Effective Protagonists, Part IV: The Terminator

Having taken a brief hiatus from the Summer of Effective Protagonists to denounce Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom as a steaming triceratops turd, I now return to my ongoing series with renewed vigour and depleted rage tanks. Incidentally, despite not being the only critic to refer to Fallen Kingdom as a triceratops turd, I have yet to meet anybody in person who didn’t unequivocally adore it. To liberally paraphrase Professor Farnsworth, this pervading lack of taste makes me not want to live on this planet anymore, but alas! I have far too much to do before I may leave it in good conscience – like analyze a new Character element in the Terminator films.

The first two Terminator films enjoy lofty penthouse views from Shelf 9 of my DVD armoire, where they might be the envy of the other installments in the franchise had I not left them damned to their eternal resting places in a Walmart discount bin. The first film in particular holds a special place in my heart for having been the first R-rated film I ever smuggled out of a Movie Gallery as a child in a Toy Story 2 snap case, tenacious little bastard that I was. Moreover, Judgment Day is one of the few films today besides Aliens that I will only view in its superior extended form. As an aside, these films were also the subject of a recurring nightmare that plagued me throughout my teen years, in which a relentless Terminator would actually succeed in killing me because my Resistance-assigned protector was some kind of screwball John Belushi character. Waking up only amplified the trauma, as the DVD player in my room at the time had a single, red light on its power button that oft induced visions of a Terminator looming over my bed.

Terminator 1

Anyway, with this entry we will address another important Character element, quite possibly the most critical of the whole lot – Change.


On top of being relatable, active, well-met, vulnerable, and tied to a stake, a protagonist must experience change over the course of their journey, because if they don’t then the entire Crossing of the Threshold is a bigger waste of time than a sociology degree. The very essence of a character arc is that a hero begins their journey as one person and gradually, through trials and tribulations, transforms into a different person, all in direct response to the adventure at hand.

This element has many variations and doesn’t necessarily have to be for the hero’s betterment. The Godfather trilogy, for instance, charts Michael Corleone’s rise and fall as Don of the family and ends in personal tragedy, but the evolution of his character from fade in to fade out is still clearly defined. Change can furthermore be represented by the hero acquiring the object of their desire, achieving their primary goal, or even just moving up in the world, but it is best manifested when they grow or develop fundamentally as a person. For example, Luke Skywalker starts his journey in Star Wars as a mop-headed farm boy on Tatooine and ends it as a decorated Rebel hero on Yavin IV – he undergoes a change in circumstances but doesn’t really grow as an individual (we do later see his drastic personal growth in Empire and Jedi). Will Turner, on the other hand, adapts from his time on the Caribbean and uses his experiences with Captain Jack Sparrow to win the heart of Elizabeth Swann – his change in circumstances is enabled by his dramatic personal transformation.

Another example I’ve been dying to use is from the epilogue of The Lord of the Rings, where the once carefree, pint-swigging, table-hopping, toking Hobbits return to the Shire with maturity and sober-mindedness in their pony bags. At their old table at the Green Dragon Inn, they sit quietly and reflectively over their drinks, not speaking and certainly not jigging on tables – their experiences riding with the Rohirrim and defending Gondor and reminiscing over the taste of strawberries in Mordor matured them. Samwise Gamgee then does what he could not do in Fellowship and declares his love for Rosie Cotton – his personal change brings him full circle as a character.

The lack of character change was one of my biggest grievances with Fallen Kingdom, as protagonist Chris Pratt didn’t develop whatsoever as a character – then again, it’s hard to have a destination when you have no starting point. The only thing he accomplished in Fallen Kingdom was to let go of Blue and woo Bryce Dallas Howard – which is the exact same freaking thing he accomplished just one movie prior beat-for-bloody-beat, so don’t clog up my comments section telling me this f***ing pile of sh*t movie was remotely good, you rabble of braindead clod—

Terminator 2


Sarah Conner is one of the most effective protagonists in all of cinema and objectively the most interesting hero I’ve analyzed thus far. Like Luke Skywalker, she is instantly knowable, and like William Turner, we are told everything we need to know about her in her opening scenes.

