Film & TV Muse

The Timeless Lure of Tragic Anti-Heroes

Molly Leeming explores the dangerous world and compelling charisma of anti-heroes.

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A fundamental element of a healthy and cohesive social life in any mod-ern household is the institution of the streamed TV box set. Especially in times such as these, the single-household, “stay indoors with a hot mug of sugary and/or caffeinated beverage”, nature of the group TV marathon makes it a more valuable social tool than ever.

My housemates and I have recently finished working our way through what is perhaps the ultimate prestige drama of the so-called ‘Golden Age of Television’ which we are frequently informed that we are living through: Breaking Bad. I am generally rather suspicious of a kind of overblown praise that often puts me off the prospect of beginning a new TV show. The most notable example of this for me is Game of Thrones, which suffered from almost a decade of such excessive hype that I am unlikely to ever approach it without the rather resentful feeling that it is part of some pop-cultural required reading list which I must work my way through if I am to be considered a true subject of the digital entertainment era.

Nevertheless, without wishing to indulge in the kind of gushing hyperbole that can burden a pop-cultural artefact, I genuinely believe that Breaking Bad is stunning: a meticulously crafted work of art which is still capturing dedicated new viewers seven years after it ended and will continue to do so for decades to come. Its persistent appeal is demonstrated in part by the fact that of my household, I was the only one watching it for the first time. Two of my housemates had already seen it once before, while one particularly committed individual was on his third time around, and contentedly stated after we finished the magnificently satisfying final episode that he was already looking forwards to his fourth outing with the show.

While this level of commitment to Breaking Bad isn’t necessarily a universal phenomenon, it certainly speaks to the persistent fascination it is capable of holding with its viewers. Multiple times while watching the show, often during a scene of acute emotional brutality, one of us would mutter something along the lines of, ‘I don’t want to sound pretentious, but this is so Shakespearian...’ Clearly show creator Vince Gilligan, and those responsible for bringing this show to life, are tapping into a timeless impulse which predates television by centuries.

The compulsively watchable trajectory of Walter White, in which we see the ostensibly mild-mannered and downtrodden protagonist rise to become a lethal drug kingpin, and eventually end up destroying everything that he once held dear, echoes the same fundamental story that has been told, in a variety of different forms, for millennia. From Prometheus of ancient myth, to Oedipus of Greek tragedy; from Shakespearian tragic figures such as Macbeth and King Lear, to iconic characters of twentieth century literature such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby. The meteoric rise and fall of the almost always male tragic hero, who usually initially believes that his actions are for the best, yet ends up sowing the seeds of his own spectacular destruction, has always held a magnetic, powerfully human pull on us.

Much has been said in recent years of the appeal of the anti-hero, especially in the context of modern TV dramas, where the anti-hero has consistently thrived in shows such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Peaky Blinders, Ozark, and most recently the enormously popular Succession, just to name a few. If you type “TV anti-hero” into a search engine you will find a seemingly endless array of ‘Top 10 TV Anti-Heroes’ lists; articles on ‘the characters we love to hate’ or alternatively ‘the characters we should hate but actually love’; and of course, the inevitable Buzzfeed ‘Which Television Anti-Hero Are You?’ quiz.

The TV anti-hero is arguably a twenty-first century iteration of the classic tragic hero, one that is particularly suited to the internet age. This is largely due to the inherently conflicted experience of watching them, which often puts the viewer in a position of hoping against hope that the protagonist will succeed in their endeavours, even if it means destroying all those in their path. This makes for an experience of a show which rewards obsessive attention to minute detail and is capable of sparking fierce internet debate.

The eminently compelling nature of Breaking Bad and other anti-hero narratives doesn’t primarily lie in seeing what happens to the anti-hero - there is a sense of powerful inevitability to their rise and fall. It instead lies in the myriad of questions thrown up in the wake of the protagonist’s moral decline: Were his abhorrent actions necessary, even justified? Were they the result of external corruption along the way? Or were they due to qualities deep within his personality, which were buried but still present at the beginning of his story, when he appeared to all intents and purposes to be a reasonable man?

TV anti-heroes such as Walter White inspire countless internet forums dedicated to discussing these kinds of questions. The persistent draw of the questions raised by the best of these tragic hero narratives come from the insights they can give into fundamental human concerns such as morality, justice, responsibility, and masculinity. In my view, the reason that the pantheon of tragic heroes and anti-heroes is so overwhelmingly male is not exclusively due to the historically androcentric nature of literature. It is largely due to the fact that these stories revolve around concepts associated with traditional masculinity such as status, power, pride, and dominance.

When wielded by those such as Vince Gilligan who are skilful enough to explore these concepts in a nuanced, insightful manner, these tragic hero stories can be a deeply revealing way of exploring the dangers inherent in traditional conceptions of masculinity. However, the capacity of the TV anti-hero to delve into the complexities and pitfalls of hyper masculinity is often lost when exposed to the deafening echo-chambers of the internet.

Unfortunately, in no small part due to its enormously wide-spread popularity, Breaking Bad has been a victim of this internet misinterpretation of its depiction of hypermasculinity. The character of Skyler White, and by extension Anna Gunn, the actress who plays her, became the epicentre of an internet storm of misogynistic hatred. Skyler is Walter’s wife who ends up inevitably morally compromised but who is persistently resistant to and appalled by the violent world Walter becomes embroiled in and the danger that he ends up putting their family in. She is a fantastically complex and multi-layered character, played brilliantly by Gunn, who won two Emmy awards for her performance, in 2013 and 2014. Despite this, many viewers simply saw her as an ungrateful shrewish bitch-wife, who by refusing to act either as a passive victim or as a supporter of Walter’s activities, was holding him back from his epic journey to becoming a bad-ass super-macho crime boss.

In a 2013 Op-Ed for the New York Times, Gunn, who received death threats for her depiction of Skyler, said that her character had become “a kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward gender”. This seemingly bewildering response of a particularly vocal section of the fanbase does reveal a lot about our attitudes, particularly in relation to depictions of the anti-hero. It reveals how fine the line between critique and celebration can be, and how our interpretation of media is coloured by our worldview.

TV anti-heroes, the latest in the long tradition of the tragic hero, will be with us for along while, and the best of them, like Walter White, will continue to hold a magnetic pull which has the capacity to draw out fundamentally important and compelling questions about masculinity, morality and so forth. Nevertheless, it is important that we are aware of the danger of fascination tipping into admiration. Rather than taking the anti-heroes at their word and viewing them as the heroes that they often perceive themselves to be, we should do what writers such as Vince Gilligan are implicitly encouraging us to do, and subject the inherited notions of power and masculinity which motivate these anti-heroes to rigorous scrutiny.

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3 Comment

caleb leeming Posted on Thursday 26 Nov 2020

Very well written piece. Especially thought provoking when Skyler's role and growth as a character is discussed. Pollos hermanos for life!


caleb leeming Posted on Thursday 26 Nov 2020

Very well written piece. Especially thought provoking when Skyler's role and growth as a character is discussed. Pollos hermanos for life!


caleb leeming Posted on Thursday 26 Nov 2020

Very well written piece. Especially thought provoking when Skyler's role and growth as a character is discussed.


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