At some point, we decided to root for anyone who goes against the standard moral code, not just characters who rebel for good reason. Breaking Bad is a great example. In the beginning, Walter White only turned to meth as a means of providing for his family. But, his pure motive eroded until all that was left was a villain. In that process he forfeited our empathy. Even so, we still watched him. We still cared for him. We still considered him an antihero. Did we ever step back and realize who we were rooting for?
The dictionary definition of an antihero is: "a protagonist or noble figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities." Which sounds, to us, exactly like a villain. It used to be a sense of remorse and admirable motivations. Historically, antiheroes have been about more than just the traits they lack, but what moved them, too. They needed to be relatable, simply being flawed wasn’t enough.
Antiheroes have always been a part of our culture. But, there have been several modern periods where these rebels gained extra prominence. During the rise of Romanticism in the 19th century, they were used as a medium for the period’s social criticism. And, a century later, early existentialist writers like Kafka, Camus, and Sartre based their novels around similarly blemished individuals.
America arguably entered its first real “antihero era” in the late 1940s. Cinema fully embraced alienated figures, lovable rogues, and misanthropes. After World War II, the nation no longer felt indestructible — we had lost our innocence. We wanted characters to represent our life, which suddenly was really messy. Film noir reflected the loss of identity and masculinity many men endured post-WWII and movies, like Midnight Cowboy, with rebels without one set cause, reflected the feeling of helplessness that came with no longer knowing if fighting was worth it.
Even these darker iterations sought redemption, revenge, fame, fortune, answers, and love. They wanted to find personal happiness and importance, just like we did. They were relatable because we understood their desires; they played into our addiction to hope. We wanted to see them conquer their demons and believed audaciously that they wanted that, too.
The increasing complexity of modern life made our desire for morally ambiguous characters even more intense. The aughts embraced that through television. Just look at the Outstanding Lead Actors in Drama Emmy winners going back to 2000. We celebrated James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, Michael Chiklis’ Vic Mackey, James Spader’s Alan Shore, Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer, Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, and Damian Lewis’ Nicholas Brody. The only “good guys” that have won in the last 13 years are Kyle Chandler, for his role as Eric Taylor, and Jeff Daniels' brooding Will McAvoy.
Eric Taylor and Will McAvoy were not perfect characters. They failed and they disappointed people. But, they did so while trying to live a good life within our social norms. Perhaps the reason that these actors were recognized with Emmys in the last last three years is because we're currently in a period where we don’t know what we are rebelling against. And, being as angsty and damaged as your common antihero now feels excessive, even dated.
House of Cards' Frank Underwood is the perfect example. During the first season, I was addicted. He made me ask if he was the kind of politician we deserve now. In our post-fairytale world, should we be beyond knights in shining armor? I gladly binge-watched each episode. I didn’t enjoy the second season the same way. Maybe, I thought, I was just put off by the gory first episode. I later realized it was much more than that.
I realized while we don’t all need superheroes on every show, we also don’t deserve protagonists who can’t see beyond their own immediate needs. And, let's face it: Underwood isn't a near hero of any kind. He's pure evil. He's proof we've basically hit rock bottom when it comes to creating darker and darker, and darker, characters — a downward spiral that needs to stop. I don’t believe that such foes are actually reflective of our time. I think there is still hope.