So I wasn’t going to do another post on “Death Note” – and I can promise you this will be the final one – but I decided on this topic because I realized that the flaws actually had a lot to do with the superversive philosophy. So I think this will be instructive even for people who aren’t necessarily fans of the franchise.
“Death Note” is basically two different animes with one title (as usual, this is my catch-all for both the anime and the manga, though in this case there are actually some instructive differences). The first half is an absolute masterpiece of concept, characterization, and (particularly) plotting, with multiple iconic moments and a level of consistent suspense that would make Alfred Hitchcock turn green with envy.
The second half is…meh.
I am sure fans of the franchise know where I’m going with this, and it’s really impossible to avoid spoilers if I’m going to discuss it. If you haven’t seen the show yet, do so before you read ahead.
All right, let’s do this.
The death of L was the end of the franchise’s golden run. What happened is actually fairly common, and I’ve seen it before. The franchise decided it was going to go with a totally unexpected, game-changing move in order ratchet up the suspense and surprise people. “Sherlock” did the same thing in “The Reichenbach Fall”, and “Justified” did the same thing in the season 4 finale, “Ghosts”.
In all three cases, the actual episode was brilliant; for all of “Sherlock’s” flaws “The Reichenbach Fall” is the best episode of television I’ve ever seen. Yet in all three cases, there was a problem: the writers had no idea where to go from there. (“Breaking Bad” actually made this sort of thing its stock in trade; one of the main selling points of the show is that the writers would pull these sorts of massive game-changers constantly and follow the consequences to their logical and often brutal conclusions.)
In “Justified’s” case, they frantically tried to ratchet things back to the status quo, resulting in a mostly entertaining but sloppy season 5, and the show never fully righted itself until season 6. “Sherlock” did the same thing (twice, in fact), and even more sloppily; unlike “Justified” it never fully recovered despite a couple of good outlier episodes stuck between some real disasters.
“Death Note” is an interesting case. While it did accept and work with its new status quo, this caused a different problem: The new status quo simply wasn’t as interesting as the old one.
The problem with killing off L is that L was the hero. The writers put a hell of a lot of work and thought into L. After the Lind L. Taylor scene, we’re already impressed with him (Light’s “This could have been interesting if you were just a little smarter” is a great line). We watch as Light alters his actions in an attempt to throw L off his trail, and how L figures things out and reacts accordingly. We meet him, see his habits, his personality, the way he moves and thinks and eats. We see him take enormous risks and watch as he very carefully and slowly, but inexorably, tightens his net around Kira.
And we watch him die. We watch him lose.
This was a great episode…and this was where Death Note lost people. Because it lead to a lot of problems.
You see, everyone wanted L to win. And when L dies, we cut to…4 years later.
4 years later? So it was all for nothing? His work went nowhere?
And then we’re introduced to Near and Mello, or as I like to call them, punchable L and crazy L.
Near and Mello are introduced to us as L’s successors, but everything about them falls flat. Near is – and I don’t know how else to put this – just a terrible character. He looks and acts like L, except that he doesn’t do anything. L was active, he took risks, he threw himself directly into an epic mental battle with Kira. L put absolutely everything on the line. Near just sits there and works out stuff through a computer, then acts all cocky about it. He’s like L if L was lame.
Mello is actually, in his own way, an interesting character, but the way he’s used is just terrible. He’s supposed to be the “active” side of L in contrast to Near’s “intellectual” side, but the writers use him as a plot device who occasionally shows up, wreaks havoc, then completely disappears for long stretches of time. What is he doing? How is he running his own investigation? We don’t know and don’t get any explanations for silly things like him getting access to an actual missile. And he’d be a somewhat sympathetic antihero (though not nearly enough to make up for L’s death) if we didn’t see him straight up murder almost the entirety of Near’s task force for no reason other than spite.
The idea the creators had was to make Near and Mello the two different halves of L – Near being the intellectual half and Mello being the half that moves and take action. But this leads to two other problems.
