Grimdark is about more than setting, but about the characters that inhabit that setting. It doesn’t matter if your story is set in the most dystopian and hopeless world imaginable if your lead character is relentlessly cheerful, overcomes all obstacles and lives happily ever after. Grimdark demands suffering, repercussions and no happy choices.
So, with Dune originally set to be released on December 18th, and now delayed for a year, let’s use the extra time to check out some of the grimdark characters that populate Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic. Naturally, spoilers for Dune, both the movie and book series are contained below.
Baron Vladimir Harkonnen
What better place to start than with our primary antagonist. Harkonnen ticks almost every box of villainy and is disgusting in every conceivable way. He is a devious manipulator both in the games of the Imperial Houses, but of his nephews and prospective heirs, Glossu and Feyd-Rautha as well. He openly uses slavery and torture as methods to instill fear and secure power. He is morbidly obese to the point that he requires suspensors to walk, he is rife with infectious skin diseases and he is a sadistic murderer, sexual pervert, and rapist.
It’s worth saying that it’s very problematic to have a sadistic villain be the only overtly homosexual character in your story and it’s similarly dubious to indicate their evil via obesity and infection. That’s lazy and bigoted characterisation, even for the 1960s.
Nonetheless, the Baron is a great example that in the Dune universe, very bad people do very well and that is ultimately, very, very grimdark.
Let’s move on from the Baron to his murderer, who also happens to be his granddaughter via rape and the twisted genetic schemes of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. It’s not just an act of great-patricide that marks out Alia as a grimdark character as both her birth and later life are marked far from immaculate.
When Alia was still in utero, her mother took the Water of Life narcotic and that awakened Alia not just to adult awareness but to the full power of a Kwisatz Haderach, being able to access her ancestral memories, both male and female.
This made her an Abomination in the eyes of the Bene Gesserit and more than a little feared amongst the Fremen..
She was only two years old when she killed her grandfather with a poisoned knife during the climactic battle of Arrakeen. You would think being the little sister of the new Emperor isn’t a bad deal but Alia’s nature and status led to estrangement from her family and mental instability. Ultimately, she became Regent upon the apparent death of her brother and set about establishing an autocratic rule. Lacking her brother’s prescient ability, she relied on her ancestral memory which allowed her grandfather’s influence to all but take control of her. Eventually, faced with being tested for possession (which she knew she would fail) or suicide, Alia killed herself. A sad end to a tragic tale.
Surely they wouldn’t cast Jason Momoa as a grimdark character, he’s too… jolly? Duncan Idaho certainly starts out as an almost cartoonishly noble character, both built up as the pre-eminent warrior of his time and ‘well liked by the ladies.’
However, Idaho falls in battle during the betrayal of the Atreides, although he did manage to kill seventeen of the Emperor’s Sardaukar special forces while allowing the escape of Paul and Jessica Atreides.
If it ended there, it’s a glorious way to go.
However, Idaho was resurrected as a ‘ghola’ (clone) by the Bene Tleilaxu in an attempt to undermine the Emperor Paul. This attempt was unsuccessful but the resurrected Idaho ended up marrying Alia before realising her regime was an evil one and getting himself killed by the Fremen to set them against her rule.
Paul’s son, Leto II later took on the mantle of God-Emperor and during his 3’500 year reign, had a succession of Idaho gholas made so he always had his father’s swordmaster at hand. The vast majority of these gholas also realised that Leto was a tyrant and tried to kill him.
Even after Leto II’s death and the Scattering, Idaho kept being resurrected in the Bene Gesserit to aid in their new disputes with the Bene Tleilaxu & Honored Matres.
A noble warrior, resurrected over and over again by manipulative factions only to die again when he chooses to oppose their schemes. That’s grim.
Effectively the Baron & Emperor’s proxy in the final confrontations of Dune, Feyd-Rautha is – like Paul Atreides – the near-completion of the Bene Gesserit breeding programme.
Under the mentorship of his uncle the Baron, he is schooled in the cruel Harkonnen ways – and adopted as Harkonnen and named heir to the Harkonnen demesne against his father Abulard Rabban’s wishes.
Feyd-Rautha is intelligent, physically attractive, charismatic and an excellent swordsman. However, he’s also sadistic and ambitious, to the point where he would cheat in single combat, even in handicapped battles with slaves, to prove a point or develop his popularity amongst the Harkonnen followers.
His ambition leads him to attempt to kill the Baron to accede to the leadership of the house, and the Baron has to emphasise to him that patience is a virtue and the house will fall to him in due time.
Ultimately Feyd is killed by Paul Atreides in single combat, despite cheating and his influence on the later stories is limited to that of his unwitting, bastard daughter.
In many ways, Feyd is a tragic character and we can assume that he could have been a noble individual, had he been raised by someone like Duke Leto, rather than under the tutelage of the Baron. As an example of how twisted and debased someone with all the privilege and talent in the world can become, he’s definitely grimdark.
It is interesting that Feyd-Rautha does not appear to have been cast in Dune 2020, although he may appear in the sequel given he figures little in the first half of the book. It’s possible that the roles of Glossu Rabban (played by Dabe Bautista) and Feyd-Rautha have been combined for the purposes of the film, but I guess we’ll find out.
What, you can’t have the all conquering protagonist being all grimdark! Yes, I can, because he is.
Paul appears to be the image of just nobility. He’s kind, talented and a great warrior. His arc is notionally one of righteous revenge and that’s the most standard fantasy fare imaginable. I could argue he is grimdark purely because of the circumstances he was forced into – the betrayal of his House, death of his father etc. but that’s not enough in my eyes.
However, I believe Paul is grimdark because of his inhumanity and his failure. As the realised Kwitsaz Haderach, his prescience and ability to sift through his ancestral memory makes him fey and he struggles to relate to others, even his mother and sister who share some measure of his gifts. He turns firm friends such as Stilgar into fawning acolytes, even lamenting this as he watches it happen.
Despite his apparent success in leading the Fremen to defeat the Harkonnens on Arrakis, he fails to stop the jihad, doesn’t act to stop his sister’s authoritarian rampage and ultimately fails to curb the machinations of the Bene Gesserit, leaving the difficult path of saving humanity from prescience to his son.
Despite supposedly being the hero, Paul has the death of 61 billion people, the creation of a heretic theocracy and ultimately Leto II’s 3’500 years of authoritarian repression all on his hands.
More personally, Paul echoes his father’s practical concession to political expediency over love (his father never married Lady Jessica in case a political marriage became necessary) by marrying the former Emperor’s daughter, Irulan and thus keeping his true love, Chani as a concubine.
This directly led to Chani’s death and Paul’s apparent suicide and exile in the desert. While Paul developed the concept of the golden path that Leto II would eventually follow, he had allowed his wife to die and was not present for his children growing up. Despite the scale of his greater failings, these personal ones are arguably even more tragic.
Paul is a lesson that even the most talented and well meaning individual can fail spectacularly and never find true happiness. There is no happy ever after in Dune, and Paul is the finest example of that.