The inexorable rise of the antihero on television began in 1999, with Tony Soprano’s driveway descent in pursuit of the morning paper. In the last 15 years, the most acclaimed—both critically and publicly—television shows have been peopled with the kind of morally ambiguous characters that audiences love to hate. Antiheroes like Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Stringer Bell (The Wire), Walter White (Breaking Bad), Al Swearengen (Deadwood), Don Draper (Mad Men), Rust Cohle and Marty Hart (True Detective), and even Hannah Horvath (Girls) have achieved a level of culturally iconic status not previously granted to TV characters. And the undeniable reason for this lies in the complexity of these creations, their ethically compromised actions, and our collective identification with a world in which people operate outside of binary good-versus-evil archetypes. But while the antihero was at first a welcome respite from the easy-to-like fictional heroes of past decades, we have now strayed too far in the other direction—and television is suffering because of it.
Probably the two most talked-about shows on the air right now are Mad Men and Game of Thrones. While completely different in tone and scope (Mad Men, although newly bicoastal, hews to a very specific group of people and their professional and personal milieus, while Game of Thrones ranges as far and wide as does the imagination of George R.R. Martin; which, pretty damn far and wide), both series are notable for their lack of recognizably “good” major characters. There are sympathetic ones to be sure, and there are those that are clearly evil (RIP Joffrey, or you know, RI-not-in-P), but there are few major characters that are easy to root for without experiencing some moral qualms, and few redemptive narrative arcs that don’t stop in their tracks because of the kind of behavior which would be unforgivable in reality, but which we’re forced to excuse fictionally.
In Game of Thrones, the problem of the antihero reared its head last week when Jaime Lannister raped his sister and erstwhile longtime lover, Cersei. While Jaime started off as one of the more clearly despicable characters (besides the adulterous, incestuous relationship with his twin, he also, uh, pushed a young boy out a tower window), the past few seasons have demonstrated that many of his more contemptible actions (including stabbing a man in the back whom he’d sworn to protect) were driven by more honorable intentions than anyone could have easily guessed. It became possible, then, for audiences to feel that Jaime was someone with whom to identify, a flawed hero to be sure, but a hero nonetheless. And then in one (perhaps poorly conceived and staged) scene, all that goodwill was threatened, and audiences were forced to grapple with the fact that the character they liked didn’t only do deplorable things because he was forced to or born into a compromised world (as could be argued in the case of many antiheroes, i.e. Tony Soprano and Walter White), but because his immoral actions were an essential part of who he is. And it’s not just Jaime Lannister, few characters on Game of Thrones lack complicity in atrocities. From Daenerys Targaryen and the harsh justice she metes out to those who cross her to Jon Snow’s harsh abandonment of the woman he loves and even to Tyrion’s steadfast loyalty to his family, despite his recognition of the evil they’ve done, there are few people who are easy to like in an uncomplicated way.
Perhaps because so many of the wrongs committed on Game of Thrones are so wildly unrelatable to viewers (how many among us will ever need to determine the best way to punish scores of slave-holders in a fortressed city? probably not many), it is easier to accept the antiheroes for what they are—morally complex players in a game with very high stakes. This also contributes to why it is so easy to forgive acts like Daenerys’s, while finding Cersei’s rape so contemptible; one is unrelatable, and the other is all too real. It is for that reason that the behavior of the protagonists on Mad Men has begun to feel particularly tedious, particularly that of Don Draper. Mad Men has a long standing tradition of disabusing any tendencies the viewer might have toward feeling straightforward sympathy for a character. Throughout the series, every time a character started to seem admirable (or at least, less despicable), something would happen to alter our perception (see: Pete Campbell’s rape of his neighbor’s au pair, Roger Sterling singing in blackface, Peggy Olsen’s inability to leave her purse unattended around a black co-worker, et al.) and enforce the notion that there are no good people in this world, just some who are less bad than others (although all of them are still racist and rape-happy, it would seem). All of which would seem to make sense in a larger way—saints are a myth created to keep us in line, after all, as are the monsters that hide under the bed—but which has also begun to feel redundant and like a used-up trope, and the hammering home of the point that the world is complex has begun to feel as tiresome as the notion that the world is full of good and bad guys, and is just as creatively flat.
No character on Mad Men embodies this creative failure more than Don Draper. The series has always relied upon our acceptance of Don as a living paradox, someone who is adored for how he presents himself to the world, but whose inner life would make him loathed if it was widely known. Throughout the show’s run, Don has made morally compromised mistake after mistake, but they were all possible to forgive because he seemed to be getting closer and closer to reaching a place where he would be able to be his true self, thus abandoning the worst of his behaviors. It seemed at the end of last season that Don had reached that place. He exposed his poverty-stricken upbringing to his professional peers and to his family, blowing up the common perception of himself as a hero. He could be free. And he is free. But what Don has chosen to do with his freedom—fabricate lie after lie in an attempt to perpetuate an image of himself that nobody cares about anymore—is incredibly disappointing and, more importantly, artistically boring. There is nothing about Don that’s interesting any more. Now we know for sure that the lies he told were not just an attempt to cover up his past, but are really an attempt to cover up the void that he really is. As an antihero, there’s nothing to see here anymore, nothing to root for, nothing even to root against. There is just nothing.
And this is the problem with fictional worlds populated with antiheroes and devoid of heroes. The longer we’re exposed to these types of characters, and the more closely entwined we become with the bad or desperate choices they make, the more complicit we are in their actions. From a creative and critical perspective, this can work sometimes, namely when the antihero is so well conceived that his or her narrative is compelling and intelligent and makes sense in the fictional world within which it exists. But when the antiheroes deplorable actions seem gratuitous (i.e. Jaime Lannister) or tedious (i.e. Don Draper), audiences are left wondering what it is that they gain from watching characters make the same mistakes over and over. And when antiheroes keep doing more and more despicable things (not infrequently targeting women), audiences are also left wondering just what it is they’ll be asked to forgive in order to continue watching and enjoying the show. Perhaps it’s time to back away from antiheroes for a little while, and start looking for some heroes. It would be nice, for a change, to have characters we love to love, instead of just those we love to hate.
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