Warning: This article contains spoilers for all episodes of The Wolf Among Us.
Speaking in his own defense at his murder trial during one The Wolf Among Us’s final scenes, the Crooked Man, the kingpin of a Fabletown mob of sorts, questions the perspectives of the jurors/townsfolk: “You all act like I’m some kind of tyrant. When your government abandoned you, left you poor and helpless, sniveling on the street corners, I was there to look out for you.” He wants those he most exploited to respect him as a savior, a hero of the people.
This dynamic, between the sufferers (in this case the Fabletown citizens themselves) and the institutions of power, runs through the entire five-episode arc of The Wolf Among Us. Victimhood is a recurring theme throughout the game, consistently used to undermine Bigby’s efforts to solve a murder case far more complex than he first imagined. Issues of culpability and guilt abound, and the game offers no easy answers to the persistent dilemma. The game does, however, send a clear message about focusing on the victim above all else.
There are many victims in The Wolf Among Us, the vast majority of them women, and it is their suffering, largely at the hands of men, that drives the narrative forward. It is the meeting and subsequent death of Faith, a Fabletown prostitute, that kicks off the hard-boiled detective story in the first place. The episode’s titular character is a not-so-veiled allusion to the lack of faith in the systems designed to protect Fabletown citizens. Faith is a victim twofold, first of her murderer and second of structures that left this battered and beaten woman (literally after her encounter with the Woodsman), to go unprotected and unnoticed.
Look deeper still and even those relatively well-off women of Fables are nonetheless sufferers in their own right. Beauty, who appears financially secure and in a loving relationship, secretly works a job to satisfy an imposing and crushing debt. Likewise, her husband, who enters trance-like violent rages, is nearly an allegory for an abusive husband, one she loves but also fears. She too succumbs to the Crooked Man’s promise for answers that the Fabletown government cannot provide, but she does so out of desperate circumstances.
No one is free from a history of suffering in The Wolf Among Us. Even Snow White, Fabletown’s bureaucratic representative, is victimized by Crane, who stalks Snow with lecherous intent. Snow’s folklore history is also steeped in horrid abuse, physical and sexual, by her seven dwarfs. Aunty Greenleaf, the renegade witch in the story, lost her daughter (another female victim) before coming to Fabletown, where she barely scraped by, ignored by the town government. In one scene with Bigby and Snow, Aunty Greenleaf captures well the problem in normal fairy tale stories and even suggests why Wolf Among Us offers its critique: “You think I like being the old woman in these stories? The men are heroes, the ladies are whores… and the old hags like me get to watch everyone they love die.”
Bigby, the Big Bad Wolf of legend, is a perfect tool for undermining the hero narrative. The downtrodden of Fabletown distrust him both for his violent and horrid past and his status as a Sheriff of a failing bureaucracy. He is authoritarian in both regards, trying to do good for those who may bristle at his presence. Time and again, Bigby confronts suspicious and resentful townsfolk. Those who do want to help, the women confined to silence with a purple magically-imbued ribbon, are incapable of speech.
The question present but never asked is: how does a person in a position of power help the powerless?
See, the Crooked Man isn’t wrong. Many of the suffering characters did put themselves into positions of exploitation in a way. However, they did so because their options were so heavily constrained. In that case, what do we do with whatever amount of culpability they are resonsible for? The stance that Wolf Among Us takes is to call for a victim-centric approach. Bigby is the primary actor in the events of the narrative, but as we learn at the game’s end, he has been spurred on by Nerissa, herself a victim of exploitation. She portrays both power and vulnerability, never settling into a noir trope of helplessness or as a simple version of a femme fatale.
Indeed, Nerissa is given one of the most biting and moving lines of dialogue in the whole series: “People like us get forgotten all the time… When we suffer, we do it in silence. And the world likes it that way.” That silent victim is precisely the role that female characters (and victims in general) are relegated to in both reality and fiction. Her empowerment is expressed through her ability to set in motion the events that eventually free her from control. She is perhaps the most heroic character of all.
As a capstone to the story’s critique of fable hero stories, while Nerissa is revealing the truth about her self and the heavy weight on her conscience, Bigby is given the option of both touching her on the shoulder and removing her ribbon. Each time, she backs away, almost repulsed by his touch. She is both expressing, yet again, a visceral distrust — “Nobody cares about us. Not really.” — and rejecting his ownership over her body and her suffering.
Most of this article discusses gender. While women are not the only ones who suffer, they are a focal point. It’s appropriate then that so many of the characters have complex folklore roots that explore some of these same issues. Even still, the victims of A Wolf Among Us, which may include some of the villains, live in a world that may not be capable of addressing their problems. The solution, then, is both one of empowerment and tempered assistance from others. The issue the citizens have with Bigby isn’t that he’s trying to do good, but that his brand of “goodness” is not consistently or equitably described. The work ahead of him, which so concerns Bigby in the final scene, is how he can help these victims not as a champion, but as an ally.