As a self-professed expert on sad moments in books and media, I want to talk a little bit about different ways stories approach making you feel the big feels. Ok, only two different ways. Sure there’s much more nuance than dividing sadness into two categories, but sometimes people just like to generalize, so here I go doing exactly that. When it comes to making you feel sad, I think stories often do it in a way that’s either warm or cold. The warm sadness is one that makes you cry, and smile, and reminisce about great things that are gone, and feel some sort of cathartic response in letting everything go for just a moment. These are the moments rooted in good people and good things, and maybe something bad happened that makes it sad, or maybe the world pushes good people apart, but ultimately this sadness is warmly rooted in your love and affection for well-written characters. This is the famous montage at the start of Up, it’s Hiccup letting Toothless go in How to Train Your Dragon 3, it’s the end of Undertale when you say goodbye to your friends, and it’s episode 10 of Violet Evergarden seeing a mother’s letters shape her daughter’s life. It’s pretty much any time you cry and think to yourself afterwards, “wow, that was really well-done.” Yes, there is a tragedy and unfairness to it all, but ultimately there’s a feeling of warmth beneath everything as well.
Let’s break down a scene from Inside Out to get a better look at this in action. The scene I’m talking about is, of course, when Riley returns home after running away and has a heart-to-heart with her parents. Riley is dealing with the emotional trauma of having to move away from her home, her friends, and everything she used to love, something almost anyone can deeply empathize with. Throughout the whole movie she has pent up her feelings, but when she finally talks to her parents it all comes flooding out, and she feels the catharsis we feel while watching and empathizing. All her happy memories from Minnesota are tinged with sadness as bawls and hugs her parents…….but then she smiles. This very process is how catharsis works in all these warm sad movie moments, even the ones that don’t end with some sense of happiness afterward. You have all these good, warm memories of characters and events, and then those warm memories are tinged with sadness as tragedy unfolds. You love all the interactions between Hiccup and Toothless, but those become melancholic when faced with saying goodbye. In the end, however, there remains a cathartic satisfaction in the bittersweet memory of it all (in Inside Out, represented in a literal core memory orb being half happy and half sad).
…And then there’s the cold sadness.
This is the sadness that doesn’t make you cry or feel any sort of warm catharsis, it just leaves you numb and cold and desolate inside, wondering what good humanity is and if there’s even a point anymore to anything. There aren’t a lot of easy examples I can pull from here because generally this isn’t the way media wants to make you feel. If you’ve seen the anime series From the New World (Shin Sekai Yori) that’s the sort sadness I felt watching it. What else…I guess those Oscar bait-y movies that you sometimes just don’t want to see because you know they’re going to make you feel terrible the whole time. Sicario comes to mind, even though I really loved it as a movie. (Side note: I’ve kind of hit a point where I just don’t want to see those types of movies anymore—war movies, failed relationship movies, harsh dramas about terrible people being terrible to one another). Anyway, to the main the inspiration for this post, Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy! It pulls off frozen depression better than anything I’ve read or watched in recent memory, and I still don’t know if I like or dislike the fact that it does this. On the one hand, I greatly admire the craft, but on the other hand, seeing the final outcome for all these characters I’d grown attached to…it hurt. A lot. So what makes Joe Abercrombie’s tragedy so much more frigid and potent than all the rest? (Spoilers ahead for the series) on the surface, it comes from Abercrombie’s collection of morally ambiguous characters trying so hard to be better and improve themselves, and ultimately failing and reverting back to their worst selves. However, what makes this world truly cold is discovering that there was never any point in characters trying to do good things in the first place. The overbearing message at the end of the series is that the world sucks, humanity extra sucks, and doing good things will only get you killed. Or worse, expelled. Or worse, subservient to the most manipulative asshole in the history of storytelling. I hate you, Bayaz, so freaking much, with every fiber of my being. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve hated a character with such ferocity in a long, long time.
The one character arc I really want to look into, though, is Jezal’s in Last Argument of Kings, because I think it’s emblematic of an entire mode of presenting sad moments/arcs in a way that directly opposes everything I mentioned in the first half of this post. Jezal is a set up as a narcissistic, unlikeable, racist jerk whose only ambition is to hold more power in society. Throughout the trilogy, however, he shows signs of changing and improving himself, especially in the second book. This invites you to hope that he will finish his journey a changed person, see the errors in his ways, and go about fixing all his past mistakes. Jezal’s character arc itself is quite common, from Ebeneezer Scrooge to (my favorite of the bunch) Zuko from Avatar the Last Airbender. So the setup is there, and you’re rooting so freaking hard for Jezal to turn that corner and fully commit to being a better person. And then comes Bayaz. Bayaz, who always seemed to believe in Jezal and encourage him to leave his comfort zone of vain narcissism. Bayaz, who then gives Jezal the political power he always wanted, gives him the hope of using it to do good in the world, only to turn him into a puppet figurehead without the ability to do anything at all. Now with his power stripped away, his relationships stripped away, and an all-powerful wizard dictating his every move, Jezal reverts back to his old self and gives up on doing anything at all. So what makes this tragedy work? Is it simply that bad things have happened to a likable character, and we can look back at the good memories now tinged with sadness? No, not in the least bit. We feel sad and cold and hopeless about it all. There was a branching point in Jezal’s journey where Abercrombie could’ve chosen either a warm fuzzy tragedy or cold empty tragedy for poor Jezal. He could have chosen to have Jezal commit to his convictions as a new less racist and narcessistic person—he could have let Jezal confront Bayaz only to be struck down, thus sacrificing himself for a worthy cause. Sure that would still be sad, but it would let us feel cathartic about Jezal dying a changed man. Instead he lives a reverted one. Abercrombie made this sort of decision with each and every one of his character arcs, and it just left me feeling so numb and empty at the end of it all.
I don’t really know where this is going, so I guess I’ll just end this post is with a question. Why does this work? How can I complain about how cold and empty Abercrombie’s finale to the The First Law trilogy is, but still feel like it somehow just plain works? The vast majority of stories would let Jezal complete his redemption arc, and the vast majority of my favorite ones do exactly that. The vast majority of fans would also get disappointed when lovable characters revert to their former selves and fail to follow through with their potential. So why does it work for Abercrombie to present such a depressing futile reality throughout his writings? I legitimately don’t know the answer. I can at the very least articulate why I enjoy feeling sad during cathartic moments in stories—–why I can rewatch the “I miss Minnesota” scene from Inside Out over and over and release of all my own pent-up emotions. But all I know with The First Law Trilogy is that I like it in spite of the way it makes me feel.