On the fifth season finale of HBO’s lauded series Veep, Selina Meyer, fictional 45th President of the United States, was dealt a crushing blow. After the tied election that closed season four, votes were held in Congress to elect the next POTUS. With deadlocks in both the House and Senate, the Vice President cast the tiebreaker, electing Laura Montez, a younger, “prettier”, more beloved (and questionably Latina) senator from New Mexico, the next President of the United States. Realizing her reign is (abruptly) over, Selina turns to her press secretary, Mike, and says…
Selina Meyer’s supposed hatred of the American People and the American Way has been a recurring theme throughout the series. In the fourth season finale, “Election Night”, she goes on a rant of such withering contempt and unbridled rage it’s both endlessly funny and more than a little cringe worthy. “I’ll tell you what’s unprecedented, a tie is unprecedented! So’s me becoming the first Lady President!” Meyer growls. “So’s that jack-off becoming President through the backdoor! The rulebook’s been torn up now, and America’s wiping its nasty ass with it!”
Earlier in the episode, Selina has another outburst as the election results roll in and she loses yet another state. “Jesus Christ, you know? You do your best, you try to serve the people, and they just fuck you over,” she cries indignantly. “You know why? Because they’re ignorant, and they’re dumb as shit, and that’s democracy!”
Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ turn as the deeply angry, ineffectual, venal politician Selina Meyer is one of the most awarded performances in TV history, with four consecutive Emmy wins (and she’ll likely win a fifth). Selina isn’t particularly sympathetic; in fact, she is arguably a terrible person. But she does inspire pity and even empathy within us. And there lies the paradox of the antihero: they are defined by objectively unlikable qualities and traits, but we still root for them. They are the ultimate underdogs, the people who wouldn’t have made it if not for their sheer will to survive, to excel, or to become who they were truly meant to be. These are the people society fucked over, forgot, or otherwise pushed aside.
It used to be the characters that captured our imaginations and our hearts were pure, upstanding, and heroic. But now even our heroes and superheroes are dark, complex, and morally ambiguous. The last few years have seen an increase of big budget flicks about villainous figures, such as the upcoming Suicide Squad. The proliferation of the antihero in pop culture has had a correlation to the rise of real “antiheroic figures”. A decade ago, Donald Trump was a smarmy reality-TV star that no one took seriously. Today, he’s the Republican Nominee for President. Has the acceptance of radical, polarizing figures in our media made us more receptive to these individuals in real life? In any case, an undeniable cynicism has seeped into our culture, televisual and real.
So what is an antihero anyway? If a hero is one who risks everything for the good of others, and a superhero is one who risks everything for the good of all, maybe an antihero is one willing to sacrifice everything, including other people, for self-gain. If the qualities of courage, empathy, morality and idealism are heralded in the hero’s journey, then the vice qualities – insecurity, greed, callousness, apathy or the lack of empathy – are front and center in the antihero’s. Antiheroes, however, are not usually inherently bad people. They’re usually between a rock and a cold, hard place, and this galvanizes them to such a degree that their own needs, desires, and aspirations become more important than those of others.
The first antihero on television – inarguably Mr. Tony Soprano – exemplified this to the nth degree. With The Sopranos, David Chase created a blueprint for the male antihero, which would be expanded upon in series such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Earlier in the series, it was easier to root for Tony, the beset-upon family man and mob boss, grasping for power at “work”, and struggling to meet the demands of family life. When he suffers a panic attack in the first episode and starts psychotherapy, we’re compelled. But as the series progresses, we’re repulsed by his increasing brutality. As he shoots kids dead for trivial betrayals, and in the final season, murders his own nephew, we realize that his heinous acts are committed not for survival; he’s merely become a casual murderer, a casual adulterer, and a casual liar. Soprano starts out an antihero and ends up a straight-up villain. And in that iconic final moment of the series, we assume that Tony has finally paid for it all with his life… but he’s never redeemed before he “dies.”
Without Tony Soprano, you don’t have Don Draper, and you don’t have Walter White. Breaking Bad marked the end of the era of “Problem Men” on TV, but the beginning of a shift in characterization. Throughout the series, every horrible thing White does is in the name of survival. In many ways, Walter White is the first TV antihero to garner real sympathy from an audience. He was more relatable than Soprano or Draper because he was a “regular”, middle-aged, middle-class American man who doesn’t start out as callous, self-serving, or dangerous, quite the opposite actually – and surely the story of a “good man” who becomes bad (i.e. breaking bad) is more compelling than the story of a lout who devolves even further (The Sopranos). Walter White is a character we love and root for from the get-go. He’s a high school chemistry teacher raising a family of four on just $43,000, struggling so much to pay the bills that he has to moonlight as a car washer after-school. We then find out that he missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime: he helped start a company, Gray Matter, worth billions, but sold his shares for a pittance. So when Walter is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, we understand his decision to team up with a former student, druggie burnout Jesse Pinkman, to cook meth in a beat-up Winnebago. This first major decision sets in motion a series of catastrophic and unfortunate events that don’t reach a real conclusion until Walter dies on the floor in the final episode. As series creator Vince Gilligan said, “If there’s a larger lesson to ‘Breaking Bad,’ it’s that actions have consequences…”
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So why do we love antiheroes? Is it because they are willing to do whatever it takes? Or is there more to it than that? Maybe we love these characters because they magnify our own rage, the tragedy of our own lives. They push past boundaries we wish we could breach. No, most of us don’t want to dissolve bodies in a tub of lye, or put a hit out on eight people, or rig an election, but we do wish we could shake off the shackles of convention and live life truly on our own terms.
On the last night of the Republication Convention, Donald Trump spoke about America’s neglected masses. “[There are] forgotten men and women in this country,” he boomed, “People who work hard but no longer have a voice… I am your voice!” And the crowd roared.
But unlike Mr. Donald J. Trump, the TV antihero doesn’t claim to speak for anyone but him or herself, but their declarations, outbursts, strident, split-minute decisions, and excoriations are vicarious living. At a time in America in which we all feel like victims, exploited or scapegoated by corrupt and self-serving politicians, trampled on and suffocated by legal and other hegemonic systems, the anti-hero, complete in his and her autonomy, speaks for us all.