For fans of the hit show Breaking Bad like myself, the premiere of its final season (well, technically, its second half of the final season), scheduled for August 11, can't come soon enough. The show centers on the slow but sure downward spiral and moral decay of a former high school chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin.
Regardless, a few writers have recently opined on the role of this kind of character, the antihero, in modern television. A.O. Scott in The New York Times, for instance, focuses on three main antiheroes: Walter White of Breaking Bad, Don Draper of Mad Men, and Tony Soprano of The Sopranos.
Add to the list the politically conniving Frank Underwood of House of Cards and the serial killing Dexter Morgan of Dexter, and you have a large crop of powerful, vicious men. About Breaking Bad's antihero, Scott has this to say:
Walter may have wanted us to believe — and may, at moments, have convinced himself — that he was a decent man driven by desperate circumstances to do terrible things, but that notion was either wishful thinking or tactical deceit. Viewed as a whole, in optimal binge conditions, with the blinds pulled down and the pizza boxes and chicken wrappers piling up around the couch, Breaking Bad reveals itself as the story of a man mastering his vocation and fighting to claim his rightful place in the world. Its dark, morally scandalous vision has been imposed on the kind of tale that is, more conventionally, an inspiring parable of entrepreneurial gumption. This formula turns out to be well suited to the times.
These kinds of characters, however, are what rub some people the wrong way. Over at the National Catholic Register, writer Joan Frawley Desmond expresses deep disapproval with the attraction to the antiheroic archetype. She writes:
It is one thing to watch a film like The Godfather, which followed a wartime hero's transformation into a ruthless mobster. But would you want to watch Michael's moral collapse every week, episode by episode, from one season to the next? The success of shows like The Sopranos suggests that we are deveoping an appetitute [sic] for watching people do bad things.
Desmond then says that fans of these shows "have a soft spot" for these antiheroes and "empathize with [the] Everyman qualities and struggles, while losing track of the larger moral context."
Well, of course fans have a soft spot for these characters! But it is precisely that soft spot that propels audiences to think, "No, Walt, don't do it!" or "Don, what was that for?" So the fact that we empathize shows not a vice but a virtue on our behalf. We desire for these characters to do the right thing, and we get disheartened when they don't.
Desmond's other argument is that perhaps our affinity comes from the idea that we "feel morally superior while getting our entertainment from watching a sick character make bad choices over and over and over again."
There might be some truth to that claim, but overall it misses the mark. The purpose of these antiheroes is beyond granting us moral superiority. On the contrary, the entire point is to show us how not to live, what not to do. These characters are supposed to rub us the wrong way. They are supposed to show us exhibit A of what virtue is clearly not. And they do.
In the case of Breaking Bad, we see all the rationalizations as well as all the irrationality that bring Walt to make bad decisions. And we see those decisions becoming worse and worse with bigger and bigger consequences.
Sure, I don't know how the series will end, but I have a hunch it won't end well for Walt. That being said, no matter what it is that draws our attention to antiheroes, these shows still provide us with a moral compass. That moral compass might not show us virtue and what to emulate, but it clearly shows us vice as vice and as something not to emulate.
After all, they're called antiheroes for a reason.