Sunday, March 2, 2014

Our Love Affair With Darkness

Michael S. Russo
Molloy College

Ten years ago if you asked me if I watched TV, the answer would have been a contemptuous, “Are you kidding?” Television in the late 1990s and early 2000s was what it had pretty much always been: a wasteland of vacuous entertainment, aimed primarily at the lowbrow tastes of cognitively-challenged Americans. Actually, television had gotten even worse by the early 2000s than it had been in the past, with an endless parade of inane reality shows—remember “Jersey Shore” and “The Real Housewives”?—that served to do little more than make viewers feel morally superior to the crass and callous individuals whose train-wrecked lives they were watching unfold on their TV sets. Men and women with any degree of taste and sensitivity ignored television entirely and turned to film or fiction if they wanted any kind of intellectually stimulating entertainment.

But I have a confession to make: I’ve becoming addicted to television again, for the first time perhaps since I was a high school student. Now, I’m not talking about watching shows on network TV, which is still filled with banal drivel (ever see “Two and a Half Men” or “How I Met Your Mother?”). No, what I’m talking about is the veritable renaissance that is occurring on cable TV—what has rightly been referred to as a new golden age of television, one that, in my estimation at least, may actually surpass those two other “golden ages” that occurred in the early 1950s and early 1970s. In fact, Cable networks like HBO, Showtime, and AMC and the Internet giant, Netflix, are producing series that are infinitely richer and more emotionally engrossing than anything that has ever been produced for television in the past.

There are far too many great programs now on cable TV for me to talk about all of them. Instead, I’ll focus on three in particular that millions of Americans like myself just can’t seem to get enough of: “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” and “House of Cards.” What these series have in common is that they rely on complex story arcs that span over multiple seasons, focus on complicated, morally compromised characters who evolve as these series progress, and have an almost philosophical preoccupation with exploring the meaning of our human condition.

But there’s something even more important that they all have in common: these series all have at their centers main characters who gleefully embrace lifestyles that can only be described as morally reprehensible and even evil. Walter White (“Breaking Bad”), Don Draper (“Mad Men”), and Frank Underwood (“House of Cards”) are men driven by pure egoistic self-absorption, who don’t give a damn about other people’s feelings or needs, and who will do just about anything they need to (lie, cheat, break the law, and at times kill innocents) to get what they want (sex, money, prestige, and power).

None of these characters would exist, of course, if David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” hadn’t first demonstrated that audiences could come to care about—even love—a completely immoral central character, provided that character was endowed with realistic motivations and feelings that the audience could relate to. Tony Soprano was not just a vicious mobster—although he certainly could be extremely nasty at times. He was a man who was forced to live up to the legacy of his father, had to care for difficult family members, and had his own web of neuroses and insecurities with which to contend. In short, Tony was just like you and me, although his job frequently compelled him to kill people who got in his way. 

Cast of the Sopranos (1999-2007)
But what is it that we love so much about characters like these who, by all counts, would be considered sociopaths were we to encounter them in the real world? Besides being somehow relatable, all of these characters have one other thing in common: they’ve made the voluntary choice to pursue their own selfish wants, needs, and interests at all costs. Don Draper may have an attractive, desirable wife, but that certainly doesn’t stop him from having numerous sexual relationships with other women. When his daughter catches him in flagrante delicto with a neighbor’s wife, it doesn’t cause him even a moment of introspection or generate any desire at all within him to change his ways. He sleeps around with women—single or married—because he enjoys it and because he can….And morality simply does not enter into the equation.

Walter White, on the other hand, seems to be driven at first by the quite understandable desire to care for his family after he is diagnosed with lung cancer, but this, as we all well know, is just a façade. In a telling scene that occurs towards the end of the series’ run, White meets with his wife, Skylar, one last time in order to provide an explanation for the actions he took that destroyed their family:

     Skyler: If you tell me one more time that you did this for the family...
     Walt: I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was, really... I was alive.

Manufacturing and distributing drugs, killing off the opposition, even manipulating those he supposedly cares about—Walter does all these things not out of necessity, but because he loves it, because being a drug kingpin gives him the kind of cool rush and inner satisfaction that nothing else in life can. 

Breaking Bad's Walter White

What we’re talking about here is Nietzsche’s will to power taken to its logical extreme. In a world in which the decks are stacked against the ordinary individual, where power, money and sex provide the ultimate meaning in life, where God is dead, and morality is a cruel hoax, the smart person lives completely for himself and does whatever he has to to ensure that his own emotional and physical needs are met. Since other human beings are merely pawns to be used in this process, they are completely expendable. Even an innocent child killed during the commission of a crime in “Breaking Bad” becomes little more than collateral damage in Walter White’s never-ending quest for—dare I say it?—self-realization. 

