Many people are familiar—well, people in certain circles are familiar with the verb ‘to Joss‘. It refers to Joss Wheadon’s tendency to totally screw up your predictions/expectations, particularly in regards to melodramatic unexpected deaths of beloved secondary characters. This is a tendency of his, to the extent of self-parody if I thought the man was capable of it.
I have only watched four of Wheadon’s works: Firefly, Dr. Horrible, Titan A.E., and the Avengers. I can’t get into Buffy or any of his other stuff. I love Firefly so much that I have a very nice long brown coat and many other things. The Avengers is my favorite Marvel movie so far. My mother and I are the only people I know who like Titan A.E. (“You know, this movie reminds me a lot of Firefly for some reason…oh, look, it was written by the same guy”). Dr. Horrible…well, that’s more or less what I’m going to talk about.
Spoilers ahead, I guess, for some old stuff.
Jossing is a symptom of something I guess I’m going to call Wheadoning. It is not unique to Joss Whedon, but it is the most blatant with him. As he has been one of the Coolest Kids in Geekdom for a while now, I do think it’s the worst with him.
Unexpected twists are a staple of storytelling and a good one. A good one makes you realize it shouldn’t have been quite unexpected. All the pieces come together. One of the podcasts I listen to, The Weekly Substandard, says it should be like tumblers clicking together in a lock, which is the best metaphor I have heard for it.
Joss Wheadon can do this, and very well, but not all of his instances of Jossing are doing this. In fact, they often deliberately aren’t. This can work—Wash’s death in Serenity is unnecessary and had no (as in zero) build up, but it’s not unreasonable considering the stakes.
It can also really not work, as was the case with Dr. Horrible. The end of Dr. Horrible felt like a betrayal of both plot and tone. Messing with expectations is one thing, flipping a comedy into a twisted tragedy is another one entirely.
Whedoning is more than just Jossing, it’s betrayal of the audience. I suppose there’s already a term that covers it but I don’t feel like digging it up. You create a story with a certain core sense of the tone and the behavior of your protagonists. Then you go and totally smash them flat. This is more than a plotline twist. This is a total backstab.
What stops this is the influence of others. To wit, a leash. Apparently, in Firefly, Joss Whedon wanted to have Mal not return a stolen case of medicine to an ailing community (‘The Train Job’). I guess the crew was supposed to be starving. The Mal you had grown to know prior tot his would not have done this. It’s not the person he is. I understand what Whedon wanted to say: that Mal’s crew meant more to him than anyone else. But as much as he plays the part of a man with small day-to-day concerns, he can’t be. One of the most important things about Mal is that he is a hero still, even after he has been betrayed and thrown away.
What stopped this ruination of a character? Other people. Joss Whedon always works best on a leash.
This is one of the many things that happened with the Star Wars prequels. If you ever watch the very long Plinket review of Star Wars, you see George Lucas’ groupies affirming his awful audience-betraying ideas. It’s Whedoning.
Maybe I should call it Lucasing.
One of the worst things a storyteller can do is betray their audience. Twists can be fine if work is put into them. Character development in new directions is almost a must. But completely shifting the tone, or turning characters into something totally morally alien, is too far. It’s a deliberate marring, almost, just to say you’re cool. It leaves people outside your most dedicated fans cold. For those who essentially have a cult of personality, that works out. For those without cultish devotees, not so much. And let’s face it, earning more money from more people would be nice for everybody.
Any writer, for any medium, is competing for people’s beer money (thank you for that one, Heinlein). Don’t betray your audience. They pay your bills.
N.B: Recent drama makes it clear that ‘to Wheadon’ is an accurate term on many levels.