The trope of killing someone as an act of mercy to end his/her suffering is a staple in science fiction and fantasy. Sometimes it’s done matter-of-factly to show that a hero doesn’t hesitate to make a tough but noble choice. Other times there’s a little bit of a psychological struggle with the characters wondering if it’s moral or if they can live with themselves afterward. (See tvtropes.org for a long list of examples.)
But I find that even if there is a psychological dilemma present (as, for example, we see in the last episode of season 2 of The Walking Dead) it’s such a run-of-the-mill plot device that it really doesn’t affect me.
The hero’s struggle with whether he or she can still retain the moral high ground after such an act is a moot point. Of course that character is still heroic. He is even more heroic now, and the fact that he feels shitty about having to perform a mercy killing only increases his level of heroism. So in general I feel it’s a bit of a waste of time for authors to build up the psychology behind mercy killing as something shocking. There’s no shock factor left.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to come across an actually fresh psychological spin on the trope in Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World. (Yes, I know it’s a crime that I’ve never read his books until now, but better late than never!)
Here’s how the scene plays out:
One of the protagonists, Perrin, is certain he and his traveling companion are going to die. He briefly considers whether he could give his companion a mercy kill if the situation becomes dire. He is spared having to do so, but afterward he is frightened and disgusted with himself for even having considered it. Another character suggests he must hate his traveling companion a lot to want to kill her, and Perrin tries to defend himself saying he doesn’t hate her at all but loves her. It was meant to be a mercy kill, not murder. But he points out it would have been a stupid thing to do – a cruel thing – because he has no right to choose whether his companion should live or die.
What I find interesting about this is the disavowal of the trope’s typical psychology. The narrative raises the question: is mercy killing really noble, or is there some hate at the root of it somewhere?
There is something almost Freudian about Robert Jordan’s implication that the standard “kill the one we love” is tinged with an unconscious hatred of the victim. This makes the trope something completely new for me, almost as if the narrative is lifting up the curtain of what makes the trope a trope to show us a glimpse at the man working the illusion behind it. The nobleness we ascribe to the “mercy kill” isn’t inherent to the act; instead it may be just a curious fiction we have turned into a standard by way of repetition in an effort to cover up the sinister psychological illness behind anyone justifying killing anyone else.
Can there ever be a murder that’s not rooted in hate? Even a mercy killing? Maybe. Or maybe not. Either way, I love that by raising this question Jordan makes the mercy killing trope actually psychologically disturbing, instead of using the same old psychological bent the trope usually adopts. Writers should take a lesson: using your narrative to poke holes in the tropes we use to see what makes them tick makes those tropes infinitely more compelling.