If you’re like me, you’re equally fascinated and appalled by Sean Spicer as you watch the latest drama involving him—Trump excluding Spicer from the meeting with the Pope.
But why are we so fascinated? Because Spicer is filling a familiar role from novels, the movies, and television. Before our eyes, we’re watching a standard story line play out. And it can go only one of two ways.
America has developed an interesting relationship with Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer ever since his first press conference when Spicer came out shouting and showed that he was Trump’s man. It deepened as his press conferences became “must-watch TV” for those who could afford day-time viewing. It’s been solidified by Spicer becoming regular comedy fodder on SNL, helping to lift the show’s ratings bigglie.
And now, America—much of it—finds itself feeling sorry for Spicey, who is a devout Catholic and, reportedly, was excited about his one-time opportunity to meet the Pope. An opportunity his boss cruelly deprived him of—something that should surprise no one.
Even I tweeted that I felt sorry for the guy. Yet, this is a man I’ve watched and cursed for his stupidity and willingness to throw his integrity and seemingly his soul away to protect his boss.
It’s all so familiar.
Haven’t I seen this trope before?
Yup. And so have you.
For the majority of Americans, Trump is a villain. Not just a villain, THE villain. Our Presidency has literally become a horror show (and sometimes a dark comedy). We watch it daily, like watching the scenes of a film, as the tension and drama ratchets ever upwards.
And much of time, Sean Spicer is a key actor in the scene. Why? Because he’s Trump’s henchman. And I’d argue, his trope is actually the familiar “bumbling henchman.”
You’ve seen the character in plenty of films and TV series. Kids are raised on them. Disney’s Dr. Nefario from Despicable Me or Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove. The trope goes way back. Remember Klink from Hogan’s Heroes? Or, for the sci-fi geeks, Vir who was Londo’s evil sidekick in Babylon 5?
Here’s the thing about this trope: it works best when we have sympathy for the bumbling sidekick. And even better when we sense that the sidekick isn’t 100% behind his evil villain boss.
I think Spicer has all of that going for him. I know I’ve sometimes felt sorry as I’ve watched Trump throw him under the bus and send Spicey out to make excuses and try to explain the latest tantrum his boss has thrown. It’s why Melissa Mccarthy’s comedic portrayal works. And like many people, I wonder if Spicer doesn’t have doubts, considerable doubts, about Trump and his actions. Of course, I could just be projecting.
Here’s the other thing: in fiction, the bumbling henchman always ends in one of two ways. One: the villain literally throws him under the bus and the henchman dies, thus showing that how truly villainous the bad guy is. He doesn’t even watch out for his own people. (Of course, our bumbling henchman Spicer isn’t going to literally be killed by his boss. Instead, he’ll be figuratively killed by being fired.)
Or two: the henchman betrays the villain and thereby turns into a hero, or at least redeems himself.
Trump-the-villain just showed how truly villainous he is to his loyal people by excluding Spicer from meeting with the Pope. In fiction, this would be Spicer’s turning point. He’s been given a taste, an indication that what he believes about his villain-boss—that at least HE, the loyal employee, will be rewarded, is trusted, will be protected for all his good work—it’s all BS.
So the fork has come and as viewers of this horror flick, we’re waiting to see if Spicer continues on his sad path or wakes up and chooses the path of redemption. The path Darth Vadar chose in the end by betraying the Emperor. The path Vir chose in Babylon 5. (Though in Straczynski’s more sophisticated story arc, Vir acted as a mirror to Londo who, eventually, redeemed himself somewhat. Londo was an intelligent and self-reflective villain who truly wanted to do well by his people. Somehow, I don’t see Spicer helping Trump come to a greater understanding of himself.)
Spicer is playing the part of bumbling henchman to villain Trump. What’s his character arc?
I, for one, am rooting for Spicey. I’d love for this to be the final straw in his bumbling henchman character arc. I’d love for him to dump Trump and come clean about what’s really been going on behind the scenes in the White House. In this story, accepting that Trump really is evil (or incompetent, or both) and sharing the truth with the world is redemption.
Hey, Spicey, we’re rooting for you!