Her introduction establishes her as a waitress at some nondescript eatery where the staff smoke in the kitchen and presumably pack Glocks under their aprons, because this is the 80’s and life is better here. She’s jetting in for her shift – late, as all heroes who hold jobs in Act I do – and we see that she hasn’t exactly leveled up her waitressing skills. She bungles several orders, gets harangued by caffeine-parched patrons, and suffers a public indignity when some punk-ass kid stuffs ice cream down her apron. This represents her Act I “zero” moment – the equivalent of Luke Skywalker being retained on Uncle Owen’s farm another season, Marty McFly being told by Principal Strickland that he’ll never amount to anything, or Zach Galligan from Gremlins getting threatened by Mrs. Deagle at his bank job. Having our protagonist get debased, especially at a menial job, is a classic way to generate sympathy with the viewer and show us that the world of the familiar isn’t treating them so well. As an aside, waiters and waitresses tend to get a rap in films, don’t they? Whenever a screenwriter wants to establish a hero who’s down on their luck they immediately assign them to waiting tables at some greasy spoon under the stern supervision of a cantankerous boss with a unibrow. When are we going to see a hero whose destiny is to become a waiter or a fry cook?

Terminator 3

Anyway, this sequence shows us that Sarah Conner ranks fairly low on life’s totem pole – and her introduction doesn’t end here. Later that evening we see that her life outside of work is fairly routine and bordering on the mundane. She and her roommate preen themselves in preparation for a double date, which tells us that she enjoys some measure of social popularity and doesn’t ask for much out of life beyond having fun on a Friday night. This fun gets dashed when her date stands her up via an ancient form of technology known in the Latin as Respondens apparatus, which reveals that she can’t catch a break even in her personal life. Our evaluation of Sarah thus far is that she’s likeable, social, luckless, and overall fairly average – except for two seemingly insignificant details that stand out to me as integral to her character.

The first is her moped. Sarah’s introductory shot shows her riding to Big Buns Foodery on a moped that looks like it was built for Transformers: The Movie, which immediately generates a subconscious impression. Modes of transportation indicate a great deal about Character, which is why they’re so often used in introductory scenes. If a protagonist is shown chugging along in a rusted-out Chevy Cobalt with dented fenders and a whinnying engine, we know immediately that he’s having a hard time in life – especially if the vehicle either breaks down or gets towed despite his pleadings and protestations. Similarly, a protagonist riding a bicycle on a sunny afternoon connotes a small-town quality or a childlike innocence about them, regardless of their age. James Cameron’s choice to introduce Sarah Conner on an angular, visually ugly moped, of all things, shows us that she’s practical, independent, and makes do with the resources available to her. She has a pragmatic quality about her that simply wouldn’t have translated had she walked to work or plowed through the diner window in a PT Cruiser.

The second detail is her pet iguana, Pugsley, whom she dotes on with enough loving tenderness to make a Care Bear hurl Skittles. Like her Cybertronian moped, a reptilian pet suggests that there’s more to her character than meets the eye. See, Sarah Conner is fairly helpless when her adventure first kicks off – she gets swept up in a wild cat-and-mouse chase without much say in the matter and is mostly dependent on Kyle Reese until the final Act, where she finds her inner strength and rises to the occasion to defeat the Terminator. However, I believe the presence of both the moped and the iguana hint at that inner toughness from the onset. I could very well be wrong (and forgive me if I am), but I’m assuming that most girls generally don’t gravitate towards cumbersome mopeds or domesticated iguanas. I’m sure there are those out there who do, and that’s all well and good, but I’m just speaking statistically here.

I think I know what girls are interested in – after all, I stalk two of them.

Terminator 4

Sarah’s experience with mopeds and ease arounds reptiles are subtle clues to her internal resourcefulness and fortitude that gets cultivated as the story unfolds. Moreover, they’re unique interests that show us she’s not so average after all – I mean, if an Everyman hero were truly average they wouldn’t be the hero of the story. The reason protagonists like Sarah Conner, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, and Kung Fu Panda triumph against all odds is because there’s something inherently special about them that’s hidden underneath all their supposed averageness – it just takes a grand adventure to draw it up to the surface.

So, Sarah Conner is a universal, instantly-identifiable Everywoman with an effective introduction that establishes everything we need to know about her to leap into the plot, with her inner strength being alluded to early on through some choice details. Now that we know who she is, we may address the matter of what it is that drives her through the story.

The answer, by the way, is absolutely nothing.


What’s interesting about Sarah Conner is that she violates one of the fundamental rules regarding heroes, which is that a protagonist must be active in advancing the plot. Frodo has to carry the Ring to Mordor on his own accord, Luke Skywalker can’t be Forced by Ben Kenobi into going to Alderaan, and William Turner must be the one to convince Captain Jack Sparrow to rescue Elizabeth, not the other way around. However, Sarah Conner is initially completely passive and doesn’t drive the plot forward at all until Act III – Kyle Reese does, which actually calls the whole matter of whether or not Sarah is even the protagonist into question.

