Analysis

Five Stories That Violate Their Own Conceit

Believe it or not, it was once a conceit that these shows weren't from the same universe.

No story can perfectly mirror reality, especially stories with lots of speculative elements. Sometimes, for a story to work, the audience must accept certain conceits. In X-Men, we accept that mutants are persecuted for their powers, even though in real life they’d be rock stars. In the Dresden Files, we accept that wizards don’t get involved in human conflicts, even to save their own people from hardship. These conceits don’t make sense when analyzed logically, but we agree to them so we can enjoy the story. They allow us to achieve the much-vaunted suspension of disbelief.

Occasionally, a story will violate a conceit we’ve already accepted. This may be done deliberately as a form of lampshading, or it might be sloppy storytelling. Whatever the reason, it’s much harder to accept a conceit after the story breaks it. Consider these five examples.

1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Guns

Buffy with a rocket launcher.

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, fights are settled with punches and kicks. For a really serious battle, the slayer might bring out a broadsword. In a modern setting, this immediately raises the question: why don’t they use guns? Even if guns can’t actually kill a vampire, they can certainly cause more damage than a kick or a punch. Vampires have even more motivation to use guns, since slayers aren’t bulletproof.

There’s no logical way to explain Buffy’s lack of firearms.* At the same time, the show would not work if the characters were packing heat. The melee combat allows for all the witty banter that Joss Whedon is known for, to say nothing of the show’s heavy emphasis on magical blades and mystic training sessions. The light mood probably wouldn’t survive a hail of bullets, either.

And so the audience agrees to accept that guns don’t exist in the Buffyverse. Or if they do, they’re not useful for anything related to the supernatural. This conceit allows everyone to enjoy all the clever fight scenes without any worry about guns. At least it does until the show blatantly violates it by putting guns in the spotlight.

The most infamous firearms incident on Buffy is the murder of Tara, but it’s hardly the only one. Earlier in the show, Xander makes good use of an M16 against a horde of monsters, and because there’s no kill like overkill, Buffy uses a rocket launcher to destroy a demon. At one point, a tech-savvy vampire even mocks one of his elders for using a sword when he could be using a submachine gun. And that’s not considering the spin off, Angel, where guns are everywhere.

All these guns make it difficult to take the melee fighting seriously. It was hard enough to suspend our disbelief without the show making it harder!

2. Harry Potter: Quidditch Safety

Harry on his broom in a thunder storm.

When Quidditch is first explained in the Sorcerer’s Stone, it seems like an absurdly dangerous game. Players zoom around on flying brooms with only the strength of their grip to keep them from falling to their deaths. Even discounting the danger of losing one’s grip, the game has two bludgers that specifically try to knock players off their brooms. Games are held even when it’s pouring rain, making the brooms that much harder to hold on to. And they let twelve-year-olds play this game! How is Hogwarts not losing students?

After the initial disbelief, a solution is obvious: safety charms. The wizarding world has a spell for absolutely everything; surely they could craft something to slow a quidditch player’s fall. That sounds like a logical first step for a game where falling off one’s broom is not only possible but expected.

This explanation holds up until the first quidditch game, when Quirrell tries to kill Harry by hexing him to fall off his broom. Apparently there are no safety charms after all. Worse, Quirrell’s plan is made to look like an accident, which indicates that a player falling is a common event. That’s pretty grim.

If that weren’t enough, the idea of safety charms is further disproved later in the series, when Harry actually is knocked off his broom by a dementor. The only reason he doesn’t splat on the ground is that Dumbledore was in the stands with a slow-fall spell ready. In fact, Dumbledore’s spell makes the issue even harder to ignore, because apparently wizards could implement safety procedures, and they just don’t.

Of course, we all know the reason quidditch doesn’t have safety charms: drama. Harry plays a lot of quidditch, and it’s much easier to put him in exciting danger if there’s no magical net to save him. But sometimes writing a good story means choosing the difficult path over the easy one.

3. Supergirl: Punching Crime

Supergirl putting her hand over a criminal's shotgun.

