I was on the edge of my seat.
Granted, I didn't remember how the fight ended; my memory is terrible for such things. But, still, my significant other commented on it. She knows I'm pretty jaded when it comes to fight scenes. Over the last couple years, my eyes have started to glaze over during most movie action sequences. And my days of feeling excited about two superhero teams meeting and having a fight due to a misunderstanding are behind me. But there I was, watching a tv show and yelling, like I was cage-side at a UFC championship match.
The episode in question was Deadwood, Season 3, "The Two-Headed Beast," written by David Milch. [Warning: SPOILERS ahead!]
If you've never seen Deadwood, you should. It's a fantastic show--a gritty Western drama set in a growing town in the Dakota Territory. By the time we reach Season 3, the camp is struggling with growth and the prospect of annexation. Because of the gold in the hills, the town is in danger of becoming the plaything of the avaricious George Hearst. Seemingly the only person capable of making a stand against Hearst is Al Swearengen, the brutal owner of the Gem Saloon, who over the course of the show has become the villain we root for, despite ourselves. In this episode, the street brawl--to the death--was between Swearengen's loyal right-hand man, Dan Dority, and Hearst's massive bodyguard, Captain Joe Turner.
So, as I took my dog for a walk this morning, I reflected on my reaction to the fight between Dan and the Captain. What, exactly, made it so special to me?
It wasn't just the stakes. True, in some ways, the fate of the town hung in the balance. A victory by Hearst's man likely would have broken the spirit of the town. But "stakes" are not enough. In practically every comic book or action movie, the fate of the city, if not the world, hangs in the balance.
It also wasn't just the "cool factor" of the two bad asses of the show finally facing off. I admit, that alone would have made the fight entertaining, and can often make a comic book fight worth the price of admission. But however much bad assery is in play, it's going to be a tough sell to have me yelling.
No, the answer was pretty obvious. It was about the emotion, and the emotion came from my involvement with the characters. It always comes back to the characters, doesn't it? And in this case, it wasn't mainly my involvement with the characters that were fighting. My reaction was being driven by Swearengen, watching the fight from his balcony. He never even threw a punch.
How did the writers pull this off? By making this moment crucial to the characters we're invested in.
In an earlier episode, Swearengen was held down by the Captain, as Hearst cut off one of Swearengen's fingers with a pick axe. It's a brutal scene, on a show with many brutal scenes, but there's something especially horrible about seeing Swearengen--the man who is never at a disadvantage--so helpless.
Over the course of the following episodes, we see the effect this incident has had on Swearengen. In one episode, another character remarks that he's holed up in his office. We see later references to the constant pain his hand is causing him. And he continues to hold back his men, especially Dan Dority, from retaliation. Swearengen already knew he was overmatched with Hearst and had been proceeding with caution. After his finger was cut off, the audience (and all the characters on the show) wondered, without saying it out loud, was Swearengen beaten?
But the emotional importance of the fight didn't end there. In an episode prior to the fight, Swearengen breaks down in front of one of his whores, remembering how he was held down as a child by a large man at an orphanage while his mother left him. We've heard hints of Swearengen's upbringing earlier--this story doesn't come out of the blue--but now we understand the emotional impact being held down, helpless before his rival Hearst, had on him. In a nice character moment, Swearengen momentarily connects with his girl when she says she hates being held down as well.
Layered on this is the loyalty and long connection between Swearengen and his man, Dan Dority. We know that they met when Dan was young, a cut-throat essentially running wild in the forest. Dan has grown up with Swearengen and owes everything he has in life to him. He kills for Swearengen. He protects him. Dan loves Swearengen with such fierce loyalty that his jealousy of another member of Al's inner circle has led to both humorous moments and violence in the past. As the fight approaches, the thought of Dan losing--of him being killed trying to avenge Swearengen's attack--is almost painful. As Dan prepares for the fight, greasing his body to make himself slick, even another character is worried he may not be able to take the Captain.
When we come to the fight itself, it goes on for nearly five brutal minutes. We get all the things we expect. The moment at the beginning when the two combatants face off. The fight going back and forth. The moment when it appears Dan will be drowned. The turning point when Dan plucks out the Captain's eyeball. But through it all, Swearengen and Hearst watch from their balconies.
At key moments in the fight, the combatants look up. When it looks like Dan will die, and we see Swearengen's reaction--technically his lack of reaction--we feel his pain. He's about to lose his best friend, and his chance to avenge himself. His ability to cope with the helplessness he felt may be gone forever. So when Dan finally has the upper hand again, and looks up at Swearengen before delivering the killing blow, the moment is fraught with emotion.
I've gone on at some length here to give a real sense of the character development and emotion that gave this fight so much meaning. As I create my own fight scenes, I'll be comparing it to my reaction to this seminal moment in Deadwood. I won't just be asking what's at stake in the world I created--but what's at stake for the characters. And I'll be asking myself if I've given the reader the opportunity to connect with that character and their emotions. Can I make the reader feel the fight in their hearts?
Fights--at least the ones I care about--involve characters I care about. I may be jaded when it comes to most fight scenes, but I can't get enough of fight scenes that matter. I wait, with anticipation, for the next one that has me yelling at the screen.
Maybe that scene will be written by you.