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Dead Tree Alert: Walter White, the Greatest American Antihero

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Frank Ockenfels/AMC

I’m back! And so, nearly, is Walter White and the first half of Breaking Bad‘s final season. I’ve been away for a week, but while I was out, TIME published my essay on White and the past decade’s army of cable-drama antiheroes (originally planned to run a week later, but pressed into service early for our special SCOTUS health-care-decision issue). [Update: the full essay is subscription-required, sorry.]

The piece has three prongs (like Steve Carell in Anchorman, I like to wield a trident). One, how over the past ten years or so—since The Sopranos, but especially with the explosion of followup dramas like The Shield, the morally-compromised protagonist has gone from a novelty to a serious-TV-drama convention, and why the genre works:

[W]e’ve had a decade-plus of real-life news about betrayed trust: bad mortgages, sexual abuse in colleges and churches, prisoner torture, business fraud. These stories involved some flat-out monsters (see Jerry Sandusky) but also a lot of enablers and go-alongers, bosses who didn’t punish, colleagues who didn’t blow whistles–people who weren’t exactly evil but who found, when tested, that they couldn’t make themselves be good enough. (Not unlike Skyler, who decided to stand by her husband and launder his drug money.) Were the rest of us, shaking our heads, better than them? Or just lucky that we never had to find out? Antihero dramas let the viewer take a kind of moral test drive.

Two, why Walt—who starts his journey as a struggling everyman—is the apex and maybe the peak of this kind of figure, the guy who lets us see the potential for evil in the ordinary schlub:

The title of Breaking Bad–now entering its fifth and final season, whose first half begins July 15 on AMC–is a slang term for the process of turning criminal, as creator Vince Gilligan has explained. It’s a telling choice of phrase, describing evil not as an immutable character trait but as a turn from one side to another, a drift across the yellow line on a late-night drive… Walt’s choices might not be ones you would ever make. But his problems–medical bills, debt, midlife crisis–could be anyone’s.

And three, that the antihero drama could maybe use a rest, or at least some more variation:

Several of TV’s reigning antiheroes have an expiration date: Don Draper will run out of 1960s in two seasons, and both Damages and Showtime’s Weeds (cable’s other citizen-turned-pusher story) are starting their final seasons. After all these years, we get it: yeah, the world can be rotten. Edgy has started to feel like the new safe.

I like morally gray TV as much as the next guy—actually, as the ratings of my favorite shows suggest, probably more—but we’ve reached the point where that by itself is no longer daring. (This is not a slam on Breaking Bad—I’ve seen two new episodes, and without spoiling, the second in particular is terrific.) As I’ve written before, I’m not crazy about The Newsroom, but I do at least recognize that it’s trying to do something different in cable/HBO drama nowadays, which is to portray its cast in more or less straight-heroic (if not entirely perfect) mode. That’s not an easy thing to do well (Friday Night Lights, to me, is the best recent example of a great drama with good-guy lead characters), but then, challenging drama isn’t supposed to be easy. Who will being us the Great American Anti-Antihero?

7 comments
guestofaguest2012
guestofaguest2012

I'm actually surprised that some feel today's shows are getting too cliched. Having grown up with the A-Team, 21 Jumpstreet, Knight Rider, I found X-files (which Gilligan also had a hand in) refreshing for its gray areas. But I find Breaking Bad refreshing for more reasons other than just the  "anti-hero" angle. 

Gus Fring was probably the most interesting and gripping character I've seen in a long time, I was almost wanted a spin-off. While we do root for Walt, we also root for Hank and Jesse more as the series progresses...so maybe "breaking good" will triumph the last season. 

I think BBad's unpredictability and parallels to current times (how health insurance in this country's a letdown, underpaid teachers, drug wars, criminalizing drug users instead of rehabilitating them) is what keeps this show from being cliched. But I guess your point was that "cliche" is being redefined, but I think in relation to the history of television, it hasn't been around long enough to be cliched.With Mad Men (rampant racism, sexism, fill-in-the-blank-phobia) and Homeland reflecting reality and actual historical events, I don't see how these shows can omit reality;  straight heroes would be a rather patronizing lie wouldn't it?  I'm sure there's no shortage of traditional heroes in current Disney/Pixar/prime time Cop shows on network TV, but I personally prefer watching all the complicated nuances of anti-heroes, I feel like I'm getting more bang for the buck.

