In season one of Breaking Bad, Jesse Pinkman, a drug dealer and former high school student of the show’s protagonist, Walter White, was supposed to die. But the creative team behind the show was so impressed with Aaron Paul’s performance that they decided to keep him on, resulting in one of television’s oddest duos, a burnout drug dealer and his high school chemistry teacher, teaming up to make crystal meth.
It boggles my mind how Jesse was never part of Breaking Bad’s initial grand story arc, given his importance to Walter White, and the show’s direction essentially resting on whether Jesse lives or dies. I could dismiss it as industry mythmaking, except for the fact that there are so many examples, in television, film, books, of odd or unlikely duos coming together out of some form of necessity, whether through the creator’s need or external circumstances or pure luck. And for the fact that the same thing happened in my own work.
When I started writing what would become my novel, This Thing Between Us, I knew a few things. I knew a young couple, Thiago and Vera, would be moving into a recently renovated condo they purchased, and that an Alexa-type smartspeaker would be at the center of supernatural occurrences taking place in their new home. I knew Vera would die in a tragic accident and Thiago would be grief-stricken for the entire novel, fleeing to the mountains in Colorado to be alone with his pain and away from anyone trying to comfort him, except for the supernatural entity relentlessly pursuing him. I knew a dog would pop up sooner or later.
What I didn’t know, what I could have never planned for or guessed, was that another character would rise to the forefront and break up Thiago’s self-imposed banishment: his mother-in-law, Diane.
Her importance to the novel was never supposed to move beyond the first act, but honestly, I just loved writing her. It felt important to move her beyond the tired trope of disapproving mother-in-law, which she was, but she was also just as grief-stricken as Thiago, and just as irascible, the kind of coarse personality you either love to be around or actively avoid. Thiago can push everyone away except her, and he’s ultimately happy for it, when she makes a surprise visit to his cabin just outside Estes Park as he’s running through a snowy field, dripping blood, something she can’t comprehend chasing behind him.
Odd pairings happen all the time in comedies, romances, and buddy cop films, because there’s an innate discomfort that usually gets played up for laughs or tension. The horror genre has its own taste for unlikely duos, but instead of being used as comedic relief, these team ups occur in the face of a great evil or supernatural force. Below are five examples of unlikely duos coming together to face a greater force neither could defeat or survive alone.
Ben Mears & Mark Petrie
‘Salem’s Lot, Stephen King
Ben Mears is a novelist returning to his hometown of Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine, to work on a new book and face down some old demons. Mark Petrie is a ten-year-old boy new to ‘Salem’s Lot, as the locals call it, who loves horror and has no problem standing up to bullies. When ‘Salem’s Lot is overrun by vampires, they join a group of reluctant vampire hunters that also includes a priest losing his faith, a doctor losing his grip, and an English teacher losing his health.
But Ben and Mark stand out as the pair most closely aligned. They each take on the leader role whenever the group has to split up. They reflect past and future versions of themselves, and unlike the others, they are also joined together by the great personal loss they experience in pursuit of the vampire who started ‘Salem’s Lot on its path to damnation, Kurt Barlow.It’s a toss up between ‘Salem’s Lot and It as my favorite Stephen King novel, but what ‘Salem’s Lot has going for it is the amount of fear that’s on the page. Maybe there are scarier King books, but none explore just how frightened the characters are as much as ‘Salem’s Lot. It has the double effect of scaring the reader and raising their concern that Ben, Mark, and the others will suffer anxiety-induced heart attacks before making it to the book’s end.
Agent Clarice Starling & Dr. Hannibal Lecter
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
First of all, everyone knows the doctor’s true love is FBI profiler, Will Graham. What interests Lecter about Agent Starling is the novelty of her presence in his world. Clarice is an impressive recruit but with hardly any experience in the field when she comes face to face with Hannibal the Cannibal. Her inexperience is possibly meant to entice Hannibal’s curiosity, but what catches his attention is her willingness to share personal details about her life–to let the doctor in. It’s the one thing he wants, the one thing her superiors warn her to stay away from, having learned themselves the hard way.
