Redemption arcs are a common storytelling device that help create depth and complexity in characters initially presented as an antagonist. These story arcs explore the complex themes of forgiveness, growth, and the potential for change. In “One Tree Hill,” the main villain throughout the series is Dan Scott (Paul Johansson). By his final episode in the show’s ninth season, his character arc had run the gamut from full villainy to an empathetic grandfather who ultimately took a bullet for his son.
But did he redeem himself, and should he have even been given a chance at redemption? The answer may not be straightforward.
Dan’s Villainy in the Early Seasons
When audiences first met Dan in Season 1 of “One Tree Hill,” we learned he was the father of two teenage sons: Lucas Scott (Chad Michael Murray) and Nathan Scott (James Lafferty). However, he didn’t have an active parental role in either of their lives.
Lucas and Nathan had different mothers, Karen Roe (Moira Kelly) and Deb Scott (Barbara Alyn Woods), respectively, and they were born only months apart from each other. Dan chose to pursue a family life with Deb rather than Karen, leading him to take on a fatherly role with Nathan while leaving Lucas on his own. Luckily, Lucas’s uncle and Dan's brother, Keith Scott (Craig Sheffer), stepped in to be a father figure to him.
Despite having different relationships with their father, both Lucas and Nathan suffered from Dan’s parenting, or lack thereof. Lucas was neglected by Dan while Nathan faced constant criticism from his father, specifically for his athletic performance as a basketball player. Dan’s character in the first two seasons of “One Tree Hill” was emotionally abusive, manipulative, and controlling. He was consistently looking out for his own interests with no regard for the well-being of those around him. In other words, Dan was a classic TV villain.
The Murderous Turning Point
While Dan’s behavior in the early seasons of “One Tree Hill” was reprehensible, he reached a turning point in Season 3 when he committed a horrendous act born out of his own self-interests. Dan always had a strained relationship with his older brother Keith, but it intensified when Keith stepped in as Lucas’ surrogate father. Despite not wanting a part in the lives of Lucas or Karen, Dan was jealous of Keith for essentially taking his place.
Their relationship became even more strained after Keith slept with Dan’s wife, Deb, who Dan was separated from at the time. This action was the catalyst for Dan to launch a revenge plot against his brother. He hired a woman named Jules (Maria Menounos) to break Keith’s heart, and the scheme worked. But that wasn’t enough for Dan, who also blamed Keith for an apparent attempt to poison him — though that wasn’t actually Keith’s doing (spoiler alert: It was Deb’s!).
In the show’s groundbreaking school shooting episode more than halfway through the third season, Keith heroically entered the school to communicate with the shooter, Jimmy Edwards (Colin Fickes), a teenager he knew through Lucas. Unfortunately, Keith’s counsel wasn’t enough, and Jimmy killed himself. A shellshocked Keith was distraught as Dan entered the hallway, picked up Jimmy’s gun, and fired at his brother, murdering him in cold blood and letting the world think it was Jimmy who pulled the trigger.
Dan’s Internal Struggle
“One Tree Hill” handled Keith’s murder in an interesting way, as the audience knew who really killed him but the other characters didn’t. This allowed viewers to see how Dan handled the aftermath of Keith’s death while keeping his part in it a secret. Dan was no doubt a horrible person from the show’s start, but going as far as to murder someone was a huge turning point for his character.
Dan struggled with the guilt of killing Keith, and we watched him try to justify his actions to himself. He became haunted by his brother’s death, seeing things that weren’t there, and even tried to take Keith’s place in Karen’s life. Dan then denied the truth when Lucas found out what really happened that fateful day, thanks to a previously unseen eyewitness.
Eventually, at the end of Season 4, Dan turned himself in for Keith’s murder. However, it’s difficult to know what truly led him to finally come clean. Audiences saw him struggle with his actions. Had Lucas not found out, would the guilt have eaten him up so much that he would have eventually confessed anyway? Or did he only turn himself in because the truth came out and was quickly spreading?
His Acts of Atonement
Dan served roughly five years in prison for Keith’s murder before being released. During that time, he was only visited once by his son Nathan and was rightfully outcast by the rest of the family. When he returned to Tree Hill after his prison release, it was clear Dan wasn’t the person he used to be — the abusive father, murderous brother, and cruel husband. In fact, there were several instances across the remaining seasons of the show where he showed how much he had changed. There were three key moments in particular in which Dan seemingly attempted to redeem himself.
Saving His Grandson Jamie
One of the first things Dan did after his prison release was try to attend Lucas’ wedding. While he didn’t enter the church, he did sit outside the venue, which provided him with the opportunity to see something terrible happen to his grandson, Jamie Scott (Jackson Brundage) — Nathan’s son.