Without a doubt the character that best embodies this unabashed, unrestricted will to power is “House of Cards” Frank Underwood. Completely understanding the logic of existence in a morality-free universe, Frank has managed to eradicate from his personality any vestiges of humanity and compassion that might make him weak or vulnerable. There is simply nothing that Underwood won’t do to achieve his goal of becoming the most powerful man in the world, and this includes murder if necessary. In Frank Underwood’s universe everyone exists to be used and the ability to effectively manipulate others becomes the highest virtue of all.   

House of Cards' Frank and Claire Underwood

So again why do audiences love these completely despicable, utterly ruthless characters so much? The answer, I believe, has to do with the unique times in which we live. In the first decade of the 21st century, the economic crisis that has continued unabated (at least for the bottom 99%) has made ordinary Americans feel like helpless victims in a cruel and uncaring world and totally impotent to effect any positive changes in their own lives. Say what you want about Walter White, Don Draper, and Frank Underwood, but they are certainly not victims and they definitely are not impotent. I think that what we love so much about these characters is that in a world in which most people are inert whiners and complainers, these men DO SOMETHING. They take charge of their own destinies and are willing to do anything and everything necessary to ensure that they will never be part of the anonymous herd.

Because they act while most human beings remain passive and because they are willing to take risks to master their fates, we are willing to forgive just about anything these characters do, no matter how despicable it might seem. Is it any coincidence that each of these men came from humble origins and had to overcome tremendous odds to achieve what they did? Subconsciously, I think that viewers relate to these anti-heroes because, compared to an economic elite (the top 1%) that caused the entire American economy to collapse and which has actually benefited financially from that collapse, the actions of men like Walter White, Don Draper, and Frank Underwood almost seem reasonable. It’s like one of our own getting back at “the system,” and that, I think, is what makes us root for them. 

By comparison, consider the female characters in each of these shows and how unpopular they are with audiences. Skylar White and Betty Draper—like Carmella Soprano before them—are viewed by audiences as passive but also morally complicit in their husband’s immoral activities. None of these women intentionally choose the life of evil; they simply accept the social and economic benefits that accrue to themselves because of the more deliberative choices that their husbands make. They may bitch and moan, but they don’t DO anything. 

In this sense, Claire Underwood fits somewhat outside the mold of the poor, beleaguered anti-hero’s wife. She’s definitively Lady MacBeth to Frank’s MacBeth. Like Lady MacBeth, Claire is an active partner in her husband’s political machinations, but, like Lady MacBeth as well, there seems to be a limit to how far her conscience might enable her to go (Can you imagine Frank shedding tears after destroying someone who stood in his way?). Since the show is still in its infancy, it remains to be seen if Claire Underwood will prove more popular in the long run than her female counterparts. 

Television viewing at its best is a cathartic experience. In the 1950s and 60s we wanted television to soothe us. We wanted to feel like the world was an intelligible place, that our social and political leaders had our best interests at heart, and that hard work and dedication could lead to upward social mobility. Today we know that none of this is true and we question whether anything we do in life—whether individually or collectively—will make any difference at all. Apparently, we need men like Walter White, Don Draper, and Frank Underwood to convince us that, despite appearances to the contrary, the individual still matters and the deliberative choices a person makes can actually produce beneficial results. 

In the end, I would argue, it’s not the darkness per se of these characters that we love, but their willingness to act on the great stage of life…whatever the consequences. That’s what separates them from the rest of us, and that’s the source of our unquenchable fascination with them. 


  1. Overall, a valid assessment (to some degree) about the popularity of these characters and the shows they come from. I say "to some degree" in regards to another facet: That todays audiences are more cynical and more informed (or have access to more information, instantly) coinciding with a void of cinematic intelligence, paving the way for these characters to flourish. I'm all for entertainment (and I would say "How I Met your Mother" is actually quite intelligent and entertaining-- not since Seinfeld has so many plot-threads been introduced and interacted upon, even years later, as the series wraps up, so I have to disagree with you there, Michael) but with sky-rocketing ticket prices, and the general poor behavior of the movie-going public, traveling to the cinema, is an exhausting, often disappointing experience. What these TV shows offer is quality entertainment, uncompromising value, that movie studios are afraid to embrace, in light of insane budget requirements. Basically, and lets cut to the chase, here: Quality, unpredictability, the air of mystery and danger-- are incentives for the audience to be compelled, intrigued, and hooked on these shows. Variety cannot be ignored. Sometimes in our complicated lives-- we need to make the choice of what we see. "Easy to understand", simplistic shows, such as the average sitcom, may be what the doctor ordered-- a way to unwind in a ritualistic and comforting way. Or-- a need to escape into a world of dangerous situations, led by powerful characters, that get our blood flowing. Cathertic, and buzz-worthy. And nobody blocking your view or chatting on a cell phone! Storytelling in all it's forms is a fundamental way of communicating. Entertainment adds the intrigue factor. It hooks us-- make us question things, or lets us escape from ourselves. For some it may come down to relatable factors- "What would I do in this situation?" I agree with your above points, but sometimes a simplicity factor should be added-- bad people are interesting. They break the rules most adhere to. It's a way to enjoy a being a rebel, without actually hurting anyone. I would lay odds, most people would not think to even question in depth why they like these characters-- they just do, and deep analysis would only ruin the experience for them. Mammals are linked to a social structure. A strong leader was the key to survival for our ancestors. It's this connection, deep in our genetic code, that still thrives to this day-- and may offer the strongest reason why we love these characters in particular. They will find a way for us all to survive a dangerous world.

