Anti-Heroics with a Side of Boredom


J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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26 Responses

  1. Do you foresee a sort of backlash in popular shows (alas, I cannot comment on the Sopranos or Mad Men because I don’t watch them), where good and evil become more clear?

    By the way, I wonder if any of this is applicable to the sort of “shock comedy” we see from such shows as “Family Guy” (and I would put some aspects of “Seinfeld” in this camp, too….George Costanza is for many a fan favorite, but anyone in real life who acted like him would be a horrible, horrible person). Or even the self-ironic comedy of “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation”?Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Pierre Corneille says:

      “Do you foresee a sort of backlash in popular shows (alas, I cannot comment on the Sopranos or Mad Men because I don’t watch them), where good and evil become more clear?”

      The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter series were both noted in some circles as demonstrating the market potential of a clear Good v Evil story vs all the usual namby pampy morally relativistic stuff. (esp during episodes released back when war was more popular)Report

      • I imagine that any thoughtful backlash (perhaps too harsh a word for what I want to convey) would incorporate the notion of good versus evil, but with ambiguity built in as we see with Lord of the Rings. Gollum, for example, is bad because he chooses to do bad, but he has good in him that wars with his bad choices, and he ultimately chooses bad (but with the result of the greater good being realized). Sauron is bad, but was once good. Same with Saruman (who at least in the book, has a last chance at repentance, which he declines). Most of the good characters not only face temptation, but fall short or come perilously close to falling short.Report

  2. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    When we first meet Walter White (from Breaking Bad), we see a man who was dealt a horrible hand by fate, and makes an immoral choice to try to salvage something for his family. As the show goes on, we learn that the problems he had to begin with were largely the result of hi s own flaws. We also see that the first immoral act leads to worse and worse crimes, and that he loses and corrupts the family he was trying to save.

    How this is less morally serious than a show in which the good guys are always good and the bad guys are always bad escapes me.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.


    • Avatar J.L. Wall in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      I don’t think there’s necessarily anything less morally serious about the situation you just described than one in which there’s no muddying — in fact, it’s easy to see how you get to bad/dull storytelling without it. (I haven’t watched Breaking Bad, so I can’t really comment on it.) The problem, I think, is in how the audience relates — I disagree with William’s inclusion of Mad Men as an anti-hero driven show. I think it’s a complicated-protagonist-driven show. (Tony Soprano is more clearly an anti-hero.) But it depends on how the audience is relating to the character, in part: “being enticed by the allure” of the character who’s behaving badly is something different than viewing him as someone to be understood (or not-understood, if it’s the case). David Chase had a poor relationship with fans of The Sopranos precisely because of this.

      So my problem is less with imperfect characters than with “unmasked” characters. The Prohibition agent on Boardwalk Empire, for example (spoilers, somewhat): he starts out as a straight-shooting teetotalling devout enforcer of the law. Then we learn he’s a sexually creepy hypocrite — but it feels like the writers realized, “Shit — this guy’s got to have PROBLEMS, man — SERIOUS problems. Like, his religiosity is driving him CRAZY, man. I know he’s a WASP, but let’s toss some of this Opus Dei self-mutiliation into a blender with S&M and see what we get.” Would’ve been a lot more interesting if he were simply what he appeared to be — and that maybe his zealousness to save souls and preserve order took him places he wasn’t comfortable with. Instead, he’s “unmasked” and this is less a competing nature than (at least half of) his true nature.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        If Les Mis was written today, they’d give Javert a foot fetish or something.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

          In those days, it was revolutionary enough to make a thief and a prostitute for more sympathetic than a policeman. Nowadays you almost expect that, so it’s necessary to up the ante.Report

        • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Jaybird says:

          Jaybird, I notice Kelsey Grammer in “Boss” is mayor of Chicago, w/cancer. Thought of you when I read that. Ace.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Jaybird says:

          I saw that once, in a Midsummer’s Night Dream. It was a french film.
          Also notable, for the “I feel like a true Frenchman!” line, once the main character had started stalking his “beloved”.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        Uh, the show’s been on less than a season and a half. They made him what he is pretty much straight away – introduced his functional place in the plot and then more or less immediately proceeded to show us his fascinating private ordeals. He had gotten the prostitute pregnant by the end of last season. Pretty sure they had it all figured from the start with Agent Van Alden. I don’t think there’s anything to this particular example.Report

  3. Avatar Kolohe says:

    On the other hand, nobody in The Wire is unambiguously good, but nobody (of any alignment) is bored either.Report

  4. Avatar Renee says:

    Wait … am I on the LoOG . . . no one has yet mentioned Game of Thrones in a conversation on morality?Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Renee says:

      I suspect we are all in the process of writing our follow-up posts on “The Very Tall Anti-Heroics of Tyrion,” or “Robert’s Crime & Ned’s Punishment: Seeing GOT Through Dostoevsky’s Eyes.”Report

      • Avatar Renee in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        The way a some people comment on Ned, I thought the appropriate Dostoevsky reference would be “The Idiot”.Report

          • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Tod Kelly says:

            JLW, this is elegant. The anti-anti-hero?, since the “anti-hero” of the late 60s onward didn’t have his own moral code as much as showed the establishment-machine as hypocrites.

            By contrast, I think you’re onto something. What you write of here is venality put forth for our amusement. [Game of Thrones?] Taken to extreme, I’d heard a story once where the missionaries taught the Jesus story and the natives thought Judas was the hero, or at least the most believable if not sympathetic character.

            Probably apocryphal, but it makes ya think. I can feature it, and such a moral inversion is getting less alien in our own 21st century world.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Tyrion’s no anti-hero. he may be a knight in dented armor…Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Renee says:

      Actually this post will come in handy when we start the Prince of Nothing book club.Report

  5. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    I quote Tyler Durden, from the movie:

    “I’m you, as you imagine yourself to be. I look like you wanna look, I eff like you wanna eff, I am smart, I am capable, and–most importantly–I am free, in all the ways you cannot allow yourself to be.”

    We love antiheroes because, on some level, they are what we think we could be, if only it weren’t for job/family/life/poverty/religion/moral obligations. We like to think that, given the chance, we could be Batman; the good guy whose eschewment of moral restrictions leaves him free to do good and have fun.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to DensityDuck says:

      Oh, I forgot to add: misquoting the original (he didn’t say “eff”) because, while my preference regarding euphemism has been established, I don’t want to say it if I don’t actually mean it.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to DensityDuck says:

      I… don’t think Batman has fun. Anti-heroes live in our gray world — they in some sense are us, the people who try to do the best they can, even if it involves murder. Even if the choices they make are terrible.
      An anti-hero, when they cry, the audience has the knowledge that they could have made the other choice. That choices exist.

      With a GoldenBoy Hero, you don’t have the other side. They come across as kinda plastic, kinda fake, when done poorly. When done well, they feel kinda like Ned. The bastard who won’t break.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Kimmi says:

        “I… don’t think Batman has fun.”

        Depends on who’s writing him. Frank Miller’s Batman certainly seems to be having the time of his life.Report