Like many superhero stories, the TV show Supergirl features a character with amazing powers. The titular Supergirl is very active in defending Earth from alien threats, but she also intercedes against human criminals. Whether it’s mugging, hostage taking, or bank robbery,* Supergirl is there to save the day.

Anyone who understands crime knows this is a terrible idea. Using someone as powerful as Supergirl to stop street crime is like deploying cruise missiles to kill a fly. She ignores police, causes an incredible amount of property damage, and contaminates evidence without a second thought. And then there are legal issues to consider. Supergirl is the very definition of excessive force, and her X-ray vision probably constitutes an unreasonable search. If Supergirl really wanted to reduce crime, she could spend some time turning a crank to generate free power, thus reducing poverty, a primary driver of street crime.

But for the purposes of this show, we accept the conceit that National City needs Supergirl to punch crime. That is, until an episode late in season two. The episode starts like any other, with Supergirl flying in to free some hostages, but this time there’s a twist: Detective Maggie Sawyer, an important side-character, is angered by Supergirl’s antics.

Later, at an incredibly uncomfortable dinner, Maggie launches into a tirade. She goes on about how Supergirl shouldn’t be intervening in normal crimes because her methods disrupt investigations and are likely to escalate a situation. This is awkward because she’s absolutely right, but acknowledging that undermines the show’s entire premise.

After the angry dinner argument, the episode handily shows how right Maggie is. During a delicate investigation, Supergirl loses her cool and nearly assults a prisoner, making him clam up and refuse to cooperate. Maggie rightly berates Supergirl for this, but it rings a little false. In previous episodes, many characters including Maggie have beaten up prisoners, and it’s been treated as fine.

The episode ends with both Maggie and Supergirl supposedly learning to understand each other’s point of view, but it never actually addresses Supergirl’s actions. It’s not as if she stops going after mundane criminals in later episodes. For the sake of one episode’s drama, the writers sabotaged their most important premise.

4. The X-Files: Skepticism and Belief

Scully and Mulder's faces, side by side.

In The X-Files, it’s understood that Mulder will believe in anything, no matter how sparse the evidence is, and that Scully will never believe anything without the most concrete proof, no matter what other weird things she’s seen.

Logically, this dynamic makes no sense. Mulder is an intelligent agent; he should know that aliens, cryptids, and the supernatural aren’t hiding under every rock. At the same time, it’s not long before Scully has seen just as many strange things as Mulder, and she should be past the point of knee-jerk denials.

As little sense as it makes, the Scully/Mulder dynamic is vital to the show’s charm. It’s endearing to watch Mulder frantically try to explain that something weird is going on, only for Scully to give him an incredulous look. That’s just how the characters act, and we love them for it.

Until the episode Beyond the Sea,* anyway. In this adventure, Scully and Mulder encounter a convict who claims he can read minds. This is still in the first season, but even by then, they’ve seen enough that telepathy is par for the course, so it’s a surprise when Mulder is extremely skeptical. He insists on subjecting the convict to tests, which the convict fails, and Mulder declares him a fraud.

That’s very logical thinking, but it’s completely unlike Mulder. He sees the supernatural everywhere, and counter-evidence has never swayed him before. The episode tries to explain this by saying that the convict is a serial killer that Mulder helped catch, but that isn’t particularly convincing, considering all the other factors Mulder ignores.

Even weirder, Scully is convinced the convict can indeed read minds. She believes this because of a psychic vision she has in his presence. This change makes even less sense than Mulder’s. If Scully was so easily convinced, she’d believe in everything. Then Mulder lectures her about believing in supernatural phenomena without proof. Not only does this make Mulder seem like a jerk, but it’s incredibly inconsistent. He should be celebrating that just once, Scully believes without needing a mountain of proof.

By changing the character dynamics without a strong motivation, The X-Files highlights the cracks in its own foundation. We’ve already accepted that Mulder and Scully don’t behave like real people; don’t make it harder for us!

5. Star Wars: Gray Jedi

Imperial Knight "Gray Jedi" from deep in the EU.

