Sometimes good people make bad choices. It’s a part of life because we are human.
Yet, over the past decade, characters doing just that have become the focus of many television dramas. Why are antiheroes as a character archetype so abundant and popular on the small screen?
In the entertainment world, we are usually asked to identify and aspire to be like the hero. The proverbial villain is generally pitted as the main obstacle. But this black-and-white model of good prevailing over evil no longer resonates with today’s audiences. Moral ambiguity is intriguing. People are connecting with severely flawed protagonists.
To find out why, consider the configuration of current antiheroes. They convey an interesting and far more complex character study in media because the notion of conclusive morality is put into question:
- Antiheroes are both good and bad. They usually possess some of the same noble and even extraordinary qualities of the archetypal hero, but may also exhibit certain traits of an antagonist (although in stark contrast with the archetypal villain).
- Waters run deep. They are usually driven to madness by trauma or circumstances beyond their control.
- They are capable of eliciting empathy or reverence in their journeys.
Television’s long-form and episodic format (multiple episodes and seasons) provides the necessary arc to fully appreciate the tribulations of antiheroes. Viewers see their transformative disintegration unfold within a darker world week after week. Television can also easily include fresh and influential shifts in society and popular culture, making it an ideal conduit for this type of character to emerge.
Take Walter White of Breaking Bad: an average family man, good guy and brilliant chemist who has been dealt quite a few bad hands in his life. When diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, he realizes he has nothing to leave his family after he's gone. He decides to use his only asset — chemistry — to make enough crystal meth to ensure his role as father and provider remains intact. He uses the societal pressure to be the “breadwinner” to justify his bad decisions.
Why do we feel for characters like Walter? Part of it may reflect the changing nature of the news and its unrelenting saturation of events that uncover the darker side of even the most powerful. We still expect those in positions of power to do what's right for the common good, but the news reveals the contrary:
- General David Petraeus scandal
- Government inaction over criminal investigations of Wall Street
- A real-life scenario of a chemistry teacher breaking bad
Our concept of the dynamic between hero and villain as separate entities has been chipped away to reveal a singular individual as one and the same. In the real world, if our standard role models no longer adhere to our heroic ideal, the antihero serves to subvert it. This new character paradigm has grown largely complex but has done so as a more accurate representation of a moral framework in which to follow.
We initially root for such characters as Walter to succeed, even when they do wrong with the best of intentions. But once they cross the line over to villainy, we relish in dissecting the nuances of their journey into madness. Antiheroes straddle the rather murky areas of human behavior because they continually confront the pains of identity crises and disintegrating social structures, much like what we see in the news everyday.
The rapid development of the "antihero" can be traced to the era of film noir. At its core, noir focused on social and economic inequalities through the identity crises of protagonists who succumbed to their dark urges because the American Dream had failed them. The very same anxieties exist today in our post-9/11 world but the expectations aligned with the American Dream no longer exist. It has failed us all.
Antiheroes are more like us. They, like us, are trying to regain the Dream. When they finally venture down the really darkened path we had hoped they wouldn't take it, it is a constant reminder of how many of us could do the same.
Elizabeth LeDoux is a Senior Lecturer in English and Media Studies