The corrupt cop. The principled drug pusher. The avenging serial killer. The vengeful peacekeeper. The romantic vampire. The heartless doctor. Television has been rotten with ironic or immoral protagonists for most of the new century, though the drama they’ve produced has often been golden.
But a marketplace correction appears to be underway. Grinchy detective Sherlock grew a heart in his latest series of films. Arrow gave up the killer vigilante for role-model vigilante. The new Doctor Who regenerated into an older and wiser Time Lord and declared, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes. It’s time I did something about it”—a line that also pretty much summarizes Don Draper’s arc during the first half of Mad Men’s final season, too. Sleepy Hollow—in which the dynamic duo of Ichabod Crane and Abbie Mills sacrifice self-interest to save the world from America’s historical and supernatural demons—made chivalry and redemption sexy again. After the glut of rakes and wretches, narcissists and nihilists, there is ruefulness and rehumanization. An era of anti-heroes has surrendered—for the moment, at least—to atonement.
Television’s prestige police dramas have been working the redemption beat hard this year. They’ve also been telling stories full of reconsiderations and small repudiations of antihero-era representations and values. True Detective’s Rust Cohle, that potently quotable misanthrope, and Marty Hart, boorish “big dick” lawman, are forced to confront their hard-boiled philosophies and hypocrisies and retrograde modes of masculinity and reinvent themselves as chastened crusaders bent on paying back debts to a culture they’ve failed. Not everyone bought their starry-eyed conversion at story’s end, but Cohle and Hart were stirring for the way they dared to take a chance on three values that cynical “Golden Age” TV has shunned: Optimism, introspection, and change. Whereas anti-heroes damn themselves by embracing their sense of damnation—”I am the one who knocks!” declares Walter White at the height of his Heisenbergian bogeymanishness—the year’s soul-searching heroes shudder to think they could be the villain in someone’s story.
“Do you ever wonder if you’re a bad man?” Hart asks Cohle during one of their chatty ride-alongs. The question is becoming a popular refrain. Police chief Kevin Garvey was presented with it two weeks ago on The Leftovers (“Are you a good guy?”), while Doctor Who tasked his companion with diagnosing his character in last week’s outing. “Clara, be my pal. Tell me: Am I a good man?” Her answer: “I don’t know.”
Like True Detective, The Killing—which went out with a binge on Netflix—spun a story of sly commentary and genre correction, The Passion of The Fuzz. The final season saw Seattle homicide detectives Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder unravel from guilt and rationalizations as a result of the former’s choice to break the law and murder a serial killer—a cop gone wrong, actually—and their joint decision to cover up the crime. The catalyst for enlightenment comes while investigating a murder that leads them to a military academy budding with poorly raised boys becoming hideous men. Resolution hinges on the killer, suffering from amnesia, recovering his memory and confessing his wrong; this, in turn, nudges Linden to reconnect with her conscience and do the same. She surrenders her badge and submits herself to judgment by the law—something a self-justifying anti-hero would never do.
Fargo mocked pop culture’s romance with evil and ignited a love affair with common sense, basic human decency, and principled, professional police. It told a story crammed with fashionable black hats—Lorne Malvo, the loquacious, Luciferian chaos agent; Mr. Wrench and Mr. Numbers, Tarantinoesque quirky-cool thugs; Lester Nygaard, the emasculated everyman breaking bad to buy back some balls—for the purpose of taking them down and exalting its humble white hat heroine, the plucky, disciplined, morally sound Deputy Molly Solverson. Yet her ascendancy is serviced by the moral fall of her love interest—and Nygaard’s mirror twin—dogcatcher cop-turned-mailman Gus Grimly. His arc is bracketed by two random encounters with Malvo, two opportunities to bring him to justice. The first time, Malvo uses all of his creepy charisma to spook and bully Gus into not arresting him. The second time, Gus—still smarting from shame and unmanning; desperate to protect Molly and his kids from this seemingly unstoppable dragon—murders Malvo in cold blood. In the epilogue, Gus learns the city wanted to honor him for his heroism. The idea doesn’t sit well with him. He knows what he did to feel strong and protect his people was far from estimable; he feels—quite literally—anti-heroic. He believes Molly, now his wife—his better half, in more ways than one—deserves it more. Not that Molly hasn’t been properly compensated for doing all the right things. On the contrary: We learned she’s been promoted to police chief, replacing a bumbler who had consistently doubted her instincts and stymied her heroic enterprise. (His realization that he had been catastrophically wrong was one of the show’s best moments.) This coda and all of its revelations took place while both were sitting on the couch, watching TV. Fargo finished a fantastic first season with a moment that felt like a quiet judgment on anti-hero excess and recommendation on where the medium should go from here: More Mollys with right-stuff character,* fewer gone-postal Gloomy Gusses.
*A more in-depth investigation for another day: The rise of the law-woman after an era of lawless men. So many females with power charged with administering justice this new TV season, from Madam Secretary to State of Affairs to Bad Judge.