I mentioned in my Star Wars piece that the protagonist of a film may not necessarily be the main character, a narrative paradigm that is more thoroughly detailed in a piece I read on The Shawshank Redemption. It could be argued that Sarah Conner is the main character of The Terminator, because the plot centers on her, but that Kyle Reese is the protagonist, because he drives the action forward. However, for the purposes of simplicity we’ll be operating under the framework that Sarah Conner is the protagonist and leave the matter of protagonist vs main character for another piece – like my inevitable rip-off of a piece I read on The Shawshank Redemption.

Sarah Conner’s journey begins when Kyle Reese pulls her across the threshold into the realm of the unknown. She doesn’t have a choice in the matter – the instant the Terminator attacks her in Tech Noir and Kyle Reese quips “Come with me if you want to live,” her adventure starts. The only Debate she’s afforded is whether or not she chooses to believe Kyle’s claim that the Austrian juggernaut trying to kill her is actually a robot from the future – but given that her life is clearly in danger regardless of where her assailant hails from places her firmly under Kyle’s protection.

Throughout the Second Act, she’s mostly along for the ride, being ferried from place to place and occupying the passenger seat in all the chases. For many protagonists this would not work, but in Sarah’s case it does because passivity and vulnerability are early aspects of her character that get eschewed with her emotional development. Having her situation be completely beyond her control forces her to draw upon her inner resilience and transform into an active player in the story, because if she doesn’t then the Terminator will succeed. The Terminator’s assault on the police precinct (which I do hope was number thirteen) eliminates any doubt about Kyle’s sanity in her mind and convinces her that his Skynet-ruled future is very much real. Her subsequent evening spent hiding under a bridge gives her time to reflect on her harrowing experiences and start to come to grips with her upside-down world. At this point she’s become more receptive to Kyle’s apocalyptic anecdotes and is noticeably calmer. Change has been initiated and she’s begun to adapt to the road. The only blunder she makes is calling her mother – who is expertly set up during the answering machine scene in Act I – to check in and divulges her location, not knowing that she’s actually speaking to the voice-mimicking Terminator. This was a dumb move, but we’re not going to hold it against her. She’s handled herself remarkably well thus far considering everything she’s endured, and it wouldn’t be fair to mar her impressive record over one tactical misstep. Besides, it’s not like it had any disastrous consequences or anything—

Terminator 5

By the time she and Kyle are settled at the roadside motel, she’s totally on board with his survival program, is bravely coming to grips with the reality of her new world, and is actively participating in her own protection. I’d make a joke that they both overlooked protection when they had sex… but I’m not that juvenile.

Poop jokes, yes. Sex jokes, fuggedaboutit.

The Break into Three sees Sarah fully come into her own. She is no longer being pulled by Kyle through exits, she’s now helping him scope those exits. She stands alongside him as an equal, lobbing pipe bombs with her hands and dropping f-bombs with her mouth. During the final confrontation with the Terminator-endoskeleton, she takes command over the injured Kyle by adopting a military persona, which gives him the strength to keep hobbling. Even after Kyle’s death she uses what she’s learned to dispatch the Terminator on her own. I’d make a joke about bodybuilder-guru Arnold Schwarzenegger getting crushed by a hydraulic press… but I’m not that juvenile.

The final scene shows Sarah riding off into a bleak horizon, having survived the inferno and emerged on the other side refined. She is making audio recordings for her unborn son, John, showing that she is actively preparing for an uncertain future. In the span of a single film Sarah Conner has developed from an average, vulnerable waitress who suffers domestic embarrassments into a resourceful, Terminator-crushing badass. Her radical transformation across ninety minutes of screen time makes her one of the most effective heroes of all time, not to mention the quintessential strong female lead.

Before both of you loyal readers nod your heads empathically in blind agreement with absolutes that I just made up, I feel it’s important to discuss what a ‘strong female lead’ is and expose some of the common misconceptions associated with the term, which I will now do with a click-bait subheading –


Before we unwrap this onion, I’ll admit that I’m 28-year-old guy who doesn’t know much about women. To me, women are like a nice breeze – I now they’re out there but I haven’t felt the touch of one in a long time because my lifestyle is that of a basement-dwelling, sun-loathing Internet critic with social anxiety and high functioning alcoholism. If you’re waiting for the punchline, here it is – I spend upwards of three hours a day watching global wind patterns on The Weather Network’s website.

I’m so dead inside.

Terminator 11

Anyway, while I may only know as much about real women as the Robot Chicken Nerd, I do know a little something about Character. Back in my screenwriting school days, I asked my old Jewish mentor how to best approach writing a female hero. He looked at me like I was an idiot (which he also did when I asked him for the time) and told me sternly that writing a female protagonist is no different than writing a male one. “They have wants, needs, hopes, and fears the same as any character. Ask yourself what she wants, why she wants it, why she can’t get it, and what she’s going to do about it and get the hell out of my office.”

