Stories teach us empathy. When we get absorbed in the tale of a teenage vampire slayer or rival street gangs on the Upper West Side, we’re forced to step outside our comfort zones and consider the world from other people’s perspectives. I am absolutely down with that narrative project. I want to understand the different struggles we face, including the ones with our own demons. But lately I’ve found myself impatient with stories that ask audiences to channel their empathy toward violent men–to the exclusion of everyone else.
The character that’s tipped me over the edge is Huck on Scandal, the addictive-as-caramel-popcorn television drama by Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes. The show follows Washington DC power players and the band of brilliant outcasts, headed by Olivia Pope, who fix their problems.
Huck is probably the most fully-realized character in Pope’s hodgepodge troupe: a former soldier turned CIA assassin turned homeless man turned professional fixer. With his soft, stumbling voice, teddy-bear looks, and gentle manner, he’s one of Scandal‘s most easily sympathetic cast members. We understand the loneliness that drives him to set up camp outside a strange family’s house each day and watch them go through the ordinary motions of their lives, pizza dinners and game nights and walking the golden retriever. We cringe for him when he reveals that his old CIA nickname was “Spin,” short for spinster, “because they said I’d never find someone.”
The show loves to contrast Huck’s lost-soul mooniness with his brutal talents. In one excruciating scene last season, Pope asks him to torture a former CIA colleague for information. Huck agrees to give up his “sobriety” (the show frequently uses the language of addiction to discuss torture) for the greater good. Soon he’s leaning over an assassin named Charlie—someone who’s a lot like him, only meaner. Huck tells Charlie that he’s going to relish the high of making him suffer. “We both know what a junkie I can be,” he says.
Huck is our only point of identification in this scene. We don’t know Charlie very well at this point in the series, and what we do know, we don’t like. We’re not meant to care about his pain. The real source of dramatic tension is how Huck will be impacted by the torture. Now that he’s fallen off the wagon for Pope, will he be able to stop himself from spiraling into a new cycle of violence?