The article contains spoilers for Stateless and 13 Reasons Why, as well as very minor spoilers for Little Fires Everywhere, Grey’s Anatomy, Quantico, and Sex Education.
The moral compass character is a character—often a passive, white male—who provides us with the intended moral compass of a show. While a traditional moral compass character would to be a character who behaved and thought in moral and positive ways (think ‘genuinely nice guy’, Mark Darcy (Bridget Jones’s Diary), Pete Martell (Twin Peaks) or Basil Hallward (The Picture of Dorian Gray) for instance), this is no longer the case. Now, they are presented as someone with relatable conflicts; they are portrayed as good, kind characters, and in bad situations they are usually painted as victims regardless of how they ended up in said situation.
We are entering a new age of moral compass characters. They have morphed into characters who are not these things–genuine, kind, selfless–and are actually not very moral at all. In fact, more often than not, a contemporary moral compass character is presented with as many flaws as any other character. So why are we led to gloss over their dubious integrity and intentions?
An example of this would be George O’Malley in Grey’s Anatomy. He was always a fan favourite for being the sweet, nice, kind guy—and so it is usually forgotten that he also cheated on his wife, lied about it, and lacked the backbone to come clean to his friends. We also have Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) from Sex Education. Otis is a young man who tries to help his peers, but often makes mistakes when doing so, leading to upset and disagreements. But as his intentions were good, we don’t consider Otis to be a bad person; instead we relate to the situations he finds himself in. He is the main protagonist of the show, and we find ourselves rooting for him no matter what. But once again, the thought process behind his actions doesn’t take away the damage they caused. Why do his displays of sadness and guilt lead us to question the darkness in his character, and give him the benefit of the doubt?
This article will discuss Stateless and its choice of Cam Sandford as a moral guide, and how the portrayal of morality on television has morphed over time.
So, what’s wrong with this new type of moral compass character? Well, they’re misleading. They are used to set an example of morality but are often as complicit in wrongdoings as their fellow characters, yet still give judgments of the other characters that we are supposed to trust. The moral compass character has blended with the typical ‘nice guy who isn’t actually that nice’ persona. They certainly make interesting characters who make us questions things in our own lives.
This twisted trope is becoming increasingly common. We are expected to relate to them and to see their remorse, which means they can still be a moral compass character despite their actions. While their remorse and emotional turmoil may account for their actions, it should not excuse them. But instead, we are being presented with the idea that emotionally beating yourself up about an action excuses it, and can be a substitute for doing better next time. It plays on our sympathy to mask the wrongdoings of the chosen character under a guise of relatability.
Stateless, the newly released limited series on Netflix (originally aired on ABC), tells a heart-breaking story. Based on real events, Stateless tells the story of four main characters: a flight attendant, Sofie (Yvonne Strahovski), who has run away; an asylum seeker from Afghanistan (Fayssal Bazzi); a woman managing an asylum seeker detention center (Asher Keddie); and a new employee of said detention center (Jai Courtney). We have a glimpse into the personal lives of all four, and it is immediately clear that two of them come from intense suffering. Sofie Werner (based on the real-life story of Cornelia Rau) is suffering from mental illness, possibly schizophrenia, after she suffers trauma in her personal life. She ends up wrongly detained in a UNC detention centre for 10 months after being arrested trying to leave the country without a valid passport. Ameer and his daughter Mina are asylum seekers from Afghanistan, and, after the tragic loss of half their family on their journey to Australia, they are also detained in the center holding Sofie.
The other two characters are a little different. Clare Kowitz is given a promotion which leads to her working in a managerial position overseeing the UNC detention center where Sofie, Mina, and Ameer are being held. We know from her interactions with a journalist from her past that she used to be less supportive of similar centers, but she seems determined to succeed at her job. And finally, we have Cam Sandford. He is a family man working in a low-income job and supporting his wife and three children. He initially seems to have a strong sense of morality. He shows great reluctance to take a job at the detention center, especially after his sister (an advocate for the asylum seekers in the camp) is so against it. However, he takes the job in order to make more money and give his family a better quality of life. He will be the focus of this analysis, although I will be including discussions of other characters from other media.