In Star Wars, the dark side is both evil and seductive. It’s so evil that anyone who aligns with it can be killed without remorse, and it’s so seductive that it tempts even paragons of virtue like Luke Skywalker. The darkside is like cancer with a sales pitch so good that people are lining up to smoke cigarettes.

Under closer inspection, this feels a little hokey. In real life, evil rarely announces itself with black clothes and red lightsabers. The dark side’s seduction is also forced. Luke has no conceivable reason to join Palpatine in Return of the Jedi. That is, besides “mind control,” which is never a satisfactory explanation.

Despite any critical-thinking pieces we might write, most of us can still enjoy Star Wars because we accept that the dark side is what the films claim. It might not make sense, but it’s a necessary entry fee for one of scifi’s greatest franchises. But then the extended universe had to invent Gray Jedi.

A Gray Jedi* is exactly what it sounds like: a Force user who walks the line between light and dark. They appear mostly in video games and tie-in novels. As presented, they are actually just Light Jedi who have figured out how to use the dark-coded powers like Force lightning without falling to the dark side. If that’s possible, why doesn’t everyone do it?

More irritating is the basic idea of being able to “walk the line” between dark and light. The dark side is evil. We’re not talking about roguish acts that Han Solo might commit, but full on, puppy-killing evil. Saying that Gray Jedi can have a “balance” of the dark side is like saying they only kill a puppy once a week. That’s still terrible, even if other people kill a puppy every day.

And of course, Gray Jedi are immune to the dark side’s powerful seduction. That’s easily the most terrifying aspect of the dark side, and they render it completely impotent – a heavy cost indeed just to have some overly-edgy Force user throwing lightning bolts.


Stories occasionally get away with violating their own conceit, but each time they do, it’s harder for the audience to accept. Even the most heavily fact-checked story requires some suspension of disbelief, and making that harder is never a good idea.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    About 4: I think they could have toned it down a little more. Perhaps, despite knowing not everything has to do with aliens and other supernatural stuff, Mulder is just more ready and willing to belive in supernatural explanations. In turn, Scully can still be sceptical at first, but she should be ready to accept it’s something totally out of her scientific corner, if it turns out to be (as it often is). I always found it a little strange especially a mostly logical person like Scully didn’t at least accept the facts she has seen so far.

    About 5: I would say Gray Jedi are more about using the force in ways that could be described as ‘Dark Side’ (perhaps using a little force choking in a fight) and not as ‘only killing a puppy once a week.’ Luke didn’t turn in “Return of the Jedi” (although there’s a now-defunct comic series called “Dark Empire” in which he did turn completely) and in the now defunct EU, there were other characters who had a brush with the Dark Side, but never fully crossed (like in my favourite novel “I, Jedi”). Besides, there must be many neutral powers, because both Dark and Light Jedi use telekinesis or telepathy. Therefore, a Gray Jedi could also be described as someone who keeps to those neutral powers mostly.

  2. SunlessNick

    The only way grey jedi make sense is if their existence is part of a process of discovering that the light and dark sides represent something other than good or evil (I’ve used thought and passion before), and that it’s the sith that make the dark side evil rather than the other way round.

  3. Johnathan Preshaw

    Supergirl’s X-ray vision isn’t an unreasonable search because she isn’t a state actor.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I don’t know about the comics, but in the show she’s an employee of the DEO, which is a US Government agency. I don’t know how that shakes out to her being an agent of law enforcement.

  4. Laura Ess

    SUPERGIRL
    I think this show has Kara combating street crime because apart from disasters (like ships leaking oil, and space planes almost crashing) that’s a point of interaction with the people of the city. They can’t think of her as a hero unless they see her doing something heroic. However, I liked that season 2 explored these issues. It wasn’t just about Kara and Maggie, but Jimmy plays at being a vigilante hero (with Winn’s support) not because he has a calling for it, but because as a professional sidekick, he has hero-envy. And that backfires as well, when he busts what looks like an evil drug deal but turns out to be an alien trying to get some weed to alleviate issues related to living on Earth.

