Breaking Bad series 1 – 5.1 spoilers below…
It’s all Tony Soprano’s fault.
TV used to have heroes at its core, good men and women struggling against external forces to try to make the world just a little bit better. The doctors of ER, the cops of Hill Street Blues, Buffy, The Doctor… all heroes.
Then The Sopranos came along, and it didn’t have a hero in the lead. It had a Mafioso with anxiety issues. And thanks to James Gandolfini’s towering performance, the audience loved him despite his taste for murder and intimidation. Suddenly, heroes didn’t look so exciting anymore. The age of the TV anti-hero had begun.
The imminent return of Breaking Bad is what got me thinking about anti-heroes. Has there ever been a more fascinating villain than Walter ‘Heisenberg’ White? Because, make no mistake, he is absolutely the villain now. But what makes Walt so interesting is that he didn’t start out as a villain. He was essentially a good guy. Sure, he was always a prideful man and a bit of a control freak, but he was only cooking meth as a shortcut to provide for his family.
For the first three series’, if he did something bad it was usually for a good reason. Okay, letting Jane die is a tricky thing to justify, but who didn’t cheer when Walt’s battered Aztek came out of nowhere to mow down the child-murdering gangsters who were about to shoot Jesse? But by the end of series four, when the audience was clued in to just how far Walt was willing to go to get his own way (poisoning a child!) his heel turn was complete. The guy you once cheered for and related to is suddenly murdering dozens of people, bullying good people and just being generally terrifying.
Unlike Walt, anti-heroes generally start off as anti-heroes. The audience know from the beginning that this person isn’t very nice, but they’re won over nonetheless by their charisma, and their ability to act on dark impulses that ordinary people suppress. When Jackie Peyton flushed that rapist’s severed ear down the toilet in episode one of Nurse Jackie, it was pure wish-fulfilment. You could get behind that, even if you couldn’t get behind her infidelity or drug addiction.
We know from the get-go that Dexter is a murderer – he tells us so himself. He ties people up, kills them slowly, dumps them in the sea and keeps slides of their blood. Not a particularly relatable character. But he only kills very bad people, and he has very funny insights into the normal human behaviour that he doesn’t quite understand. So we like him.