By Devin Mainville
There was a time, not so long ago, when the roles of television characters were clearly defined. There were the good guys, there were the bad guys and never were these two types confused. From the earliest days of storytelling, characters have existed and it takes a while to break those traditional molds. Television has always followed in its older sister’s, the movies, footsteps, so in the early days we had the white clad cowboys fighting the outlaws in black and the caped superheroes defending justice against their masked villains and everyone accepted that that’s the way life was. Children had someone to look up and everyone had something to aspire to be, yet a look at the characters populating television today shows how far we have come from that innocent ideal.
From vicious doctors to meth dealing teachers, today’s protagonists offer up a much darker view of humanity. It also introduces the idea of the antihero into the world of television. Looking at the way good deeds and heroism is applauded in the reality of our society, it would seem logical that antiheroes would offend the average TV viewer, yet the success of shows like Mad Men, The Sopranos, and Dexter exhibit society’s acceptance of the new antihero. The stories these antiheroes weave differ from those of the traditional heroes in TV history, yet they have the same resonance and truth to keep viewers tuning in each week.
The Theory of Story
The most important thing is story-telling. It’s as singular and old fashioned as that.
– David Soul
From the time that people could speak, they have been telling stories. From the cave walls in Europe to the amphitheaters of ancient Greece, these tales are the backbone of modern society. Through the centuries critics have had to analyze these tales, narrative theory has been developed. Simply, narrative theory is the theory of story. This theory obviously applies to television, as it is an art form created to tell visual stories. The various narrative theories that have been created over the years delve deeper into the mechanisms within the story, from the plot structure to intertextuality to the characters themselves (O’Donnell 69-94).
The first narrative theorist was Aristotle. For Aristotle, plot was the most important aspect of a narrative. “He said that plot is the unified arrangement of the incidents, which must have a beginning, middle, and end” (O’Donnell 74). He also put an importance on the main characters of a given narrative, feeling that events that don’t directly impact the main storyline should not be included within the plot. “Aristotle’s guidelines are familiar to viewers of television in the 21st century. Television scripts must present the conflict in the first few minutes of the first act along with the hero, antagonist, and other essential characters related to the problem. The successive act(s) present complications and other incidents, and the final act presents a solution to the problem” (O’Donnell 74). Basically, to be a plot there has to be a beginning, a middle and an end. Television has modified this model by adding the need for complications and problems and that is narrative theory in a nutshell.
While plot in an important aspect of the modern narrative, any TV fan will tell you that the characters within that plot hold just as much significance. While the supplementary characters usually fall into stereotypical social role, such as mean girls, nerds, etc, (O’Donnell 80), the major characters in the narrative usually occupy an archetype. Archetypes range from hero to villain and temptress to trickster; they are classical characters, created in the earliest forms of storytelling (O’Donnell 83).
These basic archetypes have been expanded upon as narrative and character development becomes more complex. Within the category of the hero archetype there have been additions to what is considered a hero. Recently television has been inundated with a relatively new hero type; the anti-hero. First gaining notoriety during the Romantic Era in the late 18th century, the antihero is defined by following his own wants and needs, without heed for the desires of those around him (Furst 54). Furst quotes Italian author Foscolo, claiming the idea is fully voiced “…when his Jacopo Ortis writes… ‘I never know what you sophisticates call the man who too promptly obeys the dictates of his heart; for he certainly is not a hero; but is he any the less for that?’” (Furst 54). Obviously, in the eyes of the viewers, he is not.
The Duality of Character
“No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.”
– Nathanial Hawthorne
As antiheroes become more common features of the small screen, certain similarities of character become apparent. Just as with any popular archetype, the more they are used the more defined the character becomes. The antihero archetype is still relatively new, so the characters that are paving the way are setting the standards for what to expect from the villainous protagonist. The characters from Mad Men, The Sopranos, and Dexter range from an ad executive in the 60s to a mob boss in Jersey and all the way to a man of law in Miami. Alone, these men would appear quite different, and yet they all share innate qualities that make them similar archetypes.
While Don, Tony, and Dexter have unusual hobbies, they all limit themselves within codes of their own making. Don and Dexter have composed codes to protect themselves and Tony’s code protects his family.
