Something I’ve been noticing in popular media for a while now is a fixation on a character most commonly referred to as “the One.” Neo. Harry Potter. I think Master Chief even got pulled into it this last go round. (Side note: if anyone can explain what the hell was supposed to be going on in Halo 4 and why I should care you have my thanks. And awe. Anyways…)
What is the cult of “The One”? Simply put it’s the difference between a typical protagonist and the destined hero of fate upon whose shoulders all the earth falls. Harry defeats Voldemort not because of some inner strength, but because in accordance with fate he is the singular person in all the earth who is capable of doing so. Somehow. That’s not to say a character arc and inner strength don’t inform the story. Certainly, they do. But Morpheus ain’t the one dodging bullets.
It’s not that I don’t like some of these stories. The Matrix is a seriously cool movie. But I think the concept is both tired and misleading.
The One characters are build on the Christ figure archetype. Christ is the one and only son of God, so he is the only one in all the earth – ever- who can atone for sin. Likewise, “One” characters are generally destined in some way. There is something supernatural that limits those who could do what they do to only them. From a storytelling perspective, this works in the Gospels because although Christ is the focal figure he’s not the one we the audience identifies with. We see Christ in his perfection and quickly realize that status is unattainable (Again, from a storytelling perspective. I’m not trying to go into theology here.) Who we can identify with are the disciples. They’re normal folks, and some of the stuff Jesus says and does seems as weird to them as it does to us. Not only that, but Jesus starts and ends supremely powerful. A passing knowledge of Christian trinitarian theology makes us very aware that any perceived inability is a willing one, and we see Jesus as very much in control of some massive power multiple times through the story.
In general, the One character arcs try to capture this same idea, but infuse it with the imperfection of a normal hero. Let’s face it: all-powerful characters aren’t that fun to watch, and there has to be some pretty compelling motivation to make the temporary abandonment of powers believable. Let’s use Neo as a case study.
Neo is certainly a Christ figure in The Matrix. There’s a prophecy which speaks of his coming and his sole ability to set things right. Pretty straightforward. But far from being all powerful, Neo is pretty helpless. He learns quickly once he joins the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar, but power is something he has to grow into slowly and painfully. He makes mistakes. He gets beat up. And not because he’s allowing himself to; he’s powerless to stop it. It’s a very interesting reversal from the structure of the archetype, and pretty much every “One” figure follows it.
So here’s my problem with the one figures: what makes Neo special? If he goes from zero to hero, what is it that makes him uniquely predestined to succeed on a massive scale? As a counterexample, let’s look at Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. As the ring bearer, Frodo is in a position where the fate of the world rests on his shoulders. What he is not is the predestined carrier of the One Ring, the only one who could ever destroy it. No. Frodo finds himself in a particular circumstance and ultimately rises to the challenge, but Sam serves as the ring bearer for a while. Gollum is the one who ends up destroying the Ring. Frodo was put in a tremendously important position by an act of fate, but anyone else could have found themselves in the same position, and I argue that makes Frodo’s story all the better. He could have quit at any time, said that it was someone else’s responsibility. What made Frodo special is that he carried out the task, not that he was the only one capable of doing so.
Let’s look at another LotR example: Aragorn. As a member of the line of Isildur and heir to the throne of Gondor, it’s hard to argue that Aragorn isn’t beholden to some amount of destiny. Certainly he didn’t do anything to make himself Isildur’s heir. That’s just the way things are. But by the same token, there’s nothing to say that Aragorn is the one who must rise to take the throne. His father was Isildur’s heir, but he didn’t do it. Aragorn isn’t a “One” figure because, like Frodo, there’s nothing tying him to that role. How much more meaningful is his decision to abandon his past life and try to wrangle Denethor if that’s a path he could walk away from? It tells us so much more about his character. Neo may want to go back to how things were, but fate will not let him.
I like the idea that heroes can come from anywhere. The story of a flawed character rising to the occasion when not doing so is a real option is so much more compelling than the story of a flawed character who has no choice at all. (And just to be clear: this is a very different scenario than, say, a tragic hero unable to outrun fate or a true Christ figure who exercises choice in the decision to lay aside power.) But beyond that, I think the mythology of “The One” is fairly insidious, and that’s why I refer to it as the Cult of “The One.”
What are we really expressing with a One story? I think a big part of it has to be the desire to rise from humble beginnings. But this is possible in any story, so why do we see the One? It’s because we’re an entitled culture. The One may work hard to hone his/her skills, but the fact that a character in The One implies something innate. Neo is offered a pill that springs him from the trap of his mundane life. It’s easy to see where the appeal is. The Cult of The One says we don’t have to work for what we get. Working might even be pointless. Yes, Neo has Morpheus, Trinity, and the rest, but can they do what he can? They’re replaceable. Neo is not. We like the idea that great power will just be given to us one day.
Look, I’m not saying that every “One” story is evil. I just think we need to be aware of some of the implicit messages of this story and the ways it puts a particular twist on the archetype it’s working from. Plus, I think it’s just lazy storytelling.