Cam is presented throughout Stateless as someone we can look at to guide the morality of the series. He’s a classic new-age moral compass character. Every time we see him, he is making moralistic choices and balancing his duty to his employer against what he knows to be right in his heart. This is a conflict many of us can relate to, whether the conflict is between ourselves and our employer, or ourselves and another force in our lives such as family or friends. He displays balance, falling somewhere between his sister who will stop at nothing to help asylum seekers escape, and his colleagues who take pleasure from harming and antagonising the detainees.
Cam is reluctant at first to take a job at fictionalised Barton Detention Center, despite the wage being much higher than what he is used to. His reluctance seems to stem from his knowledge that the activities in the center are not always strictly by the book, and many of the workers are prejudiced and some cruel. He also battles this prejudice in his home life to an extent, as his wife appears to show little sympathy for Australia’s asylum seekers. Immediately we get a good impression of him as somebody who cares for others and has a generous heart. We sympathise with him because he takes the job with reluctance, and only because he dreams of being a better provider for his wife and children.
When he first starts the job, he takes a ball pump from his own home to blow up the children’s football, puts their swing back up, and he shows trust, although misplaced, in the nuns who visit the center. When talking to his friend and colleague he says he feels wrong searching nuns, and we are once again alerted to his apparent strong morality. His dialogue almost always has him speaking in a leveled and calm tone, sounding reasonable and fair. It is not until we start to pay attention to his behaviour that we see his character is actually deeply problematic. He is presented as the “nice guy” of the series; he doesn’t want to hurt anybody, he is a little softer than the other guards, and when he does cause harm he is presented as reluctant.
As viewers, we are led to feel sympathy for him, and to relate to his torment at having to ‘do his job’, despite him knowing what kind of job it would be when he took it. Soon after he starts work, there is an incident with a superior officer beating a detainee after he was denied access to a toothbrush. Cam and a third colleague were holding him still for the duration of the beating, and although Cam’s body language was uneasy, he did nothing to prevent the attack in the moment. Yes, he refused to actively partake—but he was complicit. This episode (Episode 3) is named ‘The Right Thing’, imploring us to consider the moral ramifications of Cam’s actions and choices. Later we watch him report the truth about the incident to his boss. Because of this and because of his discomfort at seeing the man’s pain, we are led to believe once again that Cam is a good man. Why though do we allow his guilt to make up for his complicity when it cannot take back his compliance with the aggressor in another man’s time of need? His actions after the event should not detract from his initial involvement, which he cannot take back. What good are your thoughts if you are still complicit in the actions you are so internally against?
Cam continues to work at Barton. He continues to act less than angelically—he is sloppy with his security duties, he is sleeping with a co-worker despite his marriage, and he is drinking on the way to work—until one day he becomes physically violent with his children after returning home after a long shift at work. His wife throws him out of their house immediately after the incident.
This happens just days after he shares the whereabouts of an escaped detainee who had fled to be with his family. He had watched his sister drive away from Barton after witnessing the escape. He reports the incident and alerts his co-workers to the escape. After this, though, he goes out of his way to track the family down. The man has fled the detention center in order to start a new life with his wife and children, who are already in Australia. It looks as though he has escaped safely until Cam goes out of his way to track down the safe house where they are staying for the night. Although his professional loyalties lie with his place of employment, he was not required to do this, nor did anybody know that he had the means to do so. While within the bounds of his duty to his employer, this can be seen as an immoral act that we feel surely can’t have felt right in his heart. But nevertheless, he is excused from this, too, because it was the “right thing” by his professional obligations.
This has parallels with Simon Asher in Quantico reporting a superior because she had broken rules, despite these broken rules leading to the arrest of a murderer. When questioned, Asher says, “you can’t be mad at me, I did the right thing”, but all of his peers are angry as they feel he could have reached a better, more beneficial, solution by reporting the incident to a more discrete member of staff. Nobody is arguing with his choice to report the incident, but there were other ways he could have reported the offending agent that wouldn’t have lead to the release of a known murderer. Both situations are a man following technical, professional protocol, but neither produces the best outcome they could have achieved with the options presented to them. By this point, Cam is no better than any other character in the series as he has chosen to save his own reputation over the freedom of a family. So why are we led to believe differently?
