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A Legacy Of Carnage: The Allure Of The Television Antihero

Jeremy Hunter Pop Culture and Literature

 

Better Call Saul has just reached a satisfying conclusion, which has only accelerated the legacy of a brilliant television universe of drug dealing, murder, mayhem, and the desire to acquire the American Dream which began with the release of Breaking Bad. 

Throughout the past twenty-three years, since The Sopranos hit the airwaves in 1999, there has been a rise in television antiheroes. These are protagonists who are morally-flawed, often commit horrendous, unredeemable acts, and yet, we find ourselves as viewers rooting for them. Even the father of a childhood friend who was a police detective ritualistically watched The Sopranos weekly when it was on the air back when I was a kid in the early 2000’s. 

With the new era of television catapulting this altered breed of protagonist even further with the popularity of Better Call Saul, which is destined to go down as the greatest prequal series of all time, an exploration as to why viewers are driven to cheer on these reprehensible fictionalized characters must be analysed. I will now take a deep dive into three distinct characters who have become fixtures of pop culture; Tony Soprano, Walter White and Jimmy McGill.  

Tony Soprano, of what many critics hail as being the greatest television show of all time, The Sopranos, was crafted as being the boss of a fictional crime family in New Jersey. Unlike previous depictions of mob characters within films such as The Godfather, which focused primarily on the crime world aspect of the mafia, The Sopranos provided a lens into the life of the central character; Tony Soprano. A deeply flawed man who had two teenage children, a loving wife, a strained relationship with his elderly, manipulative mother, a burdensome relationship with his older sister who he was often at odds with, and the illegal business in which he ran. When we are introduced to Tony, financially, he is sitting very pretty. But psychologically, he is a complete mess and suffers from anxiety and depression, which likely mask the underline guilt he feels as a crime boss, and evidently as a murderer.  

After suffering a crippling anxiety attack, Tony decides to seek professional help and starts visiting Doctor Jennifer Malfi, a clinical psychiatrist. This aspect of the series brought on a human quality rarely before seen in the world of mafia related television or film, which caused the audience to relate and even empathize with the detestable character of Tony Soprano as the series progressed. With the series also examining Tony’s many relationships, including the relationship he has with his beautiful, devoted wife Carmela, who Tony often cheats on and consistently lies to, we saw a layer of three-dimensional characterization which made the character of Tony as human like as possible, despite him being nothing more than the fleshed-out creation of David Chase, the shows creator’s, imagination. The series incredible writing and acting often made viewers feel as though the show was a documentary on the mafia and that these characters existed in the real world. The series also delved into the psychological world of its protagonist and supporting characters as a whole more thoroughly than arguably any show since.  

The appeal of the series for viewers, I believe, which led them to stick around for six seasons of The Sopranos, was having a front seat view into a world they would likely never see first-hand. To a degree, humans as a whole are a flawed species. News stories often lean towards the negative, with the morally grey stories within everyday life taking up significantly more airspace. Horribly detestable crime bosses such as Pablo Escobar or Al Capone have an almost legendary status behind their name. It’s not that viewers want to be these often-evil crime bosses, but the perspective which led to an influx of popularity in fictionalized antiheroes such as Tony Soprano, which mirror real life gangsters, is one which to some may be seductive. That may be why my friend's detective father had a fascination with the fictionalized world of The Sopranos, whose central character was a murdering, sociopathic piece-of-shit.  

Because it was a world he never intended on existing within, but one his imagination found intriguing nonetheless. It was also a world he would gladly view from a distance, possibly even at times cheering on the decisions of Tony Soprano, which he would likely never admit to any of his law enforcement friends directly, while rationalizing that the Tony Sopranos of this world were the criminals; he would dedicate his life to putting behind bars through his hunt to keep the city he served to protect safe.  

In a lot of ways, this fascination with morally grey characters such as Tony Soprano, relates to a split within human consciousness where we gravitate toward the things, we inherently fear the most. And with the added appeal of a flawed character whose everyday life with his wife, his kids, and his friends, reminds us of our own existence, this helps to justify the shame we may have otherwise had relating to empathizing and sometimes agreeing with the decisions made by a morally bankrupt character who in the real world, we would do everything in our power to stay the fuck away from.  

