jeff mckee

The Importance of Threes and Trust

I started writing a short reply to this post about Stiles, Derek and Scott in 3x10, along with some of the interesting commentary, and then it wasn’t short after all, in fact, it’s amazingly rambly, so I decided to put it into its own post.

In the discussion in the reblogged comments to the above post, the point is made that Derek going back for Stiles could be because Stiles is in Derek’s pack, not Scott’s, and that makes sense to me. In particular, way back in season 2 when Scott “joined” Derek’s pack, Scott kept the truth about his motives to himself; no-one, including Stiles, knew it was a feint. So I’ve been wondering for a while now, and especially since Stiles’ comment about needing a “real alpha” whether Stiles considered himself joined up to the pack too, along with Scott, and just kind of never unjoined, because unlike Scott it was never a feint for him.

I think Scott just assumed they both left Derek’s pack when he rejected Derek. He’s still new enough to werewolfing that he doesn’t quite understand some of the more subtle nuances of pack dynamics, but he doesn’t really act like pack towards Stiles a lot of the time.

I also wonder if Stiles is in both packs to an extent. That must be a thing, right? For instance, if someone marries into another pack, surely the new pack would be their primary pack, but they’d have some remaining pack ties with their original pack? Maybe the two packs become extended family as a result. So it’s possible for people to be inbetweeners, and that would be an important role. I think maybe Stiles is an inbetweener right now, but he could easily enough choose one or the other, or neither, if it’s ever put to him.

Like Scott, Stiles might also be… not clueless exactly, but mired in human thinking about relationships. He thinks of himself as BFF’s with Scott which makes Scott his priority. He clearly thinks of Derek as an ally, but likely doesn’t quite understand the unspoken pack politics at play, and Derek would probably be pretty damn hesitant to say anything and rock the boat.

As for Derek, it would explain an awful lot about why he knows what Stiles smells like, and is super worried about finding him, and why Stiles has become his anchor. That whole arc in 3B reminded me really strongly of Derek’s worry for his missing betas. And the more I think about it, Stiles’ unrevoked S2 legacy of choosing to become pack along with Scott may well be the only bond Derek has left from his era as alpha – the pack he made for himself. He’d be pretty damn protective of it, and probably secretive about it too, out of fear.

There really haven’t been many overt hints of this whole speculative tangent of mine in canon so far, but that tension between Derek and Scott with Stiles in the middle is real enough, and it does kind of imply that at some point Stiles’ loyalties will become an important fulcrum in resolving things between Scott and Derek. One way or the other.

Lots of people have mentioned them importance of threes within Teen Wolf, but it’s shaping up to be especially important to S4, which seems to be all about triangles (or triskeles, perhaps).

  • Derek, Stiles, Kate
  • Scott, Stiles, Malia
  • Lydia, Kira, Malia
  • Derek, Peter, the unknown Hale

and, of course, the main triangle of the show

  • Scott, Stiles, Derek

I wouldn’t be surprised if we get more, too, including a triad of villains: Kate, The Benefactor, and ??? (Peter? Jennifer? Deucalion? Scott? Deaton? Malia?).

I’d also like to know more about the implied the third arm of the war: werewolves, hunters and ??? (emissaries? gods? humans?)

Also of relevance to the theme of threes is the shape of the plot arc we seem to be getting. Because 3A was so poorly done and muddled, I didn’t realise until the end of 3B, but season three overall felt very much like the centrepoint of a three-act structure.

Here’s a diagram from Robert McKee’s Story, which makes this a bit clearer.

What this diagram is saying is that if you are writing a happy story, you cannot start happy and stay happy throughout of you want to please the audience. The story needs to see-saw between happy and unhappy, and the stakes and the pay-off for each swing from one state to the other needs to get bigger and bigger, building up to the climax. Likewise, a sad story can’t always be sad, it too has to see-saw.

What that means in practical terms is that you need at least three acts to pay off your story – the starting state (eg. okay but bored), the complication which changes things (eg. miserable), and then the climax which brings the protagonist to a new and more extreme state (eg. happy!). In other words, odd numbers of acts tend to be the rule in drama – most commonly three or five.

