Mad, bad and dangerous to know: TV’s anti-heroes

From Walter White to Dexter Morgan, what lies behind our fascination with imperfect heroes? asks Murray Smith

July 17, 2014

Most of the time we hardly respond to him as a faker, cheater and psycho-pathic killer; we cannot resist all the smiles, nods and solicitous questions

The two-part final season of Mad Men, to conclude next year, turns the spotlight on a striking trend in contemporary televisual fiction. The show sets itself a particular kind of challenge: Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has some redeeming traits, and he’s mellowing with age, but he remains a remarkably unsympathetic character. In this respect he is representative of a notable recent movement – serial narratives organised around fundamentally immoral, unsympathetic and anti-heroic characters.

Of course, the anti-hero is hardly unprecedented, not just in literature but in film and television. Nor does the fashion for shows featuring anti-heroes represent the whole televisual or cultural picture. In some brute quantitative sense, the mass of fiction in all media doubtless remains conventionally heroic – tracking the fortunes of more or less morally admirable protagonists as they struggle against and overcome obstacles of various sorts.

There are numerous variants of the anti-heroic model, from the domestic gangster drama (The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Ray Donovan) through period and political dramas (Mad Men, Homeland, Boss, The Americans) to the serial-killer thriller (Dexter, Hannibal). Nonetheless, there is a common thread running through these shows. There can be little doubt that there is a large audience for the morally distressed narrative, and that the sustained exploration of weak, dubious, compromised and corrupt protagonists is a major reason for the critical and popular success of these programmes.

David Hume would have been perplexed, for he disputed the value of such “rough heroes”, claiming that “we are displeased to find the limits of vice and virtue so much confounded” and cannot bring ourselves to “bear an affection” for characters “we plainly discover to be blameable”. Aristotle might not have approved either, as these characters hardly conform to his model of the flawed hero. Here the emphasis is reversed: these are essentially negative figures whose immoral actions are mitigated to an extent by circumstance and personal history. So what accounts for our fascination with such creations, and the high value our culture puts on them?

A common explanation is that we are drawn into a strong bond of identification with these characters, so the shows offer the thrill of transgression in the playground of the imagination, a process often greeted with either tabloid condemnation or romanticised, countercultural celebration. Neither response is adequate. Imagined, vicarious transgression may be one part of the equation, but these series defeat any simple response of either sympathy or antipathy, pleasure or revulsion, towards their protagonists, cultivating instead a complex and profound ambivalence. This ambivalence is in part a response to the focus on what Meadow Soprano (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) – Tony Soprano’s (James Gandolfini) teenage daughter – decries as her parents’ “bullshit accommodational pretence”, the spurious self-justificatory stories they tell themselves and their complicity in hiding from their children the true nature of Soprano’s lifestyle.

Dishonesty and self-deception lie at the heart of these dramas. In the second episode of the final season of Mad Men, Draper asks his daughter what he should say in a letter explaining her absence from school one day. “Just tell the truth,” she sighs. As the master ad man, Draper’s instinct is always to varnish, pitch and prettify – never just to tell the truth.

Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) journey in Breaking Bad from beaten-down chemistry teacher to brutalised drug lord is the most extreme case of anti-heroic transformation in this contemporary wave; creator Vince Gilligan has spoken of his conscious intention to test the limits of audience sympathy with an increasingly immoral protagonist. White’s self-understanding is heavily fortified by self-justification: his mantra – everything I do, I do for my family – only gives way decisively in the final season. Rejected by his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), his son Walter Jr (R J Mitte) and his criminal partner Jesse (Aaron Paul), and responsible for the murder of his brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), he eventually recognises what he has become, swallowing that recognition like a bitter poison.

The theme is also explicit in the The Americans, where the outright duplicity of spying merges into the quicksand of self-deception. “You’re a very good liar,” says the lover of Soviet double agent Nina Sergeevna (Annet Mahendru), as she declares her devotion to him. But perhaps she lies best of all to herself. Asked during a polygraph test if she has ever betrayed her country, the camera lingers on her while she pauses; although at this point in the story she is overtly working for the KGB, we really can’t be sure where she stands, and we get the impression that she isn’t sure either.

This drama of self-deception is also played out by the show’s central couple, whose efforts to persuade themselves of the rightness of their cause and the value of the bizarre double life that they lead – as Soviet spies and regular American citizens – corrodes their sense of self. They can no more reveal their true identities to their American children than Tony Soprano can be honest about the nature of his work, Walter White reveal to his son what he has become, or Don Draper admit the lie of his identity, stolen from the corpse of a fellow soldier in the Korean War. In each case, the impediments to honesty with others feed back into self-deception and self-loathing. Bad faith eats the souls of them all.

Not so for the eponymous hero of Dexter, played by Michael C. Hall. On the face of it, the show fashions a blackly comic variation on the figure of the heroic vigilante. Like many a modern superhero, Dexter Morgan is a social misfit whose actions are rendered sympathetic by the limits of the law and the greater evil of the criminals he hunts down. But underneath the familiar genre trappings and the vividly realised Miami setting, the show is structured around an authentically disturbing conceit.

“People fake a lot of human interactions,” Dexter declares in the series pilot, “but I feel like I fake them all, and I fake them very well.” So well, in fact, that most of the time we hardly respond to him as a faker, cheater and psychopathic killer; we cannot resist all the smiles, nods and solicitous questions. Dexter’s art is not self-deception but just deception; he has no soul to be eaten. His ritualistic murders of unconvicted killers, conducted with clinical precision and slaughterhouse brutality, nonetheless stop us short: these brief but sadistic interludes sharply remind us that his hunger for justice is first and foremost a means of channelling a very different kind of appetite. He is undoubtedly the most warped of vigilante heroes, and his presentation is complex enough to jam any simple embrace of his transgressive cachet.

American philosopher Stanley Cavell talks about the tradition of “moral perfectionism” he finds in philosophy, literature and film – visions of the self as a seeker of moral virtue – from Plato to Emerson, from Henry James to His Girl Friday. The anti-heroic trend in contemporary television puts this vision under severe strain, tipping over in the blackest cases to an image of moral imperfectionism. These are fictions for a morally disabused age, conscious of the reality and demands of ethics, but weary and wary of tabloid moralism, and sceptical of conventional heroism.

Paul Greengrass, the director, describes Jason Bourne (protagonist of the initial three Bourne films) as a character who realises he has done bad things who is now “striving towards the light”. These televisual anti-heroes, by contrast, have either given up striving for the light or lack the will, desire or intelligence to see it.

And yet an anti-hero is still a hero. We retain a thin thread of sympathy with White to the very end, for he ensures that his wife is protected from exposure as his accomplice, that his partner is freed from capture by their fellow drug runners, and that he takes down with him an array of more vicious characters.

The possibility of redemption, no matter how slight or remote, is thus an essential ingredient in these shows: even Dexter experiences a kind of unease with himself. And self-deception is a key to the possibility of redemption: White, Draper and company strive to dupe themselves because at some level they understand, but can’t stand, what they are or have become.

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