iZombie Completely Subverts the ‘Boring Boyfriend’ Trope with Major Lilywhite

From reading that title, I know what you must be thinking: How is it possible for a cleaning detergent to subvert anything on a TV show? Never fear, because the name “Major Lilywhite” actually refers to a character on the show, and despite having an incredibly goofy name and filling the dreaded role as the lead’s “sweetheart ex-boyfriend”, he actually turned out to be a fantastic character in his own right. I’m still pretty shocked at about it all as I type this, because I’ve never really seen something like this being done deliberately. The audience was led into thinking Major would just be Liv’s (the show’s lead) lame “perfect” boyfriend from the past who would show up every once in a while to make her feel guilty and remind her of what she could have had, but instead he’s a fleshed out character with his own world and problems to contend with. He even has a seasonal arc that runs parallel to Liv’s, which eventually converges in the season 1 finale in an explosive way. I would go as far as to argue that Major is one of the most smartly written television characters to show up in recent history.

Considering the show’s creator Rob Thomas’ past work Veronica Mars (which I love dearly), it was easy to see what he was trying make us think he was doing with Major. The moment I saw him, I groaned thinking “Hello Duncan Kane 2.0”. Duncan Kane was a character on Veronica Mars that filled the dreaded archetype I was talking about here. He’s the lead’s ex-boyfriend, his personality doesn’t evolve far past being “nice”, and though there were hints of him having demons of his own, those were dropped in favour of what he meant to Veronica herself. Because at the end of the day, guy’s like him are satellite characters. Beings who exist only as extensions of another more important character’s problems. His thoughts and concerns are often entirely consumed by his love interest because the entire conceit of his character was to exist as her (unwelcome) anchor to the real world, or at least the world she was once a part of. Angel’s role on Buffy was also terrible because of this very rule. He was there to remind Buffy that she could never have a normal relationship as a slayer, but all his presence ever did was bring out emotions and feelings for her. All Angel ever did was pine, whine, and sulk around; absolutely devoted and devoid of agency of his own and completely mercy to the whims of a teenage girl until he finally finds the strength to leave. It’s no coincidence that he became a strong character the moment he separated from Buffy, and the rule applies to Major’s journey in iZombie.

As a social worker dealing with troubled youths, the recent rash of disappearing kids and the police’s commitment to not do anything about it sends him on an odyssey that puts this man through the wringer. We see his personality shine through in his self-destructive quest that leads him to unknowingly stumbling into the role as Seattle’s premier zombie-hunter. An intensely strong sense of justice and a refusal to let others down, even at the potential cost of his own sanity, distinguishes his arc from the leisurely ones ex-boyfriends of TV’s past seem to enjoy. Ironically, ex-boyfriends in female led TV shows tend to have a lack of agency that is characteristic of female leads in so many male dominated shows, although this is subverted with Liv and Major. Major doesn’t do what he does out of some sense of undying love for Liv, or some inane lover’s promise he made her in the past, he does it because he’s the kind of guy who would. You see his evolution progress throughout the season as he picks up skills and traits necessary for him to continue his investigation and also give a sense of anticipation of what’s to come with his character. He wears a mask of good-natured humour and pleasantness, but you can clearly see his totally driven and single-minded in his goals.The audience is left wondering, “Why is he learning to do these things? Why is he buying these items?”, and without giving too much away, I can confidently tell you that everything he does actually culminates to something spectacular. What every writer aspires to do with a character is to have the audience want to know what they’ll be up to next, with Major, iZombie succeeds in doing just that.

The show employs a lot of tricks to keep characters relevant in the long run and to subvert our expectations of network television. Liv’s investigative partner, detective Clive Babineaux, is actually great at his job and doesn’t rely on the lead’s special ability to accomplish things (something that distinguishes him from the supporting cast of The Mentalist), unconnected characters like Major and Liv’s boss and friend Ravi form a bond by becoming roommates, and Liv’s best friend and roommate Peyton is made relevant to the proceedings of the show when it is revealed that she is a lawyer. While Peyton’s character has yet to find a firm foothold on the show (although I suspect she will in the coming season), it’s clear that iZombie isn’t interested in making the same mistakes network television shows of the past still continuously make with their characters. The person who portrays Major, Robert Buckley, expressed his concerns for his character before fully joining the show when he told creator Rob Thomas:

“Look, with all due respect, I want to understand how Major is going to fit into this. If he’s sort of there to be a purse and exist to solely show up in one or two scenes an episode, to remind audiences he’s still there and express his love for Liv, that’s not very fun as an audience member because it’s the same thing over and over.”  (LINK CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS)

Based on the way the show has progressed, I can happily say that this exact scenario did not occur. If you haven’t watched this show yet, please do. If not for the zombie goodness, at least for the heroic splendor that is Major Lilywhite.

Quote of the Day:

“What about me? What’s the greater good for me?”

– Major Lilywhite, iZombie.

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