For myself, as I binged the series roughly a decade ago, I couldn’t help but feel satisfaction when Tony beat the sadistic, cowardly antagonist of Ralphie to death during a tense exchange in the fourth season. Internally, this related to the immense hatred I felt for Ralphie following him beating his pregnant girlfriend Tracee to death in the shows third season. In this instance, many viewers, myself included, could agree and relate with the fact that Tony chose to take a life based on the fact that the character he killed in the show seemingly was deserving of death based on the horrific prior choices that he made. This subconscious rationalization of Tony’s decision to beat Ralphie to death, at the time that I viewed the scene, led to the question of whether Tony made the decision because of his anger relating to Ralphie burning down the stable which in turn, killed his race horse, or if his heated decision related to Tony’s internal fury as he struggled to hold back his anger and hatred directed at Ralphie following the murder of Tracee, whose only mistake was involving herself with a sadistic, abusive coward like Ralphie in the first place. This psychological aspect of the series, I believe, is what made the series so powerful. That the viewer could agree with the morally grey decisions made by characters within a fictional world when they are aligned with our own rationalization of what is ultimately right or justified, and this will lead the name of Tony Soprano to being synonymous with a real-life crime boss such as Al Capone for years to come within the fictional world of television.  

Breaking Bad premiered on AMC in 2008, and gained a consistent following as the series progressed. The central focus of the show related to the progression of the series protagonist and subsequent anti-hero of Walter White, who was introduced as being a morally good, passive-aggressive high school chemistry teacher who finds out that he has an advanced stage of lung cancer and has a limited amount of time left to live. This realization leads Walter to morph into the worst version of himself over the course of five seasons, as he starts manufacturing a purified form of crystal meth with a former student, Jesse Pinkman. Much the same as Tony Soprano, Walter White’s home life is showcased to the audience through his relationship with his beautiful wife, who is pregnant with their second child, and through he struggles to help raise his teenage son who has cerebral palsy. Unlike Tony Soprano, however, Walter exists within a world where he isn’t in a financially stable position to start off, and with limited time left to live, this becomes the catalyst behind his choice to pursue a life in crime to ensure the financial security of his family when he dies. In a lot of ways, this question of what if may have led to the success of the series, since this evolution of a central character who had nothing left to lose following his cancer diagnosis, starting off Mr. Chips and transforming into Scarface (to quote series creator Vince Gilligan) may have resonated with viewers.  

Also, through Walter White’s evolution into Heisenberg, one of the most notable antiheroes in television history, we as viewers bore witness as Walter struggled to conceal his lies and mask his guilt, as his wife and family (including a DEA brother-in-law) started to piece together the reality behind Walter’s growing meth empire. By having a central character introduced as being on the verge of the point of no return, which came with Walter’s murder of Crazy-8 (as the murder of Emilio could have been justified as self-defence) viewers were introduced to a world where anything was possible, and where the sandlot which occupied the space of the series could change direction at any point, which it frequently did. Also, by having Walter diagnosed with cancer at the start of the series, viewers had a reason to agree or look the other way relating to Walter’s many morally grey decisions, which included countless murders (in which he was directly and indirectly responsible for), repeatedly manipulating his family, as well as Jesse, who viewed him as being a father figure, and leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. By the series end, Walter had accomplished everything he had set out to do, securing the finances his family desperately needed to ensure their survival before his death, and had also redeemed himself by killing those responsible for his brother-in-law Hanks murder, and had also freed Jesse. The series also introduced a character many may have initially agreed with, but one who chose a path which led just as many to despise him and thank God he was dead by series end. 

This facet of the human condition which made us empathize with a character who could just as easily be someone we know in an equally distressing and dire position, I believe, is what made Breaking Bad the hit that it was. And the popularity of the series and Walter White as the antihero led to the creation of Better Call Saul, which features quite possibly one of the most fleshed out underdogs and subsequent antiheros in television history, Jimmy McGill. 

