The Anti-hero

I love Dexter, be it reading Jeff Lindsay’s novels or watching the television series. It was weird at first, rooting for the bad guy, but the more I read/watched, the more I realized that “bad” had shades of grey. Lately, many shows feature protagonists who are more anti-hero than hero. Take ABC’s Once Upon a Time, for example. It’s no secret that my favourite character on that show is Rumplestiltskin/Mr. Gold, a man who killed his wife, chopped a man’s hand off, held a woman hostage, and beat an old man with his cane, twice. Through it all, I root for him. I feel the loss of his son, the anguish in his love affair with Belle, the plunging psyche as he picked up the remains of his prized possession, the chipped cup, from the hospital floor. Scandal is another example. Olivia and her team have murdered, stolen, and lied. Olivia herself is in an affair with a married man and was involved in rigging votes in the last presidential election. Is it wrong to want to see her and Fitz together? To want Fitz to remain blind to her conspiracy? To want Mellie to die in childbirth? To love Cyrus for calling off the gun for hire he’d paid to murder his own husband to keep the secret buried?

For two weeks now, I’ve been watching FX’s The Americans. The premise is intriguing: Russian spies carrying out covert missions while posing as the all American family. As I watched this week’s episode, I questioned my interest in the show. Talk about anti-heroes? Elizabeth and Phillip pose as heads of a nuclear family, living out the American Dream in their house in the suburbs with their son and daughter. Last week, they used their garage to store the spy that raped Elizabeth during her training in the trunk of their car. This week, Elizabeth poisoned an innocent college student and the two blackmailed his mother for the cure. Elizabeth played the nurse to the boy while Phillip beat up the uncle, broke his hand, strong-armed the mother, and nearly suffocated the boy to get what he wanted, which was for the mother to plant a bug in a politician’s office. As I watched, I thought, “How horrible. I don’t even think I like these characters.” Then Phillip sat in his car after suffocating the boy and nearly cried while Elizabeth consoled him. I won’t say I root for him as I do Dexter, but I think I watch to put together the glimpses of humanity. So long as the gruesome brutality is balanced with the humanity, I may continue to watch.

I am no stranger to television brutality. Shows like True Blood, Vampire Diaries, and Walking Dead are full of it, but the macabre is acceptable, almost expected, given that the characters are vampires and werewolves and hunters and zombies and just trying to survive. Shows like this don’t bother me much. What I find horrific is when the monsters are human, drawing blood for nothing more than the horror of it. Dexter, I understand. He witnessed his mother brutally murdered in front of him as a toddler. Dexter’s impulses are born of blood. He knows what he does is wrong. Unable to quash his compulsion, he has found a way to control it instead, killing only those who deserve to be killed. Not the same for Joe Carroll on Fox’s The Following, who gets others to kill for him a la Charles Manson. I can’t figure out why he does what he does other than the fact that he can. American Horror Story is another show that pushes the blood-soaked threshold, but it does so with a subtle irony and hidden horror stereotype allusions that elevate it from horrific bloodbath to interestingly compelling.

The line between good and evil has blurred for the traditional superhero types as well. Gone are the days in which the hero does good both in and out of their costumes, like Batman or Superman. Today’s heroes fall nothing short of human. This week’s Arrow, for example, showed Oliver brutalizing his own mother for answers. On Person of Interest, Detective Carter often bends and/or breaks the law to save Reese and Finch. Even the president of the United States is not exempt—this week’s Scandal saw Fitz murder Verna in her hospital bed to prevent the jury tampering secret from getting out. Gone are the days of good and evil, of black and white; welcome to the days of anti-heroism and shades of grey.  

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