There are three things that I can look forward to on Thursday’s: not having to work, listening to The Weeknd’s Thursday and release of the latest Still Processing podcast. Featuring the smart and witty pairing of Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, I look forward to any topic they set their hearts to discussing. Whether it’s pop culture, politics or Prince, I’m fully in on whatever they want to explore. I’ve been listening to the pod since it’s inception because I was a fan of Wesley’s previous podcast Do You Like Prince Movies? and his writing on the legendary but sadly defunct website Grantland. Because of his thoughtfulness and fun spirit since those days, anything that he writes, I’m down to read and anywhere he speaks, I’m down to listen. Before the podcast, I wasn’t familiar with Jenna unfortunately. But, having listened since September 2016, I know that she is very intelligent, warm and humerous person. Together, they are like balls of sunshine and I love them.
Today (5/18), I was listening to a new episode featuring New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum to discuss how we view political television post-Trump election. An interesting portion of the episode that grabbed me was when Nussbaum discussed the idea that America has fallen in love with the anti-hero and how that’s not a good thing:
We’re living through this era where the last 15 years have been marked by all of these major dramas that have these charming jerks who are venal pigs, who are alcoholics, who are bullies but are enormously charismatic… From The Sopranos onward, you have these masculinity masterpieces about the anti-hero.
Nussbaum goes on to discuss how the different ways in which hit AMC show Breaking Bad and über popular character Walter White were interpreted; either you see the show as dealing with evil and selfishness or how a man outsmarted everyone and became the biggest Meth dealer in New Mexico. During the conversation, Nussbaum does hint to the moral ambiguity that anti-heroes can pose and how Trump is able to leverage his supporters to see him as one, but I think society may have the wrong idea of what exactly an anti-hero is (which she also hints to as well). (You can listen to he full episode here.)
For the true anti-hero, they are motivated to do the right thing even when being inherently flawed and unpolished. They know what the right thing to do is even if they are hesitant to do it. With the anti-villain, however, the opposite is true: they are motivated to do wrong and/or evil things even when they appear to be on the side of right. The line between the anti-hero and anti-villain can be a bit difficult to spot, especially if biases are at play. Because that portion of their conversation on Still Processing was about the anti-hero in television, I wanted to look at some of the most popular TV characters of recent years to truly see what side of the line they fall on.
James “Jimmy” McNulty
America’s favorite homicide detective on the greatest television show ever in the history of planet Earth. Baltimore’s finest. Real, natural po-lice. For all the reasons as to why The Wire is a great show, the most important reason is because it offers unadulterated choice. The audience decides who is the good guy, who to cheer for and who should be taken down all on their own. All the sinners can have an opportunity to repent and any/every angel has dirty wings; Jimmy McNulty is no exception. If you believe that the cops are the good guys on The Wire, Jimmy is the smartest of them all but that can only go so far, ¿no? He is as equally intelligent as he is self-destructive; he’s smart enough to take down the Barksdale crew but dumb enough to sleep with prostitutes while on the job as an undercover looking to bust an escort ring. McNulty is a drunk, an adulterer and he defrauded the Baltimore Police Department for God knows how much money. But, he attempts (failed, then attempts again) sobriety, he finally settles down with a good woman and he funneled the fraud money to other police officers to get homicide cases solved.
Jimmy is flawed overall, but he uses his powers for, mostly, good. And his bromance with The Bunk makes my heart melt.
While McNulty was who the show was originally based around, Omar Little quickly became an instant favorite amongst viewers. On the surface, you’d think he’s the hood version of Robin Hood, right? I would actually argue against this. We love Omar because he didn’t take shit from any drug crew and he carried a level of moral uprightness (Man’s got to have a code!) that made him different than the rest of the pushers and hoppers. In his own words, he robs drug dealers and he never turned no gun on no civilian. This is correct but there’s more to Mr. Little that meets the eye. He’s charming in a menacing way; he’s a big negro with a big gun that’s not afraid to pull it on anyone at a moment’s notice but what exactly makes him a hero? Omar Little committed hundreds of counts of armed robbery, committed murder and lied on the witness stand to send a person to jail for a crime he did not commit. People say that Omar is the black Robin Hood but he never gave away the drug money he stole. And when he wanted revenge, he took it out in the most violent ways possible.