After this point, Cam is living in his car and deeply regretting his actions since taking the job at Barton. Melancholy music plays over him sleeping in his car in order for us to see him as a man done wrong by the world, not a man who has made bad choices. While, to an extent, working somewhere like Barton would take strain on your mental health, in the case of Cam it is his behaviours and actions there that makes him so upset, as opposed to the existence of the center itself. Later in the final episode, Cam is apologising and crying to his wife, again on top of melancholy music so that we are inclined to lend our sympathy. We are given the impression that he is a good man who’s life “got a bit too much”, instead of a normal man who made some mistakes. There is a sense of weakness about him, where he is trying to push the blame onto his job as opposed to owning responsibility for his personal choices.
Where else have we seen this modernised trope before? In contemporary media, this is an increasingly common character trope and one we are seeing everywhere. The most notable case to me is Clay Jensen’s character in the Netflix adaptation of 13 Reasons Why. We have an unreliable narrator whose story makes us feel intense sympathy for their character. Clay has lost the girl he loves, he blames himself for her death, and is a likable, nice guy. However, he also covered up a murder, destroyed evidence after an attempted shooting, ignored the emotional needs of those around him, and refused to get help for his mental state even when he believed he might be a danger to himself and others.
Despite this, he is still the character we are encouraged to turn to to measure other characters by, his character casts judgments on those around him that we are encouraged to agree with, and by the finale of the fourth season, we are still actively on his side. This is an especially poignant example because we see the story through his eyes, relating to him, and believing in the justifications and psychology behind his actions. Again, as a collective, we ignore the damage caused by his actions in favour of believing that these represent flaws present in us all, no matter their severity. We must also bear in mind that he is an unreliable narrator, so we must wonder how much the events he recollects to us are sugar-coated to aid our understanding of his actions.
And then we have Bill Richardson from Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere (available in the UK on Amazon Prime). Bill is married to Elena (Reese Witherspoon), a rich, powerful career woman who sees herself as charitable. However, when her actions border on racist, classist, and straightforwardly offensive, Bill is there to bring her back to reality, and reassure her. But all Bill really is is nice. As we have seen before he is a character who, although he recognises the faults in others, goes no way towards rectifying them or calling them out. We are expected to believe he is superior simply because he notices these injustices, and that that is enough without him having to actually act on them. Occasionally he voices counterpoints to his wife’s monologues, but he is never quick enough to prevent her words from causing damage, and he is never sorry enough to try and rectify her wrongdoings, even when they concern the couple’s daughter.
So, as you can see, we’ve moved away from traditional moral compass characters—ones who act and think with a greater sense of morality than the rest of their cast—and instead have moral compass characters who are equally as culpable as everybody else. We are shown their emotional side to excuse their behaviour and place them on a pedestal above everybody else. Perhaps these characters, being so flawed, are more interesting and relatable. And this may be the case, but should we be basing our moral judgments on their character?
Stateless is currently available to watch on Netflix. The real tragedy of Stateless is of course the lives of the many people being held in detention centers all across Australia. With stringent immigration policies preventing interviews and paperwork from being done quickly, these centers become home to the asylum seekers. Stateless does a superb job of bringing to life this reality, and we have a glimpse into what this world might be like. We are reminded in the final closing credits of the 70 million asylum seekers worldwide, half of whom are children. What we are seeing on screen is the reality of life for many of these people worldwide, and those are the ones who have reached another country in their flight from persecution and violence.
I would urge you to not only consider the main threads of this article, but also the real story behind the series. Cornelia Rau received $2.6 million in compensation after her time in Baxter detention center, which begs the question, how bad are things in there? We are also told in the ending credits that a public inquiry after Rau’s release found “systemic failings in the Australian Immigration Department requiring urgent reform”. Since 2012, all access to asylum seekers in Australia has been highly restricted, and all centers for those arriving by boat are now offshore. You can read more about those and their failings here, after a 2014 UN report claimed the healthcare in the centers was “collapsing”. This is an ongoing situation that we should all be aware of.