From Walter White to Don Draper, Marty Byrd to Elizabeth Jennings, most of our favourite films and TV shows involve antiheroes. We are compelled by the figures and their morally iniquitous actions. Yet strangely, we also can’t help but like these characters and root for them. Is this a problem? Murray Smith posits that these figures serve as a much needed antidote to moral perfectionism and argues that we should embrace, rather than resist, our love for antiheroes.
‘People just ain’t no good’, laments Nick Cave; ‘I think that’s well understood’. Certainly that’s the impression you might easily form from the wave of antiheroic fiction that has become so central to television output over the past quarter-century. From The Sopranos to Mad Men to Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, from Dexter to The Americans to Ray Donovan, Narcos and Ozark, the figure of the morally dubious or depraved protagonist has become ubiquitous in Anglophone small-screen drama. What makes these shows special? What lies behind our fascination with these televisual antiheroes?
Beauty vs Morality Read more Immorality, of course, is the stuff of drama; so it’s not the really bad behaviour which makes these dramas distinctive. It’s the fact that morally weak and corrupt characters occupy the foreground; that we follow their fortunes, come to understand and root for them, and generally respond to the fictional worlds they inhabit with their interests at heart. Neither Aristotle nor Hume would have approved. Hume objected to ‘rough heroes’, arguing 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’. And as for Aristotle – well, these are anti-Aristotelian dramas, inverting the structure of classical tragedy as Aristotle saw it: instead of essentially noble figures brought low by a fatal flaw, we are faced with largely contemptible figures with a few redeeming traits, whose reprehensible actions are mitigated up to a point by circumstance and personal history.
Antiheroes avoid the trope of moral perfectionism
It’s not that the heroes of conventional dramas are moral paragons. Ordinary protagonists tend to be of mixed moral character, and (as Rory Kelly and Sam Cumming have emphasised) they are commonly juxtaposed with a morally superior figure, a kind of moral mentor who models what they can and ought to be: think of Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) in relation to Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca. This is a trope of moral perfectionism – the idea that individuals can and should strive to improve themselves morally; in the words of Stanley Cavell, that each person should pursue their ‘unattained but attainable self’. And there’s no shortage of such morally-oriented figures in the antiheroic series – characters who, no matter how grim their starting point and current situation, reconcile self-interest with an effort to do their best by others: think of Kim (Rhea Seehorn) and Nacho (Michael Mando) in Better Call Saul, or Wyatt (Charlie Tahan), Rachel (Jordana Spiro), Sam (Kevin L. Johnson), Maya Miller (Jessica Frances Dukes), and Mel Sattem (Adam Rothenberg) in Ozark. It’s just that these characters are, in the words of Lieutenant Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) in Blade Runner, ‘little people’ – powerless, heading towards the periphery of the drama (if not already there), and often perishing at the hands of those with more resources and fewer scruples.
Ozark tells the story of the Byrdes, on the face of it as bland and conventional a family as you could ask for. Marty and Wendy Byrde (Jason Bateman and Laura Linney) are married, with two kids and a dog, resident in the Chicago suburbs as the series begins. Marty is an accountant, Wendy a Democratic party operative, her career suspended for the time being by parenthood. But Marty’s business partner Bruce sees an opportunity to increase their firm’s profits by laundering cash for a Mexican drug cartel; it doesn’t take a lot to persuade Marty, listless and drifting in middle-aged limbo, to follow suit. Meanwhile Wendy is pursuing an affair which, unbeknownst to her, Marty knows all about; their marital disaffection is at the centre of his funk. Bruce and Marty siphon off a little extra from the money they are laundering, but their Mexican colleagues spot the trick. Before we know it, Bruce and Wendy’s lover are wacked, and Marty is shunted into a new life in Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks resort, cleaning drug money on an industrial scale. His family relocate with him, and soon enough all of them are engaged, one way or another, in the family business.
A common explanation for the power of these antiheroic TV series 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.
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.
This drama of self-deception is also played out in The Americans, via 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 (Jon Hamm) 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.
These dramas excite us with their well-crafted plotlines and suspenseful scenes. But they also convey an image of human fallibility quite at odds with the moralistic certitude of cancel culture. And, to a remarkable degree, they invite our patience with the foolish, weak, self-serving, venal characters at the heart of the stories they tell
Ozark puts its own spin on the theme of self-deception. There is a good amount of fretting among the Byrdes about the dreadful things they do in order to save their skins and advance their interests – played out most emphatically in Wendy Byrde’s connivance in the murder of her vulnerable, mentally unstable brother, and her insatiable appetite for political status. But at the very centre of the family, and the drama, sits Marty – a kind of hollow man, almost entirely emptied out by the Faustian bargain which he believes imprisons him. Marty is presented as a bureaucrat managing and massaging morality in the name of self-interest – a psychological as much as a financial accountant, endlessly rationalizing the next corrupt and vicious action, the very image of the banality of evil.
The antiheroic shows offer us a vision of moral imperfection, countering the tradition of moral perfectionism so strongly represented in philosophy, literature, and film. In doing so they contrast even more strongly with the moralism so prevalent in contemporary culture. By moralism I mean an attitude of ethical absolutism and self-certainty – a conviction that one is in possession of the Truth, and that other perspectives and other judgements are not to be tolerated. In short, they are to be cancelled: individuals, events, and objects embodying beliefs or attitudes regarded as retrograde or problematic are to be asphyxiated and erased from the record. These shows, on the other hand, fill the foreground with eminently cancellable human agents, and they ask us, if not always or simply to admire them, to stick with them as they invariably dig themselves ever deeper into the high-risk scenarios and ethical quagmires that define their lives. Sure, these dramas excite us with their well-crafted plotlines and suspenseful scenes. But they also convey an image of human fallibility quite at odds with the moralistic certitude of cancel culture. And, to a remarkable degree, they invite our patience with the foolish, weak, self-serving, venal characters at the heart of the stories they tell.
Part of the secret here is that, for all their failings, these characters still retain moral capacity, no matter how stressed and compromised it has become, no matter how wayward their moral compasses. That is why it is right to call them antiheroes rather than villains. They often try to do the right thing – or what they think is the right thing, or the least evil thing given what they regard as their live options – even if they usually fail. ‘It ain't that in their hearts they're bad, They'll stick by you if they could’, sings Nick Cave. ‘Ah, but that's just bullshit, baby, People just ain't no good’. Like the shows under scrutiny here, however, he sings it with some compassion.
Human, all too human. Are there respects in which this alternative to moralism, and inversion of moral perfectionism, resemble Nietzsche’s critique of morality? In a loose sense, yes, for in a variety of ways Nietzsche strove to shake our confidence in inherited moral schemes, in the name of a more realistic conception of morality (which he certainly did not abandon). The passage in which Nietzsche coins his oft-quoted phrase is indeed pertinent: ‘meditating on things human, all too human…is one of the means by which man can ease life's burden…by exercising this art, one can secure presence of mind in difficult situations and entertainment amid boring surroundings; indeed…from the thorniest and unhappiest phases of one's own life one can pluck maxims and feel a bit better thereby’ (Aphorism 35). Engaging with antiheroic dramas can alleviate the tedium of the moral life, and at the same time provide reassurance that we ourselves, after all, are not so very bad, and our lives – free of the constant existential threats endured by our antiheroic protagonists – not so very terrible. The paradoxical comforts afforded by the antihero drama may, then, be among its more surprising features: all that darkness serves to throw what light there is into sharp relief.