By Pete R.
I want to take a step slightly to the side of what the episode focused on. One of the common themes with “strange bedfellows” is that of the unwilling bedfellows. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. certainly fits this description, as neither Napoleon Solo nor Ilya Kuryakin want to be working together. Much of the comedy and drama comes from their hostility towards each other and their eventual coming to terms with each other. In Good Omens, Crowley and Aziraphael began somewhat in this position, but by the time the events of the book occur, they are much more willing compatriots. They have long ago realized that they have more in common with each other than with their bosses, and actively work to subvert the Apocalypse.
So why am I so focused on unwilling partnerships?
First, it can often create really interesting dramatic frission. Sergio Leone’s spaghetti-western masterpiece The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has this relationship at its center as Clint Eastwood’s “Blondie” captures Eli Wallach’s Tuco and forces the hapless bandit to work with him (or perhaps for him?) to find the location of buried gold. For being “the Good,” Blondie certainly acts like a right bastard, and much of Tuco’s time is spent trying to escape from his captor’s watchful eye. So from a purely dramatic and entertainment perspective, unwilling “strange bedfellow” relationships can be rewarding.
Second, this type of relationship can often lead to characters developing empathy. We spent much of the past episode talking about the importance of developing and teaching “radical empathy” in the modern era (roughly: creating a mindset that actively works towards understanding opposing viewpoints or alternative worldviews without necessarily endorsing or sympathizing), but most of our conversation was about how consuming media can help us develop that radical empathy through seeing other perspectives of lives. However, especially for teens, seeing others undergo that same experience is equally important. Children and teens learn both through their own experiences and through watching the experiences of others. During our teenage years, we struggle to determine who we are, and often establish those relationships by defining who we are NOT: I AM a Theater Kid, which means I am NOT going to hang out with the athletes. Admitting any sort of fault, uncertainty, ignorance, or even acceptance of differences is therefore difficult for many teens to do, even though that is often the necessary first step to begin to empathize with others.
Watching, reading, or listening to people go through that process normalizes it for students and gives them a template for their own actions. “Unwilling” strange bedfellow partnerships provide fertile ground for seeing one or two characters begrudgingly come to accept each other. One of the standout examples of this in recent media is the relationship arc between Jamie Lannister and Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones. The relationship begins entirely antagonistically as Brienne grudgingly transports “the Kingslayer” back to King’s Landing. However, over the course of that journey and due in no small part to the horrifying events that happen (it’s Game of Thrones, of course horrifying things happen), the two become close. It is clear that they both respect each other, and perhaps even pity each other; at the very least, they both have a firm empathy for each other, when before there was none.
For a less intense example, consider the delightful Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok.” This episode has innumerable merits––how to communicate, metaphor and allegory, storytelling as part of culture, things not being what they seem––but at its heart it’s the story of Picard learning more about an alien race known as the Tamarians through undergoing a trying event with a member of that race. The crew begins the episode frustrated and hostile towards the Tamarians, whom they cannot understand. By the end, communication is difficult but both sides have a better understanding of the intentions and mindset of the other. This is the first and most important step to forging empathy and continuing the conversations.
I’ve highlighted just a few additional sources to dive deeper into this theme, but “unwilling strange bedfellows” is a fairly common trope. Magneto and the X-Men often find themselves thrown into this situation, and many Terry Pratchett books in addition to Good Omens play on it to a certain extent (I’m fairly certain I could find a Discworld book for every topic we will ever cover). The first half of season 3 of the 2004 Battlestar Galactica look at this idea of “unwilling strange bedfellows” from a rather precarious position. Gaius Baltar is the president of humanity, but he is under the thumb of the Cylons. This leads to interesting ethical conundrums, as the quisling must weigh the good he can do as a leader to mitigate suffering against the inherent suffering that an occupied people suffer at the hands of the occupiers.
Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel.
Extra Credit assigned in this post:
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
- Game of Thrones (particularly seasons 3 and 4)
- Star Trek: The Next Generation “Darmok” (season 5, episode 2)