This radically changed the manner I approached female characters as both a writer and a critic and has influenced the way I look at the way women are portrayed throughout media. It’s been encouraging to see a fundamental shift in the depictions of women in recent years, in that we’re seeing them treated less like sex objects and token girlfriends and more like actual human beings with substance. However, something that bothers me is that many writers seem to think that a “strong female lead” means “badass killing machine” or “emotional boulder who can handle everything without any help from anybody.” Whether they’re male or female, protagonists like this are boring because they lack those emotional nuances and inherent vulnerabilities that makes them interesting and human. Don’t get me wrong – badass killing machines are all well and good (my parole officer is one), but they still need those Character elements we’ve been discussing to ground them and generate relatability. Protagonists like Katniss Everdeen, film Lara Croft, and Kate Beckinsale from Underworld are perhaps the easiest examples to condemn as bland heroines because there’s nothing to them except their extraordinary skills. Apparently, calling Rey from The Force Awakens a Mary Sue will get me burned at a Twitter stake… so I’ll just praise Daisy Ridley’s performance like a good boy and shimmy on.

For the record, I also find Harry Potter, Jack Ryan, and Malcolm Reynolds as flat and dull as low-sodium crackers, so you know this goes both ways.

The mark of a truly empowered protagonist (male or female) is to have them overcome adversity and triumph through opposition, whether it’s emotional or physical in nature. If Sarah Conner was a munitions expert at the beginning of The Terminator and didn’t need Kyle’s help to survive that second Act, she wouldn’t be compelling because her character would have nowhere to go.

Terminator 6

This is what makes other heroines truly fit the bill of a ‘strong female lead.’ One of my personal favourites is Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road – an emotionally strong and inexplicably oft-overlooked character. She is as vulnerable as she is resilient, tormented and yet hopeful, and we don’t need to know her tragic backstory intimately to understand what drives her across the Australian desert (but for the record… it’s a Tatra T815 War Rig). Furthermore, Daenerys Targeryen didn’t start Game of Thrones riding dragons and conquering cities… actually, she started the series naked and degraded. The fact that Emilia Clarke has since refused to do those kinds of nude scenes anymore speaks of her own empowerment as a woman that mirrors Daenerys’ development as a heroine.

The Bride in Kill Bill may be a killing machine, but she’s understandably an emotional wreck. Buffy Summers may be a capable vampire slayer, but she still needs her friends and mentors for help and guidance. Clarice Starling overcomes her inner demons and learns to watch her back in The Silence of the Lambs, Ellen Ripley copes with the loss of her daughter in Aliens, and even Wonder Woman matures beyond naivety and combats disillusionment in her recent film. The list goes on. These women are strong leads not because of their supernatural abilities, but because of their underlying humanity that gets fleshed out through their journeys. If you strip away their weapons and reflexes, they’d still be compelling protagonists.

I once heard it said in regards to Arwen from LOTR (and I’m paraphrasing) that one shouldn’t have to put a sword in a woman’s hand to make her strong or powerful, and I completely agree. In that regard, maybe it would help if I named some female protagonists who weren’t martial artists… but being an 80’s cinema aficionado I can’t really name a whole lot of films where the hero doesn’t pack a sword beside their wallet.

Anyway, having a character be an unfeeling, unparalleled badass does not necessarily an effective protagonist make, and to prove it I’ll now switch to –

It’s not my fault she’s not on any of the promotional material, dammit


When we pick up with Sarah Conner in Judgment Day, she’s a far cry from the hapless waitress we first met and came to know in Terminator. She’s capable, independent, buff, hardened, and, less impressively, institutionalized. Our first shot of her is during a rigorous chin-up rep in her cell in Arkham Asylum’s medium-security wing – the block that houses such nefarious villains as Crazy Quilt and Kite Man. We learn that she has developed some extremely aggressive tendencies since last film and has been deemed a threat to society. She’s been incarcerated for a while and all her talk about Judgment Day and time-travelling nude Terminators has been largely laughed off by the community.

Terminator 7

Worst of all, she’s alienated her son John from her. Sure, she’s tough as nails and a badass mother’ucker now, but she’s borderline mentally fractured. She is tormented by a cataclysmic future that is swiftly bearing down on an unassuming planet and is haunted by her inability to prevent it. She’s become paranoid and violent – in many ways like an animal, ruled by instinct and a desire to survive at all costs. Of course, we understand where she’s coming from – a cyborg from the future trying to kill you is bound to cause some trauma. In Sarah’s case, ironically, this machine-induced trauma has fueled her into becoming someone who’s very unhuman and machine-like.