First, splitting L into two halves does nothing but create two distinctly unlikable characters. If L doesn’t make moves and take risks, we don’t respect him, thus Near. And if L is a maniac who acts impulsively and murders people out of spite we don’t like him, thus Mello. You’re sacrificing one great character for two weak ones.
Second, if you’re going to use two “halves” of L solve the mystery anyway…why did you kill off L at all? Why not just use L?
The obvious answer to “How could you have L win the game without making it appear too easy?” is a simple but effective one: L wins, but sacrifices his life to do so. Thus the victory is accomplished with the proper sacrifice. The second Death Note Japanese movie actually accomplishes this in a suitably clever way, and I’d say – hesitatingly – that if it was extended a bit it would probably be superior to the way the anime/manga ended.
There is even a way Near and Mello could have worked. Flash forwarding to four years later was a mistake. It cements the fact that L lost, and again, people need a hero to root for or “Death Note” becomes unpalatable, coasting along solely on the fact that we want the maniac Light to die. And there’s really no way to go through a new investigation without rehashing things we already went through in the first half of the anime. The only way to avoid that is for the plot to become increasingly outlandish and ridiculous. The first half of the anime is expertly plotted. It has nearly no exploitable holes, and any that you can find are so subtle that the odds you’ll even notice them the first time around are extremely low. The second half is so woolly I’m still not entirely convinced the ending even make sense.
For Near and Mello to work, they need to be an extension of L. Once again – L can’t lose. This is very different from saying L can’t DIE. L can definitely die, so long as HIS plan and HIS work leads to Kira’s ultimate defeat. So here’s an idea:
One of my only issues with the first half of the anime is the reaction of the anti-Kira task force following L’s death. L dies IMMEDIATELY after saying he believes the 13 day rule – the rule that if a Death Note is not used for 13 days, the owner will die – is fake. And the shinigami Rem disappears directly after L’s death. So why does the task force not investigate this idea further?
The answer I THINK the anime is trying to get you to buy is that they are starting to believe that L is fixated on Light – that he has been proven conclusively innocent but L refuses to let the idea go. This is the tragedy of L – he KNOWS Light is Kira, but nobody believes him, so it’s clear in the final episode that he knows he’s living on borrowed time: Kira has no reason to keep him alive anymore. He’s been completely cleared. Hence L’s impatience when he realizes he’s hit upon the crucial clue that will unravel the whole thing but the task force is unwilling to test it.
So what if we see L secretly contact Near and Mello before his death, tell them he’s going to die soon, but that the 13 day rule is fake? Then immediately after L’s death we don’t flash forward to four years later but instead see Near and Mello DIRECTLY advancing L’s work, and it is L’s final deductions, and his secret hand-off to Near and Mello, unbeknownst to Light, that ultimately leads to Light’s downfall. If we do this it allows us to more properly accept Near and Mello as true successors and to see L as the ultimate winner of the game, providing the necessary closure to his story – because ending it with his death and the unraveling of all his work is the opposite of closure. It’s moving back to square one. We can hit home even more L’s current involvement in the story if we see Near and Mello having “conversations” with their image of L inside of their head, which allows us to see L’s continued impact even more clearly.
This is speculation, of course, though I think it could work; I’d imagine it would be more simple just to end the whole thing with the end of L’s story.
So that’s my diagnosis: For “Death Note” to work you need a hero, a man to root for, because without that the story is no longer satisfying to watch. If you don’t care about any of the people Light is facing off against, why do you care if Light wins? “Death Note” managed to coast along to its finale on the strength of the promise of Light’s downfall, and even then only barely.
One last thing: I will note that the final two episodes, where L and Near finally have their stand-off, are immensely satisfying, though I must admit to strongly preferring the ending of the manga to the anime. Light doesn’t deserve dignity in death; he deserves to beg. But both versions work fairly well.
To close out my “Death Note” series, I leave you with this surprisingly awesome song from the surprisingly awesome “Death Note” musical; skip to a 1:25 to see the real fun start.