  2. Loving truly villainous characters who are completely ego-driven, utterly manipulative, and without the pang of conscience is hardly a new thing. We have loved villains isomorphic to the Walter Whites, the Frank Underwoods, the Dan Drapers, and even Toni Sopranos mentioned above from the dawn of story-telling.

    In fact, we love a perfectly horrid bad guy every bit as much as we love a wonderful paladin exemplar of heroism. When we speak of the bad guy, we revel in the bad behavior -- the really, really bad stuff that he does and that he says -- with as much gusto as we have when we speak of the good guy.
    Perhaps gusto, whether in expressing our amazement of the bad or our appreciation of the good, is expressing the same thing, at base: In the case of the good, our gusto at praising heroes might come from not only our delight in what the human being is capable of doing but also in our ability to wish we were more heroic, ourselves. By the same token, our gusto in speaking of the villain is also an expression of, if not delight, exactly, then awe in the human capacity to do the unthinkable... well, maybe the not all that unthinkable, eh? says a little voice in our heads that we bring out when we are in the company of fictional or historicized anti-heroes.

    It's the roller-coaster principle: We ride roller-coasters, the psychologists might say, because we can feel as though we are putting ourselves into danger without actually doing so -- we cheat death, and it makes us feel good. We love the heroes because we can feel part of the heroic activity and can wish we were as heroic, and perhaps even dream, one day, of being heroes, ourselves.

    We love villains because they allow us to take part, vicariously, in horrible, self-centered activities without any actual danger or damage to ourselves. The villain allows us to use him as a completely safe vessel for any horrible or vindictive, or just downright evil thoughts we might fantasize about -- the villain acts, and we are right there, saying YES! and eating it up. But then, although we might feel guilt about what evil nonsense our mind is going through, we are ultimately removed from any of the inevitable bad stuff that happens to our favorite villains at the end of the show.

    It is possible that we love the villain even more than we love the hero. Why? Because the villain gives us a double-bang for our buck. While the hero allows us to feel good about ourselves and about humanity in general, the bad guy allows us to experience the full range of human sentiments -- we can indulge in our own evil thoughts and then purge ourselves when the villain gets it, and THEN not only breathe a sigh of relief that we are not ourselves villains but, rather, damn' fine upstanding citizens, morally, ethically, and in every other way. After all, though we might all love the villain, and though we might all at some point revel in the apparently powerful bad stuff he does, our wanting to be the bad guy is as short lived as our realization of the bad guy's fate is quick: bad guys have bad stuff happen to them, in the end.

    We don't want to be the bad guy, but we love the way the bad guy makes us feel when he's doing things we wish we could do. Before he gets his come-uppance, that is.

  3. I think that we're fascinated by evil because there is a part of every human being that is filled with darkness. We try to repress it or cover it up, but it's still always there just waiting for the opportunity to come out. Given the opportunity, most human beings could turn quite easily to the dark side.

  4. I agree with you about how society tends to favor these types of characters because of their gutsy personality and their willingness to do just about anything to get ahead. I think that to some degree we wish we could do that to benefit our own lives. I also agree with you that for so long T.V programs have been nothing but nonsense. Even though some of us enjoy these shows, I believe that the shows that are on now such as breaking bad, house of cards, and one that I love, Dexter are actually better to watch because of the focus it brings to what some people are actually willing to do. These shows portray the darkness that is hidden in so many people but the difference is, is that these characters bring this darkness to life and makes something "good" about it. - Bridget Brosnan

  5. This is Cogan-san reacting, I wrote a long and detailed response and it did not post. As the blog has made me sad, you get a shorter version.
    1. bravo, good point and good connection, almost no one makes that connection with the 1% in terms of this kind of programming
    2. This is indeed,a new golden age, albeit, mostly on cable.
    3. We also have had the white hat/black hat archetype going back a long time in most cultures. I think looking at mythology, trickster figures like Loki, or the coyote in Native American mythology are very attractive. We can root safely for the bad guy w/o going in that direction ourselves.
    4. but as David Chase tried to (rather bluntly) point out at the end of the Sopranos, we were not supposed to root for Tony, and the fault lie in ourselves, instead of our stars.
    5. then again, having met some REAL connected people, they did seem obsessed with the iconography of mediated mob life. So you made me think more, and bravo for that!
    On to the next post.