I was thinking of Magnum PI today because I’ve just read that Glen Larson died. Magnum was only one of his many creations, but it sticks in my mind because of one moment that was so devastating, I even remember the name of the episode. And it makes me think about what makes a story moment so powerful, so iconic, that it stays with you forever. I think most examples probably come from film, but there have been moments in books when I sat up and gaped at the page, not just because they were such plot game-changers, but because their impact was so huge on my perception of that character.
If you haven’t watched “Did You See the Sunrise?” skip the next couple of paragraphs.
SPOILERS START HERE:
I first saw “Did You See the Sunrise” in 1982, so I was a jaded old married lady by then. Magnum was a fun show to watch: Tom Selleck and John Hillerman snarking at each other made up for the lame mysteries, and the show had a strong cast and story community. There were some brutal Viet Nam flashbacks that I think were there to set up why Magnum was so serious about pursuing a good time now, but generally the show didn’t move anybody out of their comfort zones.
And then they did “Did You See the Sunrise?” Magnum’s Viet Nam past comes back to haunt him in the form of Ivan, a Russian assassin, who blows up Magnum’s car just as one of his friends (and long time recurring cast member and therefore a friend of the audience) says, “Did you see the sunrise this morning? Beautiful.” Bang. At the end, Magnum has Ivan alone in the jungle in this moment. And that was the end of the episode.
The reaction to that was phenomenal. Heroes did not execute people, even assassins. They killed in self defense, to save people in immediate danger, they did not shoot unarmed men in the face. And Magnum was one of the great, iconic heroes of the decade; how could he possibly have done that? And yet, you wanted him to. The scene made the audience complicit in its brutality, its understanding that sometimes fair play is for suckers, and it’s flat-out endorsement of murder as a solution. But mostly, it’s the first time you really understand who Magnum is. The Viet Nam flashbacks tell you how horrible the war was, the hell he went through, but it isn’t until you see those normally laughing eyes go cold that you realize there’s a whole ‘nother dimension there.
It reminds me of another iconic moment I’ve played over and over, the end of Life. Just as the Magnum series kept hitting the damage the war had done to its title character, so Life kept hitting the damage prison had done to its protagonist. You see him healing in the broken places throughout the series, but the cracks are always there, you just don’t know how deep they go until the very end when he says, “Do you know how I survived twelve years in prison?” and transforms into a savage killer before your eyes. A moment later, a corpse beside him, he’s normal again, but your perception of the character is changed forever. (And my admiration for Damian Lewis as an actor went into the stratosphere.)
I love those moments. They mean I can go back and read/watch the same story and have it all be completely new. Great episodes have those moments that change everything that came before in that episode/chapter (“Gordon, you’re wearing my shirt”), but the truly iconic moments change entire books/movies/TV series because suddenly the characters have dimensions you never saw before. And of course, I’m trying one of those now in the book I’m doing, so I’m fixating on that.
Which brings me to my question of the day: What are your iconic story memories, the moments when your mouth dropped open and suddenly everything was different, richer, deeper, better?
(Spoilers encouraged, so if you’re a spoiler phobe, don’t read the comments.)