Tony Soprano clearly has no regard for official laws, yet he governs himself with his own laws. “Tony lives by moral code. True, his moral compass does not lead him in the direction of society’s laws, but in his world, loyalty is rewarded, and disloyalty is punished. “Those who get whacked deserve it because they have betrayed him. Tony does not take sadistic pleasure in the suffering of others. He is more interested in maintaining order and discipline through a combination of respect and fear. He sees random violence as a reflection of weakness and poor judgment” (Gabbard 32).
This code is passed down to Tony, along with his gangster empire, from his deceased father, Johnny Boy. In a flashback, Tony watches his father remove the pinky of a late payer with a meat cleaver. His father then explains to him the “Soprano moral code”. He explains to young Tony that the man owed him money and was avoiding him, so “…What was I supposed to do? That’s my livelihood. That’s how I put food on the table. You should never gamble, Anthony. Let this be a lesson to you. A man honors his debts” (Gabbard 116). Tony takes this lesson of loyalty and lives by it once he has taken over the family business.
Another antihero following the rules of his father is Dexter Morgan. Dexter has had serial killer tendencies since puberty, and as such his foster father, Harry, developed a code that would guide Dexter through his needs without getting him caught. This Code of Harry has helped Dexter to kill within the confines of the world he lives in. “Code of Harry states that Dexter would carefully prepare for the kill and have everything ready and in place. He must make sure that the “trash” he is about to take out was indeed guilty. He would have to research and gather concrete evidence against the victim. And the most important of rule of all, Dexter would not get caught” (Code of Harry).
Don Draper certainly didn’t have a father to impart such wisdom upon him; he created his moral code in an attempt to disguise his true identity. Much like Dexter has had to learn how to act and relate like the people who surround him, Don has spent so much time living a double life, he has had to learn to mimic the people around him in an attempt to fit in. Carveth and South suggest that, “Don’s understanding of family relationships seems to be based on a code of conduct that he follows as opposed to a genuine depth of feeling” (166).
With all these rules governing their lives, these men obviously cannot function in society in the way most people take for granted. In fact, each of these characters views themselves as observers rather than active members of society. Whether this self perception is what causes their deplorable acts or vice versa, it’s obvious that the archetype of an antihero cannot be the social butterfly.
For Dexter Morgan it is not an option to fit into society, yet he does the best job of appearing to fit, most likely because he has the most to lose if he does not. Thanks to the rules set forth by his foster father, Dexter is able to trick everyone into believing he is a social, likeable person. Yet, the strain of living this lie leaves Dexter feeling more alone and misunderstood. In the second episode of the first season he says, “I dream…I dream I’m floating on the surface of my own life…Watching it unfold. Observing it. I am the outsider looking in” (Phillips, Cuesta, “Crocodile”). He sees the ease with which normal people relate to each other and the fact that he physically cannot feel the same way leaves him a spectator to the lives of his friends and family.
For Tony, the divide in character comes from his need to separate his business self from his family self, yet when these two selves are so closely linked, it is a daunting task. Like many of Tony’s neurosis, this sense of seclusion stems from events in childhood. “Tony’s sense of himself as an outsider, as someone who is always in the role of onlooker, is powerfully reinforced by the flashbacks, all of which show him viewing events that he is not supposed to see…We can speculate that his emphasis on absolute loyalty, his Mob “family” and his need for belonging are all defensive strategies that help him undo that sense of isolation and exclusion from his childhood” (Gabbard 116-7). Therefore, the moral code of loyalty and family that Tony lives by is actually a mechanism to make himself feel a part of something, rather than the outsider he fears he may be.
Don Draper’s sense of seclusion comes from the lie he is forced to live every day. While fighting in the Korean War, the regiment that Don, then still Dick Whitman, was in was attacked and the real Don Draper was killed. To escape a life of poverty and neglect, Dick steals Don’s identity and makes a new life for himself. He feels alone by the stress of living a lie as well as realizing that even in a life he created for himself, he is not happy. He has made a career of re-creating happiness for others but fails in making it in his own life. Don’s pain from his childhood is evident in the rare moments he mentions his past. When pitching for the Polaroid wheel he says, “Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards… it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels – around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved. ” (Weiner “The Wheel”). All his life he has been looking for love, creating the life he thought would give it to him and still it is elusive. It is a hard cross to bear and it leaves him an outsider in a life of his own creation.