In TV, the five-act structure has become fairly standard because syndication traditionally kicked in after five seasons. Main actors often have a five-season contract/options, and the studios/production companies want to get over that line if they can because of the extra long-tail income the property will then make. So as far as TV shows ever have a sure thing, a five-season arc is as close as it gets. Of course, everyone hedges their bets by having mostly self-contained seasons, which have their own three-act structure. But the hope for ambitious shows (like Babylon 5) is that those individual seasons will become acts which build into something bigger.

Returning to the images, McKee has that nifty crossed zigzag in the third diagram, because the most satisfying stories have an A and B plot (at least) which comment on each other, and mirror each other, and one character’s ups will mirror another character’s downs. It doesn’t have to be like that for it to be a good story, but it’s a common pattern storytellers use.

This is where the mirroring of Scott and Derek is so important in Teen Wolf – the characters are contrasted to each other in order to tell us important things about both characters. (Stiles is also a mirror, but where Scott and Derek mirror as werewolves, Stiles is the human mirror to the wolf. Which is a whole other meta.) When Derek fails, it should also tell us something important about Scott – not just that he’s the victor, but about Scott’s potential weaknesses. In fact, this is pretty much how it’s gone; we have seen one arc go up as the other goes down.

In addition to that, both character arcs should be escalating and the stakes getting higher as the seasons go along. And in a five-act structure, Season 3 would be your major turning point or complication. From here on, we should be building towards the major climax of the overall story, and there should be at least one more major flip before we get there.

As it happens, we did get several really key complications and turning points in S3, and all three mirroring character arcs seem to be geared up for a major challenge in the coming season:

Scott is at the lowest point of his arc and his character finally makes sense – he’s an alpha without power or a pack, Allison’s is dead, and most importantly for his arc, he’s in danger of becoming his father, and has so far refused to engage with what that means. (The more I think about Papa McCall’s secret the more I love it. Bravo Davis. Inspired.) What will make Scott realise the danger, and how high will the price of his self-knowlege be? What does “reverting to the mean” mean? (It sounds super sinister to me, like the banality of evil, and standing by while shit goes down.)

If you’ve ever been puzzled about why people keep speculating Scott is on an Anakin arc – this is why. Given the story we’ve seen so far (Scott mostly winning in previous seasons), a major challenge and loss is the obvious pattern we expect if Davis is using this kind of traditional story structure (and it has to be Scott’s loss, not a death of another character – that would be a fridging if it’s just to make Scott suffer. To not be a cheat, Scott has to make a mistake or do something with an unexpected and terrible outcome). Scott’s arc has to flip, or the story isn’t satisfying – there’s no tension if we always think Scott will win. He has to fail in a major way in the lead up to the climax to make the final climax sweeter.

Derek is also at the lowest point of his arc. He has turned the full triskele circle, and none of the roles worked for him, and now he must face his nemesis (who is wearing the face of the monster she is, and the monster Derek is afraid he is). Will Derek prove a hero or a villain? Will he rise from the ashes of his own past mistakes? Will he find a way past his guilt and leave it, and Kate, behind? Derek so far has been on a tragic arc, so if he’s mirroring Scott, he’ll have a major win in S4 (and then, depending on which variation of the pattern Davis is working with, Derek may lose in S5. I kind of hope Davis is planning to subvert that, and give Derek a happy ending, but a tragic ending for Derek is definitely a possibility. We’ll see. If Sterek is end-game, which is also a legitimate possibility at this point, Davis might pull the mightiest bait-and-switch of the whole series, and jump Derek over to the “idealistic” ending and that would be awesome.)

Stiles is likewise at a low point. He’s just been used by an ancient evil, and faces some difficult choices as a result. How does he go on from here? Is the evil entirely gone? Where do his loyalties lie? How does he run with wolves without being destroyed by it? What is his role in the pack (and which pack)? And perhaps most importantly, because it’s been dodged so far, but really needs to be answered: Will he remain human, or was Peter right, that he wants to be something more?

