Sympathy For The Devil – Why We Love TV Antiheroes

By Bridey Heing

The way we as fans consume mass media is changing, and television is the latest medium to feel the shift. The success of streaming services has lead to the rise of binge watching, with fans watching an entire season of programming in a compressed period of time. Where once we waited with baited breath for each new episode, now we turn watching TV shows into an almost cinematic experience, devouring the entire storyline in one go rather than stretching it out.

A case could be — and has been — made that we are living in a second golden age of television; serialized storytelling given the rise in non-traditional producers like Amazon and Netflix. The mass appeal, high writing and production quality, and viral buzz around envelope pushing programs have fed new expectations for television.

Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson

In this new age of TV, few figures loom as large as the antihero. Bad men and women are often held up as favorite characters, loveable despite themselves or so wicked or complex that their moral failings can be forgiven time and time again. A trend that can be pinned to the late 1990s HBO shows The Sopranos and The Wire, and in its contemporary realization in the 2007 premiere of AMC’s Mad Men, with the dapper and damaged Don Draper. Breaking Bad’s Walter White soon followed, along with Game of Thrones’ Jaime and Tyrion Lannister; House of Cards’ Frank Underwood; Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson; and the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes. Although still underrepresented in the “so-bad-you-have-to-love-them” realm, women like the recent Netflix heroine story Marvel’s Jessica Jones have also gotten in on the complex and dangerous appeal.

How Binge Watching Brings Complex Characters To Life

Binge-watching makes telling these stories not only more appealing, but also easier, in a sense. Fans that watch episodes in succession are able to hold onto subtle plot points and themes more easily than those waiting multiple days for the next installment, at least up to a point. As fans sit with characters for multiple hours in one sitting, it’s possible to flesh them out incrementally without losing the plot or their place in the story, giving the antihero the space it needs to become a fully realized character, rather than just a simple trope. Writers are able to devote less time to refreshing the plot and more time to developing complexity, nuance, and twists that keep the show fresh after episode three, four, or five.

Although having a moment today, the antihero isn’t new to storytelling. The idea of a charismatic protagonist or key character that is not particularly heroic or upstanding has been around since ancient history. What’s more, this isn’t the first time in recent history that the antihero has risen to the top of the pack in terms of popular characterization.

In post-World War II America, cinema was dominated by heroes who were at their most endearing lovable rogues and at their most damning murderers in cold blood. From the bristly characters that made Clint Eastwood a star to the complex and short career of James Dean, the public embraced challenging protagonists with an edge. Film noir, Westerns, crime dramas — they all were built on heroes who weren’t heroic, who had dark pasts or something from which they wanted to run.

It was a cynicism that reflected the world in which the films were made, dominated by conflicts like the Vietnam War and rising crime rates into the 1970s. It could be said that during the middle years of the 20th century, American and global filmmakers were working through the crisis of identity many were facing in a world that felt on the edge of anarchy.

Why Fans Root For The Bad Guy

So what is it that we as fans love about bad guys? People we would inarguably not want to spend time with, date, or work with have become iconic figures, and our love of complex characters has even given rise to multifaceted portrayals of superheroes like Batman and Deadpool in film. Rather than heroes to whom we can look up, pop culture provides us with broken and complicated figures that offer an outlet to explore our own darknesses, our own impulses, and our own limits.

But is there more to learn from the baddies we adore? Given our current adoration for fully realized fictional people, are there lessons to be applied to real life about humanity, history, and the complexity of human experience?

Some of the most beloved antiheroes in pop culture start from a more idealized or  historical place. Don Draper is the perfect 1960s man, cocktail in hand and cigarette hanging from his lips. He’s handsome, with a beautiful wife and two sweet kids, his career on a near-constant upswing.

Nucky Thompson is a bootlegger and Tony Soprano is a mobster, two of America’s favorite romanticized criminals. Jaime Lannister is a shining knight, one of the most iconic heroic tropes.

But as soon as the sense that you know these characters is established, that image begins to deteriorate:  Jaime Lannister is in love with his sister and willing to kill a child to protect their relationship. Nucky Thompson walks the line between good and bad, having rivals murdered alongside abusers and handing out money to those in need. Don Draper is a philanderer, haunted by his own past. It’s as if a veil has been pulled back, showing a darkness we never could have imagined.

Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons that can be learned from fictionalized historical narratives is that people often painted in broad strokes are capable of good, and that traditional heroes are capable of bad. Fictionalized characters can provide a richer context for day-to-day life, reminding us that even the most reviled figures in history are ultimately human.

Good, Evil and the Shades of Grey In Between

Narcos’ Pablo Escobar

That ability to shape the way we understand and learn about history stretches beyond stereotypes, however. Biographical works have provided a framework by which fictionalized retellings can help probe the darker parts of our heroes’ lives, but they can also expose something human in villains.  Netflix’s Narcos is a prime example of this challenging, but ultimately valuable, juxtaposition. The show dramatizes Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar’s rise to power, and the DEA agents who worked to bring him down. Responsible both directly and indirectly for the deaths of thousands, Escobar is one of the classic manifestations of evil in recent history, a key player in the drug trade that nearly destroyed Colombia.

Pablo Escobar, like Al Capone, captures the imagination in a unique way. In films like Blow or the Colombian tv show El Patrón del Mal the cartel leader is viciously barbaric or deceptively unthreatening respectively. But in Narcos, the drug lord (played by Werner Moura) is given space to be human. His love for his family, playfulness with old friends, and intelligence are juxtaposed alongside his brutality.

Meanwhile. the show plays with traditionally heroic characters, as good-guy DEA agents Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) becomes increasingly volatile and at times disturbing, and fellow agent Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal) remains largely lovable in the tradition of rough-around-the-edges Han Solo.

In a key scene, after Escobar has been elected to the Senate only to be forced out within moments, the sudden twist from extreme pride and excitement to disappointment is moving. But the realization that one is sympathizing with Pablo Escobar’s crushed political ambitions is disorienting, illustrating the ability of such stories to challenge our perception and force us to embrace nuance.

With the overwhelming sense of despair that often dominates current events, it’s easy to see why the antihero would rise again as a more relatable figure than black-and-white good guys. These figures help make sense of a world that seemingly makes no sense, and provides reassurance that even those with moral failings are capable of doing good. In the antihero narrative arc, we can see shades of the world around us at a time when believing in a righteous hero seems naive and disingenuous.

These shows could also encourage us to see past unidimensional characterizations of both good and bad public figures, search for larger contexts for solitary actions, and ultimately craft stances that take into account seemingly conflicting dichotomies as well as the fact that understanding is not synonymous with condoning behavior.

If the immediate effect of the antihero is ultimately about making us feel a bit better about ourselves, them the larger impact of antihero narratives could be much larger. With history often told as linear with clearly drawn lines between good and bad, returning to familiar figures with a more human lens can help us embrace nuance in our everyday lives.

Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.

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