And speaking of trends, aren't more and more film stars crossing over to the television  arena? Isn't it because they find today's television roles more challenging to play, as well as for the viewers to watch? I'd imagine if the hero/villain lines were more clearly drawn in shows like "Lost", the series would have ended much earlier, because the character's predictability and consistence becomes boring.

Shoot the Critic
Shoot the Critic

Some of the best characters in the history of both television and film have been antiheroes, and this is not a tradition we should lose; but I do agree that pop culture needs a refresher on its TV characters. The leads of The Newsroom, by the way, are far from perfect. I find most of them, especially the lead anchor, to be quite unbearable. I think the lead in Homeland is a good example of a refreshing protagonist. Same as in Girls, with Hannah. They're likable, watchable, and painfully straightforward, but also very flawed and problematic. - Shoot the Critic, http://shootthecritic.com

vrcplou
vrcplou

Ironic that we are discussing Walter White and Breaking Bad.  I'm one of those unfortunate Dish Network customers that no longer have AMC.  I am shopping Directv packages as we "speak".

I've enjoyed WW's evolution.  We've seen a man take control of his life and start making decisions for himself.  The end point of this self-discovery has been kind of shocking - what happens when you discover the person you really are isn't a "good" person at all?  Is it better to be the person you really are vs. the person everyone thinks you are "supposed" to be.  Is a monster of your own creation better than  the nothing everyone else created?  Does Walter even truly see the person he has become or is he still seeing everything through the veil of "what I've been forced to do; it wasn't my choice?"

All I truly know is that I'm saying goodbye to Dish after 15 years as a customer.  All because they couldn't get it together and I have to see Breaking Bad.  Not to mention The Walking Dead in October!

James Poniewozik
James Poniewozik

Good points. One thing I like about Walter is that he doesn't turn bad out of nowhere. He has traits as an ordinary chemistry teacher--bitterness, pride, contempt for his ignorant students, etc.--that manifest themselves later, on a larger scale, when he rationalizes his criminal acts. Had he never had the impetus to become a drug dealer, he still would have had those traits--they just would have expressed themselves in little mundane ways, not in killing people and running a meth lab.

The Hoobie
The Hoobie

One thing that always surprises me is when I read that Jesse initially wasn't supposed to survive the first season---his and Walter's two-hand relationship feels so much like the core of the show to me. Jesse's presence (as the feckless petty criminal who becomes the moral center of the show) is also what has helped make the darkness of Breaking Bad both more potent and more tolerable for me.

It's funny that you should riff in your title on The Greatest American Hero---I was thinking a little while ago that I miss characters like William Katt's on that show---hapless, tired, but good-hearted and trying to do the right thing from moment to moment, especially for his family. (For some reason I always associate Katt's character in that show with John Denver's character in the Oh God! movies....) Also, Greatest American Hero was really funny! Robert Culp? Connie Sellecca? Awesome. 

Daniel Linehan
Daniel Linehan

I think part of the problem is that a lot of antiheros borrow heavily from the Tony Soprano mold. There are a lot of middle aged white guys who are leading two separate lives, one of which is a fairly normal existence and the other involving some kind of male power fantasy (like being able to fuck any woman you like a la Don Draper, or being able to kill your awful boss which was the subtext to last season's Breaking Bad) that's used to appeal to the viewer, even though the best shows will deconstruct it as well. That basic mold, tweaked here and there, has been used over and over again, and it has some familiar story beats (hero fears that his secret may be uncovered, has to scramble to cover it up) and story problems (how to make the hero's wife sympathetic).

I think that to make the anti-hero seem fresh again, writers need to break this mold. Hannah Horvarth strikes me as the perfect example of an anti-hero whose foibles are a constant source of story without owing anything to a Tony Soprano or a Don Draper.

The Hoobie
The Hoobie

Very well said! As much as I love Mad Men and Breaking Bad, I could definitely use a break from the middle-aged white-guy antihero trope. I've been loving Hannah Horvath and Amy Jellicoe.

I notice that in another of my favorite shows, Battlestar Galactica, the darkness comes mostly from the desperate situation, not from the characters, who generally were just trying to find "some kind of way out of here." I suppose you could argue that that makes the drama less true or potent, but man, that show could deliver emotional gut punches like nobody's business.