In all my years of watching tv and movies, I’ve noticed that the villains that don’t get killed either brutally, leaving little to imagination (a few examples, Carver from Telltale’s Walking Dead Season 2, King Sombra from My Little Pony, or Scar from Disney’s Lion King) or off screen, allowing the viewer to come to their own conclusion of the end in which the character is left with (for example, most, if not all, Disney villains in existence), the villains left over are subject to the ‘Redemption Arc’. This arc is actually pretty famous (or infamous, depending on your opinion) in My Little Pony. Just to name a few characters that have been subject to this, especially in quite the rush, are Discord, Sunset Shimmer, Starlight Glimmer, Princess Luna (AKA Nightmare Moon), all of which are featured in the My Little Pony franchise.
For a proper redemption of reformation arc to occur, the character needs to undergo three critical steps. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll be using Discord from My Little Pony, and Zuko from Avatar the Last Airbender as primary examples, though I know there are plenty of other examples out there (spoiler warning for various episodes of My Little Pony, and Avatar the Last Airbender).
The first step is Realization, when the character realizes what they’re doing is wrong, or that they must change to get what they want.
Discord’s appearance in Keep Calm Flutter On is more of an example of what seemed like a rushed redemption turned out to be just this first step. While most people believe this whole episode was Discord’s redemption arc, after seeing the rest of his arc play out, I now disagree. This was just his first step when he realizes that he doesn’t want a life without Fluttershy’s friendship, and since then, he learns to extend his friendship to the other ponies Fluttershy hangs out with (and Spike). When he realizes he doesn’t want to lose his friendship, he decides he wants to change and performs the single act Fluttershy asks him to do, which is to stop Sweet Apple Acres from flooding.
Zuko, on the other hand, has multiple of little realizations, from the Storm where he realizes that safety is a higher priority than his own goal to Zuko Alone where he realizes that nationality shouldn’t matter and everyone suffers from war. However, he doesn’t make his final big one until the season 2 finale. At that point, he realizes that he has made a huge mistake, however, he doesn’t act on it due to simply not understanding that the path he charts where he works with his sister simply isn’t the right way. Even though he stays with Azula and goes along with the wrong path, I still count this moment because he’s tormented with doubt, trying desperately to get answers from his imprisoned uncle and whatever other resources he could find, in every episode from that point on until the Solar Eclipse.
The second step is Reformation, when a character breaks habits and can officially say they are no longer bad or evil, and/or aline themselves with the heroes.
Discord has a large relapse, comparing his villainous life to the life he has with a friend. In the Season 4 finale, Discord is tasked with escorting Tirek back to Tartarous. However, Tirek manipulates Discord into thinking that the friendship he’s achieved is a different type of prison as he walks a tightrope to stay in line. Therefore, Discord is offered to rule Equestria at Tirek’s side, provided he could help collect all the magic. He agrees until he is betrayed and the line he gives Fluttershy, “Surely you saw this coming”, is thrown right back in his face by Applejack. It’s at this point when he, again, realizes that he is without the friends he desperately wants until Twilight shows him mercy and declares him a friend. Now, Discord is finally being truly reformed, deciding that he doesn’t want to ever be in that position again.
Zuko, unlike Discord, doesn’t get a relapse during his reformation. Let me just explain something really quick. While I said earlier that a reformation is when a previously villainous character alines themselves with the heroes or simply isn’t bad anymore, I don’t consider episodes where Zuko has a temporary truce with the gang in order to defeat a common enemy as “reformation” but more as just as I said; temporary truce. Examples of that would be the Blue Spirit, where Zuko goes out of his way in season 1 to save Aang from Admiral Zhou, the Chase, where Zuko and Iroh temporarily join forces with the heroes to take down Azula (which, spoilers, doesn’t work), and even the season 2 finale set-up, where Zuko and Katara are trapped in a cave together and bond over the one thing they have in common (which is just a lack of a mother in their youth). In all of these instances, Zuko doesn’t plan on staying with them and, as soon as he’s done playing his part, he instantly attacks and calls off the truce. The true reformation is during the Solar Eclipse when Zuko confronts his father and says “I’m going to teach the Avatar firebending and help him defeat you in any way I can”. This is the moment he plans to be a permanent addition to the Circle of Heroes as opposed to a temporary truce.
The last step is Redemption, when a character surpasses their peers and answers the call of duty, or in other words, saves the day when the heroes are unable to.
Discord’s redemption comes in the season 6 finale when he steps in to save Fluttershy (specifically Fluttershy) from Queen Chrysalis and the changelings. He, along with Starlight, Thorax, and Trixie, work together to take the places of Twilight and the rest of the main six. In doing so, Discord has a large place in saving the day, rather than causing the problem to be worse.
As for Zuko, his redemption is actually linked to Katara because she was there at the battle between Zuko and Azula. I count this as Zuko’s redemption because, of all the members of the gang, Katara is the one who takes the longest to trust him due to her feelings of betrayal left from the season 2 finale. Heck, if Katara were judging, she’d say Zuko’s realization would be when he joins, and his reformation would be when he assists in Katara’s revenge for her mother’s death. However, Katara isn’t writing this blog, I am; a person who knows more than just Katara’s point of view. Anyway, back on track, the fact that it’s Katara who witnesses the Agni Kai between Zuko and Azula makes all the difference because, Azula, in a crazy, murderous impulse, directs her lightning strike to Katara and not Zuko. Therefore, Katara is helpless to the strike and Zuko jumps in front of her to take the shock. At that moment, he’s redeemed in Katara’s eyes, therefore fully redeemed (he took a lightning bolt for her! If that doesn’t redeem him, then nothing will!).
You could argue that Zuko is redeemed in Katara’s eyes after the Southern Raiders, however, Zuko only acts as a guide. He’s not a driving force and only told Katara how to get the information she needs. This is the point where Katara only forgives Zuko, not where Zuko is redeemed. In fact, he’s confused as to why she doesn’t kill Yan Rah, the one responsible for her mother’s death. Even after it’s all settled, it takes him a while to put two and two together on why she does what she does. Through the whole episode, he’s actually talking in very pessimistic and violent tones.
Well, there you go. That how you make a good, well-paced redemption arc and three examples that I’ve noticed for each stage. I know there are plenty of other redemption good examples, however, I’ve pushed it for how long my blog could be. Besides, most villains are typically killed off or never even show the potential of redemption.
Who’s your favorite villain, reformed, redeemed, or otherwise? If your favorite villain is reformed/redeemed, then do you like them better before or after redemption? Or, if your favorite villain is still evil and/or dead, how do you think they would’ve been reformed if given the chance? Leave your thoughts in the comments below and have a beautiful rest of your day~!