Clarice’s resolve is her saving grace, her ability to reveal some of herself while safeguarding the rest from Hannibal, allowing her to work with him and keep her psyche intact. Because once Hannibal gets a glimpse of who you truly are, it’s over. At the same time, there’s something about him that brings forth a need by anyone who crosses his path for his assessment. That’s the true horror. As much as we are terrified of Hannibal the Cannibal, we can’t help but want to be seen by the doctor. He’ll dance at your wedding if you let him.
Ben & Barbara
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
A black man and a white woman try to survive the night together in rural Pennsylvania in 1968. That’s it, that’s the entry.
George A. Romero rewrote his script after Duane Jones auditioned for the role of Ben, and the result is a horror thriller dripping with subversion. Ben and Barbara meet in the midst of the dead rising from their graves. They flee to a farmhouse where more survivors are hiding in the basement. Barbara falls into a catatonic state from shock, and Ben works to secure the home and devise a plan that will get them all to safety.
But whether it’s the cowardly Harry Cooper refusing to follow any of Ben’s advice, or the devastating ending, racial tension hums in every scene of this black-and-white picture. This film sets the stage for Romero’s oeuvre and the rise of the zombie genre, but it also plays as the urtext to films like Get Out and Antebellum. It’s also the urtext to my recurring nightmares.
Charles Lee Ray & the Good Guy doll(s)
Child’s Play (1988)
Chicago is low-key a horror movie mecca. We’ve got Candyman haunting the former Cabrini-Green housing projects, Michael Myers stalking Haddonfield, Illinois, and serial killer Charles Lee Ray causing mayhem on the south side of Chicago. The Mothman sometimes visits too.
On the run from the law and plugged with bullets, Charles Lee Ray breaks into a toy store and performs a spell that casts his soul into a Good Guys doll, sold to a mom by a homeless man for her son Andy’s birthday.
Thus “Chucky” is born, but the name is misleading. The doll and killer never fully integrate into one being. Charles Lee Ray is very much trapped in the doll and seeking a way out over the course of five films. He struggles against the limitations of this rubber vessel, at the same time taking advantage of its inconspicuousness, and by the time the toy factory is introduced, revelling in its absurdity, Charles Lee Ray both hates the doll and can’t live without it. The doll even begins to change in appearance over the course of the franchise, looking more like Ray than the original doll with each sequel. It would be easy to conclude Andy, the child protagonist of the first three films, or Tiffany, Chucky’s girlfriend, as the ying to Chucky’s yang, but if Ray ever found a way to finally free himself from the doll, I bet he’d still lug it around with him, because Good Guy dolls are built to be your friend ‘till the end.
Jason Voorhees & Freddy Krueger
Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
It may not have been the showdown everyone was hoping for, but one thing’s for sure, Freddy vs. Jason nailed the relationship dynamics between these two iconic slashers.
Trapped in hell and forgotten about by the children of Springwood, Freddy appears to Jason, also trapped in Hell, taking the form of Jason’s mother and manipulating him into rising again to hunt and kill the residents of Elm Street, bringing fear back to Springwood and the memory of Freddy Krueger with it (With that premise, imagine the procedural television show we’ve been robbed of all these years, a version of Quantum Leap where Freddy poses as different characters and directs Jason to do his bidding).
What I love most about bringing these two together is that an immediate status shift happens that we all accept without question: Jason is the pawn and Freddy is the puppeteer. After decades of watching them both hack people to bits, we can’t help but discern levels to their evil. My half-baked theory is that this movie has made it difficult for both franchises to reboot themselves, because the audience is now aware of the tragedy inherent in Jason, and the predatory grooming inherent in Freddy. In a movie too bloated with CG and stoner humor, the characters became too real.