Killing Peter Bailey

“So. Mary kills George’s dad here, right?” We’re watching It’s a Wonderful Life, my wife and I. It’s one of those movies I like to watch every Christmas, along with Elf, A Christmas Story, and some adaptation of A Christmas Carol. It’s a question my wife has asked before when we’re watching the movie. Here’s the scene in question:

George is walking Mary home from the big dance, both wearing borrowed clothing from the Bedford Falls High School athletic department. They’re flirting in a wholesome, 1930s sort of way when they come across the old Granville house, a dilapidated hulk of a building where the young lovers will one day live as squatters after they’re married. George weighs a rock in his hand and prepares to huck it, explaining town tradition of making a wish and trying to break some glass. Mary tries to stop him, but he wishes anyway. He wishes to see the world, to shake off the dust of the town. Mary interrupts George by throwing her own rock and refusing to reveal her wish.

Keep in mind, this is the same Mary who professed her undying love for George once before, as a young girl at the counter of the drug store. She’s known he wants to leave the town her whole life, since that very scene in fact. He shows off his membership in the National Geographic society and wonders how someone couldn’t like coconut given its exotic origins. Mary doesn’t want coconut, though, and she doesn’t want the world. She wants a life in Bedford Falls. With George Bailey. So, naturally, her wish a decade later is for George to not leave town. For something, anything, to keep him in Bedford Falls.

Then, George’s father dies. George takes over the Building and Loan. He never sees the world. He marries Mary. They become squatters, and he lives his life in that little town he never wanted to do anything but leave. And it all started with Mary making one little wish.

The story already takes place in a world with a hint of the fantastic and the super natural. After all, there are angels interceding with the lives of mortals. It’s the entire purpose of the movie. It’s a small step from that to a world where wishes can, occasionally, come true. Though come true in a rather dark and unintended way. Mary only wanted George to stay in Bedford Falls. She didn’t mean to kill his father. You can see it in the awkwardness the next time they’re together. Her, knowing what she’s done. The guilt actually drives her away from George for a while, into the arms of Sam Wainwright. In getting what she wanted, but not how she wanted it, she was too anxious to take it.

But, our heroes end up together. They have to. Bedford Falls will accept nothing else.

Merry Christmas.

Update: I wrote the above in a humorous and flippant tone, but it’s made me think more about Mary and her role within It’s A Wonderful Life. And I’ve come to an odd conclusion. Mary Hatch Bailey is the antagonist of that movie.

Alright, I already know what you’re saying. Mr. Potter is clearly the antagonist of the movie. But in the classical sense, he’s not. Let’s outline the definitions. The protagonist is the main character of the movie. The protagonist has a goal. The antagonist stands in direct opposition to that goal.

While George Bailey lives a wonderful life and helps all the people of the town, it’s never his goal to do so. His goal, as stated several times in the first half of the movie, is to get out of Bedford Falls. To travel the world, see everything that there is to see. Mr. Potter is not the antagonist because he would also love George to leave town. If George leaves, the Building and Loan would fail, and Potter could take control of that last bit of town just outside of his grasp.

The character that stands in the way of that goal is Mary Hatch, later Mary Bailey. Leaving aside the above considerations of her witch powers, she is the only human actor that keeps George from leaving town. The most direct time she does so is during the bank run by offering up their honeymoon money so people can make it through the week until the bank reopens. In doing so she ties George to the town in the short-term, by not giving him his globe-trotting honeymoon, and in the long-term by securing the Building and Loan that he feels obligated to. If the Building and Loan failed, it would suck for a lot of people, but George would be freed from that one obligation and has the wherewithal and connections to land on his feet almost anywhere he chooses.

And this is all just to point out a few simple things. First is that the antagonist of a piece is not necessarily the villain of the piece (we see this also in The Dark Knight where the Joker is the villain but Harvey Dent is the antagonist). Second is that the antagonist opposing the protagonist’s goals doesn’t necessarily make them a bad person. And, third, that the antagonist sometimes wins without it really being a bad thing.

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