VILLAINISM. What is it? It sounds like a support group, doesn’t it? Like we’re meeting up on this page because they called us all mad at the academy, like we all join hands here and offer an evil genius version of the serenity prayer, building to our mantra, which we say in unison: “They’’ll see. They’ll ALL see.”
And maybe it is that, in a sense, but every gloomy Monday, Afterbuzz TV will be taking a dive into a type of series television that has surfaced relatively recently and has become more and more popular, despite the rise and domination of the cinematic super-hero and the generally authentic, sometimes performative wokeness so prevalent in modern programming. We’ll be looking at shows that use great narrative craft and intense performances to coerce us into sympathy (maybe even EMPATHY) with characters who know the difference between right and wrong…and who choose to do wrong.
Even some of today’s diehard superfans might not remember a time when a strict moral code was observed on even our grittiest cop shows. For decades, virtue was always rewarded on TV and vice was always punished. Would that it were so in real life, but with greater access to information, we’ve become more and more aware not just of the corruption that runs riot in the world of now, but the corruption that has hidden behind the nostalgic shiny surfaces of bygone ages. TV drama had to grow up to keep up with us.
In Brett Martin’s book Difficult Men, which chronicles the rise of premium series television from a 21st century theme park heap of sitcoms and reality shows, he makes a case for The Sopranos as the first show to shatter that moral code, inviting us to identify with Tony and his struggles so much that our own codes get flipped when he kills in cold blood right in front of us. That moment certainly set the pace, but I think it’s only fitting to begin this step beyond the antihero to villain-as-hero with a character who is DESIGNED to inveigle us into dramatic complicity with his worst behaviors.
One could argue that Walter White, the increasingly ruthless protagonist of Breaking Bad, took us deeper into darkness than any TV character before him or maybe since.
In the wake of Breaking Bad’s slow burning ride to huge success, the cultural impact of Bryan Cranston’s masterful performance, the impeccable spin-off Better Call Saul (which we will explore in a later installment of VILLAINISM), and the lovely but semi-superfluous epilogue El Camino, it’s easy to forget Breaking Bad’s innovations. Vince Gilligan has extrapolated an operatic crime fiction universe from the most poignant and mundane of beginnings, but in those beginnings we see a narrative trap set for the viewer that is almost as diabolical as some of Walter’s sociopathic street science.
Gilligan says the pitch for the show was always “Mr. Chips turns into Scarface”. The dramatic question for the creators was “how do we get him there?” And how do they get US there? Will the audience follow even the most vulnerable, lovable person into a character-shattering spiral of corruption and destruction?
The Walter White we meet in the pilot (the sweet high school teacher with terminal lung cancer who starts cooking meth to leave some kind of legacy to his handicapped son and loving wife and unborn daughter) is a gifted but basically ordinary man, or so it would seem. Like so many of us, he’s grateful for what he has and protective of it, but he’s haunted by the consequences of irrational choices and squandered potential. His deep history, psychology, and suppressed ambitions become more evident and specific as his transformative chain reactions begin, but at the start of things, Walter White could be any one of us. Conversely, any one of us could be Walter White. And there’s the trap.
We don’t meet him ensconced in a criminal ethos as we do with Tony Soprano or Vic Mackey on The Shield. We step into the underworld with him, step by step, as sure as he is that the fundamental force that is driving him into deeper and deeper contact with a sun-scorched southwest hell-world of crackheads, killers, and kingpins is his love for his family and his desire to protect them now that a chaotic cosmos has cursed him with cancer for no apparant reason.
Having begun so humbly, we thrill to the excitement of Walter rising to the occasion, tapping buried aptitudes for the hardboiled choice, the cold negotiation, the necessary murder, and the occasional exploding bag of imitation meth. We’re seeing the once tragic, now obviously hysterical swan song of patriarchy in a way: the straight white family man who has done all the necessary things to provide for his family, to no avail, forced to compromise his own ethics and ultimately any sense of human decency to keep his loved ones safe from a world gone mad, without ever fully realizing that this way of seeing is where the madness came from.
But although his feelings for his kin are sincere, we see more and more of the pride and frustrated ambition that have been bubbling beneath his surface. Bubbling until it volcanoes. The amount of money his “family” needs to be safe keeps escalating. At every level of sinister success he achieves, there’s a more sophisticated and dangerous big boss waiting to give him everything he wants. But Walter White is nobody’s slave, now that his shadow Heisenberg is loose, and we know before he does that his story isn’t just that he was born to be a great scientist. He was born to be a gangster. Science just opened the door.
At certain moments, the show threatens to suggest that Heisenberg is some kind of split persona, a la Tyler Durden in Fight Club…someone Walt can blame for all the chaos, as he is wont to do. But Heisenberg is just the Walter that was always waiting, underneath the sad sack costume…and the real Walter needs to be king.
So at each stage of this inverted heroic journey, Walter makes the tragic choice (in the classical sense), betting on his rage and hubris at the expense of his humanity. At each scene of wreckage en route to that desolate peak above all the fallen monsters (where Walter is the villain and the greatest danger to his family), the series asks us “are you still with this guy?”
The part of us that plays the victim is exhilarated by Walter’s twisted will to power, the astonishing things he is capable of when he stops caring about any life but his own and the lives of those beholden to him (conditionally). The show makes us love him, not despite his faults but because of them. But it does ask us constantly…do we want someone like this to win? How many of us were still with him to the end, approving of his choices (in a fictional context anyway) because we understood his journey so deeply? I’ll bet more of us were cheering him on straight through to the rising strains of Felina on the soundtrack than we might admit.
We’d miss Walter, despite the body count knowing him inevitably leads to. We could wish him well in a crystal blue scientific afterlife while knowing that his only redemptive victory would be in death, bleeding out in the lab with some sick splendor salvaged, some damage repaired, like an Earth Prime Lex Luthor, having just missed his impossible shot at Superman, but settling for killing Krypto the Superdog…the death he dodged so deftly finally visiting amongst his evil machines…a complicated man who found his higher self in hate, knowing now that he was always wrong and yet proud of a job well done.
Join us next Monday for another installment of VILLAINISM, when AfterBuzz TV news takes a look at the romantic villain in YOU.
About The Author:
Jason M. Lucia is a media critic, columnist, and professional ghostwriter whose work has been published under several pseudonyms. He was raised in Medford, MA. He went to school in NY. He lives to rhapsodize the stories he loves on the page and in the flesh.
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