The Villain as “Antihero:” The Glorification of the Criminal Sociopath on American Television.Posted: August 10, 2013
As we slowly glide into the fall 2013 “television season” we (the viewing audience) are being inundated by ads for two big events, one an ending, the other a beginning. The ending is the finale of Breaking Bad, the celebrated series about the high school science teach who transforms himself from a desperate criminal-by-necessity into a cold-blooded sociopathic criminal mastermind. The beginning is the premiere of Low Winter Sun, a new series about crooked cops caught in a web of lies and destruction.
Each series falls into a category of drama in which the protagonist is a fascinating study in criminal pathology. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, Hell on Wheels, and the earlier The Shield illustrate these qualities. And if the critics are to be believed, they do so brilliantly, combining excellent writing, inspired acting, and engaging storylines.
As I stated in an earlier post, I don’t watch these shows. I have no interest in them, any more than in the soft-core pornography that is the essence of shows like Mistresses and the coming series Betrayal. However, I am compelled to challenge a main premise of many television writers and try to restore a literary concept to its proper meaning.
I am dismayed to hear Walter White, Dexter Morgan, their ilk referred to as “antiheroes.” I assume that either the writers who confer this designation are uneducated or they are trying to convince us to redefine our values in the same way that the manufacturers of violent video games try to convince us that killing other living beings is a supreme pleasure.
These characters are not antiheroes. They are, in the language of literary classification, simply villains. This term, villain, is old and venerable, although it has fallen out of use in our description of the evil characters in narrative fiction. There is no doubt that villains fascinate us. Great villains are among literature’s best written characters. Iago, Milton’s Satan, Professor Moriarty, Javert – these characters draw us in and fix our imaginations as much as do the “heroes” of their stories.
In film, we have a long list of celebrated villains, such as Hans Beckert, the child molester played by Peter Lorre in M; Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter, and Richard Widmark’s Jefty Robbins in the original (1948) Roadhouse. These, and the many other classic film villains, crawl into our minds and plant memorable images of evil. Their pathologies are set squarely in front of us, but we are not expected to sympathize with them. The “best” of them confound our efforts to understand them. We recoil from them. We are relieved at their defeat. And, if we find aspects of them hidden in the recesses of our psyches, we try to inhale a cool breath of sanity and do our best to immerse ourselves in normalcy.
The primary difference between the antihero and the villain is moral. The villain has rejected the value of moral community, moral action, and moral sentiment. The human (and humane) values of love, loyalty, generosity, compassion, justice, and honesty are absent in the villain. The self of the villain is an empty space, filled and refilled with delusions of power derived from the suffering of others – delusions that only serve to expand the emptiness and demand more, and more vicious, acts of predation on his fellow human beings.
The antihero does not lack a moral center. His moral code is clear to him even if it is not apparent to us. He rejects the conventional morality of the majority who venerate the status quo while continually chafing at it. He also resists the morality of the elites whom he alienates by his blunt rejection of their claim that their values are also his. He follows his own moral imperative, which leads him to do whatever damage is required to people and institutions whose interests he must (often unwillingly) oppose for a greater good.
The concept of the antihero was consolidated in the 1950s in the context of the French “New Wave” in film. The concept has, however, a number of sources and antecedents. Its roots are found equally in 19th century Romanticism, noir fiction and film, and existential philosophy.
From Romanticism it received the concept of morality as a personal standard derived from an individual’s most authentic feelings. It promotes the idea that one cannot define right and wrong for another and that one must not allow oneself to be bound by values that are inauthentic. The major literary and artistic figures of the period – Byron, the Shellys, George Sand, Liszt, Poe, Winslow Homer – are themselves antiheroes, as are the characters created by the writers of that period – Goethe’s Werther (published in 1774, but like many of Rousseau’s ideas and Beethoven’s early works, very much in the romantic spirit) and Victor Frankenstein.
The “hard-boiled” and noir genres of American detective fiction introduced characters who lived at the end of the world (California in the 1930s and 1940s), at the last frontiers of conventional morality. Their world was the “wild west” re-envisioned as capitalist wasteland: everyone out for themselves, with the strongest riding roughshod over the rest. Their morality was that of the avenging angel. But angels – avenging or otherwise – are mysterious and terrifying creatures, whose actions often consist of destruction. God and humans create, and if God is inaccessible, then humans must build something of value upon the rubble left by the angels’ meting out of justice.