    FORCE USERS
    I think the issue around dark, light and grey force users in the STAR WARS series is really an issue about control. If say, you have a bunch of people roaming the galaxy and dispensing summary justice, you really don’t want them doing that (or doing anything) merely on a whim. That would result in (more) chaos! I see this as a classic conflict between self-interest vs altruism / the individual’s vs society’s needs. The Jedi had found a way to exist in in the old Republic by being galactic trouble shooters, but to do so they had to show that they could be a) impartial and b) reliable. Hence a code that emphasized impartiality and detachment from strong emotion.

    Anakin becomes a Sith not so much because because he was attracted to it, but because he was an emotionally flawed and immature character. Perhaps for some force users – maybe the ones that use the force by immersing that use in their emotional state – each time they act in a “dark” manner (i.e. in an emotionally invested fashion) that gives them an enormous emotional kick. It wouldn’t take much – under the right circumstances – for such force use to become ADDICTIVE. Hence The Emperor and Darth Vader who will use the force to summarily execute the incompetent and those that irritate them.

    Perhaps Grey force users then, don’t see see this as a dichotomy between light and dark, partially because perhaps, they’re more emotionally mature (e.g. they accept that they have both dark light in them) or connected in other ways, so that excessive force use won’t overwhelm them?

  5. Bronze Dog

    From hints of what I’m seeing so far, I suspect that we’ll be seeing a new perspective on the Force in the upcoming Star Wars movies. At the moment, it’s my working theory that the whole “bring balance to the Force” prophecy about Anakin/Vader was about wiping out both the Jedi and the Sith, who each practiced one side exclusively: The imbalance wasn’t about one side beating the other, but about how the Jedi and Sith teachings made for extremely swingy individuals.

    One thing I suspect factors into Jedi being seduced by the dark side relatively easily is that they’re more trained to avoid temptation and suppress emotion, rather than resist it. It’s why they raise Force-sensitive infants like monks, rather than let them live a normal life, dealing with the full range of emotions, attachments, and inner conflicts. So when a Jedi falls, they fall hard.

    • Cay Reet

      Which would actually explain why Luke is capable of pulling himself out of it in Dark Empire … he lived a normal life until around 20. He is seduced, he goes into it, but he also has the strength to pull himself away.

      Or why the guy in “I, Jedi” whose name I can’t remember at the moment, can recognize what is happening and can steer clear of it.

  6. JXMcKie

    Now the Potterverse and Quidditch safety is already mentioned, there is also the problem with guns and physical violence in the Potterverse. Wgen Voldemor and his Deatheaters are on a rampage, why don´t the Ministry of Magic ask the Muggles Prime minister something like this :”We now Voldemors whereabouts and would like you to stop him, by using your muggle fighter bombers dropping some heavy ordnance on his hidding place – End of Voldemor and Deatheaters”. Of course this solution is prevented, because earlier in the series the reader is told, that magic users are “immune” to muggles firearms and suchlike. By if that is the case, why do Harry then run away (at least in the early books) to avoid getting beating up by Dudley ? Surely, if bullets can´t harm magic users, then fist will harm then even less, but apparently (like in Buffyverse) fist and kicks can do what bullets cannot ? Strange !

    • Cay Reet

      I can’t remember it saying anywhere that wizards or witches are immune to firearms, event though they’re capable of turning fire into something cold, so they can’t be burned (see witch hunts). And Harry can clearly be injured by fists (as can Draco, ask Hermione).

      Wizards don’t really understand muggle technology and it seems few muggleborns are inside the ministry in important positions. Either the deal between muggle and wizarding Britain doesn’t include any military help (if it did, why not have a wizard torch the enemy positions in war time?) or they just aren’t aware of this solution.

