The trend of the anti-heroes has been prevalent throughout history, for example – Achilles, Don Quixote, Karna, Krishna or Odysseus to name a few prominent case studies. There are many, many more, both in the literature and on the screen: Humbert Humbert (Lolita), Michael Corleone (The Godfather series), Lucifer (Paradise Lost), Rasnolnikov (Crime and Punishment), Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair), Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With the Wind), Jordan Belfort (The Wolf of Wall Street), Daniel Archer (Blood Diamond), etc. These characters represent the human mind and psychology as neither black nor white, but as shades of grey. If dark forces exist, it is possible for them to skew the boat, and how.
How could television stories remain untouched by such undercurrents? If there has been a noticeable upsurge of the anti-hero on television nowadays, popular figures like Don Draper (Mad Men), Walter White (Breaking Bad) and Francis Underwood (House of Cards) come to mind. Does the portrayal of their stories also reveal something more about the society it derives from, and consequently the morality that such societies practice?
The Anti-Hero Tradition:
In today’s world, fraught with incessant hostilities between nations and among people of different faiths with unemployment, recession, civil unrest, cyber-attacks and religious intolerance; a morally pure world with uptight characters seems unreal. Maybe we adore these shows and characters because they seem to offer us a glimpse into the murky reality, no matter how dark, uncompromising and diseased that we believe is the real world. Our belief in the goodness in humankind, though always alive, is at its low ebb. Ironically, while it seems like a recent, modern trend; it has been a common refrain ever since mankind started walking on two feet. Civilisations may come and wither away, the insecurity, instability and turbulence, socially, politically and economically, has been ever-present fact of human existence.
This goes back to the Greek tragedies like Medea (Aristophanes) and Plato’s The Republic that were an outcome of the Peloponnesian wars that had wrecked Greece. Medea was one of the first women anti-heroines. After her husband Jason deserts her for a young princess as part of a political relationship, in an act of pure revenge she kills her two children and the princess, leaves Jason to writhe in misery, and escapes. She is violent, passionate, revengeful and cruel, and yet she moved the contemporary audience because she represented the dark forces that humans too are susceptible to, inflicting pain and miseries on them and others. And this is frightening to comprehend because it is possible in certain circumstances, and there lies the connect with the audience.
In recent times, poets such as T.S. Eliot, Franz Kafka etc, expressed Modernism, with its alienating and dehumanising effect on mortals. Fractured by the coldness and meaninglessness of their existence, these artists created great works of art that altered the dimensions of the art forever. In Albert Camus’s ‘The Stranger’, Meursault’s psychological state is as a wheel without a tyre, passionless, apathetic, and his emotions cauterized. He ultimately kills a random stranger, for no reason.
But in the late 20th and 21st centuries, anti-heroes on screen such as Michael Corleone, Oskar Schindler, Walter White, Don Draper, Scarlett O’Hara – are not driven by a desire to penetrate the meaning of life. They simply desire to make money. And if there is one common strand that these characters particularly display, it is their burning ambition to emerge at the top. Unlike anti-heroes like Dexter and Tony Sopranos, who delve into deeper issues, these men want nothing but money and power. They are more resonant to the legendary Michael Corleone and Lucifer, and not like Meursault of Camus’s ‘The Stranger’. These anti-heroes are not swamped by existentialist crisis. They are just highly materialistic. Just like most of us, they are responding to the culture of amassing riches. Even immorality stems from within the ambit of societal norms.
‘There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted’ – Immorality on TV and its Effects:
One may argue that the portrayal of immorality of the anti-heroes is meant for entertainment purposes, to critique certain practices (like Washington politics in House of Cards), and are not supposed to be emulated. Yet, few would disagree that they have acutely subtle impact upon the audience. In the medieval ages, the European cities used to hold a carnival annually for all people—rich and poor alike, as a form of public celebration. The people dressed in costumes, and the parade was of profane, satirical and ridiculously humorous floats that directly attacked the State or the Church. But it was far from democratic. This carnivalesque mode was meant (by the authorities) to allow the people to vent and purge their hatred, anger or sorrow about their conditions, so that they did not act upon it later. It was to render these emotions as futile, and was in lieu of the larger coercive technique employed by them for maintaining overall power and control.
With such examples behind us, one can argue that these television series woven around bad characters or anti-heroes offer us a vehicle to fantastically live out their precarious reality. They seem to offer us a rendition of a person socially free from restrictive moral codes, but are (in theory at least) pedantic of morality because of its very absence.
The admiration we have for Frank Underwood remains just that and does not translate to action. Even if some might relate to his character, or that of Walter White and Don Draper, they realize that however gloriously portrayed, their moral flaws are not. This is how morality influences and grounds the wheels of even the immorally explicit shows. There might be no new insight here, as we intuitively know this. But the fact that such renditions clearly show how the societal structure shapes our morality is a study worth undertaking.
Anti-heroes show people to be exactly as they are – a bundle of contradictions, with equal goodness and cruelty, as fallible and liable to hurt and get hurt as the rest of us. But what many of us choose to ignore are the ramifications the societal pressures has on our moral beliefs, and how we mitigate these via art.
By Ananya Tiwari