The Redemption of Dan Scott
Was the murderous Dan Scott redeemed by the end of “One Tree Hill”? And did he deserve to be?
Across nine seasons and nearly 160 episodes, Dan was played by Paul Johansson, who had previously appeared as the cocky, smarmy John Sears in 13 episodes of “Beverly Hills, 90210.” He was introduced as the villain of “One Tree Hill” from its very first episode. Viewers learned he fathered sons with both his high school sweetheart Karen and college girlfriend Deb within months of one another… but was only parenting one of the boys.
With Dan and Deb, son Nathan lived a privileged life and was the star of the high school basketball team, while outsider Lucas and his mom Karen were doing their best just to get by. Dan was incredibly cruel to Lucas from near and afar, but that’s not to say Nathan had it easy. Dan bullied him to no end and was hardly a doting husband to Deb. In episode after episode, whether it was tormenting Nathan, Deb, Lucas, or Karen, it seemed like Dan could sink no lower.
And then the ultimate line was crossed.
In episode 3.16, “With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept,” Dan murdered his own brother, Keith, and let a troubled teenager who killed himself be blamed. It was a game-changing twist that altered the course of the series forever. How does a character come back from that?
It doesn’t help that rather than coming clean, Dan spends the next few months trying to get close to Karen, who is pregnant with the late Keith’s baby and unaware Dan is the reason she’ll be raising her daughter alone. Dan is seemingly driven by guilt and is even haunted by his murderous behavior, but it isn’t until Lucas learns the truth that he turns himself into the police in the season 4 finale. Locked in a jail cell, Dan attempts to hang himself and is left sobbing on the floor when his noose fails to do the deed. Are we supposed to feel sorry for him? Maybe?
With the time jump in season 5, Dan is released on parole and his redemption arc begins in earnest. While Lucas and Nathan want nothing to do with Dan, Nate’s own son, the adorably innocent Jamie, just wants to know his grandpa. And when Jamie is kidnapped, it’s Dan who rescues him. Are we supposed to be impressed? Maybe? Then in season 6, Dan is grappling with a heart condition and expected to die if he doesn’t get a transplant. In the season finale, Dan even goes to Whitey and pleads for him to take his life and end the “pain.” Whitey refuses, telling Dan, “Maybe you’re still here for redemption.” Again, are we supposed to feel sorry for him? Maybe?
This journey toward redemption faces a setback of sorts in season 7, when Dan attempts to amass fame and fortune by parlaying his sordid past into a career as the host of a TV show called “Scott Free Redemption.” He eventually admits, however, that he’s profiting off his brother’s murder and vows to do better, to be better. Again, are we supposed to be impressed? Maybe?
While Dan’s narrative is largely sidelined in season 8, he gets to play the hero in season 9. After first appearing to be as manipulative as ever, Dan ends up saving Nathan from kidnappers and takes a bullet in the process. Hospitalized and near death in episode 9.11, “Danny Boy,” Dan is saddened but understands when an unforgiving Lucas won’t come to Tree Hill for a final goodbye. He then has — dreams? — a powerful conversation with Nate in which he takes responsibility for all his wrongdoings, most notably killing Keith. “I’m so sorry,” Dan cries.
Nathan absolves him and expresses his love… and then so does Keith himself. As Dan flatlines in the hospital, we see the older, heavenly Scott brother appear to usher the younger, devilish one into the afterlife. “I’m so sorry for that day and every day before it,” Dan tells Keith, who replies, “I know you are, Danny, and I forgive you.” He goes on:
“You’re dead, Dan, if I can’t forgive you now, when can I? Look, Danny, you’ve done some horrific things. You can’t change that and can’t take it back. Since then you’ve done everything you could to make up for it. You’ve become a better man… I didn’t say you were perfect, but nobody is. You learned what’s important. You learned to put friends and family first. You’ve become the selfless, kind person I always wanted for a brother.”
Keith tells Dan to take a walk with him, to which he says, “I know where you’re going. But what about me?” Answers Keith, “Don’t worry, little brother. You’re my plus one.”
The implication seems to be that if Keith can provide Dan with the ultimate forgiveness, we, the viewer, should be able to as well. For me, I’m not sure it’s that simple.
Looking at the character’s overall arc, one “One Tree Hill” fan resource asserts, “Dan was the main villain in Season One, and a supporting villain Season Two and Three. He became an anti-hero in Season Four, Season Five, Season Six, Season Seven, Season Eight. And finally became a hero in Season Nine.” But I don’t think Dan’s scattered good or well-meaning deeds outweigh all of his sins (many of which I haven’t even mentioned here).
And I don’t think I’m the only viewer conflicted about this. Last July, in a BuzzFeed piece about the “most unpopular or controversial opinions” related to “One Tree Hill,” one fan argued “Dan didn’t deserve a redemption arc” because he “literally murdered his brother!” Then a few months later, in an October BuzzFeed post titled “33 TV Characters Who Started Out As Villains But Ended Up Being Better Than The Heroes,” a different fan offered, “He did absolutely unforgivable things and was a vile human being, but somehow I ended up rooting for him and his redemption arc?! I mean, he DID save Jamie and Nathan!”
Yet in another BuzzFeed listicle last year, one about characters “who got happy endings they didn’t deserve,” someone else maintained, “His redemption arc was bullshit, IMO. Just because a little kid can see the good in you does not dissolve years of wrongdoing. I think what bothered me most about his arc wasn’t that he became ‘good,’ but that Nathan forgave him for MURDERING HIS BROTHER IN COLD BLOOD. Dan should NOT have gone out like a hero.”
I don’t think there’s any wrong or right here. To me, these opposing viewpoints illustrate the complexity of the issue. The answers to whether Dan was redeemed by the end of “One Tree Hill” and whether he deserved to be are going to vary person to person. I know where I stand. Where do you?
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Dan Scott's redemption arc works because of the amazing performance of Paul Johanson. Even in Season 4, I saw myself wanting to see Dan become a better person and had to remind myself he killed he brother because of Paul's acting.
However, Dan did serve his time for the crime. After he got out, he did what Keith said . He put friends and family first. He became the brother Keith always wanted him to be. In Season 9, Dan's farewell still tears me up. Dan Scott's redemption arc is one of the best stories of a teen drama.
On an artistic level, it was the main story that helped saved the show after Hillary Burton and Chad Michael Murray left. His story shows that everyone can be forgiven for their sins if they change their ways.
It has a Christian theme to it that many say they believe in. That everyone had a chance to be forgiven if they ask for forgiveness and change their ways.