      • JXMcKie

        I must admit I can´t remember exactly where, and in which Potter-book, it is stated that guns can´t harm magic users, and maybe I am wrong and confusing it with dialogue from the movies, or from a fansite discussion, but I do think there is a comparison in one of the books, between magic wands and muggles using firearms. If firearms actually IS able to harm magic users, then it makes even less sense, that they are not used in and against the magic world (and how about magically augmented firearms ?) It does make even less sense, than wizards NOT interfering with “grand” muggels world events, like say WWII ! Of course the Potterverse had to adopt these premises, to get the whole plot working, but it sort of violates it own conceit, when there is amble evidence, that magic user can be harmed by impact from punches, kicks, falling of their broomstick in Quidditch match, etc.

        • Cay Reet

          Remember there is a strict divide between muggles and wizards. Even most muggleborns who enter Hogwarts never seem to go back.

          And since most wizards have next to no idea about muggles (muggle studies is an elective, meaning not all students need to take it), they have no idea what firearms are, I guess. Britain is not full of them, anyway, so it’s not as if you see them at every street corner. And if a person who at least tries to understand muggle ways like Arthur Weasley already fails at things like rubber ducks or electrical plugs, do you really think they can get their mind around a gun? Wizards have been blissfully ignorant of everything muggles have invented for a long time. And they obviously did not take part in WWII (even though it’s suggested that Grindlewald’s rise was at the same time).

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I have long been obsessed with the issue of guns in Harry Potter, and I don’t *think* there’s any direct indication in the books or movies that wizards are immune to muggle weapons, other than a general disregard for all things muggle.

  7. Alverant

    Steve Long, lawyer and creator of the Champions Superhero RPG, had a section in one of his books about the legal use of superpowers. By his reasoning using natural x-ray vision falls under the “plain sight” exception to the 4th amendment. The logic following how drug-sniffing drugs are legal. So it may be OK for Supergirl to fly over the interstate and randomly check buildings for crimes in progress. Of course. public opinion would turn against her in an instant. OTOH if someone built a pair of x-ray goggles, that would be illegal to use since it’s external and can be turned off and on.

    It’s a case where the law hasn’t caught up with technology yet. For instance it’s legal to search through your trash because you threw it out so it’s no longer your property. But that also allows for authorities to get your DNA when they offer you plastic glass of water. Using IR cameras to pick up waste heat (used in the growing of a certain illegal plant) has also been argued in the courts.

    • Cay Reet

      I can get behind that argument. In Supergirl’s case, it’s a natural ability which she just has. If she spots something without even looking for it, it’s natural. It’s like a guy with a drug-sniffing dog going down the street and the dog reacting, because the person he’s walking past happens to have drugs on him. But if he walked into a building in order to let the dog loose, it would be different.

  8. Jesse

    I used to be really into the Star Wars EU, and I don’t remember anything quite like the Gray Jedi until after Episode 1 and the whole prophecy to bring “balance to the force”. Since those films were a train wreck and I’m not convinced even George Lucas knew what that prophecy meant, other authors stepped in with Gray Jedi as the answer. It’s possible I’m way off base, I haven’t followed anything outside the movies for a long time now. But it seems that problem mainly came about due to poor story telling by the prequels.

    • GeniusLemur

      Interesting possibility. I didn’t know about them until now, and my suspicion, based solely on what was in the article, was that the gray Jedi come from writers, etc. who wanted their UBER BADASS super-Jedi character to use the SEW KEWL force lightning, force choke, etc.

    • R. H. Rush

      Agreed. Some of the “backstage” footage I’ve seen for Episode 1 shows Lucas looking at the models for the settings, saying how great they are, and then adding, “I guess I should get started writing the screenplay.” Cue nervous laughter from the set designers.

      And considering how the prequels conflict with the backstory as established in the Original Trilogy (the OT implies that Anakin was not only an adult, but an established star pilot by the time he met Obi-Wan, the interplay between Obi-Wan and Owen as related by Obi-Wan suggests that Anakin was the younger brother, Leia telling Luke about the few memories she has of her mother, who then obviously didn’t die in childbirth), I feel like Lucas came up with the story for the prequels without remembering what he’d come up with in the OT, and not caring enough to go back and find out. Which is why, in my head, the prequels don’t exist; if Lucas couldn’t be bothered enough to care about them, then why should I?

