There is perhaps no more popular character in modern television (and to a certain extent, the movies) than the Sociopath.
Going back at least as far as The Sopranos, but probably much further, writers and showrunners figured out that a charismatic, successful sociopath is a great character to build a show around – perhaps because they’re willing to make questionable decisions that move things forward, they are willing to Act, providing opportunities for the characters around them to continually react to the new situations that arise.
Prominent and obvious examples include Dexter and Hannibal – both literally serial killers – along with Walter White (of Breaking Bad), Francis Underwood (of House of Cards) and Don Draper (of Mad Men), who doesn’t kill people but whose success seems to rely upon his willingness to lie to everyone around him about his history and his life choices. And the majority of the significant characters in Game of Thrones and True Detective, for that matter, whichever side of the light/dark equation they happen to fall upon.
Why does this archetype hold so much appeal, to both creators of these shows and to their audiences? I think regardless of their eventual fate, these men (almost always men) have characteristics that the contemporary western audience identifies with, and aspires to emulate.
They are successful, they are important and good at what they do, and their struggle is not around what to do or how, but on whether to share their inner life with those around them. In other words, Don Draper isn’t trying to decide whether to cheat on his wife or quit his job, but whether to reveal these actions to the people with whom he is (supposedly) close.
Likewise the major struggle in Walter White’s life is not whether to make meth or not, but on his family finding out about it. Same with Dexter and killing, and with Tony Soprano and killing.
“What if my family and friends find out the truth about me?” Is the central preoccupation of most of these shows.
And, rather than present this as a matter for fear and shame, it is more often approached as a source of anguish – these characters are compelled to do these things, to commit these extreme acts, and doomed to perpetually try to manage the aftermath – the information and the unforeseen consequences that result from their actions.
It’s easy for the viewer to dismiss the identification with these characters: “of course I would never ________!” (kill, torture, deal drugs, etc.) but internally speaking, having unacceptable thoughts and desires is pretty much universal. Though we may not literally kill, we certainly have thoughts about killing, “The Return of the Repressed” was Freud’s term for this.
In our innermost thoughts, we imagine these unacceptable things – and movies and television provide a convenient and glossy screen upon which the id is projected, giving us an outer reference for these imaginings. On TV these unspeakable things are happening out there in a fictional universe for our observation and judgement.
Since the beginning of movies, the criminal usually faces the harsh judgment of the collective cultural superego in the end – Scarface and Public Enemy #1 die in a hail of gunfire, the protagonists of Breaking Bad and the Sopranos meet their grim fate in the final episodes (presumably, at least – this is exactly why people were so upset by the last episode of the Sopranos, the lack of explicit comeuppance).
But in the meantime, for however many seasons these shows persist and their protagonists’ transgressions go unpunished, they provide a sort of permission and alibi for our collective id – these things keep happening, in my life or (most likely) in my head, I’m concerned that that makes me a bad person, but as long as nobody finds out, I’m okay and I get to keep going.
We get to pretend, along with Dexter or Tony or whoever, that we’re not having unacceptable thoughts, that we’re upstanding patriarchs, fathers and husbands who deserve the love of our family and friends, while all the while harboring dark desires that our superegos judge to be unforgivable.
The one emotion that never seems to be expressed in these shows, by these immensely talented actors, is real fear. They certainly get angry, they occasionally shed a tear or have a good day (though their smiles often feel forced) – and they may spend the vast majority of their energy and screen time keeping people from finding out the Truth – but we never really see Don Draper or Walter White break a sweat. They may have to work fast to cover their tracks or bluster their way through a close call, but the crushing fear of having their secrets revealed is mostly held at arm’s length.
I think that this is the primary appeal of the sociopath fantasy that we indulge in when we watch these characters. We see them faking it most of the time, which we can relate to, we see them trapped in untenable positions between their destructive urges and their meaningful relationships, and we see them walk that tightrope and thread that needle episode after episode.
We see them struggle mightily and bear their burdens successfully, and the only difference between them and us is that they seem to do it without fear. That’s where the on-screen sociopath is blank, in the realm of the quite realistic possibility that everything will fall apart and come crashing down around him. The character is protected from this reality by the actor, the director, the crew, the audience. We hold him up because we all want the show to keep going, so we’re drawn into his conspiracy, complicit in his crimes, rooting (on some level) for his success.
That’s what the tragically misguided and messed up real-life shooting rampage protagonists are trying to emulate, I think. They see the characters on tv and in their video games commit these atrocities with a notable lack of fear, and they look around at their own fear-riddled daily lives, and they think that if they just go one step further they can cross over into the realm of the television / movie sociopath, who seems immune to those feelings, at least on screen. Who has a whole team, and even the whole culture on some level, rooting for him.
And perversely, they’re not wrong at all. The same narrative seems to play out every time, as the teen shooter assumes the role of Sociopath Protagonist for our media culture, for a few days or a few weeks. They get what they’re looking for as the media steps into the role of film crew, making them the center of the story, speculating about their backstory and motivations, and keeping it going for as long as possible – as many days, episodes, seasons, as the public will watch.
The very real loneliness, pain, fear, and shame of real daily life, before and/or after the violent outbursts, don’t usually translate into the narrative version of the Sociopath Archetype. Which is the very source of its appeal – and the most dangerous aspect of this particular mythology as well.