Jim Shepard's essay in The Atlantic about the conclusion of Flannery O'Connor's unforgettable short story "A Good Man Is Hard To FInd" got me thinking about contemporary TV series in which the hero (more often, anti-hero) isn't allowed to change too much.
He focuses on what a criminal ("the Misfit") says about an old lady near the end of the story: "She would have been a good woman ... if it had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life." Shepard's interpretation:
... He's not saying that a near-death experience would have turned her into a good woman. He's saying it would take somebody threatening to shoot her every minute of her life.
In other words, these conversion experiences don't stick — or they don't stick for very long. Human beings have to be re-educated over and over and over again as we swim upstream against our own irrationalities.
Shepard does not mention television, but I like the above passage as one way of explaining the structure of shows from The Sopranos to Wilfred. Many of these shows have complex characters who experience flashes of insight, or epiphanies, only to revert to the same flawed behavior that they've been demonstrating since the beginning of the series. One can see this as a limitation of TV, and it's one reason I don't like to compare long-running shows like Mad Men to novels. They are really closer to short-story collections, with characters learning the same lessons over and over but in ways that illuminate different aspects of the human experience.
This repetition is not necessarily a flaw, not if Shepard is right and our irrationalities keep returning to wipe out the enlightenment we might experience when faced with a gun.
BTW, you can read the comments below Shepard's post for a spirited literary debate. (He seems to have gotten a couple things wrong about O'Connor's story.)
HT to Andrew Sullivan.