Omar’s cavalier attitude toward drug dealers is admirable and makes for great television but he’s done a lot of wrong and not necessarily for the right reasons. Only robbing dealers while sparing civilians isn’t enough to make one a hero. Courageous and respectable? Yes. Heroic? No.
Is he a draft dodging, charlatan or the world’s greatest advertiser? Did he really love love Peggy? He really liked those terrible old fashion cocktails? Don was a complete man of mystery and every season it seemed like his web of lies would completely unravel and he would be exposed for the fraud that he is. Now, when I call him a fraud, I’m only speaking about the name that we acquired while escaping the Army. Everything about him (his branding genius, his sexiness, his love for Peggy, etc.) was all him.
The only real reason to consider him anti-anything is because he did use another man’s death to escape the Army. Other than that, Don never used his suaveness for evil or manipulation. He used his power to establish Sterling Cooper as a powerhouse advertising firm and used his power to push Peggy (the woman he truly loved) to find her greatness.
Queen King Cersei Lannister
Holy shit, Cersei had me SHOOK at the end of Season 6 of Game of Thrones and for good reason. Throughout the entirety of GoT, I’ve spent almost every minute hating the Lannister’s (sans Tyrion), especially Cersei. She’s spent her time either plotting to kill her husband, plotting to kill her brother or just… plotting. My hatred for Cersei lasted all the way until Season 6, when she is captured by the High Sparrow and his zealots. I went from wanting to see someone from the Starks family slit her throat to hoping she would escape. Then, “The Winds of Winter” episode happened and King Cersei claimed her crown in the most awesome way possible. I’ve never been so impressed by fictional mass murder in my entire life. Everyone she hated got blown out of the frame in one stroke. So, for this person who was a schemer, and a killer, and blood thirsty, are they an anti-hero or villain?
Verdict: Anti-villain, but…
If she were a man, the public would view her as an anti-hero. Cersi is one of the show’s smartest characters, ultra fierce and literally does everything to protect her family; she’s basically the Game of Thrones version of Walter White minus the incest. If she were born a man, the she would’ve held the Iron Throne since Season 1. Now, even with that being said, she’s schemed the murder of people numerous times, fell in love with gaining power by any means and is absolutely ruthless. She shares everything in common with the next two characters that I’ll describe but not nearly the same popularity.
Walter White & Tony Soprano
Serious question, why did people root for Tony Soprano? I’ve watched The Sopranos in it’s entirety multiple times but I still do not see why America loved this guy so much. Now, I understand why the show itself is beloved but not it’s driving force. James Gandolfini was masterful as the New Jersey mobster and he married the role perfectly. This is very similar to how we see Bryan Cranston and Heisenberg; the actor and the character feel inseparable. The only difference between between Soprano and White is that we know from the very beginning that Tony loves power, while Walter masquerades his true need for control. When facing certain death, Walter White truly realizes how out of control his life is. Then, he develops a skill (cooking meth) that gives him maximum control of his life and his environment, bystander be damned. Going back to the original point that Emily Nussbaum makes, it’s easy for society to fall in love with these characters; these are tough, charming white men that yield power in destructive ways and there’s no one that can outsmart them. But these men have no true humanity or any real redeeming qualities about themselves: Tony Soprano is sociopath and, from the beginning of the show until it’s abrupt end, he makes no strides in wanting to deal with his issues, and Walter White manufactured Methamphetamine because he faced death and a midlife crisis. They killed people, and killed people, and killed people some more. And America fawned.
Yes, this fool is a television character. He says nothing worth merit but he wields the power of the presidency like a toddler that’s found his daddy’s pistol. But his supporters back him for many of the same reasons why these popular anti-villains are beloved: they hold ultimate, destructive power in the face of their opposition and no one seems able to stop them. Trump supporters view him as a hero (maybe because he’s the reigning heavyweight champion of whiteness?) in same way Soprano & White was viewed and that’s a very dangerous thing.