Even her relationship with John is centered more on his survival than his wellbeing. When John and the reprogrammed Terminator spring her from the looney bin, she wraps her arms around her estranged son – not to embrace him, but to check him over for wounds. She then chastises him for doing something so stupid as to endanger his life for hers, having forgotten that he’s more than just the savior of the human race – he’s her son. She’s concerned for his safety, yes, but at the cost of depriving him of the nurturing that he needs.

To think – John’s childhood might have been completely different if she’d only watched Finding Nemo.

In many ways, these Act I scenes make Sarah tough to sympathize with – except for when she breaks that perverted orderly’s nose with a mop handle, because that’s some Batman-level administration of vigilante justice that we could all take some cues from in this day and age.

Terminator 10

Still, we do continue to sympathize with Sarah for the same reason we sympathize with a dear friend who has started acting like a jerk – because we understand that they’re just acting out over the pain stemming from their recent breakup / job loss / medical diagnosis / arson charge / alien abduction / Satanic possession. At the end of the day, though, we recognize that change once again needs to occur.

Now, I’ll admit, it’s pretty cool to see how determined and capable Sarah is at this stage in the story. Her journey is not unlike Daenerys Targaryen’s in that she started off (seemingly) helpless and dependent on others for protection and grew into a force to be reckoned with. However, the very reason I included that click-bait section above is because I wanted to emphasize that Sarah Conner’s skills, badassery, and proficiency with weapons are not what makes her a compelling protagonist. Those are merely aspects of why she’s interesting, but her effectiveness as a hero is in the change that unfolds from her journey. As was the case with The Terminator, her physical journey is based entirely around survival, while her emotional journey involves her softening, or re-humanizing. By my reckoning, she has three pivotal moments in Judgment Day that mark this development.

The first is early after her escape, in a scene that’s actually only present in the extended edition. The Terminator instructs her and John to remove his CPU – rendering him temporarily immobile – and alter it so he can learn and develop like a human. As soon as the Terminator is offline, Sarah immediately tries to destroy the CPU, stopping only when John intervenes. This is a tense moment between mother and son, where he stands up for himself and tells her that she must trust both him and their cybernetic protector if they want to survive. Though it’s agonizing for her, Sarah eventually relents and allows John to reinstall the CPU. This scene is actually an early turning point for all the characters – the Terminator becomes capable of evolving, John steps up and starts to develop some leadership skills, and Sarah both reveals the extent of her fears over these machines and takes a bold step in overcoming them. She begins to trust the Terminator and, more importantly, starts to mend her relationship with John.

The second comes when the trio flees to southern California/Mexico and acquires weapons and supplies from one of Sarah’s old criminal allies – whom I really hope is young Hector Salamanca in a secret Terminator/Breaking Bad crossover. While observing the Terminator interact with John, she realizes that this machine is the father-figure that John never had growing up. She marvels that the Terminator will never leave him, hurt him, shout at him, abuse him, abandon him, or fail to protect him. This is the moment that seeds of hope are planted in her heart and where she begins to rediscover her humanity.

Of course, this leads to the third moment, where she decides to completely break bad and assassinate the man whose technological contributions will one day lead to the rise of Skynet. She infiltrates the house of Miles Dyson and prepares to gun him down in front of his wife and children, but ultimately cannot bring herself to do so. She breaks down in tears and allows John and the Terminator to do some much-needed damage control. She’s got the skills, she’s got the equipment, but she just doesn’t have the heart to kill innocent people who are just doing their jobs, exactly like Daenerys Targaryen—



By the time the T-1000 is incinerated in the steel mill and the Terminator sacrifices himself with the greatest thumbs up in cinema, Sarah has undergone change once again, rediscovering both her humanity and her hope while restoring her relationship with her son. The thing about Judgment Day that I find so interesting is that the Terminator’s discovery of his humanity directly parallels Sarah’s rediscovery of her own, which is succinctly reflected in Sarah’s final line of the film: “The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it for the first time with a sense of hope, because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.”


Sarah Conner is one of the most highly effective protagonists in cinema and actually encompasses all the narrative elements we’ve analyzed thus far – she’s relatable and introduced well; though initially passive she gradually develops into a woman of action; she has vulnerabilities to overcome, both physically and emotionally; she has much to lose where her son is concerned; and she changes dramatically across both films, toughening and subsequently softening.

She is a hero who will be venerated in cinema for generations to come, and whose legacy is honoured across the rest of the franchise, which wisely kept her relevant and avoided killing her off-screen between sequels—

Terminator 9

To be continued in Part V…

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