It is clear that these three men share a lot of characteristics, but what these traits add up to is what makes them the compelling characters that keep audiences returning each week. Yes, they are not the traditional heroes that people have come to expect in their television shows, yet each has something that keeps their fans from despising them the way they most likely would a “real” person with the exact qualities and behaviors.
From Dick to Don
We’re flawed, because we want so much more. We’re ruined, because we get these things, and wish for what we had.”
– Don Draper, “The Summer Man”
Don Draper is not a good man, in the conventional sense. He lies and cheats on a grand scale and shows little to no remorse for it. Obviously American society does not condone adultery, take one look at the slanderous coverage of famous philandering husbands splattered across the media and it is obvious that if Don were to pull these stunts in reality, his audience would not be so forgiving. Yet, each week as he lies and cheats some more, women and men alike, continue to tune in. I would argue that while Don certainly isn’t a role model, maybe he isn’t as bad as he seems.
Now, to determine the merits, or lack thereof, of Don Draper it seems we should take a look at his good qualities. Don displays reasonably good behavior, he consistently treats both minorities and women respectfully, which is rare in the time period he lives. He also seems to have an open mind towards the changing political attitudes. Throughout his relationship with free-thinking Midge( season 1) and even later on with the equally freethinking school teacher, Suzanne( season 3), and countless other trysts with women not afraid to speak their minds, he shows that he is willing to accept the changing cultural landscape. Yet, he may not be as open as he wishes he were. He spends many nights with these women, but he always returns to his picture perfect wife, Betty, a character without an opinion to express. When Betty grows tired of this charade and leaves him, he is thrown into a tailspin until he finds an equally simple girl to become the new Mrs. Draper. He wants to be progressive and kind, but he cannot follow through. In much the same way, he tries to stand up for what is right, for women, minorities, esc, but usually folds if it will directly hurt him. Don wants to be seen as the good guy, just as long as it doesn’t interfere with his bad boy ways.
Don Draper will be a good person, unless he’s too busy being a bad person. “His [Don’s] adultery interferes with many aspects of his life. When Betty has a car accident, Don isn’t there for her because…he was off having an afternoon delight with Midge (“Ladies Room,” episode 102). In addition, when his brother, Adam Whitman, wants to reopen a relationship with him, Don refuses because that would threaten the life he has built as Don Draper (“5G,”episode 105). These are just two examples of how his vices make it difficult for him to do the right thing. If he can’t always do the right thing, then it is not right to say that he has the virtue associated with those actions” (Carveth 158-9).
Don’s major objective is not getting caught in his many lies. “Don’s care in not doing anything that would easily get him caught suggests that he could be a ‘sensible knave’. David Hume (1711-1776) used the ‘sensible knave’ to refer to any individual who obeys the rules of justice as long as it is in his interest to do so and take advantage of opportunities where there is lax enforcement to do things that are unjust (Carveth 161).” Both of these faults exhibit a lack of regard towards the feelings of anyone other than himself. “Another name for the ‘sensible knave’ might be ‘sociopath’”(Carveth 162).
Don may be a sociopath, but what created this condition is what give his character depth and ultimately wins over the audience. Don is a beautiful, charming man, but “Don’s life is not nearly as charmed as others think. His objective success is tarnished by constant fear and guilt, which he self-medicates with women and drink. As a result, his marriage suffers; his children hardly see him; his coworkers know him more as myth than a man” (Carveth 172). The Don Draper presented to the Mad Men world is not the same man the audience sees. The audience sees a very sad, troubled man, so when Don acts out, he can easily be forgiven or at the very least, understood. At this point, Don has created these problems and there is little that can be undone, he can only make the best out of it. “It’s true that Don could be a much better person, but what most of us like and admire about him is that he does a lot better than many other people would do in his situation” (Carveth 166).
Some may argue, and many do, that Mad Men is not a ratings success due in large point to the unlikeablity of Don Draper. It is true that while critics have applauded Mad Men’s innovative and captivating qualities, it has yet to be the ratings smash that other antihero driven shows have been. Many reasons are available for this phenomenon including the historical content, the slow pacing and even the aesthetic choices, but for some it is indeed, Don Draper.
