Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about comeuppance.
First of all, who doesn’t love such a wonderful word? It’s so much fun to say. That’s half of what I want from a word. I have several favorite words. Nefarious, detritus, and capricious—yeah, I know, they all sound like ancient Greek politicians—are among those near and dear to my heart, tongue, and virtual pen. “Ne’er-do-well” is in the running as my favorite word of all.
Sounding good, as important as that is, isn’t enough. To gain my seal of approval, a word must also express major, complex concepts clearly and powerfully all while rolling playfully off the tongue. Comeuppance fills the bill in every way. All you have to say is, “I hope that guy gets his comeuppance,” and people nod their heads in complete understanding.
This is one of the primary ways I judge a film, book, or story in any form. It’s a cardinal rule of mine for action films, especially. The bad guy must get his comeuppance. (Forgive the sexist terminology; it’s just that the best bad guys are in fact guys.) What does a true quality comeuppance entail? Here are a few characteristics:
- The bad guy must lose. He can’t ride off into the sunset with the girl, with the booty, or with his head held high. He’s done, finished, end of the line. He’s either dead or demoralized or both. And he can’t come back. Countless terrible sequels have taught us that lesson.
- The bad guy must know he lost. At the end of the day, said miscreant has to be saying or thinking, “Curses! Foiled again!” He can’t be allowed to rationalize away his defeat. He blew it and he knew it. While it’s true that he might change his ways in response to his failure—that’s a Good Thing in real life—it’s anticlimactic in a story. Special dispensation is given in the case of Ebenezer Scrooge.
- It’s best of all if he knows it’s coming and can’t do a thing about it. This gives the wretched reprobate a chance to beg for mercy or melt down to the lump of evil that he is. (Here the “guy” thing falls apart. It’s the Wicked Witch who literally melts.)
Some examples are in order at this point.
Two of the best comeuppance scenes form the climaxes of two of the best action movies: “RoboCop” and “Die Hard”. In fact, they end the exact same way. The primary antagonists have a long descent from the upper stories of skyscrapers to consider the error of their ways and accept their comeuppance. Do they? We’ll never know because they end up as stains on the sidewalk.
A less violent but just as satisfying comeuppance is that of Prince Humperdinck in “Princess Bride”. Having lost all, he’s left tied to a chair with nothing to do but mull over his ignominious but well-deserved defeat. The comeuppance of Christopher Guest’s six-fingered man, on the other hand, could be the ultimate in cinematic comeuppance. It doesn’t get much more satisfying than watching a sadistic scoundrel beg for his life at the point of his demise.
It could be said that Donald Trump, a stereotypical bad guy of the worst order, got his comeuppance. Sadly, it was far from satisfactory. He lost the popular vote twice, he cost his party the Senate and the House, he never built his cherished wall, he failed to overthrow the government, he lost the White House, and he lost countless business deals because this time he couldn’t sweep his shenanigans under the rug. Failure doesn’t get any more blatant or comprehensive than that. To use his own words against him, the guy is a loser.
The problem, of course, is that his malignant narcissism blinds him to reality. As far as we can tell, he still thinks he won those elections and accomplished all his goals. Mental illness is a sad thing. I wish him healing and recovery.
Does anyone else find it frighteningly ironic that, in his attempt to rid the US of foreign terrorists, Trump has bred a crop of domestic terrorists, kind of like Saruman’s senseless Uruk-hai, who will almost certainly wreak more havoc on this country than all those Muslims and Mexicans he likes to rail against?
Or that, in spite of the religious right’s inexcusable devotion to him, he has probably paid for more abortions than he has prevented?
Just sayin’, is all.