The Evolution of the Antihero
Three of TV's most villainous men — Walter White, Dexter Morgan, and Don Draper — are about to get the hook; is it time for antiheroines to swoop in? Jeff Jensen and Melissa Maerz take on TV's so-bad-they're-good characters
Jeff Jensen: Farewell to the Biggest Baddies
The end is nigh for Dexter Morgan, and it’s about damn time. On Sept. 22 the psychopath prodded by Daddy to become a superhero — Norman Bates with Batman for Mother — quits his personal, flawed war on terror after a rippingly good eight-season run. We will miss the quality of his brilliant black dramedy, just as we will grieve that of retirement-bound Walter White of Breaking Bad and Don Draper of Mad Men. But we will not miss the quality of their devilish and Dickish models of heroism and manhood. Saying goodbye allows us the same catharsis found at Dexter’s kill table: the opportunity to pass judgment on an objectionable character and purge him from the culture.
Perhaps it’s a measure of how well we relate to these villains that we ask, ”Can they be redeemed?” We’ve cheered for Dexter because we hear ourselves in his internal monologue, the Glib Ironic Detached Guy yearning to be a fully realized, emotionally engaged human. Like Tony Soprano before him and Walter White and many others since, Dexter represents the man enslaved to his appetites and insistent upon self-justification. It’s time for this rabid bloodhound to be taken behind the shed.
What does ”redemption” mean? Not just for unrepentant rogues like Dexter or Walt, but anyone? Dexter just might be tackling this tricky topic via the ongoing, very fuzzy mystery of Dr. Vogel, the psychiatrist who wrote Dexter’s batty ”code.” Dr. FrankenShrinker tried to ”help” other monsters, too, and recent episodes have suggested the possibility that she’s been using Dexter and even her own demented son to clean up after her mistakes. Among the victims: Dexter’s own attempt at a legacy, a teenage Mini-Me named Zach, a wannabe American Psycho. If Dr. Vogel is indeed practicing a perverse form of social responsibility, then she models two values essential to redemption: regret and atonement. But Dexter can never correct his wrongheaded approach to righteousness. His sins demand submission to his own murder ritual: confrontation, confession, CHUNK!
Redemption is also a pipe dream for meth-making auteur Walter White. Not that the proud sinner even believes in such a religiousy-sounding concept (yet?). The cynical chronicle of the po-mo Everyman’s plunge into nihilism reveals our want for a moral, responsible life by finding ingenious new ways to make us root for this increasingly malignant creature’s destruction. Motivated anew by the return of his cancer, Walt’s degrading quest for lasting significance has shifted from living out a mythic, monstrous self — the death-threatened, Death-becoming bogeyman Heisenberg — to living on through the blood money he wants his family to keep, lest his degeneracy be rendered meaningless. Like Dexter, Bad is a nightmare that speaks to — and mocks — the transgressive wish-fulfillment fantasies of the legitimately disenfranchised and metaphorically emasculated. But the legacy of this audaciously original show shouldn’t be more criminal archetypes for ”heroes,” more pulp gangsta romances, more (ugh) Ray Donovans. May Breaking Bad inspire a new generation of bold, finely drawn — and better — men.
Don Draper is not a mass murderer or a peddler of poison…unless you count marketing Lucky Strikes. But the Incarnation of Straight White Male Privilege Formerly Known as Dick Whitman shares Dexter’s and Walt’s hypocrisy, fundamental inauthenticity, and Me! Me! Me! narcissism, as well as several traits particularly offensive to equality, feminism, and roughly 99 percent of society. Mad Men recently surprised us by punishing Don a year ahead of its seventh and final season, coming in 2014. Exposed and humbled after his Hershey-bar apocalypse, Don the Fraud was abandoned, shunned, and fired. And then he did a most admirable thing: Don showed his true, shameful self to his kids. Now Mad Men has the opportunity to ring out with a story that isn’t about a broken man breaking worse but a fallen man earning back his place in the culture. ”Can he be redeemed?” Mad Men might be able to answer the question with a triumphant…maybe.
Melissa Maerz: Why It’s the Antiheroines’ Time
In this golden age of the antihero, we’ve rooted for mobsters, meth cooks, wife cheaters, serial killers, even a House majority whip. So why not a woman? Television has given us some deeply complicated female leads lately — Skyler on Breaking Bad, Carrie on Homeland, Cersei on Game of Thrones — but many of them fail the Bechdel Test, which evaluates gender equality in pop culture by checking if a story features (1) at least two women who (2) talk to each other about (3) something besides a man.
To fulfill this criteria you’d need more than one female antihero, which should be easy since antiheroes hang out in groups (The Wire‘s drug dealers, Boardwalk Empire‘s bootleggers). Also, they’d need to act bad for reasons that don’t involve a man. Yet most antiheroines either do terrible things for love (Carrie again, Olivia on Scandal) or play Lady Macbeth to powerful husbands or sons (Cersei, Skyler, Claire on House of Cards). Instead of teaming up to protect their empires, like the guys on The Sopranos and Game of Thrones, they’re often pitted against each other, fighting for control over the men in their lives (Skyler versus meth distributor Lydia; Cersei versus her future daughter-in-law, Margaery; Elizabeth versus superspy Claudia on The Americans).
Comedy might be the exception. The most polarizing funny women are just as ambitious as Robb Stark or Don Draper, and they try to pull other ladies into their schemes all the time: Look at Hannah and her pals on Girls, or Selina and her chief of staff on Veep. But these characters are less threatening because you can laugh at them. An oversize ego doesn’t give them great power; it’s supposed to make them look kind of pathetic.
Maybe the problem is that women aren’t often the main characters on antihero dramas. Even Patty, the scheming lawyer on Damages, was more villain than antiheroine, because the real protagonist was Ellen, the good girl. Most of the women on antihero dramas are wives, and the spouse often serves as the show’s conscience. When Carmela Soprano’s shrink told her, ”One thing you can never say is that you haven’t been told,” he was really talking to us, who’ve been told again and again that Tony is a monster but can’t help loving him anyway. So many Breaking Bad fans hate Skyler more than Walt that Anna Gunn, the actress who plays Skyler, wrote a recent New York Times op-ed arguing that this hatred is misogynistic. But I wonder if there’s something deeper at work. Skyler doesn’t just make Walt feel bad about his decisions. She makes us feel bad about ourselves for standing by him.
Still, if you look at the conventions of the antihero drama, it’s time for women to take over. Antiheroes put their careers first, whether they cook meth, handle ”waste management,” or work in advertising. And with many men still rebounding from the recession, there are more female breadwinners than ever; women make up nearly half of the American workforce. Most antihero dramas are really about the lengths to which people will go to protect their families, and who’s a fiercer protector of her brood than a mom? Daughters can also be savage about preserving their own people, as we know from Revenge‘s Emily, who’s spent the better part of a decade avenging her father’s death.
We need more antiheroines, because underestimating a woman’s capacity for evil is as insulting as underestimating her intelligence. Just ask the guys on Bad: This season, meth kingpin Mike urged partner Jesse to kill Lydia, a single mother and full-time sociopath. When Jesse balked, doubting that she was dangerous, Mike rolled his eyes. ”You’re being sexist,” he said. ”This woman deserves to die as much as any man.” He’s right. Putting a gun to her head with the same ruthlessness that any bad guy deserves? Now, that’s progress.