The Anti-Hero Era: Why Do the Bad Guys Rule TV?

With the conclusions of Breaking Bad and Dexter, we have to wonder whether the era of the TV anti-hero is coming to a close, or only just beginning...

There is something alluring about an unreliable narrator in literature that compels the audience to keep reading. The Catcher in the RyeThe Great GatsbyA Clockwork Orange, these are well-loved books, yet at their centers are deplorable characters (sorry, old sport). However, the character trait they are defined by—Holden’s incessant whining, Gatsby’s sociopathic behavior, Alex DeLarge’s gang activity—are both what repulses and attracts the reader. It’s that type of unpredictable and dangerous predisposition, when coupled with a smidge of sympathetic humanity, which pushes readers away as much as it draws them in.

That being said, in television, we are flush in the middle of a dominant main character reign: The Antihero Era. Of the last fourteen Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series Primetime Emmy Awards, twelve have been given to actors playing blatant antiheroes. Dating back to 2000, the winners have been as follows: James Gandolfini won three Emmys as Tony Soprano, Michael Chiklis won one as Vic Mackey in The Shield, James Spader won three as Alan Shore—one for The Practice and two for Boston Legal—Kiefer Sutherland won once as 24’s Jack Bauer, Bryan Cranston has hoisted three as Walter White on Breaking Bad and Damien Lewis garnered one last year playing Nicholas Brody on Homeland. Though Jeff Daniels’s Will McAvoy of The Newsroom, which he won the 2013 Outstanding Lead Actor Emmy for, isn’t a likable character, he’s not necessarily an out-and-out antihero; the lone “good” character, for lack of a better word, that’s been awarded the Outstanding Lead Actor in that span was Kyle Chandler’s Coach Eric Taylor on Friday Night Lights.

And that list doesn’t even include arguably two of the most beloved antiheroes in television history: Michael C. Hall’s tumbleweed-dry vigilante serial killer Dexter Morgan and Jon Hamm’s brooding, identity-thieving, philandering ad man on Mad Men, who have both never won the coveted award.

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What is it about these conflicted characters that viewers, including yours truly, love so much? Why, when in Season Two of Dexter when Miami Metro’s Agent Doakes is about to catch Dexter, do we root for Dexter to get away? Why in the early seasons of Breaking Bad do we root for Walter to succeed, when success means the production of a highly illegal, dangerous and combustible narcotic, at the cost of Walt murdering multiple foes? Why do we empathize with Tony Soprano—the father of television antiheroes—when he’s on that couch, talking to the psychiatrist, fresh off a whack?

We love these characters because they broke the stereotypes that we were inundated with as we grew up. Take for example, the aforementioned three antiheroes: Dexter Morgan, Walter White, Tony Soprano—or, a serial killer, a drug kingpin, and a mob boss. The accepted temperaments of these characters, the typecasts if you will, are that each of these types of people are ruthless, unforgiving, and brutal. Serial killers are motivated simply by their lust to kill, drug kingpins and mob bosses by power, reputation, and the insatiable lust for capital and sovereignty…right? However, Dexter, Walter, and Tony were portrayed each with a shred of humanity; Dexter’s mother was murdered and he was left in a pool of her blood—he kills according to a strict moral code, and even then, he’s taught to only kill other serial killers. Walter went into meth production because he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and wanted to leave money behind to his wife, teenage son, and infant daughter after his demise. Tony sat on a couch with a shrink and confessed to his ever-growing anxiety and Mommy issues.

These are not the people we expected. These characters shattered our preconceived notions. We cried when Dexter walked into his bathroom and found Rita murdered, Dexter’s infant son sitting in a pool of his mother’s blood, a vision that he knew all too well. We cheered when Walter White avenged Jesse Pinkman’s beatdown by throwing fulminated mercury to the floor of Tuco’s office, leaving it in ruins. We cringed as Tony copped to his troubled family issues, making our own look petty in comparison.

And somehow, we’re telling our friends about these shows—“You have to watch it…seriously.” It’s only as the words come out of our mouths, as we’re hearing our thoughts vocalized, that we realize we actually like these people. Sure they’ve done some awful things, there’s no doubting that, but in the way we still love our cat who constantly scratches our furniture, we’d miss them if they were gone.

We invest so much in these characters that we want their ends to be just. We want Dexter to be happy, after all he’s been through. We want Walt to…well we just want everything tied up in Breaking BadOn that subject, let’s talk series finales. There’s a right way to do it and a very wrong way.

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Truth be told, with a terrible series finale to cap off a useless final season, we didn’t get closure with Dexter; instead we got legions of angry fans (yeah, I’m one of them) crying foul for being led astray. And why not? We invested eight years in these characters. Is it realistic that the U.S. Marshall/bounty hunter Max Clayton, whose job it is to capture wanted criminals, wouldn’t recognize that Saxon—the subject of a highly-publicized Miami manhunt—is the man strapped to the chair whom he unwittingly frees to a plethora of knives…and then looks away? Is it realistic to believe that Deb, seeing that Saxon had broken free of his restraints, would simply tell him to freeze and let him shoot her? Is it realistic, regardless of hurricane madness, that Dexter would be able to mercy kill his sister, and wheel her body out on a gurney, and carry her onto a boat, and drive off without anyone seeing him or stopping him? I digress, but Dexter will, because of a horrible end to a horrible season, be remembered as a show that squandered its promise.

Now…onto you, Vince Gilligan. Hats off, really. Leading up to the finale, I think most viewers wanted Walt locked up or, dare I say, given a Ricin cocktail. But either way, we wanted, we needed, these stories to be wrapped and bowed.

Vince Gilligan and Co. know how to write a final season. They didn’t pander to audiences, or underperform even. When the end of the show came, it felt right, it felt finished. I know that people reading this, some of you at least, haven’t watched the ending yet, so I’ll refrain from spoiling. Just know that, if you’re a true fan of the show, it was a perfect end to a perfect series.

There is a method to the antihero: Breaking Bad got it, and Dexter didn’t. Through the whole series, Gilligan stayed true to the story. There was no faltering “down season” like there was with Dexter  (ahem…Doomsday Killers?)

Due to these shows (all of them, not just Dexter and Breaking Bad) the antihero, for love or hate, becomes engrained in our minds, a figure of justice and/or injustice in the world.  

Ad – content continues below’s Alyssa Rosenberg writes, in her article entitled “The Death of James Gandolfini And The Twilight Of Television’s Anti-Hero Era” that the antihero is being overdone, and “it’s time to move on to other questions.” Rosenberg isn’t the only person that feels this way; many television critics believe it’s time to turn the page on the antihero. And maybe, just maybe, with Jeff Daniels’s recent victory, the absolute antihero is soon to die.

This is accurate to a certain extent. While Walter White and Dexter Morgan are extinct from television, I don’t agree that the antihero is dying—it just needs to be retooled. Everyone had vampire fatigue from the Twilight series, but that didn’t stop readers from buying 70 million copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, which is reworked Twilight fan fiction. All it takes is someone retooling a story or characters, and presenting them in a different light.

So love them or hate them, if this is the end of the fad or not, antiheroes are everywhere. Like the bad boys in high school who always seemed to get the girls—“I think I can change him, I really do”—because of their dangerous streak, television viewers tune in week after week, to see what’s become of our own bad boys.

The end isn’t guaranteed to be pretty, or even always a gratifying ending (I’m looking at you Tony and Dexter) but man, you can bet it was one hell of a ride.

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