      The Grey Jedi thing does point out the problems in the theology as presented in the OT: Yoda tells Luke that once you give in to the Dark Side, it’ll dominate you forever. Luke believes Vader still has good in him, and then witnesses Vader disproving Yoda’s teachings by coming back to the light (I’d argue that Luke didn’t plan to bring his father back, but that’s getting off the point), so obviously Yoda’s statement was incorrect. You can handwave that (given what happened to his father, Yoda may have been treating Luke like a dry alcoholic presented with a large beer), but I think the movies would have been better if the assertion had been less absolute. Because in the real world, it’s not “give in to hate and anger even once, and you’re evil forever, that’s how powerful they are,” it’s that hate and anger are addictive emotions, and you have to be careful to avoid making decisions based on those emotions.

      It would have kept the theology more intact, and given a better lesson to the audience; as it is, the audience kind of comes away from the movies with “wow, the Jedi didn’t really know what they were talking about with all that hate/anger stuff, did they? I wonder what else they got wrong.”

      • Cay Reet

        Yes, there’s a lot of differences between the prequels and the OT. Which is one reason why I never really got into the prequels (whiny Anakin being another reason).

        For a Jedi who should remember the ‘only Sith deal in absolutes’ idea, Yoda can be pretty limited in his view. But then, he’s an old man at the end of his life, having lived 20 or so years alone on a swamp planet (which, admittedly, is something like 2 years or so for a human, given his much larger lifespan). I think whatever Yoda was teaching Luke needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

        It makes no sense that once you go dark you can’t come back. Humans just aren’t wired like that – neither are most alien species as seen in Star Wars. It might become harder the longer you stay on the Dark Side (both because of what you have done and because of a possible ‘getting used’ to the Dark Side), but it would never be impossible to be redeemed, unless you really don’t want to be. I can’t imagine the Emperor wanting to come back, but it makes sense that Vader’s/Anakin’s love could make him break away for the sake of his children.

  9. Steven

    The dark side was never portrayed as evil before return of the jedi

    The dark side is like the shadow of Carl Jung…passionate emotions that reveal hidden truths about a human being.

    The dark side is the only “character” in empire strikes back to bother to tell Luke who his father is.

    The dark side is not inherently evil but merely a different aspect of the force.

  10. Evie

    The problem with Star Wars is that how well the Grey Jedi fit depends largely (as the trilogy would put it) on one’s own point of view. Specifically, one’s point of view on Yoda, and Yoda’s explanation on the Force.

    If one accept Yoda as essentially correct on the metaphysics of the Star Wars universe, then the central conceit are monolithic light and darkness, with the darkness so pervasive that even giving in to it once dooms you forevermore. There is no room for Grey Jedi in this universe. Of course, this view also strains to explain how Anakin could be redeemed, and lead to the many theories that Luke *did* fall to the Dark Side in Jedi. Call this the orthodox view of Star Wars.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum is what we might call the revisionist view, which essentially start from the idea that the original trilogy, at several points (most notably the entire Luke/Vader relation, culminating in Vader’s redemption), shows Yoda to be *wrong* about a lot of things, regarding the Force. In that perspective, the central conceit is that two of two opposed ideals, but not monolithic nor absolute ones, with much more room fluidity between them than suggested by Yoda.

    Gray jedi and similar views are a pretty good fit in the Star Wars conceit as understood by the revisionists, and an awful fit in the Star Wars conceit as understood by the orthodox. the former tend to introduce elements like that in the expanded universe when given the chance ; the later respond by clamping down on those elements, or portraying them as either part of the light or the dark but in denial about it.

    • Cay Reet

      And the extended universe holds group like the Dathomirian Witches who also use the force, but are no Jedi … and a few other small groups.

      Technically, Grey Jedi would be possible, but since Star Wars is a space opera/fairy tale with technology, it relies on a clear good/evil diconomy.

  11. Carl

    I think it’s just established by this point that safety considerations aren’t a big concern in the magical corners of the Harry Potter universe. Whether this is because they have magical medicine, or expect people to come back as ghosts anyway is never explicitly stated, but…

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