Because there’s something deep in the human psyche that wants to see a moral outcome, people have reflexively rooted for heroes since the beginning of storytelling. This has usually meant cheering for characters who display courage, honesty, strength, intelligence, self-sacrifice and other virtues we wished for ourselves.
But in the last 10 to 15 years, TV has moved away from this well-established tradition and asked us to root for villains. This is particularly true with prestige TV. The critically admired shows of recent vintage have been intellectually challenging and morally complex to be sure, but one of the tricks to keeping us on our toes has been to make the protagonist someone we’d normally want to see in jail.
We’ve been expected to root for a brutal mob boss on “The Sopranos,” a serial killer on “Dexter,” a meth kingpin on “Breaking Bad,” and a murderous president on “House of Cards.” On “The Americans,” the main characters are a pair of Soviet spies who leave a very bloody trail of victims who stand in the way of their obtaining American secrets, and on “Justified,” the local criminal mastermind Boyd Crowder is almost as sympathetic as Raylan Givens, the lawman trying to hunt him down.
These are not “antiheroes,” who lack any heroic qualities. The antihero rose in popularity in the middle of the 20th century as the concept of existentialism took hold of the elite imagination. In the existential mindset we are all helpless creatures trying to survive in a pointless and absurd world, so the traditional concept of heroism seemed archaic, even juvenile. We were subsequently treated to a series of passive antiheroes like Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the Rye” and Benjamin in “The Graduate.” These were guys that things happened to. They had no agency of their own and no heroic qualities.
Unlike the loser antiheroes of the past, today’s bad guy heroes have many of the qualities we associate with traditional heroes: courage, guile, intelligence, wit. It’s just that these traditionally heroic qualities are put to criminal ends. “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White is a genius with the bravery of a condemned man. “Justified’s” Boyd Crowder is the smartest guy on the show. The spies on “The Americans” are almost supernaturally good at hand-to-hand combat. And Frank Underwood ascends to the U.S. presidency on “House of Cards” through cunning and guile.
It’s not that there haven’t been villainous heroes in the past. As far back as “Paradise Lost,” Milton’s charming Satan showed that evil could be more interesting than goodness. And the whole point of the gangster movie genre is to tell the stories of bad guys.
What’s different about TV villain/heroes is that because we spend so much time with them, we eventually start to identify and sympathize with them. Even in the two great “Godfather” movies, the protagonist Michael Corleone is on screen for less than three total hours, which is about a quarter of the time we spend with Tony Soprano in one season alone. And at the end of “The Godfather Part II” we are disgusted and disillusioned with Michael Corleone in a way we’re not disgusted with Tony Soprano. That’s because we’ve spent so much time watching Tony talk to his psychiatrist, interact with his family and share some of the same basic frustrations of life that we all have.
This explains the Skyler White paradox: that is, the phenomenon on “Breaking Bad” where fans reacted violently to Walter White’s wife when she appeared to be thwarting his criminal activities. By the rules of conventional morality, she was the good guy — but she was loathed by the show’s fans. This was usually chalked up to misogyny, but I think the issue was time and perspective. After spending dozens of hours watching Walter scheme and learning his motivations, we find ourselves identifying with him even as we’re horrified at our own sympathetic feelings for a true villain.
If you think misogyny alone explains the antipathy to Skyler White, consider this mind experiment:What if the same “Breaking Bad” story were told from Skyler’s perspective? What if 75% of the screen time were spent on her story: her dawning awareness that her husband is a criminal mastermind and her subsequent fear for her family? We’d have sympathized with her, thought Walter was a monster, and cheered his death.
The question, then, is whether the rise of the villainous hero is a bad thing for society. As much as I appreciate morally complex story-telling, I’m nervous about a society in which rule-breakers and moral cretins are widely admired. We went through this once before in the’80s, when prime-time soap operas like “Dallas” and “Dynasty” featured immoral protagonists that we loved to hate. Since then, almost every institution in America — our political elites, our business leaders, our journalists, our sports celebrities — have become more selfish and less concerned about virtue for its own sake. Has television led the way or reflected society as a whole? That’s hard to calculate. All I can say is that I’d rather live in a world where being a good guy is not considered boring.