The Leftovers—a surreal nightmare fantasia about PTSD USA, harrowed and hollowed by catastrophe—struggles with the anti-hero zeitgeist like tormented Jacob trying to wrestle a bullying ephemeral angel to the ground. Police chief Kevin “I’m a f—ing mess” Garvey—another spiritually disoriented lawman, who patrols a world that has gone metaphysically lawless—isn’t just another broken badge; he is what remains of ruthless but not unwarranted male deconstruction (another major project of anti-hero TV) flailing to reconstruct and cohere into something with better, genuine relevancy.
The Guilty Remnant—the show’s most puzzling and polarizing element, a cult of stone-cold, dead-inside “realists” that insists on the intrinsic emptiness of most human striving and redemption is a smoke-blowing pipe dream (a religion after Rust Cohle’s pitiless heart)—is the iconoclastic, dispiriting pessimism of many anti-hero dramas manifest as a literal cultural force; it represents a healthy provocation to be considered, but a worldview to be resisted. Here, at season’s end, Garvey’s messy redemption project and all of his subtext and The Guilty Remnant’s cultural correction project and all of its subtext have collided. The finale promises apocalypse, fall-out, and set-up for next season.
Television might be regenerating its hero archetypes, but they are not being born again with all of their old powers restored. They can correct themselves, but they can’t single-handedly save their worlds with their good conscience and righteous effort. In The Killing, Linden’s confession and her want for her failure and that of the psycho detective she murdered to be made public are rejected by a corrupt mayor who worries that the public would revolt if it learned that their cops were crooked and can’t walk the straight and narrow. In True Detective, Cohle and Hart slay The Yellow King, but aren’t allowed to take down The Powers That Be that cultivated his evil and allowed it to flourish. Both stories could be dinged for promulgating cynical worldviews. But in the case of True Detective, the dubious beat was in service of recalibrating heroic character and right-sizing the often oversized expectations of heroic enterprise. This works: Those who chase virtue for virtue’s sake and are willing to participate in a historical project of cultural redemption whose ultimate fulfillment may never be realized in their lifetimes. This has been found wanting: Wannabe messiahs who chase the self-glorifying grand gesture of the once-and-for-all knockout blow.
A problem with fallen protagonists breaking good: They’re not nearly as fun as hopeless beings breaking bad. Watching Linden and Holder search their souls was as dreary as Seattle drizzle. True Detective’s direction, cinematography, language, and acting combined to cast a mesmerizing spell, but bleak is bleak, no matter how artfully dressed, and bleaker-than-bleak is The Leftovers, a hair-shirt ripper that invites us each week to feel the raw chill of Being and Nothingness and sit in the ashes of agony, sorrow, grief, and despair. Yay.
It would be great if Hollywood could find a way to make redemption feel enjoyable, not medicinal, or punishment for digging the transgressive charms of Dexter, Vic Mackey, Jack Bauer, et. al. Atonement pop also has its own oversimplifications and cliches that subvert effectiveness.”Am I a bad man?” is not only a poor way to frame the complicated reality of human morality, but usually comes off as self-pity, not introspection. Worse, talking about this stuff with metaphors like “light” and “dark” is as lazy and dumb as me using “this stuff” to summarize “this stuff.” Can we cut the use of I’ll-stop-the-world-and-mope-with-you slo-mo to illustrate the experience of burden or epiphany? Can we put a moratorium on dreamtime hunting for rabid dogs or deer or goats or stags that symbolize civilizations in chaos and psycho-spiritual discontent? Can we stop using stubble as an outward signifier of inner neglect? (Also see: Drinking cheap beer, smoking, sweatpants, and ponytails.)
To be clear, television never completely abandoned old-fashioned hero archetypes, nor has TV completely turned its back on anti-heroes. Especially on NBC, where The Blacklist‘s ambiguously recalcitrant master criminal Red Reddington does terrible things to purge the world of terrible people; he’s an atonement hero that’s actually an anti-hero on a very, very, very long leash. Hannibal’s Will Graham—after making great strides to master his imagination for evil and reclaim his endangered self—insists on learning the hard way that you can’t beat the devil at his own game.
As much as I hope television’s rueful blue moment will continue and dig deeper, I worry the move away from anti-heroes will simply stop with a new gloss on that old chestnut, The Policeman Who Plays By His Own Rules. In fact, NBC is promoting the new season of Chicago P.D. with the tagline “Break the rules, not the law.”
You’ll see a lot of that sentiment in crime-fighter pop this year, most notably in Gotham, which is basically Fargo in a comic-book town with Ben McKenzie playing a more hard-boiled Molly. The next leap in small screen do-gooding may come clad in silly spandex: Last week, Fox announced a plan to reboot The Greatest American Hero, the early ’80s dramedy about a teacher-turned-reluctant caped crusader who’s lost the operating manual for his new-found suit of power, who bumbles and stumbles his way toward becoming a hero that deserves to be called super. And so our morally nebulous paladins enlighten and lighten by distinctions and degrees, through trial and error. Believe it or not, TV wants us to believe in heroism again. Here’s hoping they find the instruction book.