The Ideology of the Anti-Hero

I like to flatter myself that I have an evolved relationship with the television I watch, as an informed, discerning connoisseur of media. This article at Salon provided a welcome dose of humility and a reality check.

Dramatic television may, in fact, be better than it’s ever been – or at least the best of it is. And it makes sense to be grateful that so much talent has flowed into the TV industry, given that there’s not much sustenance to be found in mainstream moviemaking these days.

However, just because TV is good doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you – and there is indeed always an ideology at work that bears examination, even in the best programming. Perhaps ideology is especially dangerous in high-quality, premium television because it’s the most compellingly sublimated into the drama and characters on the screen.

What I would include in the category of premium television, the work I see and hear discussed as the saviors of the medium, are Breaking Bad, Mad Men, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, and maybe a few other shows. Going back a few years, one could add The Sopranos.

So – what is the ideology behind these shows? Why are they so popular, what chord do they strike with the “sophisticated” television viewer (such as myself)?

To make a broad but I think accurate generalization, it strikes me that they’re all about Men and Power – specifically, men’s roles in Leadership, trading in the currency of Power.

Much discussed, with a lot of these shows, is the idea of the “anti-hero” – the morally compromised leader. Which indeed yields compelling television – for the leader the stakes are high, often life and death, and a character of dubious morality can make a range of choices which we, as audience members, can feel strongly about.

So we watch these shows and we’re placed in the position of getting to judge these powerful characters, while also growing invested in their lives. The medium of television is all about provoking empathy and identification – we watch because we get to spend time with Madison Avenue Ad Executives and Senators, we get to imagine what it would be like to be them.

What we don’t do, I think, is question their legitimacy. We can question their choices and their judgment, but we’re never provoked to wonder, “should Tony Soprano be in charge?” or “Should Don Draper be in charge?” Of course they should. They belong in these roles, they deserve the power they have.

Specifically on the axis of class – all of these characters have, along with power, a great deal of wealth, and their access to wealth never seems precarious – they may be killed, but they will never be poor. One might call the first season of Breaking Bad an exception to this, but though anxiety about wealth features in the series throughout (and in the Sopranos), cash is everpresent – tables piled high with bricks of cash, briefcases full of cash, sums exchanged in round tens of thousands or more. The rhetoric can be about fear of the loss of resources, but what we see are massive amounts of money and nice cars.

Watching season after season of these shows, we spend a lot of time in a realm of contested power, unquestioned wealth, and dubious morality – we sit outside of it looking in, we have our opinions about the choices but not the fundamental status of these characters, who are running things.

And then, I think, we transpose that to our world. What we don’t see change is who has the power and the money – these dynamics are basically set. Powerful characters are not brought low, except by death. We don’t contemplate, via television, downward mobility, or life after power – it doesn’t exist. When you are powerful, you will always be powerful, until you die.

One might argue that this is just how the Hero’s Journey works – by design, it ends in a happy place, or if it’s a tragedy, in death.  But it’s interesting to apply that template to dramatic series television, which doesn’t really end – characters have arcs during the season, and shows end after a number of seasons (often with the death of the protagonist) – but in the meantime, for five, six, eight seasons, all of the drama is about holding onto power and/or grabbing more. By going through this struggle with these characters, and rooting for them to hold onto and increase their power, I think we’re conditioned, on some level, to really accept that dynamic. Of course powerful men will fight tooth and nail to consolidate their power. It’s because they love their families so much!

Meanwhile, downward mobility is a reality for many of us in the world today, and nobody is happy in the slightest about the decisions that people in power are making. However, we continually cut them slack – we are aloud to have opinions and judgements, to complain loudly about their choices, even to be SHOCKED by their immorality – but we don’t really contemplate the possible loss of power, the idea that it can or should be taken away. The system that is in place for the maintenance of power is not up for debate.

It’s interesting to me that the success of these popular shows is happening in the context of the ongoing decline of moviemaking itself in Hollywood – especially the decline of the singular film, with beginning and end, in favor of the ongoing franchise.

Even if a standard contemporary Hero’s Journey-based narrative film (as discussed in previous posts) generally refuses to contemplate the Death of the Hero, the film itself, at least, ends – death, or ending, happens on a meta-level, whether or not we get there dramatically. But with endless series of super-hero movies and season after season of anti-hero shows, we seem further than ever, culturally, from a willingness to contemplate the reality of death – we would prefer, it seems, for everything to go on and on and on.

Which works great. Until, it doesn’t.

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