Although viewers were initially introduced to the character of scumbag lawyer Saul Goodman in the second season of Breaking Bad, our official introduction to Jimmy McGill occurred within the pilot of Better Call Saul, who was, in essence, Saul Goodman before he lost his soul. When we were introduced to Jimmy, he was a low-rent lawyer who worked out of the backroom of a nail salon. Jimmy was also incredibly loyal to his maverick lawyer brother, Chuck McGill, who seemingly went through a mental breakdown which left him suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, a mental disorder which is later proven to be all in Chuck’s head. Jimmy also has an initially platonic relationship with Kim Wexler, an associate at HHM, a law firm owned in part by Chuck. The relationship between Jimmy and Kim later leads to romantic inclinations between the two before they eventually tied the knot.  

Jimmy’s progression as an antihero is a slow burn. He does take bribes, and does manipulate as a means to further his own status as a lawyer, but for the first couple seasons, he doesn’t do anything that is entirely beyond redemption. That is, until the rivalry with his brother Chuck escalates toward the end of season three when Jimmy visits his insurance provider in an attempt to get a refund for his malpractice insurance. After being notified that he wouldn’t receive a refund and would ultimately face increased rates when his licence was reinstated, Jimmy broke down before bringing up how Chuck had a meltdown in court due to his mental illness. This event in turn led the insurance provider to cut off Chuck’s insurance which later led to his suicide. With this, Jimmy started pulling away from any association with the name McGill, possibly out of guilt for feeling responsible for his brother's death, until he legally changes his name to Saul Goodman when his license to practice law is reinstated.  

As Saul, Jimmy allowed himself to exist within an alter ego of his own creation, which exempted him from feeling guilt for the awful things he did and the horrendous clients he defended in court, including the charming, yet sociopathic Lalo Salamanca (who destroyed nearly any fragment left of Jimmy McGill following the execution of Howard Hamlin) as well as providing legal guidance to Walter White throughout Breaking Bad. 

Jimmy McGill never existed as an antihero within either series, so to speak. It wasn’t until Jimmy became Saul Goodman, and later Gene Takovic after Jimmy went on the run following the death of Walter White, that he fell into the role of antihero. Jimmy also proved to be an exceptional underdog within his own series with very limited friendships or meaningful relationships to speak of. The two key relationships, following Chuck’s betrayal, was his unconditional friendship with Marco, which ended following his friend's heart attack during one of their cons, as well as his friendship, and later his marriage, to Kim; the love of his life.  

However, Better Call Saul pulled off an incredible feat which differed completely from the evolution of Walter White into Heisenberg. And this occurred through Jimmy starting off as a flawed, yet redeemable protagonist, who strayed from the righteous path to become the worst version of himself as Saul Goodman, began to see the errors of his ways while on the run as Gene Takovic when he was prepared to kill an elderly woman, Marion, when she threatened to expose him to the police. Jimmy, through the fear of his ex-wife being held solely responsible for Howard Hamlin’s untimely end as his widowed wife Cheryl threatened to take her to civil court following Kim’s confession, allowed himself to shift back into the role of the flawed protagonist, Jimmy McGill, after he confessed to all of his illegal activities and associations in court. This became the best possible end to the character of Jimmy McGill, allowing him to go full circle in a rare conclusion which felt both bittersweet and earned.  

In closing, the allure of the antihero and why we decide to stick around for their journey, through television and even film, exists through a relatability and how we can draw comparison from their fictionalized worlds with our own. With Tony Soprano, it was a glimpse into a world of crime most of us would never see otherwise. With Walter White, it was an associated level of understanding as to why he decided to do the horrible things that he did. And with Jimmy McGill, it was a realization that guilt can be transformative in allowing a portion of those around us to become something unrecognizable from their previous self. Which in Jimmy’s case, through his love for Kim, became a reason to set himself free and become who he was all along; a man capable of change and redemption. Even if that meant self-sacrifice in the name of something as arbitrary as love.  


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