“Compared to the titular mafia don of The Sopranos, the serial killer Dexter, Deadwood‘s ruthless mogul Al Swearingen, corrupt cop Vic Mackey on The Shield, or the murdering meth-cooker Walter White on Breaking Bad, Don Draper seems almost moral in contrast. Yet I find Draper the least compelling from this cast of characters, as his emotionally distant and callow mistreatment of everyone in his life feels less justified than the more egregious acts of violence and betrayal found on other dramas” (Mittell).
Indeed, Don Draper’s actions are much less justified than those of the men Mittell lists. Those men are committing acts to protect their families, their business or their empires while Draper is only concerned with protecting himself, however, while Mad Men is not the monumental hit it should be, the critical darling has steadily been gaining viewers with each passing season. “[The] season four premiere of Mad Men…drew 2.9 million viewers, making it the most-watched season premiere of the Emmy-winning series. Its viewership was up 5 percent from the 2.76 million people who watched last season’s debut episode. Mad Men‘s first season averaged 925,000 viewers” (Karger). Not to mention the people intrigued by the press that Mad Men has gained, thanks to its numerous awards, who catch up on the series through DVDs and online services. Mad Men is universally described as a slow-paced character driven show, so it stands to reason that these devoted fans and converted viewers are tuning in because they care about the lives of the people they are watching. Seeing as Don Draper is the protagonist and lead character, it seems that his character is what’s bringing in the viewers.
America’s Favorite Mob Boss
“Does everything gotta be so hard? I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I do the right thing by my family. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
– Tony Soprano, “Army of One”
While Don Draper’s morality may be a matter of opinion, Tony Soprano’s decidedly is not. As the head of a large crime family that rules New Jersey, Tony has no time to worry about looking like a good guy; such an image would directly hurt the persona Tony needs to keep his power. Tony commits heinous crimes that do not sit well with any normal human being. Along with his killing, he lies and cheats on a much larger scale than Don Draper could ever imagine. Yet, while Mad Men struggles to entice an audience, The Sopranos is arguably one of the most successful TV shows of the last decade. People obviously embraced not only the show, but the mob boss that lead it.
As stated previously, Tony abides by a code that supersedes the law. He is driven by loyalty, family, and power. These are all vices that everyone has fallen victim to at one time or another. Also, while Tony commits crimes with an ease unusual for most, he still clearly is not as comfortable with it as he would have you believe. In the pilot episode, Tony has a panic attack that leads him to seek therapy, a tool that gives the audience insight to his psyche through the series. “A cold-blooded psychopath would be unlikely to hold an audience’s rapt attention for thirty-nine episodes. The series succeeds because Tony is human. He suffers like the rest of us” (Gabbard 35).
This suffering is the key to what makes Tony a sympathetic character. Much of this suffering comes from Tony’s relationship with his mother. Livia is manipulative and certainly unloving towards her family, most notably, towards Tony. She goes so far as to order a hit on Tony, her own son. And even, in the face of that, Tony cannot bring himself to direct his anger at his mother. He insists that she didn’t know what she was doing. He tries to be good son until the very end. Dr. Melfi, his therapist, helps him to understand the impact his mother has had on his adult life, how he looks for maternal love in the relationships he pursues with women (Gabbard 105-7). Even after Livia dies, Tony struggles to come to terms with his feelings towards her. “We have sympathy for Tony because we have all harbored feelings of hatred for a parent at one time or another, and like Tony, we have tried to avoid those feelings. We actually admire Tony for his efforts to be a good son despite all that Livia has done to make his life miserable” (Gabbard 109-10).
There is no reason that the mass public should identify and sympathize with a crime boss and yet that is the case because the truth is, Tony is very much an average person who happens to have an unusual occupation. Take away the mafia ties and he could be any suburban father. He faces stress at work and comes home to a family that doesn’t seem to understand him; these factors drive him to therapy where he is forced to come to terms with his neurosis. James Gandolfini, who portrayed Tony Soprano, described the relate ability for Tony, saying, “…people watch Tony, and they watch his mother giving him shit and his wife giving him shit. Even his girlfriend throws shit at him, you know. So here’s this powerful figure getting abused all the time” (Gabbard 35). He reminds everyone that no matter how important or powerful a person seems, everyone has to deal with the same things.
