There’s been a rise of morally complex, morally ambiguous characters in recent TV drama. These characters challenge us to position them morally. They demonstrate an obscure or skewed moral compass – this makes us hard to pin and define them. But maybe this is a good thing. How many times do we need to adjust our moral appraisals of people in real life? And can fixing a moral standpoint ever be positive?
The Antihero has become King. I use the word King advisedly – one thing about the morally ambiguous characters from DEXTER to HOUSE OF CARDS’ Frank Underwood to BREAKING BAD’s Walter White; and from MAD MEN’s Don Draper right back to Tony Soprano …. is that they are male. As, lets face it, are the majority of complex TV protagonists, even if things are changing. Exceptions to this rule are hard to find. One is Nurse Jackie, a brilliant, complex antihero. Another might be Lisbeth Salander from THE GIRL WITH A DRAGON TATTOO.
So if an antihero is a flawed character, who doesn’t possess conventionally desirable qualities, but is essentially good, what of those who really are bad? There seem to be more and more of these characters heading up shows these days. So much so, we have a new name for them. The Villain-Protagonist.
Villain-Protagonists are the bad guys who take us through the story, who we love to hate, and who we root for, despite ourselves. Frank Underwood, anyone?
For me, the thing that separates the flawed from the really bad character is having a moral code – or lack of one. Some characters are concerned and affected by others; some exhibit a lack of empathy or real scruples beyond self-aggrandizement. I certainly don’t think Omar from THE WIRE should make the Villain-Protagonist list. He has a strong moral code, and a sense of sympathy for those around him, even if he is a violent drug dealer. As for Don Draper, he’s traumatized by his past and has self-destructive tendencies, but he’s not immune to the feelings of others. Tony Soprano is a deeply flawed man struggling to keep his family together (made abundantly clear by his panic attack during the first ever episode, as the baby ducks he’s been feeding in his swimming pool fly away from home). And Nurse Jackie? She’s an addict, and makes some terrible, selfish choices. But that’s what addiction does. She also cares deeply about those around her, and the Catholic guilt doesn’t help the addiction, maybe it even fuels it. These can certainly fit into the anti-hero category, (although I’m also inclined to ask: Aren’t these each just examples of complex protagonists?)
But Frank Underwood is a different kettle of fish. He’s pretty much the definition of a classic sociopath, as evidenced in Psychology Today. For their fascinating analysis click here:
Dexter is clearly a psychopath, although he has a certain attachment to his family. As for Walter White, he becomes more and more depraved as his semblance of family concern is eroded and his need for power is laid bare.
The fact that psychologists can apply the criteria of psychological assessment to fictional characters, and diagnose individual syndromes for them suggests they can be complex and accurate enough representations to teach us something about the world, and the people in it. If Don Draper has Abandoned Child Syndrome as suggested in Psychology today, (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-babble/201404/mad-man-indeed-the-psychology-don-draper) … and Frank Underwood is a successful sociopath, maybe this informs our understanding of the people we know in life who exhibit similar tendencies.
All this relates of course, to how we navigate the world, and negotiate our moral standpoints. As Psychology Today points out, in 2009, Don Draper was named number one Most Influential Man (ahead of real people) by the online magazine Ask Men.
Perhaps the increasingly complex, flawed characters we are presented with, demand an enhanced ability to flex and shift our moral responses. BrainPickings point to Susan Sontag’s concept of the moral responsibility of the writer:
Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent… This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense. Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate — and, therefore, improve — our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.
Sontag is not referring to TV here, although in this age of complex characters and long-form drama, I would argue that she might as well be. So maybe the complex dilemmas of Tony Soprano, Nurse Jackie and Don Draper and even Frank Underwood, articulate something about what it is to be human and to dream of a life beyond our own. In a similar way, SIX FEET UNDER looked at these big moral questions about family; about how to be in relationship with others, with oneself and with the world. Each of the characters in that series, and I’m harking back a bit here (but wasn’t it good?) have a complex relationship with what it is to be human. Films clearly have the potential to do the same. The recent U.S. Thriller BLUE RUIN has as its protagonist a vagrant set on revenge. The British films TYRANNOSAUR and FISH TANK strike me as two examples of essentially ethical films; all of these films allow their flawed character a real humanity and none allow our ethical response to those characters or the world around them to be easy.
Regarding Villain-Protagonists like Frank Underwood – and I would suggest Walter White, I’m not sure how our encounter with them challenges our ethical stance on the world. But watching Walter White the family man evolve into a power-hungry villain, challenged my own moral reading of him as a character – and my allegiance switched half-way through the story (I won’t spoil it, but Jesse’s girlfriend, anyone? This was the tipping point for me, and many others I’ve spoken to). Many people stopped watching around that point. I almost stopped watching too. Continuing with it meant adjusting my response, and accepting that, as in real life, characters are complex and layered, and self-deluding. And sometimes we can get sucked in.
At its heart, HOUSE OF CARDS offers a contemplation of morality – placing us in allegiance with the amoral Frank Underwood perhaps calls us to question our own position as viewers (or voyeurs) of the drama, as we watch him frequently lay waste to those who are trying to make the world a better place.
TV drama can reflect on morality and complicate it. Perhaps an ethical stance can never be simple; maybe it’s necessary to become dexterous (no pun intended) in the stretching and shifting of our view. To always allow our thinking to evolve – to never be satisfied with the easy standpoint.
Such shows help us ask the big questions and do the work that we expect of a literary novel. Characters who are difficult and morally complex – antiheros, Villain-Protagonists or otherwise – can elevate TV drama beyond the mundane, question our capacity for empathy, expand our thinking about the world, and make us more essentially human.
So what implications does this have for us as writers?
The last character I wrote was a woman who had abandoned her teenage son. Guilt, past trauma, current anti-social behaviour all mitigate or aggravate her situation. But fundamentally her struggle is one we all recognize: how to be a good human being in a world that doesn’t always make it easy. It took me a long time to figure out who she was, and what drove her. It took a lot of drafts until she felt psychologically 'right'. And maybe this working-out, this taking the time to create a complex and authentic character who we recognise as being possible in the world, is necessary. If the writer discovers something challenging, complex and interesting in their character, then so can the reader.
Whoever you’re writing, are you writing truthfully? We all have flaws, vices, the capacity for rage. And some of us have our good points too…
One more quote to end with:
Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.