Jamie was kidnapped by his former nanny, an increasingly unstable woman named Carrie (Torrey DeVitto). Dan followed them to a motel where he stood watch, waiting for the opportunity to rescue his grandson. Eventually, Dan saved Jamie and brought him home to his stunned family. Nathan, Lucas, and the rest initially thought Dan was the perpetrator, but Jamie made it clear his Grandpa Dan was actually his rescuer.
Saving His Son Nathan’s Reputation
In Season 7, Dan’s tendency to be manipulative took center stage again (quite literally) when he became the star of a TV talk show all about redemption. It was actually called — wait for it — “Scott Free Redemption.” He gained notoriety by claiming he was miraculously cured of a genetic heart condition (untrue, of course) and used his story to profit off those fooled by his shtick. Meanwhile, his son Nathan, whom he didn’t have a relationship with at the time, was facing a public scandal after a woman accused him of having an affair and impregnating her.
Nathan’s accuser, Renee Richardson (Kate French), had in fact met him previously but was lying about both the affair and the pregnancy. Nonetheless, the media caught wind of the allegations, and the scandal was on course to wreck not just Nathan’s family life, but also his career as an NBA player. And then something surprising happened: Dan invited Renee to appear on his show.
Dan’s intentions weren’t immediately clear when the interview began, and his track record suggested he would support Renee’s story and cause further harm to his family. As it turned out, however, he tricked Renee into revealing the truth and the whole world saw her lies unravel. Dan inviting Renee on to his show was all to clear his son’s name and save his reputation.
Saving His Son’s Life
Dan’s final act in “One Tree Hill” was part of a storyline that spanned almost the entirety of Season 9. During the show’s final season, Nathan was kidnapped after attempting to recruit a Russian basketball player. For most of the season, Nathan was missing, and when Dan learned of this, he dedicated his time to researching and investigating his son’s disappearance.
Eventually, he uncovered where Nathan was, who had him, and launched a plan to get him back. During the rescue, Dan saved Nathan, but it came at the expense of his own life. While saving Nathan, Dan stepped between him and the gun-toting man who had been holding him hostage as the hit man fired his weapon. Dan took the bullet for his son, landing him in the hospital where he ultimately died. Before he succumbed, however, the father and son had a final conversation about Dan’s shortcomings and his brutal murder of Keith (though fans still disagree as to whether this conversation was real or imagined).
Redemption From His Sons
“One Tree Hill,” at its core, is a show about teen brothers and their complicated relationships with their father — and that father’s complicated relationship with his own brother. Dan’s redemption arc should first be viewed through his relationships with both Lucas and Nathan. The way Dan’s story ends, with Nathan by his side and Lucas refusing to give his dying, estranged dad the dignity of a goodbye, represents the complicated feelings viewers have about the character and whether he deserves redemption.
The show’s portrayal of this yearslong storyline felt truthful and nuanced. Neither son immediately forgave Dan after a few good deeds, and it made sense that Lucas never forgave him at all. Lucas barely had a relationship with his father, and Dan stole from him the father figure he did have. In contrast, Nathan and Dan had an up-and-down relationship that, while not perfect, left Nate filled with gratitude for his father. Nathan said as much during their last conversation, sharing how much he learned from Dan, how he owed him his life, and how much he still loved him, despite all that he’d done. This admission isn’t just a testament to Dan, but also to Nathan’s character development.
In looking at Dan’s acts of atonement, all of them put Nathan at the center. Dan saved Nathan’s son, Nathan’s reputation and career, and then Nathan’s life. Dan redeemed himself, perhaps not in Lucas’ eyes, but unquestionably in Nathan’s.
Did Dan Redeem Himself?
The second lens to view Dan’s redemption arc through is that of Keith. When Dan was on his deathbed, he envisioned his brother Keith there with him. Keith offered Dan his forgiveness and told his little brother that he knew he had changed and was no longer the man he used to be. Keith seemed to grant Dan the ultimate redemption, welcoming him to heaven as his “plus one.”
But for the audience, it may not be so cut and dry. By showing Nathan and Deb mourning Dan on his deathbed while Lucas and Karen chose not to be there, the writers indicated how complex Dan’s arc was and how it affected those around him. Ultimately, the show left it to viewers to decide for themselves whether Dan truly deserved to be redeemed for his actions — or if he even was. The debate still rages today, more than a decade after “One Tree Hill” ended.
Tell us in the comments below where you stand on Dan’s redemption — and find out how to watch “One Tree Hill” if you want to see this storyline for yourself.