Existentialism took the form we now recognize among French philosophers in the aftermath of World War II. But its roots are firmly planted in the 19th century writings of thinkers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Existentialists like (famously and familiarly) Sartre and Camus argued that the individual is his own creation, his own creator, and his own – and only – moral judge. Responsibility for our actions is the only moral imperative. We must, as Nietzsche demanded, reject the hollow bourgeois morality of religion and all other forms of ideology. Anticipating Sartre in the next century, Nietzsche proclaimed that we have already killed God and must accept the burden of becoming God for ourselves. According to the existentialist, it is through action that we create and define ourselves. The morality of our action is determined by the integrity of the self that performs it.
Onto the stage prepared by these predecessors steps the literary, and especially the cinematic, antihero. We see this character throughout the films of the 1950s through the 1980s. Here are some notable examples: Lemmy Cautión in Godard’s Aphaville; Serge Gorodish in the novels of Delacorta (Daniel Odier), one of which was the basis for Beineix’s Diva; Clint Eastwood’s characters “The Man With No Name” and “Dirty” Harry Calahan; Sanjuro, the masterless samurai in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (the model for Eastwood’s spaghetti western character): and, arguably, Alain Charnier, “The Frenchman” as portrayed by Fernando Rey in The French Connection.
In late 20th century literature, the characters of Alec Leamas and George Smiley, created by John Le Carré exemplify the antihero as a performer in the dance of death that was the cold war.
Television has given us few genuine antiheros. Most TV dramas, melodramas, and soap operas adhere to the conventions of unambiguous, semi-allegorical characterizations of good and evil. The best example of a television antihero is the character of John Luther, portrayed by Idris Elba in the BBC crime series Luther. He is a fierce enemy of injustice, but emotionally volatile and given to dangerously dark moods. He works in an uneasy détente with his supervisors on the police force and accepts the presence of bad people as part of the landscape. But he gives no quarter to the most violent and depraved of adversaries and willingly puts his life at risk to bring them to justice.
I have seen no such powerfully drawn antihero in an American production. Quirky, nonconformist cops and non-cop crime solvers and psychologically damaged protagonists do not antiheros make. Where there is no moral challenge to be confronted, the true character of the antihero cannot and need not be revealed. American action heroes generally do not swim through a sea of filth in pursuit of justice. Those who are at ease amidst the filth are at ease because they embrace the filth as treasure. They become filthy. They become villains. The antihero hates the filth, but accepts it. He is sickened by its stench on him, and seeks cleansing in his own way. But if the vast sewer is what separates him from the accomplishment of justice, he will pass through it. And woe betide those who compelled him to make the journey.
As I look at the current and recent television series that celebrate the criminal sociopath and the so-called media critics who label him antihero, I am somewhat uncertain of the thinking that misnames evil in order to praise its artistic value. I am willing to explore that concept of “the beauty of evil” that was celebrated by Baudelaire and his contemporaries. And if the TV producers and critics want us to delight in evil for whatever reason, let them tell us so, boldly and straightforwardly. I frankly doubt that they have the patience (time being money) or the philosophical chops to engage in such a discussion.
However, I suspect that there is another force at work in the creation of these highly acclaimed TV shows. Recent US history has shown us that much of the power in this country is held by criminal sociopaths. The collapse of the economy, the crushing attack on the working class (the so-called “middle class”), the destruction of the environment, the endless war on behalf of arms manufacturers and oil companies – all of these demonstrate that ruthless depravity, absent any moral content is the path to near absolute power. The shamelessness with which the depredations of criminal sociopaths are acknowledged and naked impunity with which their actions are accepted by our government make justice seem like an anachronistic totem for the feeble-minded.
In this context it makes sense to present to us villains who can bear the mantle of semi-hero, with whom we can identify, whose fate concerns us, whose demise we anticipate with sadness. They are the real winners, and winners are the real heroes.
But perhaps someday, our American entertainment media will give us a real antihero: a revolutionary.