leads Bruce Wayne to go completely introspective and start doubting everything his alter ego stands for. Therefore, he hesitates to go out as Batman again, despite the Jazzman escaping prison to carry out his personal vendetta against Gordon.
What did we learn from it? Most incarnations of Batman have explored whether the symbol of Batman does more harm than good with its existence. Furthermore, is he actually that different from all the psychos, he puts behind bars? This episode certainly serves as one of the most focused examples of that exploration. The key factor that separates Batman from all the supervillains, he captures, is his ability for self-reflection and self-criticism. Also, it's probably one of the biggest reasons why the character has endured both within the story and as a fan favorite.
Unlike the above discussed Jedi Council, when things go wrong, Batman's first reaction is to take a long look in the mirror. However, that also brings out a genuine character flaw of Batman/Bruce Wayne. As important as self-reflection and questioning yourself are, they should not make an individual passive and completely indecisive. Batman has a history of blaming himself too much for things that have gone wrong in his life. Therefore, him being able to overcome this self-inflicted doubt during this episode, is a powerful moment for the character and for the myth of Batman in general. He is the Night.
1. Atem Goes For A Kill — Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters
Who messed up? Pharaoh Atem a.k.a. the spirit of the Millenium Puzzle, a.k.a. Yami in Season 1, Episodes 22–24 of Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters.
How did he mess up? In a world where every single problem is solved by playing a children's card game, Yugi Muto, a timid young boy from Japan, solves an ancient artifact known as the Millennium Puzzle. That causes his body to play host to a mysterious spirit of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh. Together, they must uncover the secrets of pharaoh's past and save the world by playing with trading cards.
In the beginning, this task works out pretty well for both of them. However, it all goes south after Kaiba, their arch rival, gives them a little ultimatum during a duel: win the duel, but risk killing Kaiba, or forfeit the duel and lose a chance to save a person close to them. Now, it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine that a timid young boy from the 21st century and a 5000-year-old pharaoh have a bit different moral compasses when it comes to killing and being challenged to do so. Therefore, it's not the biggest shock when the spirit has none of Kaiba's little ploy. He goes for a win and, concurrently, for a kill. He is only barely stopped by his other side — Yugi.
What did we learn from it? In Yugi, you have someone who is compassionate but lacks confidence. In Atem, you have someone who is decisive and confident, but lacks restraint. That realization, on just how far Atem is willing to go, makes Yugi hesitant to duel again, thus bringing out his lack of confidence. Atem, on the other hand, gets a wake-up call about the lack of restraint and excessive pride within him.
Since the show is very much about one side acquiring the other side's positive character traits, this muck-up sets up a great dynamic between the two for the rest of the show's run (with a few additional missteps, of course). Furthermore, this moment and the subsequent reflection can be taken as a great metaphor for both trusting someone with a different personality, and the importance of having a balance between all the various personality traits within each individual.
To Sum Up
Exploring a character's reaction to getting it wrong is a real test for the said character both in terms of story and the viewers' affection. It gives the writers a chance to further explore the main characters and challenge their philosophy, thus making the audience feel that they are in good hands. So, let the good guys fail and mess up every once in a while. This is the best way they can succeed in becoming interesting to us.