The Loveable Monster
“Everyone hides who they are at least some of their time. Sometimes you bury that part of yourself so deeply that you have to be reminded it’s there at all. And sometimes you just want to forget who you are all together.”
– Dexter Morgan, “Let’s Give the Boy a Hand”
While Don Draper and Tony Soprano are both antiheroes, it is their human flaws that make them relatable and therefore appealing to audiences. For Dexter Morgan from Showtime’s Dexter, it is the exact opposite. Dexter literally has no human emotion and feelings to endear him to an audience. “Dexter’s most prominent psychopathic features are his impoverished emotional life, his lack of remorse or guilt, and the way he masks that through deception and superficial charm…He doesn’t understand or experience conventional expression of love, sexuality, comfort, grief, humor, or remorse” (DeFife 7-8).
As the most evil of TV’s antiheroes, Dexter should be the most disliked, but much like excusing a misbehaving child because they don’t know any better, people excuse Dexter for his homicidal tendencies because we see that he does not have a choice in the matter. He was born with the urge to kill and while he does everything he can to suppress these urges, it is impossible. We see him struggling to feel normal, which garners sympathy. Everyone can relate to trying to fit in with friends and colleagues, this just takes it to an extreme.
Also, the Code of Harry, which limits him to killing only people that have slipped through the legal channels, in which Dexter operates, makes him more forgivable than his other antihero counterparts. He cannot suppress the need to kill, but he makes a point to only kill people that are criminals the law cannot keep up with. He is somewhat of a vigilante, in the eyes of fans, because he is ridding the world of evil people. Of course, “In reality, the Code of Harry is simply window dressing on darkly driven impulses. Dexter’s true killing motivation is satisfaction” (DeFife 15). As an inherently evil person himself, he is not committing these crimes as a civil service, but out of his own bloodlust. This distinction seems moot to the avid fans of Dexter.
While Dexter doesn’t have humanity as the saving grace like other antiheroes, his attempt at humanity is enough for his legions of fans. His imitations of human emotion are just as compelling as the rare moments Don Draper has with his children or Tony Soprano with his wife. In his true form he is so different that curiosity is inevitable and in his impersonations he is so charming that the audiences want to believe it could be real. “We want to know how he became a cold blooded antihero with a warm personality and wry sense of humor, and this is the crux of what makes his character compelling” (Gowin 34).
The bad behavior of men like Don Draper and Tony Soprano is done by choice. They could choose to do the right thing, but make the conscious choice to do the opposite. They continually betray their family and friends and generally treat everyone unfavorably. Dexter, while continually killing people and chopping them up just for kicks, is nothing but polite and loving to his family and coworkers, whether it’s an act or genuine, it makes him appear to be a better guy.
“Sometimes, an anti-hero’s most obvious flaw is an abrasive personality. But Dexter Morgan couldn’t be sweeter to his wife, kids and co-workers; the Miami Police blood spatter expert just has a nasty habit of serial-killing… Every time we get lulled into pulling for the killer, we catch a glimpse of the darkness in our own hearts. We see that every nice guy has a dark side and that even serial killers aren’t devoid of humanity” (The 10 Greatest Anti-Heroes: #3 Dexter Morgan). Dexter has a duality of character, just like every antihero, yet the reversal of those dual roles is exactly what makes him the most engaging antihero on television.
In the 24 hour, tabloid news era we live in today, people’s faults are put up on a pedestal to be examined and judged by the masses. Gone are the days when studios controlled the gossip columns and the government was able to censor information. We hear and see it all and what we have learned is that there is more to fear than a masked villain lurking in the shadows. There are real monsters living in our world that will not be deterred by a caped crusader. They are dark times indeed, but shows that focus on these antiheros give a face and a reason for the wrongdoing in the world.
In the end, what makes these characters so compelling is their complexity. As humans we are all complex creatures and while we may wish we had the unwavering morality of a superhero, the fact is, most of us fall short of that extreme. Watching men like Don, Tony, and Dexter remind us of the humanity within everyone as well as proving that, while we may not be as good as we hope, we’re not as bad as we fear.