Anyway, for me the tone of S4 will quickly reveal whether we are gearing up for the fourth act in a five act arc, or whether these themes will be left to dangle. We’re at that point now – the story either has to complicate further in a major way, and then start to resolve, or it’s a meandering mess with no through-line.

I know a lot of fans in the wake of S3 have swung from thinking Davis knows what he’s doing to Davis doesn’t know what he’s doing. I get that to some extent – 3A was a hot mess. 3B was a lot better, and I enjoyed it, but it still wasn’t as tight as S1 or S2.

That said, to me a lot of the recent anti-Davis vitriol smacks of disillusionment, not so much with the plot of the show itself, but with the equalist vision Davis and the PR team sold in the early interviews. The show just isn’t that, so if someone went in expecting that promise to be fulfilled, of course they’d feel ragingly betrayed – that is entirely understandable.

I honestly never expected the show to be that, no matter what Davis and PR said. The whole industry of entrenched practices was against it, as was the show’s budget and product placement requirements and even target audience. In fact, the world building alone requires a feat of thinking that’s constant and can’t rest, and isn’t Davis’ forte – Jungle shouldn’t exist in an equalist world, for instance (no homophobia? You just have a club). Likewise, no-one would think Coach was about to be homophobic because Scott and Danny are dancing together. I mean, I get why that scene was in there, but in a truly equalist world, even this background superficially pro-gay representation wouldn’t need to exist, because it’s still based on a homophobic expectation. The show failed right out of the gate, in other words, in entirely predicable ways, given its budget, and target audience. And then nearly all the women and characters of colour died, which is not okay even though Davis seems to be trying to fix that now he’s aware of it.

So what I’m saying here is that I understand why people don’t trust Davis as a storyteller anymore. He broke the contract you thought he’d set up. That’s fair enough.

He didn’t irreparably break the contract for me, thought, and I’m willing to give him another season of my attention.

I don’t listen to PR or interviews except by fannish osmosis, because they are full of crap and I no longer have the patience or interest. So my contract was always with the show alone, and the show alone is no worse than most of its genre. I was pissed by the biased death count, and there have been some other things too, which I’ve meta’d about. But balancing that out are things I enjoy – in particular, I love the characters a lot, and also Davis’ use of theme.

In terms of Davis’ writing, and whether he knows what he’s doing, 3A is the only season I felt was a complete dog’s breakfast. I enjoyed S1 (very tightly done), S2 (inventive and some great character work), and S3B (weaker, but still engaging and with some interesting build) for the most part. And, for me, several key things that made no sense in S1 and S2 now do make sense after S3B – most notably Scott’s arc.

Do I have total confidence in Davis as a storyteller? No way. I will never trust a showrunner with my whole heart again. Ever.

Do I think there is an end-goal Davis is building towards? In the wake of 3B, yes I do. You can’t put the kind of story structures into a TV show by accident that are apparent in S1, S2 and S3B. You just can’t.

Do I think it’ll be a satisfying ending? No, Davis tends to bobble the ball on the endings, but the lead up is enjoyable, so I’m okay with that.

Do I think Davis is planning to pay off the Sterek foreshadowing that was throughout S3? I think it’s a real possibility in the wake of the 3B finale. In some form. Which doesn’t necessarily mean happy-ever-after. But yes, I think we are more likely to get some kind of canon Sterek than not at this stage.

What would cause me to change my mind? Backsliding on the disproportionate deaths of women and people of colour. Not paying off major themes, like Scott’s tragic flaw, or the implied Derek/Stiles/Kate arc. Not expanding on the werewolf/hunter war, and in doing so answering some of the unanswered questions, such as what Derek saw in his dream-walk with his mother, why Deaton is so sketchy, and what Peter’s Big Bad plan is.

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot since the end of S3 is the theme of trust. In the show, a lot of the problems arise because people don’t trust each other – in many cases for entirely understandable reasons. But the show also implies that not finding people you can trust, and then putting your trust with them, is just as bad as not trusting at all. It’s one of the more nuanced and clever parts of the series – use of theme really is one of Davis’ strengths.

Ironic, then, that he and the Teen Wolf PR team seem to have so effectively earned the distrust of so many of their audience. A textbook example of you reap what you sow.