As the curtain opens on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth installment of the Harry Potter film saga, Voldemort is tightening his grip upon a Wizarding World that simply cannot find the collective will or courage to confront the evil in its midst. Everywhere we look, people are sheltering in place, dusting off long-held contingency plans for surviving the Voldemort years. Whatever those plans may be, they generally won’t include confronting him and his followers openly, that’s for sure.
Thus, when Albus Dumbledore seeks out the legendary Horace Slughorn to become Hogwarts’ new Potions teacher, Slughorn has to be sold hard on the notion, because he’d prefer staying safe at home. Teaching potions to Harry Potter when Harry Potter is #1 on Voldemort’s hit list is not exactly the way to enjoy a long semi-retirement. But Slughorn does come to the school as Harry, Hermione and Ron try to enjoy one more year of something approaching normalcy. finally makes it big on the Quidditch team. Romance blossoms between he and Hermione, and between Harry and Ginny Weasley. And Harry chances upon an old potions textbook annotated by a brilliant former owner, the so-called Half-Blood Prince, whose notes allow Harry to gain some academic prestige for once, even if it’s not entirely deserved. Meanwhile, Draco Malfoy skulks about the school on some kind of secret mission that can’t be on the level, even if our heroes are hard-pressed to figure out exactly what it is.
Everything comes to a head as Harry joins Dumbledore on a quest to find and destroy Voldemort’s various horcruxes—the magical receptacles into which Voldemort has stored the equal portions of his soul. They prevail, but when they return to Hogwarts battered and drained, they walk right into an ambush made possible by none other than Draco Malfoy, who built a back door into Hogwart’s legendary defenses and let Voldemort’s minions inside.
Dumbledore seems to know what’s about to happen can’t be stopped, and so he has Harry hide rather than fight. Harry watches in horror as Snape joins with Voldemort’s lieutenants on what has become a clear mission to assassinate Dumbledore. Draco himself is pushed forward to be the triggerman, and here we see a great movie’s moment of truth not just for this movie, but for the character of Draco himself. Throughout this film, we see him working to bring about Dumbledore’s death, a pre-emptive strike by Voldemort to make the Wizarding World a whole lot easier to conquer. Malfoy comes from Death Eater stock; he has been given a great responsibility, and a great honor, according to the bad guys. Draco should be eager to complete his mission, but at the moment of truth…
…he can’t do it. Draco can’t kill a defenseless man who has only ever shown him patience, fairness, guidance and protection. And before Draco’s hesitancy seals his own fate, Snape steps in and kills Dumbledore instead in one of the greatest acts of betrayal ever seen in fantasy cinema. If we didn’t hate Severus Snape before, we sure do now.
Of course, none of this is as simple as it first appears. As Harry struggles to understand why Snape did what he did, Snape reveals that he is the Half-Blood Prince, adding more depth to his profile as somebody made to suffer not just for being the smartest person in the room, but for knowing it, as well. It adds to his villainous bent—I’ll show them all one day!—but it also underscores the sense that if Snape is a villain, he was made one, not born one. This is a path he chose.
Which brings us back to Draco. When faced with a moment of supreme villainy, he didn’t do the right thing and defend Dumbledore, but he didn’t choose to fully go down the well of evil either. There is the possibility for redemption within him. Remote, perhaps, but it’s there. Only Voldemort is truly beyond hope; all others have the freedom to choose between right and wrong. This is a world with such potential for wickedness that it’s tempting to write off people as natural villains. But its’ never that simple, and Draco’s cold feet proves it. Good and evil don’t just happen. They are things we choose. And that makes the villainy we do all the more horrible…and the efforts to stop it all the more admirable.
The final battle draws near. And soon the Wizarding World must finally make a few choices of its own.